Category Archives: food policy

Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Media of Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.

This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade.  It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products.  The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry.  The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables.  There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations.  This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud.  Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions.  Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.

These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms.  There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them.  The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste.  Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks.  There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods.  Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim.  E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.

Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262).  Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place.  They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food.  Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain.  Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics.  The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values.  Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?

You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics.  The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.

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Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams, http://ebadams.com/.

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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What FoodAnthro Is Reading Now, May 18 Edition

A selection of items from around the internet of possible interest to readers of FoodAnthropology. If you have items you think our readers should read, send a note to LaurenRMoore@uky.edu or dberiss@uno.edu.

Historian and food writer Rien Fertel has just published a new book about whole hog barbecue culture and history. You can read his moving chapter on the life, smoking traditions, and fate of Ricky Parker, one of the pitmasters, here.

It turns out that the lobbying groups/boards that represent commodities like pork, milk, beef, eggs, etc.—do not think they should have to reveal information about their activities to the public, despite being quasi-governmental organizations (overseen by the USDA).

So it should not surprise anyone that a cartoonist (and farmer) who did political cartoons for Farm News was fired after apparently being too critical of Big Ag. The New York Times covered this here. A more in depth analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review is here.

What happens if Congress changes the way it measures community eligibility to serve free meals to all school students? We may soon find out.

Does industrial chicken processing count when people say they want more manufacturing jobs in America? If so, they may want unions and health regulation with that, because otherwise they may need to wear diapers to work. Health conditions and bathroom breaks in the poultry industry, as reported by Oxfam.

Is urban agriculture the key to sustaining and reviving our cities? Here is a useful interdisciplinary overview of studies on urban agriculture from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Want to struggle with the nature/culture divide? Or do you prefer watching the FDA and NPR do the heavy lifting? Read this.

How did food studies become respectable? And why? An overview from Australia, in which anthropologists are recognized for having led the way.

At some point, we need to write something here about food related museums. But while we wait, here is an overview of the International Banana Museum, which is improbably (or maybe not, given the sort of museum it is) in California.

Last item for today is either indicative of the next paranoid health trend or is merely absurd, but in any case cries out for research by anthropologists. Getting your microbiome sequenced, because…well, you might find out something useful. Probably not, but you might. (Meanwhile, check out the American Gut Project, which is doing crowd sourced science related to your microbiome.)

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ASAP 2016 Graduate Paper Prize

An award announcement from the Association for the Anthropology of Policy, of possible interest to graduate students:

The Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP) invites submissions for the 2016 Graduate Paper Prize. ASAP awards a prize of $250 annually for the best graduate student paper on any aspect of the anthropology of policy.

Papers must be based upon original ethnographic fieldwork. A committee of three ASAP board members will read and assess the papers based upon the originality and depth of their empirical research and their contribution to the field; organization, quality, and clarity of writing; and cogency of argument. A condensed version of the winning paper will be published in the ASAP Anthropology News column and linked on the ASAP website.

Manuscripts should be sent to Jennifer Hubbert (hubbert@lclark.edu) as MS Word files, double-spaced, with one file for the text itself (with author’s name removed) and another file for the cover page (see details below).

General eligibility criteria:

  1. Students must be in a degree-granting program (including MA or PhD) at the time of their submission.
  2. Students must be members of ASAP.
  3. Paper must be the original work of the student and previously unpublished.
  4. Paper must have been written in the current 2015-2016 academic year (i.e., since August 2015)
  5. Limit of one submission per student.

Manuscript format criteria:

  1. All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced.
  2. Maximum length for the body of the text 7,000 words.
  3. All submissions must follow the standard anthropological format for citations, endnotes, and “References Cited” as outlined in the American Anthropologist style guide.
  4. Authors must include a title and an abstract of 250 words or less on the first page of the paper.
  5. The author’s name, mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, university affiliation and academic status (MA or PhD) should appear typed on a cover sheet separate from the manuscript. The author’s name should not appear elsewhere on the manuscript.
  6. The paper must be submitted to Jennifer Hubbert by April 30, 2016. No late entries will be accepted and submissions will not be returned. Outside of the award itself, comments on the papers will not be provided to authors.
  7. Entries that do not conform to the above requirements will not be considered.

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Slow Fish Report: On Value Chains, the Privatization of the Seas, and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Last month I wrote about the existence of the food movement, which a Washington Post writer had suggested did not really exist. I can now confirm that the movement exists. I saw it myself.

A few weeks ago, I participated in “Slow Fish,” a conference organized by Slow Food. This had all the trappings of a movement. My name tag said that I was a “delegate,” as if I was attending some sort of seafood United Nations. It sort of felt like that, or perhaps like a revolutionary assembly of food activists. Slow Fish takes place every two years, historically in Genoa. This year was the first time the event was held in North America. Participants, including fishers, fish mongers, fish transporters, fish processors, chefs, activists, scientists, and students came from all over the world, but the majority seemed to be from the U.S. and Canada. They were there to discuss the state of the world’s fish and fisheries, as well as the environmental, economic, political, and cultural context that turns fish into food for millions of people.

