Category Archives: GMO food

Review: Eating Tomorrow

Eating Tomorrow

Wise, Tim (2019) Eating Tomorrow. Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. New York: The New Press. ISBN 9781620974223

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

This is a must read for economists, anthropologists, and consumers interested in the future of food, nutrition, and smaller-scale farming. Its distinctive focus is smaller-scale farmers, and their struggle to survive on their farms and to produce diverse, nourishing and affordable foodstuffs over and against Big-Ag and Big-Food in collusion with national governments. It represents the most recent entry in the “Food First!” themed books, which formulate the chief causes of world hunger to be “who controls the food system,” what crops are produced by what methods, and how available food is distributed. All center on questions of food access, not absolute shortage.

The individual case studies, covering Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); Iowa in the US; Mexico in Latin America, and India in South Asia, respectively address hot-button issues like destructive impacts of foreign direct investment (AKA land-grabs, especially in SSA), and environmental pollution of water, soils, air, plant and animal species and communities, that singly and together wreck farmers’ lives and livelihoods in rural communities across the US and globalizing world. A related theme is erosion of traditional land races of crops, especially maize, by introduction of genetically engineered, corporate controlled seeds in the US, Mexico, and SSA. These corporate invasions discourage or prevent farmers from saving and planting their own locally adapted, open-pollinated seed or locally produced and traded hybrids, and from adopting regenerative farming methods that lower requirements to purchase inorganic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing farm costs and raising farmer livelihoods.

The entire volume, and the Indian chapter in particular, voice a demand for change that will advance everyone’s human right to food over and against profits for a few. The related terms,“food sovereignty,” call for an end to dependency for farmers, farm communities, and nations and their governments, who should be attending more to “food security” and not subservient to corporate demands in setting food policies that demonstrably disadvantage small (and sometimes large) farmers and usually lower rather than raise production and income. Yet this is no mere political-economic diatribe savaging industrial, capitalist agriculture and showing the inevitable associated ills of globalized food systems. Instead, the ten chapters are based on four years of repeated research visits to the focal countries, where Wise interviewed and here effectively channels the voices of local food and farm activists seeking solutions to under-production and remedies to reduce corporate controls. These voices don’t always agree with each other, particularly around issues of organic practices and labeling, or the requirement for open-pollinated versus locally adapted and controlled hybrid seeds. But they share the common characteristic that they oppose world capitalist dominance of their seed selections and soil maintenance practices, which speaks to the overarching issue: who controls the food system? They oppose conventional high-input, business-as-usual agriculture or more advanced molecular breeding techniques because these approaches are dominated by mostly outsider, agribusiness interests that collude with governments to dominate food policy and constrain more self-reliant, resilient ways to farm and eat. These locally and nationally grounded researcher, producer, and consumer associations, in short, put people and democracy first, as they seek new ways to deliver new life to farming and farmers, and in the process, help their communities and nations regenerate healthier foodstuffs, diets, and livelihoods.

The book is superbly written; throughout it shows the influence of Frances Moore Lappe and politically progressive colleagues at the Small Planet Institute, a spin-off of Food First—Institute for Social and Development Policy, which contributed physical, intellectual, and spiritual space in the forms of dedicated research assistance and a constructive writing environment where Wise shaped his arguments. The results are ten carefully organized and well-documented chapters sewn into a unified whole that seamlessly adopts Food First’s World Hunger: Ten (Twelve) Myths format, without articulating the formal structural repetition of this myth-demolition rhetoric. Like Lappe and her team, Wise, a well-seasoned, food and development policy journalist, artfully practices the craft of activist research and advocacy. The text flows, enlivened by the individual interviewees’ voices, juxtaposed with clear, common-sense explanations of scientific-technological procedures like hybrid plant breeding and use of cover crops to nurture soil regeneration. As he illuminates Big Ag industry domination of state-run agricultural research and extension institutions in country after country, he renders these multi-disciplinary analyses and understandings easily accessible to the non-expert reader or consumer.

