Rural Vegan asked Brett in his last installment of the What Is Food series if he might expand on the globalization of food, particularly how it pertained to “life sciences” corporations such as Monsanto. He asked me if I would write this piece as I have read many books and watched a few documentaries that pertain to this topic, and of course, I am happy to elaborate on any topic that others feel I have something to offer.
First and foremost, I believe in full disclosure. I was raised in St. Louis, home of Monsanto. I also must state that I do not believe that life sciences or large agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Du Pont, and Cargill are inherently evil; that is, beyond the way that all corporations are evil, they are motivated by profit, and they are legally bound by their shareholders to turn as high of a profit as possible. So in this respect, they are no more evil than any other publicly traded company. What I mean by this is that I do not believe these places are employing mad scientists who wish to wreak havoc and poison the planet; I truly think that many of the folks who work for these companies swallow the public relations material put forth – that their job is to help feed the world and make it a better place. Whether or not this is true is a matter of opinion, really, but what can be said is that there is some blatant hypocrisy and that reality often doesn’t mirror the promises put forth in the advertising campaigns of these companies.
With that said, however, I must note my bias: I am, for the most part, opposed to genetically modified organisms, but most specifically, genetically modified food. I think we are really playing with fire on this one (I will touch on why later), and I do not think they are the panacea to the world’s problems.
I also feel that focusing only on corporations for the purpose of this discussion is too limiting. I think that a brief discussion of the “trade promoting” de facto agency, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in order too.
Anyways, I think the best place to start is by discussing the promises put forth by places like the WTO in regards to less restricted trade, and life sciences corporations in regards to genetically modified food or patented life. The WTO – which is an agency designated with the promotion and resolution of trade and trade issues – came out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) during the Clinton administration (here in the US). The idea was that it would help open up borders and thus also open markets upon which more goods could be traded. Many problems have come about as a result of this, many of which I attribute to the fact that the WTO has it’s own dispute resolution mechanism; to me, this is a conflict of interest, and I do not see much value in overriding a nation’s laws for the purpose of forcing a given product upon them – and this has been the result of most grievances brought forth to the WTO. Claims that this would bring many developing nations into the “First World” have largely been proven to be bogus propaganda.
The most notable example is that of Africa. I took a class about globalization when I was still in college and one of the situations that struck me deepest was the story of an African nation – in which the people were incredibly impoverished – that due to WTO trade rules, had to export their food to the Western world while their people went hungry. Another clear example of the problems with the WTO and the globalization of food came as I read Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva. In it she discussed how, after what some think was an intentional contamination of native cooking oils, India forbade small producers from processing their own oils and opened their markets up to Western vegetable oils (from, you guessed it, soybeans). Not only did many Indians not want this unfamiliar cooking oil, it drove a lot of small family farmers to the brink. This - combined with the “invention” of GMO crops and the lowered price they could get for their crops on the global market (which I will talk about briefly) – led to a rapid increase in farmer suicides. In fact, there have been multiple instances, illustrated in Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved where small farmers have committed suicide outside of WTO meetings to try to get their message across. Just these few examples (and I could go on and on with many more) really call into the question the idea that liberalized trade is good for the Third World.
On to the promises put forth by life sciences corporations about the wonders of genetically modified foods (GMOs)...
Many of the promises have to do with feeding the world. Companies claimed that crops like “Golden Rice” (a type of rice that had been genetically modified to contain beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A) would eliminate, once and for all, the high incidence of Vitamin A deficiency (one of the most common deficiencies for folks in the Third World, especially children). Problem is, as noted in Dinner at the New Gene Café by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht, kids would have to eat literally pounds of this rice a day to get the necessary amount of Vitamin A, and that’s only if it could even be adequately metabolized by the body.
Another big argument in favor of GMOs is that they increase yields on crops. There is mixed information on this, but what I can say is that this is not true for all farmers. In many cases, yields increase when GMO crops are initially introduced, but soon, resistant weeds and bugs eliminate any advantage that GMOs had over conventional crops – in some cases, resulting in severely diminished yields. But there are farmers – particularly in America – that swear by GMO crops and claim that their yields have gone up and stayed up, so I cannot make much of an assumption here.
