Lentil Underground

 

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

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Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture. The story, a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.

The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.

Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.

The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.

As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.

These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.

Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.

Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.

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AFHVS 2016 STUDENT RESEARCH PAPER AWARDS

We have received the following announcement from the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society. Please note that students cannot apply for both this award and the ASFS awards, which you can read about here.

DEADLINE: March 18, 2016

To encourage participation by undergraduate and graduate students and to recognize scholarly excellence, the AFHVS invites submissions to the 2016 AFHVS Student Research Paper Awards. Awards will be given in two categories: graduate and undergraduate.

An eligible AFHVS paper in the graduate student category must meet the following requirements: 1) be sole-authored by a student or co-authored by two students; 2) be on a topic related to food or agriculture; 3) employ appropriate research methods and theories; and 4) be an original piece of research. It is expected that the winning graduate student serve on the AFHVS student research paper awards committee the following year.

An eligible AFHVS paper in the undergraduate student category must meet the following requirements: 1) be sole-authored by a student or co-authored by two students; 2) be on a topic related to food or agriculture; and 3) employ appropriate research methods and theories.

Final versions of the papers must be submitted to the student paper award committee by 5pm (Central Time) on Friday, March 18, 2016. Soon-to-be-graduating students must be students at the time of submission in order to be eligible. A paper submitted to the AFHVS paper competition may not also be submitted to the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) student paper competition. Published papers or papers that have benefited from formal peer review (through a journal) are not eligible, however those under review are eligible.

Papers should be no longer than 20 pages of double-spaced text (data tables, bibliography, and notes may be additional) using Times New Roman (12 pt), Arial (11 pt), or similar. Papers do not have a particular required format or bibliographic style. Winners are expected to present their paper at the AFHVS conference within two years of winning the award, and a space in a panel is guaranteed. Each award includes: one-year membership to AFHVS, a $300 cash award, conference fees for the AFHVS Annual Meeting, and a ticket to the conference banquet.

Papers submitted to AFHVS should be e-mailed to Shawn Trivette (shawn.trivette@gmail.com). The email must contain the following information:
1. Paper title
2. Full name
3. Full postal address
4. E-mail address
5. Academic affiliation
6. Student status (i.e., undergraduate or graduate)
7. An abstract of the paper
8. A statement that the paper is not published, has not received formal peer review, and was not also submitted for the ASFS student paper award
9. The name & e-mail address of the faculty member or other academic supervisor who has been asked to verify eligibility.
10. Attached to the e-mail message the complete paper in MS Word, PDF, or RTF format.

Evaluation: The AFHVS Student Paper Award Committee will judge contributed papers on the requirements outlined above, relevance to the interests of AFHVS (see details below), and their scholarly excellence, including quality of original research, methods, analytical tools, rhetorical quality, and flow (see detailed rubrics below). The committee will select up to one undergraduate student and one graduate student to receive awards. Notification of awards will be made by April 18, 2016. Members of the committee for 2016 include: Jenifer Buckley, Jill Clark, Douglas Constance, Melissa Poulsen, Shawn Trivette, Evan Weissman, and Spencer Wood.

Opportunity for Publication: Based on the recommendation of the Student Research Paper Award Committee, the winning graduate student paper may be forwarded to the journal of Agriculture and Human Values for review for possible publication. Note that papers submitted for the student paper competition do not have a particular required format or bibliographic style. To be submitted for publication, however, papers will need to be formatted as specified by the journal.

Topics of interest to AFHVS: AFHVS is dedicated to an open and free discussion of the values that shape and the structures that underlie current and alternative visions of food and agricultural systems. The Society is most interested in interdisciplinary research that critically examines the values, relationships, conflicts, and contradictions within contemporary agricultural and food systems and that addresses the impact of agricultural and food related institutions, policies, and practices on human populations, the environment, democratic governance, and social equity. Recent award winning student paper titles include: “Cultivating citizenship, equity, and social inclusion? Putting civic agriculture into practice through urban farming”; “Problems with the defetishization thesis: The case of a farmer’s market”; “The rise of local organic food systems in the US: An analysis of farmers’ markets”; “Building a real food system: The challenges and successes on the college campus.”

For more information please visit the websites below.

