Category Archives: agriculture

CFP: Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

We have received the following call for proposals from David Kaplan, which may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers and researchers:

Call for proposals:  Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, 2nd edition. Eds. Paul B. Thompson (Michigan State) and David M. Kaplan (University of North Texas)

We are accepting contributions on the ethical dimensions of food, agriculture, eating, and animals. Entries should be 2,000 words (min) to 4,000 words (max).  Deadline for proposals: September 1, 2017

Contact David M. Kaplan (University of North Texas), David.Kaplan@unt.edu to indicate your interest. Dr. Kaplan will send you the Table of Contents.  Please suggest a topic (and a title) that is not included in the list.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 21, 2017

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

As the Trump administration nears its 100 day mark, it is worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees spread out over 29 agencies, regulating parts of an industry that contributes around $992 billion to the U.S. economy, is still without a confirmed leader. Lack of leadership has not stopped the Trump administration from acting, however. For instance, a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have protected the rights of farmers to sue corporations for whom they raise chickens and hogs has been suspended for six months—and possibly permanently—much to the dismay of some of those farmers. The unconfirmed nominee has had a hearing, with mixed reviews, as you can see here and here.

Also on agriculture, but on a more global scale, the Lancet has recently started an open access online publication, “The Lancet Planetary Health,” that will focus on “human health within the context of climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity, food and nutrition, sustainable fishing, agricultural productivity, environmental exposures to contaminents, waste management, air quality, or water and airbourne diseases.” The first issue is worth a look. It includes an editorial about the role of smallholder farms in the global food system and several related articles.

And while we are still thinking about agriculture, take a look at this article and short film about a form of urban agriculture that is rarely discussed. The focus here is on farmers in Guangzhou, China, who continue to farm even as their village has vanished around them, replaced by endless rows of skyscrapers. This process is an old one, but watching this raises a lot of questions about food, culture, and the future of our food supply.

There has been a lot written about American barbecue cultures and racism in recent years. This New Yorker article, by Lauren Collins, focuses on the particularly bitter history and present of Maurice’s Piggie Park, in South Carolina. Collins does a great job of unpacking the nuances of this particular story in a way that would make for a great discussion starter in a class on…food, racism, American society, or the country’s political present. Alas, this is an article about barbecue that may cause you to lose your appetite.

From the UK, we have this interesting observation about a new restaurant in Seattle that will feature foods from the American South…served with an “encyclopedia” that explains the cuisine. The idea is to combat racist perspectives associated with the cuisine.  Food that insists you think.

Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but who looks at how it gets to you? This episode of the podcast Bite focuses on an interview with Alexis Madrigal, who has his own podcast series on the world of containers and shipping. In this instance, he discusses the place of small batch coffee in the world of enormous containerized shipping. The way this shapes the world of food is really so huge that it is hard to fully grasp. You should listen to this; it is where much of what you eat comes from. Also, the podcast starts with a brief segment on Indian cooks in America who are thrilled with their Instant Pot electric pressure cookers…which ought to be inspiring for anyone who has one.

Many people are distressed at the demise of Lucky Peach, which provided a place for all kinds of food writing that was hard to find elsewhere (at least in an accessible format). For an example of why, read this amusing (yet possibly serious) article on the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. Also, if you draw, you could join the Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Why are so many people being asked to work for free? This has been a crisis in the arts for a while, of course. Internships, mostly unpaid, seem increasingly necessary for college students before they can hope to start developing careers. Unpaid labor is also an important part of the world of food, with cooking school graduates and other aspiring cooks often engaging in “stages” (one of the culinary world’s words for “internship”) in restaurants. How useful is this? How exploitative? Is it even really legal? Corey Mintz explores these questions by looking at the astonishing extent to which the world’s most elite restaurants actually depend on unpaid labor.

The hipster food world is in love with mobile food vendors, perhaps best represented by trendy food trucks. Along with trendy trucks, a lot of food vending happens in carts that sell nearly every imaginable food.  This very useful article by Tejal Rao illustrates a day in the life of a New York City food vendor. His food looks great, by the way, but it is the result of hard work and what look like terrible economics.

In the realm of obscure-but-fascinating items, historian Paul Freedman provides this brief overview of the history of food at private clubs. The article includes lists and photos of current specialties at a variety of clubs around the U.S. One might expect the food to be rarified and elegant, but the photo of macaroons with Halloween candy corn suggests otherwise.

Finally, the first round of the French presidential elections is this Sunday (4/23). The outcome is anything but certain and, depending on your politics, you may need a drink afterwards. A French friend recently sent a clip from the movie “Le Tatoué,” with Jean Gabin and Louis de Funès demonstrating how to eat and drink with gusto. Even without faith in French politics, this should inspire everyone to have at least some faith in French cuisine, no matter the outcome. Remember this advice: “Manger des tripes sans cidre, c’est aller à Dieppe sans voir la mer.” Enjoy.

