Tag Archives: industrial agriculture

Genetically Modified Organisms, Revisited

Sorry for not posting on here for the last few weeks. I have been a little busy but I’m going to try and be as consistent as possible. Also, just a warning: this post got pretty long even though I was trying to be concise. I promise it will give you a better idea of the issues surrounding GMOs, though!

Right now, I’m reading this great book that counters some of the pro-local, pro-organic ideology that is common among people interested in food and farming (especially us in the Bay Area). I’ll be sure to write a full-fledged post about the book once I have finished it. For now, I just read the chapter on genetically engineered crops which brought up some new ideas about the issue and I figured it would be cool to revisit the idea of genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) that I talked about in an earlier post, here. While I am still against GMOs, I enjoyed hearing some of the author’s points which helped me understand the issue as a whole and consider the strengths of the opposing side.

In this chapter, McWilliams points out the stigma attached to GMOs because of misinformation or a lack of knowledge. Many people think of GMOs as unnatural, toxic, and dangerous. It would be just as easy to say that much of modern plant breeding is unnatural, involving radiation or chemicals that cause genetic mutations. While genetic engineering does involve directly combining or modifying genes, many people may not know the difference between modern plant breeding and genetic engineering. We might have a generally negative idea of GMOs based on vague ideas that it is “unnatural” without knowing much about the technology. It’s easy for this to happen with many harsh but vague ideas of GMOs floating around in the newspaper or on the internet. My point here is that we should stop with the unchecked extremism, avoid calling GMOs “frankenfoods” and the like, before we get to know the facts better. I personally don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with modifying an organism’s genome, especially if it can bring higher yields and pest-resistance that will have a positive affect on the world’s food supply.

Many people oppose GMOs because of their potential health risks and other uncertainties associated with a “new” technology. In this case, new means about 20 years old as the first commercial sale of GM crops began with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. Many argue that this is not enough time to evaluate the long term effects of the technology on the health of humans, other non-target species, and the environment. Many concerns have to do with the science behind combining genes. Frequently asked questions include: what if a certain gene causes unexpected and harmful mutations when inserted into a certain genome? What if certain “sleeper” genes with unseen, unknown traits are activated with genetic modification? Here, the approval process for GMOs would make us more sure that these mistakes aren’t going to happen. GMOs must be approved by the USDA, and often the FDA and EPA too, depending on the specific crop, but there is still a lot of controversy around this process. A critique of this process is that the biotech organizations themselves can conduct their own studies ( like environmental impact studies) without peer review, which the USDA will look at when considering the crop’s approval.

One potential of GMOs is a higher yield. With crops engineered for higher yields, farmers can produce more food on the same amount of land which reduces the necessity for expansion and habitat destruction. These higher yields are fitting for a growing population and for preserving biodiversity. Additionally, a crop like Bt corn (which is explained more deeply in my earlier post) can actually reduce pesticide use by essentially manufacturing its own pest-resistance. Many studies have confirmed this. However, this is just one crop and depending on who is doing the study and what crop is being studied, many people have drawn different conclusions about the effect of GMOs on pesticide use.

To get an idea of just how complicated the whole issue is, let’s look closely at Roundup Ready crops, which are engineered to resist Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup. Someone on the anti-GM side might tell you that this pesticide resistant crop encourages farmers to use excessive amounts of Roundup as a cure-all. It might also be said that the ubiquity of a single pesticide might breed pesticide-resistant weeds (which it has already done). Once these Roundup resistant crops pop up, a cocktail of other pesticides must be used to kill the new weeds. And since Monsanto sells both the seeds and the Roundup, farmers are encouraging the agribusiness monopoly of Monsanto, a company with a history of being zealous with their lawsuits and lobbying as well as other unethical business practices.

Recently, I was able to talk to two farmers who farm using GM crops. They pointed out that Glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, is not very toxic compared with pesticides such as 2, 4-D which were used more before Roundup.  Essentially, the enzyme which Glyphosate bonds to in plants is nonexistent in humans and animals and it therefore makes sense that it would not have drastic effects on our health. Pesticides are pretty much inherently toxic however, and if we consider the other ingredients in Roundup which might be even more toxic then Glyphosate itself, there are impacts on water and soil quality that we can’t overlook. These are valid points, but if all industrial agriculture uses pesticides, are Roundup Ready crops making it any worse? It depends on who you ask, whose studies you want to trust, and how you look at things. I’ll come back to this later.

