Myths Busted Concerning Genetically Modified Foods. An Anti-GMO Movement.
A couple of months ago, I watched a debate on a Canadian TV show between a teen activist and the program’s hosts about genetically modified food.
During the debate, program co-host Kevin O’Leary told the young activist that she could afford to oppose GMOs because she was lucky to live in a part of the world where food is plentiful. But what she didn’t understand, he told her, was that the movement to stop GMOs meant a ‘death sentence’ in poorer countries where, for example, vitamin-enriched strains of food are being developed to prevent syndromes such as blindness (watch the video.)
This comment highlighted for me some deeply myopic assumptions held by GMO supporters, three of which I am challenging below:
Assumption # one: The anti-GMO movement is ‘anti-science’. (Therefore, opposing the technology, and opting for poverty and malnutrition to spread in the developing world.)
Global hunger and malnutrition are important issues, but it seems highly unscientific to assume that broad-scale uncertain, cookie cutter technological interventions are the only way to address them.
Why not instead draw on the rich (and dying) storehouse of locally-appropriate food and agricultural knowledge that already exists? It doesn’t mean ignoring science altogether. But in order to be robust, scientific research needs to integrate other disciplines such as history, anthropology, ecology, geography, and economics, along with the folk wisdom of local communities. In this way, it can lead to much more empowered, locally-responsive, and infinitely more creative solutions in the longer term.
Case in point: For thousands of years, people around the world cultivated a cornucopia of nutritionally whole, locally appropriate foods, some of which are today’s ‘superfoods’. Our agricultural ancestors developed methods of preparing and storing both cultivated and wild foods that have endured until today. There were at one time thousands of varieties of ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, kamut and maize, among many others.Not only did these staple foods contain high nutritional value, but they were appropriate to the regions in which they were grown, and were often very hearty and drought-resistant.
Enter the Green Revolution, with its introduction of high-yielding seeds and modern farming techniques. Cash crops for export began to replace subsistence farming, and water-intensive rice edged out more water-conservative local grains. This led to plummeting water tables, a dependence on chemical fertilizers and a severe reduction in the diversity and variety of grains. In India alone, some 30,000 varieties of rice shrunk down to about 10. This increase in crop homogeneity caused (guess what?) vulnerability to pests which caused (guess what?) increased use in pesticides. Which has led to (guess what?) research and development of GM pesticide-resistant seeds.
This imposed intervention, in other words, showed a lack of understanding of local conditions, a disinterest in traditional farming techniques, and targeted single issues without taking into account the larger system in which they were embedded. Broad-scale interventions like genetic modification, besides treating the world as one giant laboratory, tend to create a whole new set of problems for which another clumsy and inappropriate technological fix will be applied, in an endless spiral of damage control.
The fact that no one anticipated the cascade of spin-off effects of the Green Revolution shows an extreme lack of vision and imagination on the part of the scientists and technocrats who introduced it.
The fact that no one among the GM proponents have anticipated the possible problems created by this new, poorly-understood technology to billions of people on the planet, is not what I would call ‘good science’.
People around the world already know how to feed themselves. Poor nutrition and health are a result of global changes, not only in the developing world, but right here in the west, where rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing. We need to look at the roots of these issues, and draw on the past as much as we look to science and technology. In this way, we can apply more holistic, decentralized and human-scale solutions to these issues. And we also must include the people who will either benefit or suffer the consequences.
Assumption # two: We can’t feed the world without genetic modification.
I would agree to the part that all other things being equal, we can’t feed our growing population under our current conventional farming techniques.
But I have serious reservations about genetic modification’s ability to feed a growing world population. Hunger exists not because of lack of arable land, but because of a combination of many factors—including climate change, political and economic instability, and inefficient distribution.
Hunger also occurs because of changes in worldwide agriculture described above. With the leap from subsistence farming to cash crops, many farmers are now caught in a cycle of escalating debt and buying processed, packaged food imported from elsewhere. Essentially, they stopped growing food for themselves in order to grow crops to make money to buy food. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Hunger is a complex issue, but solving it means we need to totally reinvent our relationship with farming. More of us need to become involved with growing food again, and it needs to happen more in cities and suburbs. Moreover, when we start creating small farms on our vast lawns, on our rooftops, on vacant lots, much less produce is wasted in transport. This cumulatively will take tremendous pressure off the world’s shrinking supply of arable farmland and water in rural areas.
This is not a romantic pipe dream of urban white foodies. There is a growing movement addressing global food security through urban farming. Innovation in this field has brought new designs such as indoor aquaculture and food forests into the urban landscape. It may seem small potatoes (pardon the pun), but cumulatively this has been shown to take significant pressure off the global supply of arable land. We might not be there yet, but as global conditions change, this is going to have to start happening.
This is already well underway in places like Cuba, which has led the way in terms of self-sufficiency in food, where most of their food is now grown domestically and within urban regions. They have created a successful model that the rest of the world, whether developed or industrialized, can learn from. To learn more about Cuba’s remarkable transition to urban farming, check out the documentary “The Power of Community.”
Assumption # three: We no longer have choice about where our food comes from, so there’s no point in trying to stop the spread of GMOs.
It has been pointed out that it’s almost impossible to find corn without any genetic modification, and because corn is found in so many products, avoiding exposure to GMOs is an exercise in futility. While it is a sad thing to say that I now avoid corn, this is all the more reason why we need to take a stand to protect our other staple foods before it’s too late.
The fatalistic attitude that we can’t prevent the spread of GMOs is dangerous, deeply disempowering, and simply not true fact. The fact that corn is in so many products is a good reason to move towards whole, unprocessed foods– already long-established to be the cornerstone of a healthy diet.
Moreover, we can shop organically and locally, we can inform ourselves and others about the food choices we are making, ask more questions and make better choices about what we buy and why.
The debate on GMOs forces us to look at a whole host of assumptions that many don’t realize they are holding. By looking at these first, we can raise the bar on the public discourse about our right to protect our ecosystems and food sources from interests that may not have our best interests at heart.
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