Rubrics for assessing paper submissions:

Basic Eligibility Requirements:
1. Sole-authored or co-authored by two students?
2. On a topic related to food or agriculture, relevant to the conference?
3. Employs appropriate methods and theories?
4. Presents original research? (graduate students only)
5. Approximately 20 pages of text or less? (excluding tables, figures, bibliography)
6. Double-spaced and appropriately formatted?
7. Submission includes all required information?

You may download a pdf version of this announcement, along with a review rubric that indicates how the papers will be evaluated, here: AFHVS_2016_CFP_student_papers

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Hospital Food

Guest Contributor: David Shane Lowry, Assistant Professor, Chicago Medical School and College of Health Professions

I worked as a technician for five years (between 2007 and 2012) in the Department of Pharmacy in a hospital in western North Carolina.  The local interstate brought a fairly steady number of car accident victims. Some of them were drunk drivers who, after being rushed into the intensive care unit of the hospital, were provided Jack Daniels whisky mixed by pharmacy employees into intravenous (IV) bags. This type of treatment didn’t happen all the time, but when it did I felt as if we were returning to a Civil War era where drug treatments were much more organic and rustic.

The hospital’s pharmacy maintained a fairly large stock of alcohol. Pharmacy technicians went on “beer runs” to our local alcoholic beverage control (ABC) store to pick up cases of liquor, beer, and wine. Physicians ordered “cocktails” for patients who demanded that the hospital provide them with spirits before bedtime. They prescribed alcohol in exact doses according to conversations they had with their patients and other physicians, and they used the alcohol to help make patients’ transitions into healthcare smoother. Physicians and nurses would ask patients for beer preferences. Some patients wanted alcohol-free O’Doul’s. These particular patients weren’t seeking the inebriation of alcohol. They simply wanted the taste.

Around 2010, the rules changed for the clinical use of alcohol in this hospital. For example, the hospital’s administration encouraged physicians to use standard “detox” protocol for drunken patients, which included use of pharmaceutical drugs instead of alcohol. The administration also decided to make the hospital’s Department of Nutrition responsible for keeping and distributing any alcohol that was used in clinical care.

The shift of alcohol between the Department of Pharmacy and the Department of Nutrition – between a place of “drugs” and a place of “food” – wasn’t a hospital-specific conversation. It had a deep American history. Alcohol actually began a transformation from “food” to “drug” during the Prohibition period of the 1920s. Prohibition was the period when alcohol was made illegal for use in American homes and businesses. In a matter of hours (literally!) alcohol went from a beverage served with dinner to a substance regulated by the Federal Government. During Prohibition, alcohol was only legal when it was obtained via prescriptions written by physicians.  Drug stores like Walgreens made their names (and large profits) by serving their customers “doses” of alcohol.

After Prohibition was over in 1933, alcohol came from under the watchful eyes of pharmacists, and retail pharmacy executives had to find new ways to create profit. They obtained help from Uncle Sam. Between 1935 and 1955, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became the federal overseer of drugs, cigarettes, food, and cosmetics. They worked with drug retailers – who were profiting from sales of drugs, cigarettes, cheap snacks, and cosmetics – to create and maintain pipelines for all kinds of consumable materials at the intersection of “food” and “drug”.

In the last few decades, pharmacies and hospitals have become increasingly dependent on these materials. Corporations like Abbott Laboratories produce “shakes”, “formula”, and “nutritional bars” for humans across the age spectrum. Brands like Gatorade advertise in ways that give their products the duality of “food” and “drug”. In the 1990s, you wanted to drink Gatorade to “be like” super-athlete Michael Jordan.

Whosoever has the power to sell has the power to feed and drug. What I am concerned with is the notion that when “food” becomes “drug” – beer used to treat a patient, for example – it is of little value. But when “drug” becomes “food” – e.g. when a pharmaceutical corporation has large stakes in feeding the most vulnerable humans among us – it is of great value. Such an inversion may seem non-critical within the current global food crisis, but it is quite critical if we are concerned with the fact that what heals us includes our taste buds, our hunger, and the communities we eat within.

