Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: Globalization, Corporations, and Food

Friday, August 15, 2008

Globalization, Corporations, and Food

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.


Catherine said...

It is my hope that as fuel costs go up, industrialization of food will self-implode. It's a system built on fuel, and if gas goes up to $10 a gallon, processed food and GMO food won't be so cheap any more!

I buy organic and shop my farmer's market, beacuse GMOs freak the living hell out of me. I don't want to eat self-creating pesticides! But I probably have already, which is the creepy thing.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Catherine - I think that rising fuel costs will do a lot to take care of the inefficient, and unfair, globalized food system. When it is no longer affordable to ship our beef to Europe and import Argentina's beef, it will no longer occur.

However, with regards to GMOs, I fear that this will just become an even larger issue. Under the guise of saving the world from climate change and oil dependency, I fear companies like Monsanto will ramp up their research and the public will support it based on false claims. The problem isn't genetic manipulation, we have been doing that for millenia by saving seeds with desirable characteristics, and crossing strains of the same variety of plant until we get a desired trait. However, this is far different that genetically engineering genes from other species, even animals and bacteria into our food.

I remember hearing someone refer to GMOs as "Frankenfoods" awhile back, and I would agree that this is a pretty good description. Even if they are perfectly safe (which I am not convinced they are), there is still something, well, just not right about GMOs to me. Perhaps my fears are unfounded, but I still have them.

It IS likely that we've all ingested GMO food which is scary and angering. That is part of what makes me angriest about this whole situation, that unless we buy organic, local, or things that are labeled "non-GMO", we really have no way of knowing what we are eating. How's that for freedom?

Cookiemouse said...

I've left a video reply on Jennifer and Cookiemouse. The experience of Indian farmers with Monsanto was a disaster. GMO cotton harvest failure led to the ruin and suicide of thousands of farmers. Patents on seeds are a neo-colonial form of theft. Nobody can tell what the long term consequences of GMOs will be. The argument of shareholder value is leading to the ruin of the world's food supply. We seem to be doing our best to try to kill the living earth. GMO food is being sneaked into Europe from China in spite of an EU ban. Large corporations have no ethical sense of responsibility. The vast majority of people are too passive to care.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Cookie (Hunter) Mouse - The documentary "The Future of Food" was highly influential to many of the changes I have since made in my life. Americans are misinformed on a good deal of issues, this issue is no different.

I would agree with your assessment on the patenting of seeds. Not only is it wrong - many of these seeds are "stolen" from other nations, but the idea of someone owning ANY form of life seems to be an area that should be off limits. One of the things I really worry about is where it will end, once people are successfully patenting seeds, what's next, body parts, DNA? It could be very dangerous.

That is one of my major arguments against GMOs: sure, they could be perfectly safe, but the point is WE DO NOT KNOW. 20+ years might seem like a long time, but we are messing with the basic elements of life - for profit. Not a good idea.

The shareholder/profit argument has done more than just ruin the food supply, it has ruined many peoples lives for the pursuit of profit and in the process, destroying the planet. The American form of a corporation has to be one of the most destructive things to come out of the American Experiment. Whether or not the ruin of the planet is intentional or not is irrelevant (which I still believe is largely unintentional, why would a corporation do something that could lead to the inability to make a profit), but the point is that the short-sided "quarterly profit" mentality is inherently destructive.

Large corporations have no ethical sense of responsibility in large part because they aren't supposed to. Their purpose is to turn a profit, not make the world a better place. They just often try to feed us this line so that WE will continue to consume their products.

Many people are too passive to care, but I must also note, most people are just ignorant in the literal sense of the word. They simply do not know, and how can they be blamed for ignorance? There is so much contradictory information out there that it is incredibly difficult to make sense of it, even when you aren't ignorant.

Jeffrey Dach MD said...

Our Foods Are Already 70 per cent GMO. Jeff Smith's book, Seeds of Deception compiles 20 years of data on the health risks of genetically modified foods. This data includes feeding GMO food to laboratory animals resulting in thousands of sick, sterile and dead laboratory animals. This data also includes allergic reactions and toxicity in humans from GMO foods. While American consumers remain oblivious, genetic modification has already spread to 70% of our US food supply at the supermarkets, mostly affecting corn, soy, cotton seed oil and canola oil.

To Read More.....
Genetically Modified GMO Food, the Great Scandal by Jeffrey Dach MD

Jeffrey Dach MD
4700 Sheridan Suite T
Hollywood Fl 33021
954 983 1443
my web site
my Blog
Natural Medicine 101

Happy Herbivore! said...

Last week I went to my local market and noticed my pure maple syrup had increased by $4. It went from $12 to $16. Now, I appreciate that this is a special item because there are no maple trees in Southern California & I'm happy to pay to have it for my pancakes... but it did make me sad because I know that a lot of other people just won't buy it. They'll now by the crappy sugary "pancake syrup" at $4 a bottle (up from $2) instead. I feel most people will jeopardize their health to save a few bucks (and also lose out on nutrients and great taste!).