These essays, originally published in shorter form as blogs, present well-organized, first-person national food-policy case studies that combine interviews with farmers, scientists, policy makers, and business persons with national statistics showing the several ways un-democratic processes skew food production, choices, supply and demand. They make the book well worth reading and using for discussions of food policy not only in university classrooms but in social media and community venues more generally. In particular, I found chapter 6 on biofuels (“Fueling the Food Crisis”) a succinct history and political-economic account of this issue. Chapter 3, “The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Land Grab in Africa” exposes the multiple players, including China, who dispossessed small farmers in Mozambique. Farmers in this country (and elsewhere) have also fallen prey to predatory and ill-advised Jatropha plantings for bio-fuels. These are projects that failed to yield returns on investment to outsiders but never return land to grow food to the original subsistence and market cultivators, with the result that former cultivators and affected market consumers go hungry.

There are two energizing Mexico chapters, one on GMOs (especially corn) and the second on NAFTA’s impact on Mexico’s family farmers. In each case, activists sprouted around the country to make maize a unifying political cry for food security, food sovereignty, and the human right to food — Sin Maiz no hay pais!. At least in the short term, class action suits and court cases, plus political demands for change, kept GMO maize officially out of the country, and sought additional agricultural protections in re-negotiation of NAFTA terms. The conclusion foresees continual struggle of small farmers against big corporations, but hope’s edge (to borrow the title of Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe’s 2001 book) in democracy and the people’s mobilizations, which Wise has witnessed the world over, and the potential power of these food-related associations to change damaging courses of development.

These illuminations to one side, food anthropologists and other knowledgeable readers will likely identify, in each chapter, assertions that suggest Wise’s technical and social understandings are incomplete, and in some cases, elitist. Take the sentence “Everyone knows that Mexicans don’t want anyone to mess with their tortillas.” (p.192) It serves to drive home the theme of chapter 7, “Monsanto Invades Corn’s Garden of Eden in Mexico,” which is a carefully developed essay on the dangers GMO maize and transnational corporate dominance of food pose to traditional Mexican maize farmers, culinary practices, indigenous and other consumers of local cultural, maize-based diet, and maize biodiversity (because Mexico is a center of origin and diversity in that crop). Mexican anthropologists have managed to get the traditional maize-based Mexican diet classified and protected as a UNESCO cultural heritage of humankind. The original motivation for this UNESCO designation, however, was not merely GMO maize, but the widespread deterioration in the quality of tortillas even without these new varieties. The publicly subsidized corn products, machine made from inferior, cheaper, (sometimes imported) maize prompted low-income consumers to seek wheat alternatives, which the government also subsidized, as equally if not more palatable staple sources of cereal-grain calories.

Wise wisely shares with the reader the luscious, local indigenous-product based high-cuisine meal he enjoys at a top Mexico City restaurant (in the Hilton Hotel) run by a celebrity chef. His palate is delighted by traditional vegetables and sauces, accompanied by tortillas (it goes without saying) hand-made from top quality indigenous maize. But the food-insecure Mexican masses he cares about cannot afford to eat this way, and some of the details of the meal’s ingredients (cooked ant-egg sacs for specialty flavors and textures) reveal a tendency on the part of elite Mexicans to conserve as high cuisine traditional indigenous foods that most indigenous Mexicans, long suffering in the countryside, can no longer find or, as impoverished consumers in urban areas, afford to eat.

Among the SSA examples, the case of Malawi underemphasizes the role of government in collusion with grain-trader corruption relative to Monsanto (now merged into Bayer—how quickly the named, accountable identities of corporate boogey-men change). A key concern for democracy-watchers during one good harvest year was the government of Malawi’s non-transparent transfer of maize to Zimbabwe or other corrupt heads of state, who used this “food as a weapon” strategically to consolidate or maintain power. Such anti-democratic goings-on are not addressed directly — only in a phrase asserting that in one year maize production was sufficiently high to allow Malawi to export grain to hungry neighbors! The chapter on land-grabs in Mozambique, summarized positively above, lacks a fuller political contextualization describing the land-holding and farmer situations arising from the legacy (e.g., land mines, human displacement and dismemberments) of civil war (which is mentioned in passing).