 

 

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Chefs as activists–Daniel Giusti takes on America’s school lunches

Greg de St. Maurice
Ryukoku University

Chefs today wield a great deal of influence. They are (or are expected to be) simultaneously artisans, entrepreneurs, activists, and celebrities. In December the Washington Post published an article titled “A top chef from a world-famous restaurant wants to fix America’s school lunches.” The phrasing of the headline itself begs numerous questions: are Daniel Giusti’s actions worth following because of his celebrity? Is a chef better equipped to improve school lunches than someone in another profession, say an administrator, an economist, or an anthropologist? Such questions need to be asked. But it is, as the Washington Post article notes, worth observing that Giusti left his job at Noma, one of the world’s most influential restaurants and one with a very elite clientele, for another position meant to catalyze change in the food system. Giusti says, in an interview for Lucky Peach: “Well, if I’m going to feed people, I want to feed a lot of people and I want to wake up every day thinking that what I’m doing is affecting a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”

Chefs today understand that their actions have consequences, whether sourcing or kitchen atmosphere or neighborhood economic impact, and they seek to influence society and guide change. Noma, incidentally, is closing so that it can be reconfigured as a restaurant organized around an urban farm. Sustainability, seasonality, and “local” are keywords. But chefs’ activism is evident not only through the choices they make in fulfilling their responsibilities as chefs, or in their “private” lives as individuals, but interestingly also in the networks they form with colleagues to pursue common goals. Chef Giusti, for instance, belongs to the Chef Action Network, which is engaged at the local level around school lunches and at the national level when it comes to legislation regarding food and nutrition. And, as he explains in his interview with Lucky Peach, he has received emails from people from a wide variety of backgrounds interested in participating in his project—some of them pro bono. Celebrity’s power to mobilize may very well help Giusti be successful where others have not.

We can be both critical and supportive of chefs’ activism. Chefs can be charismatic leaders who effect change. They should not be seen as heroes whose actions negate the need for other kinds of activism. Chefs do not operate in frictionless environments—they must engage with consumer trends, media narratives, government regulations, investors eager for profits, and so forth. Even when a restaurant such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Noma seems to epitomize some of the kinds of changes grassroots activists seek, there is always the question of reach: who benefits from such restaurants? Who is left out? Chefs, expected to be productive along many different dimensions simultaneously, may only accomplish so much. Their power is limited and we should not neglect to also support less charismatic actors working to improve our food systems.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now: February 2 Edition

February 2: A lot of thought-provoking food news this week, FoodAnthro readers! As always, if you have a link you’d like to share, please email it to LaurenRMoore@uky.edu

First, congratulations to our own David Beriss for being picked up by NPR’s The Salt: New Orleans: A City In The Grip Of King Cake Madness

The National Resources Defense Council wrote about recent research suggesting that, despite media celebration of women in agriculture, there has been stagnation in female farm ownership and income over the last several decades: The Endangered Female Farmer

Civil Eats reported on California’s Grand Plan to Fight Climate Change on the Farm, which includes funding for farmers who implement measures to “contain soil nutrients, sequester carbon, and decrease greenhouse gases.”

From anthropologist Gary Nahbhan, some thoughts on what it means for Tucson to have been named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States: What Will a UNESCO City of Gastronomy Do for Tucson and for Other Cities?

The New York Times published an editorial condemning North Carolina’s “ag gag” law that went into effect Jan 1. It is the most extensive of such laws in the nation, banning whistleblowers at workplaces across the state: No More Exposés in North Carolina

Brentin Mock over at CityLab wrote about history of environmental racism in the United States, and how the crisis in Flint, Michigan is not an isolated incident: If You Want Clean Water, Don’t Be Black in America

Anthropologist Gregory Button follows up on his FoodAnthropology posting on the Flint crisis by putting the water scandal there in the context of other disasters that have impacted food and water: The Flint Water Crisis is Not Within Parallel in Michigan History

There was a lot of controversy recently about a column at The Washington Post arguing that the leaders of the U.S. “food movement” are out of sync with what consumers actually care about: The Surprising Truth About the Food Movement

Civil Eats profiled Dr. Joe Leonard, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, and how he promotes equality “within a government agency that was built on institutional racism”: The Man Working Behind the Scenes to Bring Racial Equality to the Food System

Following up on a recent story about the fallout surrounding Mast Chocolate, The New Yorker wrote about a growing suspicion of craft food and the people behind it: The Way Forward for Hipster Food

BBC News reported on an interesting study in Israel, showing how different people’s bodies respond differently to the same foods: Why Do People Put On Differing Amounts of Weight?

