Lately on the news (I get mine almost exclusively from our public radio station) I’ve been hearing alot about the growing food crisis. People in poor countries are committing violence in order to obtain food for their families. There are huge lineups for basic staple such as rice. It feels like we’re seeing only the start of something that hasn’t yet reached its full effect.
I was shocked to hear that some are advocating for relaxing of standards with regards to GMO foods. They claim that we can’t afford to be “picky” when people are starving, and that we should take advantage of the “high yields” that GMOs can produce in order to feed all the poor starving people.
This infuriates me. The reason people are starving is not because there isn’t enough food. It’s because we are choosing to use vast amounts of corn to produce “biofuels”; we’d rather feed our cars and watch other people starve. And because our system of food, growing it and distributing it and marketing it, has robbed people of the ability to provide for themselves. We’re killing them at both ends.
GMO crops surely contribute to farmer poverty (felt worst in the developing world). First, they price out local farmers by offering artificially cheap (i.e. heavily subsidized) products with high growth yields. These farmers then convert to GMO food production, for which they have to buy seeds every year (since the inventors of the seed decided to make them sterile, a great trick if you are the sole supplier) AND they have to buy the pesticides that the crops are modified to resist (which not only pollute the environment but destroy the soil in which the crops are grown), which they have to buy more of each year due to the development of resistance. Then they have to buy fertilizers because their soil didn’t evolve to support this particular kind of food, and growing the food in big monoculture plots without the benefits of fallowing (can’t afford to let land sit empty) drains the soil of nutrients. Finally, they have to buy tractors and harvesters and other big machines. All these costs put farmers in debt, crushing them until they can no longer feed their own families.
In the old days farmers grew the crops that were best suited to their region, and selected those crops for taste which GMO producers do not (ability to withstand long distance travel is high up on their list; taste is not even on the list). They rotated their crops, fallowed their fields, nourished them with organic matter. They saved a small amount of seed each harvest for next year. It was basically free food (labour notwithstanding). Most people today believe that these traditional farmers were simply unable to supply food for the growing populations of their countries, but I think Joel Salatin would have something to say about that. Then there’s the fact that humans existed in most regions on Earth for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before industrial farming techniques came along. They were able to sustain themselves with what was available in their region. Due to conventional farming techniques we’ve lost that knowledge in just a generation or two. People are starving because we destroyed their food-production (or reduced it to a monoculture crop they can’t survive on – coffee for example) and then destroyed all cultural knowledge about how to live off the earth in their region.
The suggestion that somehow we can turn to GMO foods to solve this crisis is ludicrous. Michael Pollan, in an article written 1.5 years ago, summed up the situation perfectly:
“This has always been the genius of industrial capitalism–to take its failings and turn them into exciting new business opportunities.”
I think what really bothers me is the ignorance of people regarding this issue. I should know, because about six months ago I was ignorant myself. I thought the only concerns people had about GMO foods were that they might be unhealthy for humans. I couldn’t quite figure that out; since DNA is fully digestible, surely eating a GMO apple isn’t going to pose an acute health risk. Now I understand what people were talking about: the nutritional value of GMO foods is far below that of the same foods produced 50 years ago. And the effects of these practices on the environment are unhealthy for all living organisms. I used to hear the argument that GMO foods are just supersized versions of the hybrids man has been coaxing out of plant species via artificial selection for centuries. Yes, in a way one could argue that splicing a gene into a tomato plant is not much different than crossing two different tomato varieties, but it’s the way GMO crops are planted, nourished, harvested, and distributed that is the bigger problem. The issue with the new genes has to do with creating a dependence on buying seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.
I’m not sure what to do about all this. Perhaps I should take some inspiration from Theresa at Pondering the Myriad Things and write a letter to my federal representative (different topic, same motivation). Perhaps I should join my local farmers market society. And while starting my first vegetable garden makes me feel less dependent on the global food system, two facts stand out: 1) the amount of food I’m providing is very small relative to what we eat – though I hope to improve with each year, and 2) my family, living in this rich part of the world, will not go hungry due to higher food prices. Meanwhile, I hear about people fighting over food, and I shake my head at our nation’s folly.