I did not think of myself as any kind of fish expert going in, however I live in New Orleans, where fish and seafood are central to our culinary life. One of our local restaurants has the slogan “friends don’t let friends eat frozen fish” and devotion to local seafood is serious.

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Of course, I also know that our local fishing industry has been in trouble for a long time. Competition from imports, conflicts over environmental regulations, disasters like the 2010 BP spill, coastal erosion, and more are making it increasingly difficult for fishing families to make a living. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but even in New Orleans, there are restaurants and grocery stores that sell mostly imported seafood.

These contradictions are probably a good reason for holding Slow Fish here. But it is easy to get caught up in our local debates and to lose sight of how the issues we confront are similar to problems elsewhere. I went to the event in search of the kind of global perspective that Slow Food could provide.

That slogan about friends and frozen fish, for instance, could probably use some revising. The point, for the restaurant that uses it, is to assert the value of eating local fish. So I was surprised to hear Slow Fish delegates argue for eating fish—often frozen—from hundreds of miles away. This was part of a discussion of “value chains,” a concept used to focus attention on the entire process of catching and distributing fish. My relationship with a fisher at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market means that I can be relatively certain of the origins and quality of the seafood I purchase there. I can also assume that the fishing family I buy from is receiving most of the revenue from my purchase. That relationship is a value chain, albeit a rather short one, in which I can have confidence because the participants—the fishing family, the market managers, and, of course, me—are all people I trust. But these chains can be longer, with processors, distributors, and retailers between the fishers and the customers. The value chain, however, only works as long as information and relationships involve actual people. Rather than put one’s confidence in the supposed efficiencies of the anonymous market, the value chain concept suggests that we should only trust seafood that comes from and through people we trust, people who can assure that the food meets the Slow Food standards of “good, clean, and fair.” This emphasis on the relationships between people, rather than on the product, makes perfect sense from an anthropological perspective. And hearing the discussion at Slow Fish reminded me of related anthropological research, perhaps most notably Susan Andreatta, Barry Nash, and Gretchen Bath Martin’s work on seafood distribution in North Carolina.

Along with rethinking distribution, Slow Fish challenged my ideas about the source of fish—the sea itself. I had long assumed that the world’s oceans were open territory, where fishers roamed more or less at will in search of their catch, limited mostly by the territorial rules of governments and environmental regulations designed to preserve fisheries. It turns out, however, that some of those regulations have led to a kind of privatization of the seas, through which a combination of corporations and environmental organizations have managed to reshape regulation and control of fisheries. Some of the most intense discussions at Slow Fish focused on “catch share” programs. Although details seem to vary, the central characteristic of these programs is the regulation of fisheries by establishing quotas for different species, which are divided up among fishers, boats, or organizations (another term for this is “individual fishing quotas”), who can then catch the species. These systems are often represented as an efficient way to protect fisheries while also limiting some of the more dangerous aspects of commercial fishing. Catch shares are sometimes available for sale, lease, or trade, so fishers may opt to sell their rights and temporarily or permanently leave the business. Environmental organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, are supporters of catch share programs, as are promoters of free market solutions for social issues, who see this as a way to bring market efficiencies to an environmental problem. NPR’s show “Planet Money” did a piece in 2015 that explains some of the reasons why people may support these programs.

Among the fishers at Slow Fish, however, opposition to catch share programs was fierce. Criticism focused on the idea that catch shares were leading to a sharp reduction in the number of people who could make a living fishing. They insist that this market-oriented model is leading to a corporate takeover of the seas. Instead of individual fishers or boat owners each fishing a share, the shares have, in some fisheries, been bought up by owners of fishing fleets, or by corporations. In some cases, fishers are hired to fish leases for those corporations, creating what was called a kind of fishing “serfdom” at Slow Fish. There have been some recent scandals involving owners of large numbers of catch shares. The displacement of local fishers, the transformation of fishers from small business owners into fishing sharecroppers or deckhands on corporate boats, and the disruption of efforts to eliminate bycatch (species that are caught accidentally, often perishing before they can be returned to the sea) were among the many questions raised about catch share programs. This article from The Bay Citizen provides a detailed analysis of the programs and of the criticism leveled at them (and cites anthropologists Carolyn Creed and Bonnie McCay, who have published work related to these issues).

One of the main themes at Slow Fish was the idea that small scale fishers, processors, and distributors should be able to make a living. Establishing value chains was presented as one way to achieve this goal, while resisting the privatization of the seas was another. It is worth noting that the fishers and activists at Slow Fish did not oppose all regulation or even all the catch share programs. Rather, they were more concerned with making sure that such programs focused on creating situations that allowed a human—as opposed to corporate—scaled commercial fishing industry to thrive.

There were, of course, many other issues discussed and questions raised at Slow Fish, more than I can account for here. Fish farming, aquaponics, fishing gear and related regulations, conflicts with sport fishers, efforts to popularize so-called trash fish, stories of fishing families, fish processing, fish politics, etc., were all on the program. On some deep level, of course, the event was not really about fish—it was about humanizing the relationships between producers and consumers of food in ways that challenge a system that is otherwise dominated by anonymous markets and large corporations. And this, it should be clear, is what a food movement looks like.

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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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