In a similar vein, Gastropod put out a podcast about The End of the Calorie, which was paired with an article in The Atlantic on the same topic: Rethinking the Calorie

From the Baltimore City Paper, a really moving tribute to Sidney Mintz: The Anthropologist: Sidney Mitz: 1922-2015

Finally, drawing on work by anthropologists (most notably Stephen Le) and other scholars, this article raises some good questions about how we talk about ancestral foods, why we might want to pay attention to historical environmental/human adaptations, and why meals are probably a better to think about than nutrients. Don’t be fooled by the headline, this is neither a call to eat like your actual grandmother, nor like someone’s paleo ancestor: Eat like your grandma: Why you should skip the kale salad

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Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 2)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

(Part 1 of this 2 part series is here.)

As a possible antidote or balance for someone seeking ways ag-biotech might contribute to sustainable agriculture and food systems, I searched not the web, but local university library shelves, and located a 2012 edited volume that promised to fill out this more positive bill. In this essay collection, The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply, eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), I sought updates and possible answers to the role of biotech coverissues raised in The GMO Deception. Peggy Lemaux’s chapter, “Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply,” was the most likely candidate, but did not provide completely satisfactory responses. A multi-authored interdisciplinary project paper on Healthy Potatoes for Wisconsin was similarly discouraging on major issues, such as outlooks for social equity and renewable soils. From beginning to end, issues of equity, or shared prosperity, were also concerns.

Lemaux’s chapter was an update of her 2008 Ann. Rev. of Plant Biology 59:771-812 article: “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues. (Part I)” It briefly reviews and dismisses many of the safety questions raised in GeneWatch reports, which were collected in the edited “Deception” volume. Some of her analyses effectively blunt well-publicized anti-GMO concerns. For example, no food plants GE’d to express anti-freeze fish genes have ever been released or approved for human consumption. Lower nutrient contents found in some comparative studies of GE versus conventional food-plant varieties are within the normal range of variation found in conventional food-plant products. Higher than expected nutrient values that are purposely introduced by GE must be so labeled. There are many and more diverse food-safety studies on GE foods than GeneWatch editors would lead one to believe.

But other cases remain troubling. For example, “Were potatoes engineered to produce a lectin unsafe to eat?” The studies she cites, with respect to Pusztai’s findings, don’t accurately settle the matter whether it was the lectins or GE process that introduced damaging toxins into the small number of laboratory rats that consumed the lectin-containing potatoes. If the pro-GMO community was so concerned about the negative outcomes and publicity, why didn’t anyone reproduce the study with clearly presented, standard methodologies and proper controls?Analogously, why are there not more rigorous studies countering the possible toxic implications of Roundup Ready soybeans on reproductive outcomes, as asserted by Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose laboratory methods were also said to lack proper controls, and whose work was not subjected to rigorous peer review? Lemaux’s treatment of allergen issues similarly suggests the need for more diverse testing of Bt corn varieties. Finally, it would appear to be a no-brainer that GE of plants as pharmaceutical delivery vehicles should avoid common food crops, in order to prevent any possible contamination and unintended entry of pharmaceuticals into the food supply chain. Even “The Grocery Manufacturers of America urged the USDA to restrict plant-made pharmaceutical production to non-food crops” (Lemaux 2012:131). Her conclusions, that “In deciding whether the crop should be grown in the field the focus should be on possible consequences of such mixing” can be taken to suggest that this focus is not yet implemented. Her final point, on global production of GE crops, also raises alarms: “The potential use of a wider range of organisms as sources of genes to introduce new traits and the creation of GE crops and foods by countries with less rigorous regulatory structures present new identification and safety assessment challenges for foods” (p.133).