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Review #2: What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Foods?

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here

What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016

Jacket Image

Robyn Flipse (Nutrition Communication Services)

If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat.  A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.

Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world.  Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.

Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced.  Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand.  And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.

Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.”  He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.”  Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests?  This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.

The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies,  not just private industry.

The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?

Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?

Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed.  A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.

My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.

CITED REFERENCES

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017.

http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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CFP: Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems

A CFP of possible interest to our readers.

Call for Abstracts/Papers for Special Issue: Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems

Special Issue Editors: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Climate Hubs, groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us); Rebecca Schewe (Syracuse University, rlschewe@maxwell.syr.edu); Andrea Basche (Union of Concerned Scientists, ABasche@ucsusa.org)

Global climate change, driven in part by greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and associated land use change, is predicted to impact agricultural systems in heterogeneous ways. A multitude of external forces including agricultural policy and development drivers are pushing for both adaptation and mitigation strategies within the agrifood system. It is expected that global-and local-dynamics will affect agroecosystems, labor and market forces, food security, land use decisions, and climate policy. To better assess these dynamics, there is growing emphasis on interdisciplinary climate change research that examines how the context of climate change will influence adaptation and mitigation efforts in the agricultural sector and subsequent interconnected impacts.

We are seeking papers for a special issue of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (RAFS) focusing on multidisciplinary research that examines agrifood system responses to both projected and experienced climate changes. This special issue is a unique opportunity to present original research or review an emergent body of research, particularly by identifying linkages between agrifood scholarship and research on anthropogenic climate change. In addition to reviews, empirical, and theory-based research, we encourage submissions that incorporate applied efforts aimed at addressing problems associated with agriculture and climate change with particular interest in multidisciplinary projects and contributions from practitioners. Special issues generally lead to higher citations, which can assist authors in getting their work more widely read. RAFS also has an international reach and we hope to develop an issue that links scholarship on agriculture, food systems, and climate change across varied spatial and socio-political scales.

Manuscripts presenting a variety of research methodologies, including both qualitative and quantitative research, are welcome. We intend to publish research and review papers, as well as papers that fit the Journal’s other manuscript categories. Researchers with ongoing field research or early career scholars may be interested in “From the Field” papers, which are appropriate for early results and studies of limited scope. Another manuscript option are “Preliminary Reports” that report on highly innovative systems where little existing research has been conducted, which may be of interest to those doing work in alternative agricultural systems where there are limited data available with few replicated studies available to cite.

For more information on categories of articles accepted by RAFS: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems/information/instructions-contributors

We are open to relevant submissions, but key topics of interest for the special issue include:

  • Critical reviews and comparative analyses of large-scale climate and agriculture research projects
  • Explorations of shifting agricultural labor dynamics associated with social, economic, and ecological changes brought about by a changing climate
  • Comparative analyses of large scale interdisciplinary climate and agricultural research
  • Exploration of stakeholder decision making in the context of both adaptation and mitigation efforts in the agrifood system
  • Examinations of resilience and vulnerability as both social and ecological concepts in climate change and agrifood studies
  • Using an intersectional and/or climate justice lens to examine climate change impacts and policy efforts in agrifood systems
  • Multidisciplinary examinations of the social-ecological consequences of a changing climate on agroecosystem productivity (e.g., soil health, soil erosion, changing pest cycles and plant disease impacts, etc.)
  • Assessment of climate change impacts on agriculture and associated challenges to food security and/or food sovereignty efforts
  • Multidisciplinary research integrating both biophysical and social science data sets
  • Critique or analysis of current efforts to define “climate-smart” agricultural practices

All correspondence regarding abstract submissions to this special issue should be addressed to all three of the special issue editors (e-mails above) only. If you would like to be considered for this special issue, please send a 500 word (maximum) abstract of your planned contribution to the issue editors by February 15th. Provide a summary of the significance of the work, background or context, and methodology in the case of original research papers. Include any additional information you think is critical to consideration of your article.

Authors invited to submit should anticipate submitting a full paper by June 1st if your abstract is accepted. Full submissions that are accepted will be published online shortly after they are accepted, prior to publication of the special issue. Please note that all manuscripts will go through peer review and there is no guarantee that papers by authors invited to submit an article will be published.

Submissions and questions should be sent to the special issue editors Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Climate Hubs, groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us), Rebecca Schewe (Syracuse University, rlschewe@maxwell.syr.edu), and Andrea Basche (Union of Concerned Scientists, ABasche@ucsusa.org).