But this is not to argue that Wise should or could completely address all relevant questions and contexts in a volume of less than 300 pages. Overall perspectives for further development include: “what role will (traditional) staple foods play in future food?” and “will people continue to farm mixed crops that include cereal grains, grain legumes, and vegetables, so that they maintain healthy traditional food patterns?”   These are questions that can be raised for Mexican, Central American, and other maize-eating populations, especially in SSA, but also for traditionally rice-eating nations, like Japan, who for decades have been consuming more wheat and other non-endogenous staple foods.

Such issues accentuate, and do not diminish, the value of this text, and the need for additional, ground-level case studies of local organizations, their results in measurable agricultural practice, and their influence on national food policies. From beginning to end, Wise hones his theme that ultimately all producers and consumers need and want healthy food products, clean water, and a food environment that will be resilient in the face of climate change: “All are striving for the same thing: the right of everyone to eat safe and healthy food today while ensuring that we steward our natural wealth so we can all eat tomorrow.” This message puts human beings, particularly small food producers, along with their soils, water, and seeds at the center of advocacy for healthy food, and makes everyone responsible for ensuring everyone’s right to food. He brings the discussion back, time and again, to the radical economist’s directive not just to follow the money but also investigate who benefits, which in these cases are transnational seed and chemical companies and their national co-conspirators who compel small farmers to buy these seed and chemical products or exit the land. The message, as ever, is timely and urgent, and calls for readers to gain greater exposure of those in the battle for food-justice on all sides and at all levels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, agriculture, anthropology, food activism, food security, GMO food, Mexico, United States

Review: GMOs Decoded

GMOs Decoded

Krimsky, Sheldon. (2019) GMOs Decoded. A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 161 pp. + 9 pp. References Cited. Forward by Marion Nestle. ISBN 9780262039192

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

“What risks are acceptable and at what cost?” (p.14). These are the motivating questions of scientist-philosopher Sheldon Krimsky’s latest writings on GMOs, for which his findings can be summarized: much remains “uncertain.” As a corollary, he questions the widely touted “scientific consensus” of the benefits and safety of GMOs, rejected by European publics and policy makers who resist more widespread GMO approval and usage in the absence of greater certainty. This short book considers what additional evidence must be supplied before he and other skeptics would join the consensus.

The book is well organized. In an eight-page introductory overview, Krimsky lays out recurring questions that characterize the debate pitting GMO proponents against opponents, then chapter by chapter clarifies the logic of the frameworks, arguments, and evidence favoring one or the other viewpoint. Chapters 1 and 2 define and explicate, respectively, “traditional” vs. “molecular” plant breeding, and chapter 3 evaluates the “differences … and their significance for evaluating crops”. The next four chapters consider the evidence for qualities and safety of “early products in agricultural biotechnology” (Ch.4) and Herbicide-Resistant, Disease-Resistant, and Insect-Resistant crops (Ch’s 5-7). He explains how initial products included Calgene’s high-solids content, delayed ripening tomato, which was produced by “antisense technology … a small step in the move toward genetically engineered (GE) crops. No new genes were introduced into the tomatoes: the gene for one enzyme was removed and inverted” (p.34). The selected agronomic traits, by contrast, were constructed by engineering gene-transfers into multiple crops. Krimsky’s critical risk assessment comparing and contrasting molecular versus traditional breeding encompasses all GE.