On another note, one farmer explained to me how he was able to adopt closed to no-till practices (in which the soil is not plowed/tilled at all) because of Roundup Ready corn. Avoiding or decreasing tillage has innumerable environmental benefits including less erosion and run-off which maintains soil structure and quality while decreasing the amount of fertilizer and pesticide that ends up in water. Another huge benefit of no-till farming is that the soil holds carbon dioxide rather than releasing it when the field is tilled, doing its part to contribute less to global warming. While I don’t think these benefits negate the downsides of Roundup Ready crops or other GMOs, it was  good to hear from these farmers. I saw that the people using GMOs and monoculture don’t necessarily disregard the environment in the quest for higher yields. The people I talked to are farming in a way they truly believe is sustainable and productive. They try to take care of their soil and land and only adapt a practice when it agrees with their personal agricultural philosophy.

Another thing I mentioned in my earlier post was pesticide resistance and the “high possibility” of superweeds. (I’m quoting myself there.) I think the destructive possibility of the Roundup resistant gene in the wild is an argument commonly employed by those against GMOs. From a scientific point of view, I was incorrect to say there is a high possibility of superweeds as there are many biological barriers which make the superweed unlikely. If you google “superweeds,” you’ll find many articles which explain how Roundup resistant weeds are increasingly occurring. For this reason, I want to clarify what I mean by superweeds. I am talking about plants which cross-pollinate with GM crops, take on the genetically engineered trait and become invasive, taking over local plants. The superweeds that the media likes to talk about because of the phrase’s catchiness and shock value are simply pesticide resistant weeds, which are indeed popping up more and more.

I’m not denying that pesticide resistant weeds are a problem in agriculture. They’re a huge problem for the farmer, who looks to grow the most of a certain desired crop. But we have to realize that in the wild, a gene for pesticide resistance is completely useless. There is no reason that a Roundup resistant weed would have any advantage over other plants outside a corn field and therefore would not out-compete them to become a superweed. All of a GM crop’s genes code for a plant that necessarily requires maintenance- water, fertilizer, etc. to survive. GM corn has been bred and manipulated to increase its yield and pesticide resistance given that it receives a number of inputs. In the wild, it will not receive these inputs and will not establish itself among much more competitive weeds. On top of this, there are many other very unlikely steps that must occur for superweeds to survive. For example, a GM crop can only cross-pollinate with a closely related plant and therefore a wild relative of the crop must exist nearby.  This doesn’t happen many places around the world. If you read McWilliams’s book, you can learn about further unlikelihoods of superweeds.

McWilliams adds that GMOs offer a potential benefit to third-world countries whose citizens may struggle to find a consistent source of food or income. After all, farming offers both of these (though we’re mostly talking about subsistence farming here). And GMOs offer the possibility of crops modified to survive in dry or nutrient-poor conditions and produce larger yields of nutritionally fortified crops. We are essentially zooming out to look at the place of GMOs in areas other than the United States. GMOs may have negative environmental impacts when linked with American industrialized agriculture, but they could be implemented completely different in third-world countries, where rural citizens would be farming on a small-scale and without pesticides. GMOs could potentially benefit these countries socially, economically, and environmentally. This potential adds a whole new side to the issue and makes it more complicated. As McWilliams acknowledges, GMOs are still controlled by agribusiness giants who are often interested more in their own monetary success than the welfare of starving Africans. But with the intervention of NGOs such as Bill Gates’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (or AGRA), GMOs can be successfully implemented in third-world communities. This implementation would help alleviate poverty and hunger while creating a trend of sustainable farming in these countries. This is the kind of company that is implementing GMOs in sustainable, mindful ways. At the moment however, American agribusiness companies by far outnumber these NGOs.

As McWilliams points out, many of the problems we have with GMOs are simply problems of agribusiness and industrial agriculture such as increased pesticide usage, resistance, and run-off. I want to say again that I am not against the idea of modifying an organism’s genome. I just don’t agree with the methods currently being used to employ GM crops. And for me, it doesn’t seem like Monsanto is suddenly going to die off so that tons of NGOs can take GM seeds to poor African communities and independent, sustainable farms can grow a few acres of GM veggies. Though I want to support organizations like AGRA as much as possible, I think that in our current situation, most GMOs are inextricably linked to corporate farming/agribusiness.

