The Future of Food Freedom
By Rachel Swanwick
As an environmentalist, I have long struggled with the idea of genetically modified (GM) foods, seemingly sneaking their way onto our plates. Maybe it’s that particular lack of transparency here in the United States, that gives me the feeling that producers of these crops, have something to hide. By taking a part of nature and monetizing it to the point of, copyrights and lawsuits; I often find myself feeling as though I’m living in a dystopian reality. Where even our food has been overrun by a corporate scientific experiment. A capitalist entity whose very goal is to destroy all heritage varieties, natural systems, and independent producers of locally grown foods.
Now, given my expansive love of science fiction, and understanding that more likely than not, this cannot be a one sided battle of good versus evil. I am willing to consider the story from the other side of our figurative dinner table. Maybe there is a place for GM crops that will work to improve our lives on a warming planet; rather than overturn a delicate ecological balance. I want to uncover the truth behind Genetically Modified foods, in an effort to debunk my notions of how these crops are impacting our planet and sense of personal authority over what we consume.
My first inclination is to look at the research to gain a sense of where the scientific community stands on GM foods. It seems to me that the production of GMOs comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. Although there is much scientific backing to support the production of GM crops, there is also a large caveat of risks associated with altering a plants genetic material, to the extent that it can no longer be produced naturally. On average, around 87% of scientists find that GM foods are safe for human consumption.
An example of a GM food that is being touted as a lifesaving alternative is “Golden Rice.” Rice strains like the one pictured above, are produced with increased amounts of vitamin A, an essential nutrient for brain development and immune system function. “Golden Rice” can act as an effective supplement for malnutrition and ultimately save lives. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is common among children in developing countries where rice is a staple food thus making this GM alternative a powerful substitute. Many communities have embraced these new varieties of rice as a step forward in producing a viable, nutritious, and profitable crop.
In addition to its nutritional benefits, scientists advocate that GM crops can support a greater propensity to withstand pests, extreme climatic conditions, produce higher yields per acre, and require less herbicide use. Making GM crops ideal candidates to be grown in regions where food supplies are low and environmental conditions are challenging. Companies producing these GM crops, argue that as humans continue to overpopulate our planet, and the climate continues to warm; GMOs may be the only viable future to support human life.
It seems that with every claim these modified foods boasts; there is a slew of contradictory evidence against the widespread promotion of these crops. Research has found that these GMOs require comparable quantities of herbicides and pesticides to natural foods, deteriorate soil quality, reduce biodiversity, and cross pollinate with surrounding crops. In addition, there are still concerns that alterations to the biochemical pathways in plants cells through genetic modification could have unexpected consequences on health which are not yet recognized. These impacts could affect humans and animals but they could also affect the diverse array of microorganisms that live in our soils.
Ultimately there are clear discrepancies in knowledge surrounding genetically modified foods; but what is clear to me is that large corporate interests are invested in bringing these products to consumers in a big and fast way. In 2008, 85% of the corn patents and 70% of GM crops excluding corn were allocated to 3 companies alone. If we continue to invest in genetically modified foods we are investing in the three largest GM seed producers; Monsanto, Du Pont, and Sygenta. Resulting in the quality, cost, and freedom of our food falling into the hands of profit margins and corporate interests.
Justice or Bust
Monsanto has filed 147 lawsuits since 1997 and never lost. Either they are doing something right or the laws protecting these big corporations are doing something wrong. A recent lawsuit in 2013 made its way to the Supreme Court; the case involved Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman vs. Monsanto. Bowman replanted second-generation seeds, which were the byproduct of seeds originally bought by a licensed Monsanto seed provider. By replanting, rather than repurchasing new seeds, Monsanto contended that Bowman was in violation of patent laws. Monsanto was issued damages on the basis that Bowman had breached patent rights by utilizing their technology (herbicide resistant seeds) beyond its intended use.
The lingering issue here still remains; where are lines that divide individual farmers, scientific discovery, and complete market control? Scientific advancement is the very core of progress and deserves to be protected under law. However, if a corporation not only owns rights to their seeds, but also everything that is reproduced by their seeds, then they are allowed full control over the entire seed market. Monopolies do not promote free market discovery but instead tend to put a lockdown on advancement in that field. In dealing with a company that already has ownership over the vast majority of the food we consume, it will be difficult to limit the extent of the stranglehold Monsanto has on the agricultural industry.
An Ethical Mission?
Genetically modified foods may be a solution to some of the world’s most pressing issues but I hasten to believe that it is the only solution. Instead of investing in tools that help us cope with the potentially devastating effects of climate change we should be investing in tools that help to slow our planets warming. Malnutrition should be addressed by helping individuals get access to a healthy diet that is rich in a diverse array of foods rather than continuing to promote a diet only based on staple items. In the western world, 1/3 of food that is produced ends up in a landfill, what can we do to strengthen these chains of distribution.
Additional alternatives and cutting edge technologies for a future without Genetically Modified foods are being studied throughout the world. The French Seed company Limagrain is looking to understand the genetic makeup of plants as a tool to produce more resilient and higher yielding crops naturally. There are also options for sustainable farming such as agroecology, biodynamic farming, agroforestry, and many integrated pest and livestock methods that provide real solutions to food yield concerns. In addition, consumers can support community farming as a way to combat supply chain carbon impacts and support non-GMO foods such as rooftop farming, hydroponic farming, and simply supporting local agriculture.
Could the turnkey solution of GM foods distract world leaders from developing policies that are invested in the sustainable development of communities and environments? The propagation of GM foods rests on the economic, environmental, and humanitarian claims that could result from growing GM crops. I worry that like many of the social policies that run rampant throughout our institutions we are not thinking about the root cause of the issue.
The Uninvited Guest
Last year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laid out its first ever labeling requirements for genetically modified foods which are planned to be rolled out in 2020. This means for the first time ever in America, we truly do have the opportunity take authority back over what we put into our bodies. There is a considerable amount of research studying attitude formation towards GM products and many cite a lack of knowledge by the consumers to fully understand GM foods as reasoning for a negative connotation. I urge you to do your own research, talk to local farmers, make your own conclusions regarding GM foods and be an informed buyer.
It seems undeniable that GM foods will continue to be a part of our lives as genetic modification techniques, tools, and needs continue to grow and become more commonplace in our society. Yet with this reality comes a decision. We have to open our minds to conscious choices of support as active consumers rather than passive buyers in a capitalist market. And although it may seem like a small step amongst a huge system ultimately consumer trends will drive markets. You have the choice of who comes to your dinner table, may there be no uninvited guests.