Chapters 8 and 9, “Genetic Mechanisms and GMO Risk Assessment” and “Contested Viewpoints on the Health and Environmental Effects of GMOs” systematically probe the many uncertainties that still surround these manipulations of plant biology, genetics, and transformations, after more than thirty years of scientific evaluations. Krimsky is selective in citing sources for his skeptical analysis; for example, he finds particularly useful three points raised by David Schubert, a geneticist at the Salk Institute: (1) the same gene introduced into two different types of cells can produce two very different protein molecules; (2) the introduction of any gene can change gene expression and phenotype of the recipient cell (and by extension, organism); and (3) enzymatic pathways that synthesize small molecules (e.g., vitamins) can interact with endogenous pathways and produce novel molecules. All serve to question whether “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) or “substantial equivalence” evaluations are adequate to judge identity and safety of GMOs (pp.69-70). Krimsky additionally uses Schubert’s uncontested scientific reasoning to argue that all products produced by molecular breeding, including gene editing that does not involve foreign gene transfers (GMOs), should be safety- regulated by method of breeding rather than final product. This is because molecular breeding entails potentially more unexpected changes in the new GE product; new molecules or enzymatic pathways resulting from genetic introductions or rearrangements may not be so easily recognized by the laboratory or commercial breeder who is not looking for such variants. U.S. and European authorities largely disagree on how to respond to all these uncertainties. U.S. regulators have moved more quickly in the direction of deregulation of additional plant varieties and products that involve processes and outcomes that have previously been judged GRAS or substantially equivalent to conventional products whereas European authorities have decided to withhold safety approval until risks, including GE procedures that do not involve foreign gene transfer, can be exhaustively evaluated. Such contradictory judgments call for additional chemical-component compositional and ecological analyses, animal feeding trials, or both.

There follow three short chapters summarizing: (10) the arguments for and against GMO labelling, (11) the carefully balanced evidence and concluding uncertainties of the largely pro-GMO 2016 National Academies Study on agricultural biotechnology, and (12) “The Promise and Protests of Golden Rice,” the one crop designed to meet micro-nutrient nutritional needs of low-income consumers in developing countries. Chapter 13 shows where “Science Studies” cultural-political arguments against GMOs diverge from the preceding science, and provides a good summary of the social issues in which conflicting views on GMOs are embedded. These public and social-science positions can be summarized that (1) there is no value-free science so “it is neither unreasonable nor irrational for there to exist disagreements because the value judgments are not premised exclusively on scientific authority”; (2) non-scientists appeal to religion, folk wisdom, family values, among other “non-scientific beliefs … “ in their judgments; and (3) “individuals who are inclined to follow scientific advice exclusively on matters of risk and health benefits may accept the knowledge claims or statements highlighting uncertainty by outlier scientists who(se) … views fall outside the mainstream.” (p.xviii). Krimsky throughout embraces the principle that “The history of science teaches us that minority positions sometimes become validated and should not be discarded at the outset, especially when questions remain unresolved.” (Ibid). Carefully and thoroughly, he shows how GMO proponents have done their best to squelch any negative findings reporting risks, either of gene transfers into non-target crops, health damages to experimental animals, or unanticipated gene products and outcomes.

The final chapter summarizes answers to his initial questions. Scientists and the general public and policy makers disagree with each other on the risks and implications of GMOs, he concludes, because they are asking different questions and framing the issues and requirements for supporting information in different ways. Critical public discourses are not based exclusively or mainly on authoritative science, but motivated by cultural and political-economic, including “food sovereignty” considerations and public opinion. It follows that “science-based” evaluations on the safety and advisability of GMOs in general or specific food-crops in particular, can never satisfy all scientists or the public at large.

As someone who began exploring agricultural biotechnologies in the mid-1980s, with the motivating question, “what opportunities might GMOs present for ending world hunger?” I found Krimsky’s presentation both lucid and frustrating. As scientist and philosopher, he carefully defined terms and analyzed ecosystem, organism, cellular, and molecular dimensions of transgenic processes and products in exquisite detail. These specifics showed the relative controllability of each step in the transformation process, and indicated how uncertainties arise in GE products, outcomes, and impacts. New transgenic seed varieties that have been extensively but not exhaustively tested are attractive to farmers because they promise higher yields with lower labor, chemical, and environmental costs, which potentially raise incomes. As anthropologists, among others, have shown, such alleged benefits appear to atrophy over the longer term, because the pests particular transgenics were designed to protect against develop resistance, or the introduction of new GE varieties paired with agricultural chemicals raise new ecological challenges. These foreseeable consequences put the farmers and the product developers on a dangerous treadmill that, in addition to making farmers dependent on additional products of ever more concentrated seed-chemical companies, may increase, rather than decrease, chemical loads, costs, and damages.