In many ways you could argue that GM crops aren’t making industrial farming any more environmentally harmful than it already is. Proponents of GMOs may make this point, but it doesn’t mean GMOs have a negligible affect on the environment. It only means that GMOs are bundled up in the environmental destruction of industrial agriculture, both of which I disagree with, both of which I reject when I avoid products containing GMOs. A connection with industrial agriculture isn’t an excuse or a reason to support GMOs, it is the reason to oppose them. And as with many other agricultural issues, it is important not only to avoid the unsustainable (from biotech companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, etc.) but also to support the sustainable (from non-profits like AGRA).

Here are some of my sources if you’re interested in learning more:

http://www.reddit.com/r/farming/comments/16mzx8/whats_changing_minds_on_gmos_the_new_yorker/

http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo8.htm

http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo7.htm

http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe70s/pests_08.html

http://foodfreedomgroup.com/2012/03/10/usda-new-speedy-gmo-approval-process/

Otherwise, most of the post came from already known information or McWilliams’ book, Just Food.

-Simon

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the classic modern food and farming book, so I felt obligated to read it and I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I just finished it. In this book, Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question that we face as we are presented with more and more options at the grocery store: what should we eat? Meat or plants? Conventionally grown foods or local-organic ones? He investigates and travels to find the answers to these and many other questions.

Here is a video I would recommend that introduces the organization and ideas of the book. At the beginning of the book, Pollan hit me with so much information that I remember thinking, “Each one of these paragraphs could almost be expanded into a book of its own.” Pollan’s book and especially its first section will definitely show you and tell you things that you didn’t know were true. As the book progresses, it moves further from conventional industrial agriculture towards alternative ways of growing food and finally towards finding your own food. The book becomes more cultural and spiritual and less factual, which is a really interesting journey I think. Pollan becomes more and more connected to his diet as he starts to take initiative and learn more about his food. The book contains valuable wisdom and insights into food and our food system. Pollan cites many authorities that range from J.I. Rodale who coined the term “organic” to modern ethicist Peter Singer. It is clear that Pollan has done some reading and research.

Though Pollan never does give a simple answer to “What should we eat?,” his opinions become pretty clear. While I do highly recommend the book for its evaluation, analysis, and comparison of different food-production models, I warn the reader to be aware of Pollan’s bias. It took me a while to see, but I understood it more after reading some reviews of the book. At times Pollan’s opinions bring him to present ideas and information in a misleading or one-sided way.

For example, at the beginning of the book, as Pollan tries to follow a steer on its journey birth to slaughter to burger, he discusses the corn and grain based diet of beef cows towards the end of their lives. Pollan says that this diet “rarely lasts more than 150 days,” after mentioning earlier that the calf spent its first six months of life on pasture. You wouldn’t know it from what Pollan says, but 30-40% of American beef is 100% grass-fed during the cows’ entire lives. And in all actuality, there are many ranchers who feed their cattle on pasture for much longer than 6 months, often 18 months or more, before sending them off to the feedlot. And depending on who you ask or what feed lot you are at, the number of days a beef steer spends on a feedlot is usually closer to 100 days.

I am not saying that I agree with all the practices of conventional beef production, I am just defending the facts. Pollan never lies, but he does leave some things out or chooses to focus on the worst of the industry. Though Pollan has many great and insightful things to say, my one problem is that at times he presents the issues in a way that seems kind of black and white, when things are in fact much more gray. At times he seems to blow things out of proportion, state his opinions like they are facts, or just go for shock value. I suppose that it is hard to avoid some degree of black-and-whiteness when writing from a very opinionated point of view, but it is nice to be aware of the point of view when reading the book. Now that I’ve said all of this, go out, buy the book, learn something new about our food system, and form your own opinion on it! And then read some other books on the food industry and compare their ideas to Pollan’s because The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t the only one out their.

-Simon

Eating Oil, Eating Sunshine

Here is a fascinating presentation by Michael Pollan, journalist and professor at UC Berkeley. I know that the video is pretty long, but Pollan’s presentation doesn’t start until 23 minutes in and I really encourage you to watch the whole thing, even if it’s in chunks of 10 minutes at a time. Pollan gives an in-depth history of the food system in the last 70 or so years. I think this video is important to watch if you’ve ever wondered “How did we get to this point, when our agricultural system is so wasteful, pollutive, and unsustainable?” or “When did we go from small, self-supporting family farms to the huge, standardized, pesticide-ridden farms so common today?” Looking back helps explain our current situation by showing us how we got here. In investigating the choices and ideas that led us to our current food system, we have to ask: “Do these ideas still hold up and work well? Or did they ever?”