Then there are the “who benefits?” and “who takes the risks?” questions. A multi-disciplinary Wisconsin case study of Healthy Grown potatoes, which use GE traits to lower needs for chemical inputs and thereby lower toxicity scores admits: “The economic advantage to the grower, packer, or other parts of the potato industry is uncertain.” The researchers assume “Transformed varieties will certainly incur license fees for seed and other potential costs.” In addition, if pest-resistant potatoes raise production through greater efficiencies, this likely would cause prices to fall, with no certainty that consumer demand would increase to make up the difference. This would decrease profitability, although one might argue, on the positive side, that reduced expenses for inputs, and reduced exposure to pesticides are pluses. (p.207) (All these points are taken from the chapter: Bussan, Alvin J., Deana Knuteson, Jed Colquhoun, Lary Binning, Shelley Jansky, Jiming Jiang, Paul D. Mitchell, Water R. Stevenson, Russell Groves, Jeff Whyman, Matt Ruark, and Keith Kelling. Case Study. Healthy Grown Potatoes and Sustainability of Wisconsin Potato Production. Pp.192-211.)

Loss of biodiversity in major food crops is also a persistent issue recognized among proponents. Whereas in the US, within less than a decade, Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant, Roundup-Ready (RR) trait had been inserted into more than 1,100 local varieties of soybean, which had been selected by farmers and breeders over the years to “optimize yields and other product properties specific to local conditions,” such rapid GE breeding facilities are not routinely available in developing countries, where “When a transgenic trait is not available in a local variety, a farmer must switch to a generic variety in which the trait is available. This switch is likely to result in yield and other losses. Farmers trade off gains from the trait with losses from the generic variety.” Only where the proper “incentives” are available will “seed supplier … add the transgenic traits to local varieties” ; that is, “where the necessary genetic materials are available at low transaction costs and where there is sufficient technical capacity to backcross or modify local varieties at relatively low cost” (p.256) Although these conditions may be met in large producing places, such as the US, China, and India, “Concern regarding lack of technical capacity may lead to the introduction of only a few generic transgenic varieties in Africa, unless that capacity is upgraded.” Such observations are consistent with GeneWatch reports indicating pressures on seed stores to sell transgenic varieties and concerns about reductions in biodiversity. (p.256). Concerns about co-evolution of pests, including Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-tolerant weeds are also acknowledged as management challenges that emerge in the proliferation and expansion of GE crop plants (p.257). All these points are raised in the chapter by Graff, Gregory D. and David Zilberman (2012) “Agricultural Biotechnology. Equity and Prosperity”, pp.252-266.)

Hopefully Lemaux will continue to explore and communicate new findings on the ways GE crops can be part of sustainable food systems. (Lemaux, Peggy G. (2012) Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply. In The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply. Eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper. Pp.122-140. New York: Cambridge University Press.) Her frustrations at being unable to commercialize products that she has developed in the lab, are chronicled in a 2014 Berkeley Science Review interview (Gadye, Levi (2014) GM to Order). This journalist’s piece identifies new breeding technologies, including CRISPR gene-editing techniques, as possible solutions, which can circumvent corporate intellectual property rights and high patent and licensing fees that keep university scientists from moving useful, targeted products to market. These innovative gene-editing techniques take GE products out of the hands of Monsanto and a few other domineering corporate conglomerates and potentially have wide applications across a range of crops. Targeted species include vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava that have proved more difficult to genetically-transform and regenerate consistently to deliver traits of interest.

But these innovative techniques continue and possibly raise the risk-monitoring concerns that currently constrain university and other scientists and technologists, whose reasoning will not automatically dispel public distrust and questionable understandings of science. High profile GE salmon and Campbell Soup’s recent decision to label all GMO ingredients should contribute to a flavorful and simmering stew for 2016.

 

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Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 1)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

GMO deception cover

Krimsky, Sheldon and Jeremy Gruber, eds. 2014. The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know About the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

This collection of short essays, most taken from the anti-GMO watchdog newsletter, GeneWatch, provides a thirty year documentation of the wiles of Big Ag agrochemical and seed operations, which now dominate US agriculture and increasingly, the rest of the world. GeneWatch and its Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit non-governmental organization, since 1983 have been dedicated to monitoring biotechnology’s social, environmental, and ethical consequences. Here you can read and reflect on their evidence and arguments, and draw your own conclusions, which the editors intend should replicate theirs, which assert that past through current developments in ag-biotech are a credible threat to future food, environment, and society in the US and the world.