The thoroughness of his hypothetical questions and answers, however, offer the reader little guidance to answer the overarching questions. How much information is enough? Complete biochemical compositional analysis might be desirable; but would anything less suffice? Scientists and policy makers obviously disagree about how much uncertainty is tolerable, so what should non-experts think? For example, he insinuates that animal toxicity studies are always flawed. Yet his uncertainty assertions keep harking back to animal studies that indicated GMO toxicity, but which have never been replicated. Similarly, how valid are assertions that new allergens must always be considered a threat in GE products because the scientific community understands and has identified only a narrow range? Polarization on the dangers posed by known vs. unknown allergens continues; Krimsky gives no guidance on how to negotiate this divide.

Some arguments against GMOs, which Krimsky cites as worthy, can also be applied to non-GMO agricultural innovations. Changes in soil microbiome composition, for example, could be expected to accrue not only from GMOs, but from all new varieties and many of the new non-GMO seed dips, whose aim is to transform the microbial mix and benefit plant growth in expectable ways. Most frustrating, I wished that Krimsky had considered more carefully the management and monitoring issues. As a case in point, the virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii not only required development of protective seeding materials by molecular breeders, but also precise and vigilant management. Planting strategies kept ringspot viruses at bay by positioning more and less vulnerable and resilient varieties that successfully created buffers to virus co-evolution.

On balance, I finished the book with a clearer understanding of the debates, renewed skepticism about the scientific consensus, but the above frustrations. Ultimately, I think GE will be limited by the unsustainability of particular products and processes and farmer push-back against Big Ag industry strong-arm tactics and influence on farmer decision-making and management. In addition, health and environmental claims against the companies that produce GE seeds matched to ag-chemicals like glyphosate can be expected to multiply, along with damages connected to excessive, injudicious, wider-spread, and longer-term usage.

Leave a comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, farming, GMO food

Some Pig

David Beriss

What is it we fear most in our food supply in the post-industrial West? Food shortages? Industrialized food? Genetic manipulation? Ecological disaster? Globalized food systems? The idea that we are either in or rapidly approaching some sort of food-related dystopia is certainly widespread, yet relatively hard to define. Wandering the aisles of American and European supermarkets, overflowing with astonishing plenty, it is hard to imagine what fuels our fears. Yet there is no doubt that many people have at least a nagging sense that something is deeply awry. There is a huge literature to reinforce those fears, of course, and a filmography to stoke our imaginations.

The film Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, puts many of our contemporary fears into one neat package. It is the story of a big corporation’s effort to develop and market a genetically modified pig in a way that will make it appealing to the masses (an effort remarkably similar to Chipotle’s little films). To do this, the company distributes baby pigs to farmers around the world, who will raise them for ten years. The pigs, now “localized” thanks to the farmers, would then be celebrated and turned into food. The film focuses on one pig, named Okja, raised in Korea by a young girl, Mija, and her grandfather, in an idyllic mountain setting. The fully-grown Okja dwarfs hippos, but frolics in the forest in a way that is reminiscent of a very large and exceptionally intelligent dog. In fact, Okja is clearly Mija’s companion and not livestock. This proves to be a problem when the corporation comes to collect the pig.

In addition to the first two elements of the food dystopia—the evil corporation that controls our food supply and the genetically modified animal—the film also depicts cruelty to animals by buffoonish corporate scientists and the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses. This being a neo-liberal horror film, the government is present only in the form of police enforcing the will of the corporation (although there are also private mercenary goons in the pay of the corporation, because that too is part of a good dystopia). Okja is taken by the evil corporation, first to Seoul, then to New York, for study, celebration, and marketing. Mija, determined to rescue her friend, sets off in pursuit. She is aided, and betrayed, by a group called the Animal Liberation Front. There is an element of Citizen Ruth in the struggle between the corporation and the ALF activists for Mija’s loyalties.