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Review: Chickenizing Farms and Food

Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Farmers and Consumers Ellen K. Silbergeld.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2o16.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Silbergeld, a medical scientist, became concerned about drug-resistant microbes in 1999, as a Maryland-based researcher and physician confronted with the problem. This volume, as she states multiple times in her introduction, “is not about food” but “how we got the agriculture we have now.” It outlines the steps that must be taken to protect workers and consumers against the drug-resistant bugs that industrial, mass-production ways of doing things have unleashed.  The introduction explains her stance and outlines her historical approach, which savages both the modern industrial producers and their opponents as insufficiently attentive to the challenges of producing enough affordable food to nourish a world of 9 billion while simultaneously protecting the public health all along the food chain.  Her story begins in the 1920s with the Maryland farmers’ scale-up of poultry production through systematic confinement of increasing numbers of birds throughout their short life cycles. It details vertical integration and concentration of marketing orchestrated by Perdue and Tyson, who recognized and seized the business opportunity to develop and then dominate industrial production of animals for human food.  “Chickenizing,” which included concentrated feed and antibiotics that supposedly enhanced growth, was soon imitated by swine producers and processors, who similarly exposed their workers and consumers to rapidly co-evolving microbes resistant to existing antibiotics.  

Silberberg’s solution to this public-health disaster is not small-farmers and local agriculture, but greater regulation and monitoring of corporate meat production.  She wants everyone to acknowledge that food and agriculture is an industry, which should be subject to the same strict human, as well as environmental-protection codes that regulate other industries.  At the very least, and immediately, pointless antibiotics should be banned.

In advancing this conversation, Silbergeld finds most advocates for small, organic, local farming annoying, if not wrongheaded.  On p.8 she protests that their passionate “support for small farmers because they are ‘stewards of biodiversity,’ protectors of the climate, and the core of rural communities” fails to convince: “Where’s the evidence that small farmers can feed the world? Even a medium-sized city?  At prices that most of the people—even in our relatively affluent country—can afford?”  Her self-righteous antagonists respond: “This is not about evidence…This is about which side of the future you are on.” Whereas she self-righteously worries about more immediate and mundane matters, like the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables and uncontaminated meats low-income people in crowded cities might be able to access in the absence of the modern food industry with its systems and economies of scale.  

Her chapters, which focus not on environmental sustainability, but on the various openings these systems create for hazardous microbes to contaminate food and destroy human health, are packed with observations and numbers describing microbe-filled wastes and their propensities to infect human beings: “Wastes are the major output of food animal production … Over its short lifespan of some 7 weeks, each chicken produces about 10 lbs. of waste, which is considerably more than the weight of a fresh broiler chicken at the supermarket (about 4 lbs.).  For swine, the amount of waste produced per hog also far exceeds its market weight of 200-300 lbs.  To reach that weight, each hog produces about one ton of waste. … Each American produces about 5 lbs. of waste a day or about 1,600 lbs. per year.”  Whereas “human waste undergoes stringent management…there is little regulation of animal waste management” because it is not a direct part of the food chain. (p.116).  After tracing the histories of concentrated but porous animal-production operations, the author describes in detail the process of antimicrobial resistance, the “collateral damage” to tropical forests and peoples cut down and reduced to urban penury in order to produce soy for animal feed, the inadequacies of hazard regulation of the food-chain (“have a cup of coffee and pray”), and the need to hold corporations rather than consumers responsible for food safety.  She singles out differential “risks of food borne illness” as a topic ripe for health-disparities research, and offers an evidence-based but less rigorous account of food deserts, cheaper but unhealthier products targeted at low-income consumers, and the unwillingness of large food processors or retailers to prevent or solve these problems. 

The conceptual outline of the penultimate chapter, “Can we feed the world?” could provide the basis for lively class discussions around the sub-themes, “what do we mean by ‘feeding’?”, “what is the world that we commit to feeding?”, “‘what’ are we to feed the world?” and “how are we to feed the world?”.  This last section returns to the theme of sustainability of people (workers and consumers), rather than food or environment.  She ultimately is unconvinced by the evidence that small organic and local farmers can feed the world.  Therefore, industrial agriculture is necessary but must be regulated.  This final focus on the food industry, in her concluding chapter, offers “a path forward, not backward” toward a regulated food industry that protects people as well as the environment.  But readers might reasonably protest that such strengthened and bolder regulations by federal, state, and municipal institutions are unlikely in the current U.S. political environment, where moneyed interests buy political influence to act against government regulations at multiple scales. 

The strengths of this volume are its clear presentation of concepts and evidence, lucid explanations of the supporting science, and spirited critique of both sides in the Big Ag/Food vs. Small/Local Ag/Food encounter.  The weaknesses are obviously the proposed solutions and their politics.  Moreover, there is surprisingly little attention to agriculture’s emergent “middle way,” the current explorations of the potentials of regional food systems to provide livelihoods, healthy food, and ecosystem services, and intermediate marketing mechanisms.  The author might have consulted more with the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, where Kate Clancy is a champion for this middle way, and where the author is a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy and management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

 

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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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