Friday, October 25, 2013

The Power Struggle For Food

In a world of vastly different castes, lifestyles, and cultural traditions, there are needs and there are wants.  Whether you're in a first world or a third world country, nourishment falls into that very vital niche of necessity.  Eating is an inherent right, not a privilege.  And although we produce enough food to feed the world, millions go hungry.  It's an absurd statement that somehow, holds no shock value.  Not enough to erase the issue. Without the power to feed yourself...without the ability to meet even the most basic of can only be a series of survival struggles.  Meanwhile, the entities and individuals with the most money hold the most power not only over their own food availability and choices but everyone's.

For individuals with some measure of purchasing power, every dollar spent is a vote not only for that particular brand but that brand's ethics as proved through their business practices, hidden or otherwise.  Individuals and families that struggle to keep food on the table are often forced into buying the cheapest food available.  But those with enough income to allow for choice, are not forced and are voting with every purchase.  For example, buying cheap beef is a vote not just for poor quality meat "raised" in squalid conditions, but a vote to perpetuate the whole cycle of rotten animal husbandry that's driving the effectiveness of antibiotics into extinction.  A vote for unsanitary and dangerous slaughterhouses employing illegal aliens and paying them an unthinkable pittance.  And most of all, a vote to keep consumers in the dark about how their food is produced.  The beef, poultry, and pork industries spend fortunes on their public images, making sure to serve up cute little vignettes of small farms with happy cows on the labels or in commercials, or other equally false images.  Ag gag bills squash whistleblowing on animal cruelty and unsanitary conditions while the general public thinks nothing about the inanity of a judiciary system passing laws to protect lawbreakers.  Conversely, every dollar spent on meat raised in a healthy, natural way on a family owned farm is a vote for high-quality, fresh meat.  A vote for integrity in both business and treatment of animals and employees alike.  A vote for a wide-eyed conscious acceptance of your food's origin. A vote to cancel out denial.

The hungry mouths worldwide along with a global population explosion have created the issue: How To Feed The World.  Many have weighed in on the topic but the most controversial of proffered solutions comes from the biotech industry.  Megalithic powers with money to burn and the power to match, have lofty (or perverse) aims to own the world's food supply.  In landmark rulings, Monsanto pressure resulted in the unthinkable: the legal right to patent living organisms.    What was once a renewable resource of the public domain has now come under corporatized industrial rule.  Proprietary seeds now account for 82% of the world's seed market.  Biotech giants are well-known for the grudge-match lawsuits they wield to ruin the small farmer who resists switching to proprietary seed.  While genetically engineered crops are created in sterile labs, the actual growing process must by necessity take place out in the unruly fields of nature where weeds creep, wind blows, and bees pollinate.  Now we all understand the role of the bee and the way of the weather but somehow, biotech companies use natural, accidental cross-pollination between a field planted in GE crops and a field of conventional or organic, non-proprietary crops as grounds for draconian lawsuits that bankrupt the farmers.  Monsanto has made a habit of invoking controversy with their irresponsible open-field experiments that result in genetic pollution when strains that have not yet been approved, contaminate neighboring fields and then proliferate.  They employ teams of what can only be referred to as goons who travel the country, trespassing, bullying, and testing the crops on conventional farms to check for cross-pollination which legally is grounds for a patent infringement lawsuit.  Some say Monsanto is proof that corporations have officially grown more powerful than government.

The trail of corruption can easily be spied creeping across the media outlets as magazines that once published articles on permaculture and agroecology are suddenly changing their tune to anti-labeling and anti-organic sentiments.  Scientific American brazenly hinted that humans have been tinkering with plant genes since the dawn of agriculture and that genetic engineering is basically the same thing.  For a publication whose name includes the word "scientific", you would expect a bit more science.  After all, the average educated individual recognizes that pumping the genes of a winter flounder into a tomato is nothing like the selective breeding and backyard hybridizing that gardeners and farmers have been doing since "the dawn of agriculture".  The mention in other articles and blogs on their website that we've been consuming them for up to 20 years with  no problems is yet another sadly unscientific, unproven statement.  As we've read and discussed in other areas of this class, lifestyle and food-related diseases are on the rise along with cancers, both of which are beginning to appear at younger ages than previously noted.  I'm not suggesting that GMOs are causing cancers and diseases, I'm simply suggesting that it hasn't been ruled out.  Something a responsible scientific publication should acknowledge. Unfortunately, there are few independent safety studies on GMOs, long-term or otherwise.  The industry resists outsider studies with proprietary red tape and many of the studies available have been done overseas.  One famous study implicating GMO corn with mammary tumors has been awash in controversy since it was published.  (Other studies that show some of the health dangers associated with GMOs can be viewed here, here, here, and here.  Some enlightening articles specifically on the topic of how GMOs affect reproduction can also be read here and here.)  