In the end, capitalism wins, although not in an entirely predictable way. The film is depressing, hopeful, and a little funny. There is no sense that Mija’s struggle to save Okja will prevent the coming food dystopia, even if she may get to carry on her idyllic forest farm life. The film points to the ways we are manipulated by corporations, as they greenwash their products so that we can feel comfortable buying them. It suggests that the efforts of groups like the Animal Liberation Front are engaged in a futile struggle (although this review, from the real ALF, suggests they do not see it that way). It also may raise the hackles of anyone engaged in food science. It might—or might not—be an argument against eating pigs.

No doubt everyone in the film gets what they deserve, except, of course, the pigs. Or maybe not. Show it to your students and see what they think. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it has been available through streaming on Netflix. Be sure to watch until the very end of the credits.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, film, GMO food, reviews

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.

1 Comment

Filed under agriculture, GMO food

Review: What’s So Controversial about Genetically Modified Foods?

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two reviews I have planned of this important new book.

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

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer (Tufts U)

On October 30, 2016 the Sunday NYT ran a large front-page article on the failed promises of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which have yet to demonstrate significant productivity gains or pesticide reductions for food producers and arguably raise risks of health or environmental harms for everyone.  Without argument, the increase in GMO seeds and related agronomic management practices have put more control over agriculture and the food supply into the hands of a few large and ever more concentrated ag-industry players and thereby reduced farmer and consumer leverage over their food resources.  As food and nutrition anthropologists are well aware, food is basic to social, cultural, and biological life, and therefore of utmost concern to most people.  It is in this context that increasing industry dominance over the food supply, intellectual property rights over genes and consumers’ lack of trust or trustworthy information about food have become the hottest food controversies in the US and many other places.  For proponents, GMOs symbolize that great possibilities science and technology plus global corporate management systems offer for improving agricultural efficiency and effectively reaching growing populations with nourishing food.  For opponents, by contrast, GMOs are symbolic of scientific arrogance and corporate greed; they encapsulate all that is wrong with twenty-first century, un-sustainable, unhealthy, and environmentally destructive food systems.  

Most non-experts are confused; they wonder what to believe about the claims and counter-claims regarding the health and safety of GMOs, including whether they should be embraced or banned.  This small-format volume, in 139 short pages of text, sorts out the major controversies surrounding genetically-modified (GM) foods that since the late 1980s have been “remaking the global food system.” The author, a sociologist, argues that GM foods epitomize the risks that industrial, Big Ag and Big Food control over world food systems pose to sustainable food systems. A virtue of these controversies is that, in the best of all possible worlds, they awaken consumers, producers, marketers, and regulators to the challenges of ensuring healthy and sustainable diets and food supplies now and in the future.  The most pressing issues concern climate and environmental change (including degraded soils, scarcer clean water, reductions in biodiversity), inequitable access to nutritious food, and poorer nutritional choices with harmful health consequences.  These elevated risks are connected to the economics and politics of food and agriculture, which find increasing concentration and vertical corporate control over globally integrated food-value chains from farm to fork. Anti-GM positions assert that solutions must be tied to greater citizen awareness, activism, and actions that can hold the private corporate sector accountable. Pro-GM advocates similarly call for greater citizen understanding of GM crops and foods to reduce unwarranted fears and anxieties. These issues need even more urgent attention in an era of rapid scientific and technological change, which includes genetic engineering of plants, animals, and foods that no longer fit the definition of GM because gene-editing (CRISPR technique) does not involve transfer of foreign genes between species, but instead re-arranges the organism’s own genetic make-up to eliminate unwanted and enhance desirable products or characteristics.

The focus on GM as opposed to the underlying issues, Lang argues, undermines attention to these essential core concerns, which he summarizes in four chapters: (1) “The Illusion of Diversity,” (2) Intellectual Property: Protection or Overreaching?” (3) “Scary Information? Labelling and Traceability,” (4) “Scientific Fallibility: Contested Interests and Symbolic Battles.”  The final chapter (5) articulates “the tension between idealism and doom” that characterizes social and cultural responses to perceived threats of the public’s loss of control over their food, which is basic to human biological, social, and cultural life.  He suggests that “getting back on track” will require all players in these controversies to attend to the real and present dangers, instead of flash points and conflicting self-interests.  

