A 26-part series on genetically modified food was not Nathanael Johnson’s idea. And he didn’t realize it would take six months, either.
Last year, Johnson was hired as the new food writer for Grist, a website for environmental news and opinion. Grist’s editor, Scott Rosenberg, was waiting with an assignment: Dig into the controversy over GMOs.
GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.
On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.
“When I met Nathanael, I thought, ‘This is a writer who could do this really well,’ ” recalls Rosenberg.
For the full essay, including links to Johnson’s work, head here.
Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, recently posted a very thoughtful piece at Ensia that questions the dominant narrative on population growth and food supply. As he describes,
You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.
To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.
To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.
Foley goes on to carefully consider each of the assumptions of the dominant narrative. After debunking myths and pointing out blind spots, he proposes a very different summary of where we are and how we might face the future:
While the prevailing narrative about the global food supply is persuasive and sounds very logical, it is actually based on several wrong assumptions. It needs to be replaced by a more accurate narrative that can better guide future investments and decisions.
The new narrative might sound something like this: The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge.
These are big challenges, and there are no simple solutions. As a first step, though, we at least need to be sure that we get the story about the food system straight. After all, if we’re not even starting at the right place, we certainly will not end up at the right destination.
The full piece is really worth a read. Check it out here, and then share it with others.
The balmy tropical isles here seem worlds apart from the expansive cornfields of the Midwest, but Hawaii has become the latest battleground in the fight over genetically modified crops.
The state has become a hub for the development of genetically engineered corn and other crops that are sold to farmers around the globe. Monsanto and other seed companies have moved here en masse, and corn now sprouts on thousands of acres where sugar cane or pineapples once grew.
But activists opposed to biotech crops have joined with residents who say the corn farms expose them to dust and pesticides, and they are trying to drive the companies away, or at least rein them in.
The full article is worth a read; check it out here.
It’s nearly December, but I’ve just now gotten around to reading Mark Bittman’s column about the food-related ballot initiatives that were voted down earlier this month on election day. It’s worth a read for both its sobering take on the influence of money in politics and its optimistic discovery of a silver lining in the election results. He introduces the former topic this way:
Proposition 37, which would have required packagers to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s) as such, was on the ballot in California. As recently as two months ago, the vote for labeling appeared to be a shoo-in. But then the opposition spent nearly a million dollars a day — a total of $46 million, or about five times as much as the measure’s backers — not so much chipping away at the lead but demolishing it.
Check out the full piece here.
Last Friday I posted about Mark Bittman’s trip to California’s Central Valley that was featured in the current Food and Drink Issue of The New York Times Magazine. Today I thought I’d link to one more entry from that issue: Michael Pollan’s piece on the voter initiative in California called Proposition 37, which would require labeling of most genetically modified foods.
As Pollan writes,
Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.
These are precisely the issues that have given rise to the so-called food movement. Yet that movement has so far had more success in building an alternative food chain than it has in winning substantive changes from Big Food or Washington….
Yet. Next month in California, a few million people will vote with their votes on a food issue. Already, Prop 37 has ignited precisely the kind of debate — about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food; about transparency and the consumer’s right to know — that Monsanto and its allies have managed to stifle in Washington for nearly two decades. If Prop 37 passes, and the polls suggest its chances are good, then that debate will most likely go national and a new political dynamic will be set in motion.
As usual, it’s an engaging and thoughtful essay, so check out the full piece here.
For more on Prop 37, check out just some of the editorials and reporting at these links. Finally, view the (pro-Prop 37) video below and join the campaign to tell the FDA to require agribusiness to “Just Label It.”
Tom Philpott recently posted at Mother Jones about what might politely be called one of the “unintended consequences” of genetically modified crops. As he writes, a new scientific study
found that overall, GMO technology drove up herbicide use by 527 million pounds, or about 11 percent, between 1996 (when Roundup Ready crops first hit farm fields) and 2011. But it gets worse. For several years, the Roundup Ready trait actually did meet Monsanto’s promise of decreasing overall herbicide use—herbicide use dropped by about 2 percent between 1996 and 1999, [studey author Chuck] Benbrook told me in an interview. But then weeds started to develop resistance to Roundup, pushing farmers to apply higher per-acre rates. In 2002, farmers using Roundup Ready soybeans jacked up their Roundup application rates by 21 percent, triggering a 19 million pound overall increase in Roundup use.
Since then, an herbicide gusher has been uncorked. By 2011, farms using Roundup Ready seeds were using 24 percent more herbicide than non-GMO farms planting the same crops, Benbrook told me. What happened? By that time, “in all three crops [corn, soy, and cotton], resistant weeds had fully kicked in,” Benbrook said, and farmers were responding both by ramping up use of Roundup and resorting to older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D.