In Examining our past and understanding how we came to our current situation, we can think about how we want to move forward. We may praise pre-WWII agriculture because it was more environmentally efficient, taking its energy from the sun rather than petroleum. But does is this the exact way we want to proceed? We have to decide if it will work to revert to these old ways and if that way of farming makes sense for our modern times. Pre-WWII, when people were growing their own food, the diet was less diverse and the life expectancy shorter. My grandpa told me once that never even saw fruits like kiwis or banans for most of his life because everything that people ate was grown close to home. Nowadays, many people probably aren’t willing to give up the exotic fruits grown in Hawaii or the peppers from Mexico that they can get year round because of the warmer climate. How can we apply the pre-WWII model to our  situation and adapt it, tweak it to fit the current and predicted future conditions? Maybe it will work in some places, for some people, but we’ll need to incorporate more modern technology and knowledge. We can compare new methods in farming to the old ones and ask if it meets the same standards, even if the new techniques might seem completely different from the old ones. Maybe we just have to find the timeless core idea of that old farming, its strongest central value, and preserve that in all of our agricultural endeavors.

On a different note, our chickens have just started laying! They are so fresh and delicious. Right now, just three are laying so we’re getting light green, brown, and cream-colored eggs. But soon, as they all start laying, we’ll get white eggs and dark chocolate brown eggs too. It’s pretty exciting to go out and see the eggs and think about what we’ve given the hens so that they’ll give us their eggs in return.

IMG_3124

-Simon

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

Often, when buying a fruit or vegetable and thinking about the farm that it has come from, I picture nice rows of lush plants and ask myself “what is the worst thing that could’ve gone into produce this vegetable?” I think of a few things: pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but this book showed me how complicated and multifaceted the process of producing that vegetable really is.

In Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook explores and documents everything that goes into producing a tomato, meeting people who are involved at every step in the process. The way that most tomatoes are grown is very different than what we might imagine or how we grow them in our gardens. This process likewise yields a very different tomato than a hom-grown one. Many tomatoes are picked when green and sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen them. The plant naturally produces ethylene to regulate the fruit’s ripening, but picking the tomatoes while they are harder and less ripe means less damage and bruising during transportation. The flavor of a gassed tomato, however, will never match that of a tomato allowed to ripen on the vine. Workers are supposed to only pick “mature green” tomatoes which are about to turn red and are almost ripe, but it is hard to distinguish between a “mature green” and a less mature tomato which has even less flavor. Modern industrial agriculture is concerned only with the yield of a tomato plant, the tomato’s size and shape. The modern tomato has lost all its flavor in the name of uniformity and quantity.

Most tomatoes are grown in Florida, one of the only places in the country warm enough to support the crop in the winter. The problem is that Florida’s hot and humid weather supports many pests and pathogens, around 30 insect species and 30 more diseases that can affect a tomato’s growth. This means that many potent and toxic pesticides must be used to keep the plants healthy. Many of these pesticides are deadly even with brief exposure and cause health problems for workers. Another problem with growing tomatoes in Florida is that there is only sand to grow them in, which has very little nutrients for the plants. In order to support the plant, growers must add high amounts of chemical fertilizer, which pollutes groundwater and nearby lakes. All of this environmental harm comes from forcing the tomato to grow in unideal, unnatural conditions. We have to learn to farm in harmony with the seasons rather than trying to fight them. If we don’t wait until summer to enjoy a tomato, we are supporting this pollutive and unsustainable process.

Estabrook details the issues with policy and law, workers’ rights, immigration, and all the different corporations that are involved in modern tomato farming. Throughout the book, Estabrook looks at the people who are working to change modern tomato farming, whether it’s a lawyer who represents mistreated workers, a farmer who grows tomatoes organically on a large scale, or a scientist working to create a new tomato variety with more taste. Much of the book is centered on the small town of Immokalee in southern Florida. However, every part of this close-up look––the battles between small NGOs and big corporations, the trade-off between quality and quantity or economic efficiency and sustainability––can be extrapolated to consider modern industrial agriculture as a whole.