These immediate and longer-term threats include chemical pollution in agriculture; scarcities of land, water, and fertility in areas that should be producing food for local people to eat; and the need to have genetic and pest-response resources in place for the changes already taking place in the context of environmental and climate change.  This final chapter articulates the well-known “systems” adage that would-be correction of one factor in the food system usually raises another of equal or greater concern (e.g., conservation tillage reduces run-off and soil erosion but increases soil-surface phosphorus concentrations that can pollute waterways, raise algal blooms and cause fish die-offs).  It also homes in on the lack of consumer trust in those promoting or regulating GM foods, a focus that serves as a substitute for their more general lack of understanding and distrust of expert scientists and the government officials who oversee food safety.

Lang, who at the end admits to holding a “neutral” position on GM foods, sees the GM controversies as a chance to address the underlying inequalities in production and distribution, the lack of democratic control over food systems, and the challenges of global environmental and political-economic change.  Only through greater consumer education and activism, based on more transparent food systems, can more sustainable approaches to healthy nourishment and agricultural environments address these pressing challenges.   These generalizations, with supporting information carefully organized into focused chapters are the volume’s strength.  The lack of complete scientific clarity in accounts is the volume’s weakness. Its weaknesses are inadequate communication of the science and technology; the text misses the mark by not emphasizing that, despite no surprising findings of impaired health or unexpected environmental consequences (i.e., co-evolution of pests and higher applications of herbicides were anticipated) all future GM products must be evaluated for the new risk factors they introduce.   

As a bio-cultural anthropologist who has been tracking agricultural biotechnology since its beginnings, I found the introductory explanation of the GM process, which the author attempted to simplify, overly technical and unduly difficult for non-scientists to understand. His presentations of the major GM scientific publications and public-relations controversies were either incomplete or misleading.  For example, the Cornell study that showed Bt-corn-pollen-kills-monarch-butterflies was controversial because the scientists presented known, uncontroversial information (that Bt-corn pollen, if consumed by butterfly larvae, will interfere with their feeding so that they die) but did not clarify the risk that the pollen would be present and persistent on the milkweed, the preferred food-source of butterfly larvae that feed at the edge of GM cornfields. Lang summarized the controversy surrounding the findings of organ damage to experimental rats fed GM modified potatoes carrying a pesticidal protein.  He pointed out that Pusztai, the researcher who reported these scary findings to the media, not to his scientific colleagues for peer review, lost his job and professional standing, an outcome that Lang contrasts with the Cornell researchers, who were able to continue their work because they acknowledged the additional studies that might be required.  But Lang missed the opportunity to enlighten readers more about scientific method and standards of evidence, based on replication and verification of contested studies, which in the Pusztai case apparently never happened.  On the science and public—and  professional—opinion management, food and nutrition anthropology courses would be better served by a selected set of articles, beginning with Glen Stone’s “Both Sides Now” regarding polarizations, more recent writings by him and his students, and updates to my own writings on “food systems” analysis of ag-biotech, and country- and crop-specific case studies comparing, say, Food First’s (Institute for Food and Development Policy) and Monsanto’s treatment of the same issues.