This report from Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media focuses on genetically engineered corn and concerns some farmers are raising. The story opens with a farmer whose corn crop last year failed due to root damage, even though it was “fancy corn” engineered to be resistant to perpetrating pest.
Researchers are running tests on a variety of seeds from different companies, but seed from ag giant Monsanto seed is the one that has shown the lack of resistance to rootworm.
That’s probably partly because, [Iowa State entomology professor Aaron] Gassmann says, Monsanto’s seed has been on the market the longest. In 2003, it was the first Bt seed available commercially. Since then, Bt seeds have become such an intricate part of corn farming that it’s hard to find corn seeds that don’t have some kind of Bt technology.
“In many the ways I think the data provide an early warning that people need to be more careful about how these products are used and they need to be used in a more integrated way – in other words, with a variety of tactics,” Gassman said. “Farmers shouldn’t just be relying on this same tactic year after year to control the pest.”
For the full audio and text report, head here.
Thanks to Civil Eats, I just read this fantastic piece from Tom Laskawy that was originally posted to Grist. In it, he details growing opposition to Dow AgroScience’s efforts to win USDA approval for a new pesticide-resistant variety of genetically modified corn. This latest product is being introduced as a growing number of farmers are encountering “superweeds” in their fields of GMO plants resistant glyphosate (AKA Roundup). As Laskawy writes,
Of course, this is a problem of the industry’s own making. It was overuse of glyphosate caused by the market dominance of Monsanto’s set of glyphosate-resistant genetically engineered seeds that put farmers in this fix in the first place. One of the older herbicides, 2,4-D is a pretty nasty chemical [yet] the basis of [opponents'] concern isn’t so much the health effects, but the fact that their farms may end up as collateral damage from the increase in the use of 2,4-D that will occur if Dow’s seed is approved….. The problem has to do with pesticide drift — an issue with many pesticides, but a particular problem with 2,4-D, which unlike glyphosate is highly volatile…. [T]he real fight appears to be between commodity farms who want a simple answer to the growing problem of superweeds and fruit and vegetable growers who don’t want to see their crops damaged as a consequence. The latter are often treated by the USDA as step-children while growers of the Big Five commodities — corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton — receive the overwhelming majority of federal farm subsidies.
Laskawy’s piece provides plenty more information, including the alarming details on why some farmers are especially worried about pesticide drift when it comes to 2,4-D. The story also features lots of great links — like this recent story in The New York Times — so check it out for yourself.
A friend recently posted this feature from Rodale to her Facebook page. It summarizes findings from a study of the content of a variety of “natural” boxed cereals. That word is, unfortunately, largely meaningless when it come to food labels. Many of the cereals have lots of pesticide residue and/or are comprised predominantly of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For me, it was most disappointing to learn that some organic labels have shifted to “natural” products in recent years. For example, “Barbara’s Bakery got called out because, over the past few years, they’ve slowly been decreasing their USDA-certified organic cereal options and increasing their selection of uncertified ‘natural’ products. Between 2007 and 2011, the company’s organic choices dropped from 55 to just 20 percent—shortly after the company was acquired by a private investment firm. That’s misleading to customers who think the company is staying true to its organic roots, and think they’re still buying organic cereals.”
My friend’s Facebook post generated a bit of back and forth about whether GMOs are the answer to the food needs of humanity’s growing population. Some say yes, but this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests otherwise. In short, “The biotechnology industry has been promising better yields since the mid-1990s, but Failure to Yield documents that the industry has been carrying out gene field trials to increase yields for 20 years without significant results…. In addition to evaluating genetic engineering’s record, Failure to Yield considers the technology’s potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades. The report does not discount the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to increase crop yields. It does, however, suggest that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.” You can find an overview, FAQs, responses to critiques, and the full report here.
Genetically modified (GM) foods have been around since the 1990s, and these days GMOs (GM organisms) constitute the majority of US acreage for plants like soybeans and corn. Unlike new varieties of crops and livestock created through the process of crossbreeding as in the old days, GMOs have their DNA manipulated in the lab, with new genes inserted, deleted, turned on/off, and the like. (Genes can even be inserted from one species into another unrelated one.)
Pro-GMO types — especially ag business giants like Monsanto and their friends — argue that GMOs are safe, cost-effective, and productive. Critics argue that the health and environmental consequences can’t possibly be known given the limited, narrowly focused research that’s been conducted. For example, long-term studies to try to understand the consequences of Round-Up resistant GM alfalfa mixing with non-GM alfalfa outside the lab in the real world haven’t been done.
Candidate Obama said consumers had a right to know whether GMOs were in their foods or not. President Obama’s administration, though, hasn’t followed through. Meanwhile, the administration has also approved the introduction of new GMOs. For additional details, check out this article from The Daily Beast, and this piece from NPR.