If you enter these readings with a mind-set already made up that Monsanto and its corporate competitors and co-conspirators are untrustworthy, you will find all the reference points to document your positions. If you were pro-GMO and have been following the controversies, you will encounter studies, like Hungarian-Scottish scientist Arpad Pusztai’s claims that selected lectin (protein) from genetically-engineered potatoes sickened laboratory rats, that you probably questioned, because you wondered at the methodology and the conclusions, which were announced prior to view or vetting by peer scientists. But you will also engage troubling essays that compellingly argue that there needs to be much more holistic analysis of genetically-engineered products in wider and longer-term farm, field, dietary, and nutritional contexts. Martha Crouch’s “Patented Seeds vs. Free Inquiry” clearly documents Monsanto’s unwillingness to let independent scientists run experiments to determine biological values, such as levels of glyphosate in pollen and nectar, from fields sown with their Round-up Ready (herbicide tolerant) soybeans. Probing questions of “who benefits?” versus “who bears the risks?” pervade most of these essays, which strongly support the views that corporations predominantly enjoy the rewards whereas the considerable risks are borne by the farmers, seed stores, and consumers who cultivate, sell, or ingest their products.

If you were resisting polarization on the issues, and trying to find ways to make genetic-engineering science and technology more friendly and compatible with agroecological methods, these essays, as a set, will prove discouraging. Their individual and overall messaging indicate that corporations, led by Monsanto, deal in deception. These large seed-chemical conglomerates, furthermore, control government regulators; as lobbyists, they write most of the legislation and regulations. More fundamentally, most of these essays argue that it is unrealistic to expect genetic engineering (GE) to help solve agricultural and ecological problems because GE science-and-technology is simplifying. Seed-chemical constructions seek one or a few stacked genes at a time to resolve what are complex moving targets and agricultural challenges. Although GE experimental research can help pinpoint genes, biochemical processes, pathways, and gene-products of interest, the resulting information and materials are best applied through marker-assisted breeding, where the pleiotropic effects, or unanticipated consequences for the whole plant-in-ecosystem, can be more completely studied and controlled. This is as close as proponents get to a “middle” path that spans the arguments on both poles.

Personally, as someone who favors a middle path, I did not come away convinced that GM foods are unsafe or unhealthy for people or livestock to eat, which is the argument of the essays in “Part 1: Safety Studies: Human and Environmental Health”. But I already endorse arguments for labeling (Part 2), think that much more should be written about GMOS in the Developing World (Part 3), worry about the risks of corporate control over agriculture and associated limitations on more holistic research (Part 4) and corporate dominance of regulation, policy, and law (Part 5). Essays on “ecology and sustainability” (Part 6), some newly written for this volume, and the ethics of GMOs (Part 7) are thought-provoking, especially for those who challenge ungrounded assertions that genetically-engineered plants and animals are critical for eliminating world hunger. World hunger is largely caused by social, economic, and political factors, and not amenable to a technological fix, which ostensibly threatens to increase local to global inequalities. These ethical debates spill over into Part 8, “Modifying Animals for Food”.

The editors of this volume, philosopher Sheldon Krimsky, and environmental (legal) activist Jeremy Gruber, would like to relegate the future of genetically-engineered food to the dustbins of history. But this is unlikely to happen because there are so many economic and political investments in biotech industry profiting from deceptive claims and promotions. An appendix of “Resources: What You Can Do About GMOs” lists 23 research and advocacy organizations that will make sure the polarization continues and ten lively, but by now outdated volumes on perils of genetic technologies. The Foreword, by seasoned consumer advocate Ralph Nader, sets these essays firmly in his “consumer take action” camp.

Sheldon Krimsky has just published a meta-analysis of the health consequences of genetically-engineered foods. He finds no consensus, as alleged by proponents, that GMO products are safe. This is the next chapter in his “GMO Deceptions” writings. The editors are also updating the paperback edition of the book, which contains new links to activist organizations.  (Krimsky, Sheldon 2015 An Illusory Consensus Behind GMO Health Assessment. Science, Technology, and Human Values, pp.1-32. Sage.)

 

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