What I can say about these life sciences companies’ claims that they are creating GMO crops to feed the world is this: most of the patents for GMO crops are in regards to the crop being able to withstand application of a pesticide or herbicide (think Round Up Ready soybeans) or that are genetically altered to already contain a pesticide-like gene from bacteria or other substance such as Bt corn – not to increase yields or the nutritional qualities of the food. On top of this, there are extra costs involved with farming GMO crops. Not only must you buy new seed every year (it is against the law to save these seeds, which to me is outrageous), but there are also “technology fees” that go along with purchasing these seeds that make costs prohibitive for small farmers, particularly in the Third World where increased yields are needed the most. This again, strikes at the heart of their claim that they wish to feed the world. How can one really take that seriously when only Western farmers or large agribusinesses can afford such technology?
And then there are the safety issues – not only for the people who consume these foods, but to the overall environment. We are dealing with a form of genetic manipulation that is very new. We have not been doing this long enough to know the long-term ramifications this could create; and yet, once these genes are out there, they cannot be contained. It has been found that GMO crops “exchange genes” with wild counterparts, weeds, and so on that change the genetic structure of the flora around it, thus creating the potential problem of ever-evolving “super weeds”. There is also concern about the safety of the crops to beneficial insects. There were many stories in the news a few years ago about the dramatic decrease in Monarch butterflies after a large amount of genetically modified crops were planted; Bt corn was the one thought to be causing the problem. Many of these claims have not been completely substantiated, but needless to say, these are grave concerns that need to be addressed.
Then there is the question of the safety of these products in terms of our consumption of it. I remember coming across an article awhile back, a version of it can be seen here, that really made me wonder about the safety of GMOs. Turns out, genetically modified food has been banned in the cafeterias of Monsanto. Now, if the foods are perfectly safe to eat, then why, of all people, are the ones creating these products unwilling to eat them? Just a little nugget to chew on…
There is also the question of the limiting of genetic diversity due to the increased use of a small number of GMO crops. Genetic diversity is the basis for a good portion of the life on this planet, and doing anything – beyond the crazy things we’ve already done, to mess with that is playing with fire. It is interesting to me that many of the companies who are patenting pesticide and herbicide resistant crops are also trying to patent basic life forms.
I recall reading a piece awhile back about a company in the United States had patented a variety of Basmati rice, many, many varieties of which have been grown for centuries in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan . Rice being a major export of India, they found this news to be quite unnerving and have been trying to fight it and other forms of "biopiracy" ever since. This might not seem like much to you, but the patenting of basic foodstuffs, along with the legal ramifications involved with GMO crops, we begin to see what is a “free-for-all” to profit and control the basis of our existence – life and food. Those who own life will have immense power over us, and some realize it and may not be afraid to use it.
Case in point: canola (rapeseed) farmer Percy Schmeiser. Mr. Schmeiser is a Canadian canola farmer who does not farm GMO canola, but found himself being sued by Monsanto. Why? Because nature and genetic material cannot be contained (just ask anyone who has tried to grow two different varieties of cucumbers and ended up with some very funky strains). A neighboring farmer did farm GMO canola, and due to natural forces like wind, some of it got into Mr. Schmeiser’s field. One day, to his surprise, he found himself being sued by Monsanto – for patent infringement. Monsanto claimed that it did not matter that he didn’t know or willfully plant Monsanto’s GMO canola - since it was on his property and he did not pay the required fees, he was subject to litigation for patent infringement. This poor gentleman fought Monsanto and lost almost everything he had, but I am happy to note that, as of this year, he won an out-of-court settlement from Monsanto whereby they had to pay for the clean up of the contamination of his property and release him from the gag order that didn’t allow him to speak about the specifics of his case. This type of bullying by companies like Monsanto is not rare or new. And this is what we have to look forward to if we continue to move along this path with our food system.