GMO advocates like to throw around a lot of rhetoric about how their technology increases yields, requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, and is THE answer to the question of How To Feed The World.  This quick video by Anna Lappe and the Food Mythbusters from not only illustrates the alternative choices we have available for feeding the world but also exposes the biotech industry's claims as at least partially false.  In 2008, a biotech industry lobbying group, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), claimed that in 2007, use of GMO crops resulted in an 18% drop in the application of pesticides in agricultural fields.  Yet a 2009 survey of USDA data found that GMO crops have increased pesticide use by 318 million pounds in the first 13 years of their use.  These claims are obviously at odds with each other and require us to go a bit deeper.  When surveys and studies like these mention "pesticides", they are not just referring to chemicals that kill insects but also herbicides which eliminate weeds.  They are both in a class commonly referred to as "pesticides."  And while actual pesticide use (intended to kill insects) has been quite successful with GMO crops, herbicide use has skyrocketed because of that gloriously intelligent thing known as nature.  Weeds evolve a resistance to herbicides over time leaving GMO farmers with serious weed problems.  Monoculture farms destroy soil fertility and demand ever-increasing levels of synthetic fertilizer every year.  The run-off of these fertilizers is responsible for water table contamination around the world and also vast marine dead-zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental scientists at McGill University address the subject of GMO vs organic yields in an exhaustive analysis of 66 different studies and conclude

"Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems."
Even Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher, and author of The One-Straw Revolution, spent most of his life proving over and over in his own fields that although additives such as fertilizer, pesticides, and even compost will increase a marginally higher yield, the value of the yield does not exceed the cost of achieving it.  The McGill analysis implies that for organic (or at least non GMO) agriculture to keep up with GMO yields, the factors limiting the yields need to be more fully understood.  Agroecology fits the bill.

Agroecology is a powerfully holistic approach to agriculture that uses science and local knowledge to develop affordable, practical and ecologically sound farming methods.  A variety being used in India is increasing yields by thirty to forty percent.  A report from Agro-Ecology and The Right To Food advises that organic and sustainable small-scale farming could realistically double food production in areas where hunger is a vital issue.  To lend more credence to this idea of sustainable methods replacing biotech, a UN Conference For Trade and Development report aptly titled, Wake Up Before It's Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now For Food Security In A Changing Climate, makes a lengthy, articulated case for organic, small-farming as a logical, effective way to not only feed the world but proactively handle the effects of climate change such as drought, flooding, and temperature variations that affect growing periods.  This type of agriculture is already meeting the needs of people in Russia where in 1999, 35 million families on 20 million acres, managed to grow 92% of the entire country's potatoes, 77% of its vegetables, 87% of its fruit, and feed 71% of the entire population from small-scale, household farms and dachas (smallhold weekend or summer gardens).  (I would like to add a reference here but all I'm able to find is that it comes from the Private Household Farming In Russia Gosmkostat from 1999.  I don't speak Russian and haven't had any luck actually finding a translated version.)

We don't have to let industry decide who eats and who doesn't.  We don't have to let them decide what we eat.  Biotech scare tactics fill the media with fear porn which leads to mass tacit acceptance of undesirable solutions.  Our culture does that well.  We have mastered the art of the defeated shrug while ruefully sighing.  There's just so much that is wrong and so little we can do.  This is not one of those times.  We can do a lot.  The gaunt city of Detroit is reinventing itself as an urban farming center.  Residents are feeding themselves and their neighbors.  This kind of grassroots movement is possible anywhere!  Simply starting a community conversation about local foodways is a simple, basic step that can open up endless opportunities.  (Julie's groupthink is a fantastic example of this.)  Websites like LocalHarvest make it easier than ever to connect with local food and sites like Meetup offer an easy platform for gaining community support.  Apps like fooducate can help us make smarter buying/voting decisions.  We can all reclaim the power to manage our own food sources by personally opting out of the processed big-box mania and supporting local growers and sellers, choosing healthfully grown and raised food, and growing your own if you're able or interested.

There are common sense solutions to feeding the hungry in poor nations that don't involve the destabilizing influence of Big Ag.  Heifer International which provides bred heifers, seedlings, seeds, bee hives, and other livestock to struggling families is a force to be reckoned with.  While on a relief mission in the late 1930's, Indiana farmer and Heifer International founder Dan West was ladling out milk rations when the thought stuck him, "These children don't need a cup, they need a cow."  So he started a group that donated and shipped bred heifers to oppressed families.  After delivering, the cow provided milk and could be bred again.  If the calf was a heifer, it was to be given to another family in need.  A self-perpetuating, self-sustaining system.  Today, HI partners with people who are familiar with the local region and culture who teach the families how to care for their animals, build shelters for them, and how to plant feed crops.  The guidance continues as long as necessary.

Would you rather be fed in handouts or have the autonomous power to feed yourself?  One is a bandaid masking the wound.  The other a true remedy.  I don't decry providing aid to those in need, ever.  But I would like for every human being to have the chance to know the sublimity of self-sufficiency.  Let aid be a stepping stone in that direction.  Golden Rice, a GE crop aimed at alleviating nutrient deficiencies in developing countries is engineered to contain extra nutrients, specifically beta carotene.  (Golden Rice has not yet passed the testing phase and is the source of some major controversy.) These nutrient deficient families could do well with some sweet potato root stock or other vegetable varieties specifically adapted to their regions.  Agroecology training paired with nutritional education and a supply of root and seed stock can go a long way.  I realize this isn't THE answer.  As Mark Bittman said, not all poor people feed themselves well and sometimes that's a result of war, displacement, drought, and other calamities.  There are social and political issues at the the heart of these things and unfortunately, not everyone has a patch of earth in which to grow and raise food.  Maybe that's what we need to change.  Other avenues must be explored. I sincerely hope that people smarter and better suited to such thinking will come up with some viable alternatives to genetic engineering.

(If you're still on the fence about GMOs, I highly suggest Barbara Kingsolver's essay A Fist In The Eye Of God.  It was my introduction to GMOs and it was after reading this beautiful prose that I began to really understand what's at stake.)

I've been working on this paper in sickness and in health, through emotional meltdowns and what feels like a season change, on and off for several weeks and to be quite honest I am DONE!  Thankfully I'm not handing this in for a grade so I'm just going to leave you right here with a relevant quote and a photo of me, my girls, and my weedy garden.

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."  - William Blake


  1. this was worth waiting for. and worth reading multiple times. thank you.