Needless to say, my old view of the simple green rows of vegetables doesn’t hold up after considering everything else that goes into the process. After reading this book, a tomato doesn’t seem so innocent. It has an elaborate background and a long history. The farming that went into it has complicated economic, social, and environmental consequences. As food writer Ruth Reichl said, “If you have ever eaten a tomato––or ever plan to––you must read Tomatoland. It will change the way you think about America’s most popular ‘vegetable.’ More importantly, it will give you new insight into the way America farms.”

GMOs

This past week in my Environmental Issues class, we discussed and debated about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The majority of GMO crops today are commodity crops such as corn and soy. A very large majority of these crops grown today, I think 80%, are genetically modified.

Currently used GMOs include Bt corn and Roundup Ready soy. Bt corn was created by transplanting genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which lives in the soil and creates a toxin that can kill corn borers, a common pest for corn plants. The genes which code for the formation of this toxin were implanted into the corn to create a plant that essentially grows its own pesticide. Roundup Ready soy has been modified to resist the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup. This means that farmers with Roundup Ready crops (the gene has been used in many other plants like cotton and sugarbeets) can spray tons of Roundup on their crops and kill everything green but their soy. Higher yield and drought-tolerant plants provide a potential for increased productivity with less resources and energy needed, however the predominance of Roundup Ready crops means that even more pesticides are being sprayed on crops nowadays with the appearance of GMOs.

There are many pros and cons of growing GMOs and for a while it was hard for me to decide if I agreed with the implementation of GMOs in our food system. It is largely a theoretical issue because the technology has only been around for a few decades and there are many long-term still to be seen. Also, there are many potential benefits and ideas for crops that have yet to be fully developed.

After a lot of thought, I have come to disagree with the idea of having GMOs in our food sources. I am not against the idea of genetically modifying organisms and I can definitely see the potential. Modifying plants to be more heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant can help us to produce food for a growing world. These plants even offer a possibility for those in poor and developing countries to get a steady source of income. They have the ability to survive many conditions and even restore damaged land. Many crops can give higher yield and productivity, another plus for those using agriculture to start developing a community and searching for economic stability.

The reason I object to GMOs is the way that they are currently integrated into agriculture. A court case decided that it is now legal to patent a certain set of genes, known as the “patent on life.” This decision means that a seed producing company like Monsanto can own a certain genetically modified crop seed and sue anyone found with that seed who didn’t pay for it. The monopolization is harmful to a small farmer’s way of life as Monsanto will often sue anyone who has had GM seeds blow onto their property and accidentally saved them. This also means no saving seeds if they are genetically modified, because Monsanto owns the seed and reproduction of the seed would be infringing on their patent. This is one of the issues I take with GMOs. The concept of buying new seed does not allow for the kind of sustainable cycle necessary for a farmer to be in harmony with nature.

Thinking back to the TED talk I shared earlier about fish, I think that the most sustainable and productive farms are the ones who work with the systems of nature, not against them. The idea of GM crops is scary because it may lead to a future of low biodiversity, potential pesticide resistance as well as a high possibility of contamination of the environment with super-seeds which could take over. If we want a truly reliable future for our food system, the best possibilities lie in farms like the fish farm in Spain from the TED talk (here), which don’t interfere with nature. GMOs may be cheaper economically given their higher yield, but they are not cheaper in the resources they use or the farms they put out of business.

Even the promise of helping developing economies is tainted by the monopolization of GMOs. When Monsanto helps communities by giving them seed to buy, they are often in it for the money and may end up exploiting the community. The adoption of GM crops can result in an Americanization and loss of culture for these countries. Many countries have cultural ties to the very crops they grow and won’t want to adopt new ones.

GMOs have promise outside of our food, though. Certain plants have been genetically modified to be able to absorb toxic substances such as TNT and convert them into less toxic ones, known as phytoremediation. I think that these plants  can no doubt help with clean up after wars or chemical spills, but the patent on life has no place in our food system. It harms small farms and grows monopolies. GMOs as they are currently implemented cause the use of more pesticides and breed the kind of farming that is low in economic cost, but high in environmental cost.

Though GM crops allow us to plant more in new places, I don’t think this is the answer to food shortages and I don’t think it is breeds a sustainable way of farming. GMOs as they are currently produced expand the kind of industrial agriculture that will cause problems with energy and resources, not solve them. I think it is impossible to integrate GMOs into the kind of independent, low-impact farms which will help get everyone food without damaging the environment.