I guess I'm saying I'm worried people will turn to place like KFC and McDonalds for food more and more because they are forced to keep their prices low where prices of food at the supermarket go up and up... but I guess gas prices will eventually hurt them too??

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Jeffrey Dach - I have heard similar figures myself, though I wasn't aware that there was speculation of such a high percentage of our food system being "contaminated" by GMOs. But it really isn't a wonder, I remember reading about the Star Link corn incident a few years back where GMO corn, meant for animal feed (which is silly, people who eat animals still eat these GMO crops so I don't understand the whole "fit for human vs. animal consumption" it seems like it's all the same), and how it made it's way into our food supply and was discovered in taco shells. These farms all take their crops to the same facilities, it's surprising that we don't have a far larger problem than we already do. My biggest fear is the inability to contain these genes once they are introduced into nature.

Thank you for providing those links, I'll have to check them out.

Lindsay (Happy Herbivore) - I understand your concerns over folks flocking to cheap food - and I think that this will be the case in the short-term. I've heard stories about people who had never shopped at Wal-Mart before who are now doing all their grocery shopping there, buying cheaper cuts of meat, and all around less quality foods.

But there will come a point, when places like McDonald's and KFC can no longer reduce the quality of their food and thus no longer reduce the price. This coupled with peak oil, as cheap oil is what allows for the inefficient trade models we now employ, those daily deliveries are going to be a thing of the past. And as gas continues to get more expensive, not only are fast food restaurants going to have a hard time keeping pace, folks won't have the expendable income, nor the gas to go through the drive thrus. I think you will see these convenience food places going under before anything else - they are unsustainable, so basically, they cannot be sustained, and the point at which this is blatently obvious does not seem, to me, to be too far off.

Rural Vegan said...

Thanks Jennifer! It scares the daylights out of me that the majority of Americans are oblivious to both the potential dangers of GMO foods, and to the dangers of corporations that literally own our food supply and will sue the competition out of business. I live (literally) surrounded by Bt Corn and Round-Up Ready soybeans and even here, people have no idea what GMO means or who Mansanto is. I guess they'll find out when they get sued for having a backyard garden?

I am very glad to hear the update on Mr. Schmeiser's case against Mansanto; I hadn't heard yet.

The Voracious Vegan said...

This blog is phenomenal, I am so happy to have found it. Thank you for all the time and effort you obviously put into it, this is a great resource. I'm putting a link up on my blog if you don't mind!

Jeffrey Dach MD said...

GMO Food - The Greatest Threat in the History of Western Civilization

Jeff Smith's book, Seeds of Deception, compiles 20 years of data on the health risks of genetically modified foods from scientists such as Arpad Pusztai and Trudy Netherwood who reported that feeding GMO food to laboratory animals resulted in thousands of sick, sterile and dead laboratory animals. The book also reports on allergic reactions and toxicity in humans from GMO foods.

While American consumers remain oblivious, GMO Foods have been introduced into the US food supply without safety testing or even labeling. Already 70% of our US food supply is GMO, affecting corn, soy, cotton seed oil and canola oil.

The follwing countries have banned GMO Food: Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Japan, Phillipines, The European Union, Norway, Austria, Germany United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Portugal, Brazil, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand.

The British Medical Association has asked for a moratorium on GMO foods.

To Read More.....

Genetically Modified GMO Food, the Great Scandal by Jeffrey Dach MD

Jeffrey Dach MD
4700 Sheridan Suite T
Hollywood Fl 33021
954 983 1443

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Rural Vegan - Hey, no problem, I enjoyed writing this piece.

The misinformation in this country scares me too, it seems like in the rest of the world, folks have a better understanding of the potential problems that GMOs may cause. I guess because Monsanto, ADM, and others are based here, there is more of a vested interest to keep the public confused.

The patenting of life and other basic foodstuffs, to me, seems pretty dangerous, I for one do not want to have to rely on Monsanto with their litigation and fees in order to feed myself, but I fear at some point even backyard gardeners, as you mention, might have to fear the wrath.

Oh man, I know you folks in Illinois are surrounded by this stuff. When Brett and I make our yearly trek up to Peoria, we take the backroads and go through a lot of farm country, I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything besides soybeans and corn growing there, and I just assumed most of it was GMO. There is something really sad and disturbing that we use some of the most fertile land in the world for these purposes.

I was really happy to find out about the new developments in Mr. Schmeiser's case as well. Until I went to see the status of his case for this post, I still thought he had been raked over the coals by Monsanto. It's nice to see that there is at least a little bit of justice.

Voracious Vegan - Thank you very much for your kind words, both Brett and I really appreciate it. We try to put stuff out there that we think others might benefit from knowing, why not share what we've learned if it could help others?

We don't mind you linking to our blog at all.

David Gerard said...

I've been trying to get discussion going with satire, fwiw.