5.17.2015

GMOs: whether you like it or not.
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 6: Better Living Through Chemistry

Summary:

The "Green Revolution" - the developing of hybrid crops with greater yields and accompanying agricultural practices that occurred after WWII - briefly alleviated hunger in some parts of the world.  "But the social and ecological costs were high," and the alleviating effect was temporary.  Hunger has returned (though not for any lack of food).  As a result, the companies that benefited from the first "revolution" are now pushing a second: GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Did DDT end up causing problems ever?
As with GMOs now, some farmers rejected the first wave on new "miracle" crops decades ago.  While under the exact right conditions the new plants could produce incredible yields, "circumstances were almost never right."  The crops required irrigation, leading to water competition, and ultimately leading to drops in groundwater levels and salinification that rendered farmlands useless.  They also required monocropping, destroying biodiversity (and its accompanying natural resilience to environmental stressors) and eliminating the growing of heritage crops grown for millennia.  They also required expensive fertilizers.  These costs together meant that smaller, poorer farmers were left out, and ultimately pushed off their land altogether.

The increased yields and decreased hunger of the first Green Revolution were temporary, lasting just a few decades.  In India, for instance, available food per capita by 2001 was less than or equal to what had been available in the 1920s and 30s.  Additionally, as has always been and as remains the case, presence of food does not automatically lend to absence of famine.  In examining a famine that had occurred in India in 1943, economist Amartya Sen observed that modern famines aren't related so much to the absence of food as the inability to buy it.  Per Patel, "those who owned it had hoarded it, knowing that less food meant higher food prices.  those who died in the street died because they simply weren't able to pay enough for the food locked up in the granaries."

This example is not the exception.  It is the rule.  Despite this fact, world leaders continue to tout biotechnology advances as the best way to feed the world's hungry - even when we are already producing more food than we need and wasting inconceivable amounts of it.

Asbestos is the bestos - totally safe!
Along with this second revolution has come an ever-increasing practice of patenting not just seeds, but all manner of agricultural knowledge.  Being developed by the same chemical companies behind the first revolution, the new GMO seeds "have come not from any deep desire to improve the lot of the rural poor, but as an extension of their pesticide product line.  It is for this reason that pesticide companies are now the world's largest owners of seed companies."

GMO seeds come with long legal contracts in the name of patent protection.  If farmers save seed generated from growing these crops, as farmers have always done, the seeds won't grow - they've been engineered not to.  Further, the farmer can be sued for trying.  This makes the idea that these technologies intend to make farmers' lives easier specious at best.

Golden Rice has been much lauded as the solution to the Vitamin A deficiencies that blind and kill children in Asia.  While industry claims just two bowls a day will cure the problem, independent studies have arrived at an estimate of fifty bowls - that, or one carrot.
"The technology presents itself as a feel-good solution for politicians who'd rather not face the more profound, persistent, and difficult questions of politics and distribution... The plain fact is that the majority of children in the Global South suffer and die not because there is insufficient food , or because beta-carotene rice is nationally lacking.  They are malnourished and undernourished because all their parents can afford to feed them is rice."
Scientific research, considered to be a bastion of Truth, is unfortunately not immune from biotech's long arm and large checkbook.  University research departments receive large contributions from biotech companies, and are compelled or even strong-armed into creating industry friendly research results.  This is prticularly alarming given that the US government does not do any testing of biotechnology crops.

Radioactive water - it's healthy!
"In the US, the wording of the Food and Drug Administration's approval statement for new GM crops says that they believe that the corporations have performed all necessary tests to be in compliance with existing safety law."  This means that all research on GMOs is being conducted either by the companies trying to sell them, or by the universities competing for research grants from the companies trying to sell them.  These conditions, the ideal setup for impartiality do not make.

Ultimately, "[i]t is pesticide companies [that] will benefit most directly from [the] second Green Revolution, as they benefited from the first."

Discussion:

The general conversation about GMOs has become incredibly polarized - "they'll kill us all (you must be an industry shill)!!" on one side, and "bro, do you even science (you must be an effing moron)?" on the other.  Either they are COMPLETE EVIL or THE BEST THING SCIENCE EVER MADE.  This bifurcation has made it too exhausting for me to keep having these conversations in social media, taking as I do a sort of middle road on it.  I'm relieved to find that Mr. Patel and I see very much eye to eye on this subject.  Briefly, here's where I'm at:
  • Are they safe to eat? Maybe? Probably? The studies conducted so far seem to show that they are. We won't really know until they're being eaten for a few generations, and it could also vary wildly depending on the exact genetic manipulation being performed and the chemicals they're treated with.  We've... been wrong before about the safety of profitable products.
  • Do they use more or less pesticides / herbicides / other ag chemicals? It seems to be first less, then more, but again this will take a while to really know.
  • Do they increase yields? That seems to be a definite yes.  Whether farmland can sustain those greater yields season after season is a different question.
  • Do they decrease the amount of land that's used to grow food as a result of increasing yields? So far they seem only to be increasing the quantity of food grown. Since we don't actually need more food (again, we have more than enough to feed everyone on earth and waste incredible amounts), I don't see this as a benefit.
  • Do they help feed the hungry? They could, potentially, if we vastly change the way we distribute food and who we allow to have access to it. (Read: poor people are still starving because we want money for food, not because there's not enough food. Also see above re: we already have enough food.)
  • Are GMOs just exactly the same as hybrids and/or genetic marriages that have occurred without human intervention? DECIDEDLY NO. When bacteria and sweet potatoes work together to make a big tuber-type root, that is endosymbiosis, not creation of a GMO. Yes, genes are modified - as they are every single time a cell divides. And yet, not every living thing on earth is a GMO now is it? This bit frustrates me the most I think.  Here's a hint: if horticulturists created in their gardens it by using a q-tip to transfer some pollen, or if breeders created it by getting the right two dogs to have sex, that's a hybrid.  If geneticists created it with expensive laboratory equipment by directly altering gene sequences, that's probably a GMO.
  • Are GMOs a humanitarian effort to help the downtrodden? Nope! They are an attempt by an enormous industry to put a bandage on unsustainable but profitable practices, so that that industry can continue being profitable. Any good that does come of them beyond corporate profit is sheer coincidence.
 If you're worried about GMOs, my best advice is don't listen to either pole of the conversation.  Look at the facts that are available.  If you're really against them, you'll need to stop buying any processed food that isn't organic (and possibly any processed food at all).  It's sort of like trying to avoid sugar or soy - it's in *everything.*  Ain't modern food great?

Sound familiar?

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