The final aspect of GMO crops I will touch on before returning to the topic of the globalization of our food supply and what that means for small farmers around the world – and thus, you and I – is the unwillingness to give consumers a choice. This is particularly the case here in the United States where most of the research on GMOs and other related technologies occur. Many other countries have been successful in forcing companies who use GMOs to label their products accordingly. Not so here in the US: companies are allowed to label their product as “Non-GMO” (something that was fought hard, but thankfully is finally allowed), but no one is required to disclose the use of GMO ingredients in food. This denies a customer the ability to truly know what he or she is eating and, to me, is very dangerous. There was an issue awhile back about a tomato that had been genetically engineered with some genes from a Brazil nut that turned out to cause allergic reactions in those sensitive to tree nuts. Not labeling or fully informing the customer about what they are consuming is not only an infringement on their right to choose, but is also potentially dangerous to those with allergies – especially as research for GMO crops is ramping up throughout the world and rushed into test fields.
Back to the topic of food globalization in general: I do not mean, in any way, to imply that global trade is an inherently bad thing – even in the case of food. However, it has gotten to a point that borders on ridiculous.
I remember seeing a diagram in the textbook we used for the globalization class I took in college that documented the trade of a particular product – in this case, beef. What it showed was that – due to WTO rules and regulations – the US was shipping beef to Europe and many other nations while importing beef from elsewhere. How counterproductive and what a waste of resources for needless shipping! Why is this done? Well, beef from Argentina is cheaper than beef from America – plain and simple, and WTO rules allow for us to ship our higher cost meat to other nations (sometimes even forcing it on them) and allowing us to take advantage of the cheaper product.
Now, this brings me to my final topic of discussion: the impact of the globalized food system on the family farms all over the world and what globalization of food has done for the safety and recall mechanisms of our food supplies.
Large agribusiness companies have been the “final straw” for many small family farmers here in the United States. No longer able to compete with the low cost of a commodity crop due to the flooding of the market by a large, heavily subsidized agribusiness farms, many are throwing in their plows and giving up their farms; they simply cannot stay afloat. Many find themselves bankrupt and with nothing, not knowing what to do because their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all farmers, and this is the only way of life that they know. It has really destroyed the lives of many small farmers, increased the massive scale and control by a very few agribusiness companies, and decreased the quality of available food. Large agribusiness companies are there to grow what sells. They don’t (can’t really) care about preserving heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables nor the nutritional content of the crop they produce. They want (as a corporation, need) the easiest to grow, most uniform, shippable, and aesthetically pleasing crop they can find; that’s about it. This generally means a lot of monocropping – the “fence post to fence post” mentality of farming – which is a dangerous ball of wax and has contributed to the decline in the nutrition of food, the increase of soil erosion, desertification, and could, in the future, render much of the most fertile land in the world dead and useless. This does not bode well for our future ability to feed ourselves – let alone the whole world (as the US has tried to do) – in the future.
This says nothing of the trials and tribulations of Third World farmers. Many of these farmers are strapped with immense amounts of debt in order to try to compete with the prices of crops on the world market – prices that are driven down due to farmer subsidies in places in the First World. Third World countries do not have the ability to subsidize, often times, as a result of what are called “structural adjustment programs” imposed by international financing organizations – such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – which keep nations from being able to provide much, if any, sort of welfare or safety net systems to their people. I could go on and on about the problems with structural adjustment programs, but that would be a topic for a different post. I do, however, encourage you to research this topic to reach your own conclusions.
In the end, what does this mean for us? Well, it means that we are quickly losing any degree of control that we had over the nature and methods used to get our food from the fields to the table. Those who control food control us, and this could mean that our future is that of serfdom to corporations like Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, or Du Pont, rather than to the companies we work for or our government.
Also, the ever more centralized nature of the modern food system is a disaster waiting to happen; just keep in mind all the recalls of food we have seen over the years. Small, regional distribution systems are not as prone to these large scale outbreaks as the centralized industrial model is; when there are problems within these regional networks, the source is far easier to trace and can often be contained much more quickly.
It basically comes down to being aware and looking at these issues in a holistic manner – look at the big picture, not just the pieces of the puzzle; the “whole” in this case, is far greater than the sum of its parts. We still have control, even if only to a small degree, and we still have some time; we have time to resist so that the future of our food is one where we have choices, and I don’t mean a choice between Round-Up Ready Soybeans or Bt Corn.
I hope – Rural Vegan – that this was what you were looking for, and I look forward to any dialogue this may spark.
'Til next time.