Agricultural biotechnologies and genetically-engineered crops and foods are, furthermore, a moving target.  Already, the specific cases of industrial mergers and acquisitions are out of date.  Monsanto is not buying Syngenta, but is under purchase and sale scrutiny regarding its acquisition by the German firm, Bayer.  Syngenta now is under scrutiny in a proposed merger with Chem China.  The gene-editing techniques introduced by CRISPR promise to thoroughly revolutionize molecular breeding of crops, which use their own DNA without GM gene transfers, and so will be subject to a different regulatory apparatus.  China is positioning itself to be the largest player in molecular-based breeding and crop developments.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major facilitator in transferring technologies to the Third World and paying for transparent and trustworthy communications in the First World.  The book’s appendix on “organizations” lists seven sources of information (Codex Alimentarius, Council on Biotechnology Information, FAO, Greenpeace International, ISAAA, the non-GMO Project, and WHO).  Superior, up-to-date resources can be found on the U.S. National Research Council’s Genetically-Engineered Crops (2016) interactive website https://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/, which is searchable. An hour-long seminar presented by one of the NRC panel’s participants, Tim Griffin, clearly summarizes the findings, showing risks and benefits (no health or safety issues—yet; and no demonstrable intrinsic improvements in basic-commodity crop yields). It also emphasizing the need for constant vigilance (abstract and video available on-line at: https://nutrition.tufts.edu/event/2016-10-05/friedman-seminar-tim-griffin).  Another place to follow technical developments is Cornell University’s (pro-GM) “Genetic Literacy Project” (access at: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org ). Cornell also posts (free) on-line course websites, where issues can be studied along with the blogs of their anti-GM respondents, e.g., http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/10/05/cornell-faculty-refuse-to-defend-gmo-crops/ ).  

These sources ably cover the science-technology issues, but there is no comparable university or government website neutrally analyzing the social and ethical concerns.  The social and ethical issues, to the extent that they are discussed, relate more to human than food-crop genome-editing.  New CRISPR techniques promise to revolutionize crops tailored to hazardous environments and particular health risks.  New start-ups are endeavoring to engineer multiple components of soil micro biomes or mobilize a plant’s own genetic resources against pests or environmental perturbations.  But what are the implications for production and distribution of food crops that might reach those who are most vulnerable to higher temperatures and sea levels, undernourishment, and insecure livelihoods? In what ways might the priorities and products of genetic engineering improve equitable access to the nutritious foods particular peoples need and want to eat?  Do particular hungry places require genetically-engineered crops? Or do they need more democracy and socioeconomic access to land and livelihoods, that are being undermined by the very processes of globalization associated with GMOs?   It is this social-ethical gap in understanding that Lang’s book tries to fill. 

This is the second entry in the “Food Controversies” series edited by Andrew F. Smith, who authored the first contribution: Fast Food. The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry.  Responses to these writings can be productive and instructive, even or especially where one encounters inadequacies.

2 Comments

Filed under anthropology, GMO food

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.)

 

1 Comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food policy, GMO food, sustainability

Solving the World Food Crisis

IRAS image
THE INSTITUTE ON RELIGION IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE
Fifty-ninth Annual Summer Conference
Silver Bay, New York
July 27 to August 3, 2013
 

Co-Chairs: Solomon H Katz and Pat Bennett

Food occupies a central place in human life. Not only are its nutrients necessary for our survival, but feasting, fasting, and sharing are integral to our history, cultural identity, and religious traditions. Yet, today, and for the foreseeable future, nearly half of the world’s people cannot enjoy the fullness of their potential due to problems with food affordability, safety, and access. Serious problems with food production and price increases currently leave about one billion people experiencing hunger, and many of them facing starvation. Another billion spend over half their entire income on food, but still have only marginally enough to eat. Yet, concurrently, at least another billion people in the world are experiencing problems from consuming too much food and/or from dietary imbalances and safety problems that result in serious chronic diseases and infections.

Among the questions to be addressed at this conference are the following:

  • What are the origins and evolution of human diet and the food system, and how does this knowledge provide new insights about our contemporary food problems?
  • What is the status of world food resources? How does it relate to macro and micro food problems locally and nationally in the United States and throughout the world?
  • How does food serve as a symbol and a substance of various religious traditions? Has the loss of social traditions surrounding food production, preparation and consumption contributed to the problems noted above?
  • How can the human food system be made more sustainable? How can healthy diets be safely and economically made available to all humanity? How can new scientific and medical knowledge optimally help with sustainability, safety, and access?
  • What are the tensions created by climate change; population growth; demographic change; global trade and commodity pricing; market and business forces; water management; energy resources; food to fuel; new GMO technologies; agricultural practices; land use and agricultural practices; increased meat, dairy, and egg production; food sovereignty at local, national, and international levels; increased socio-political interests; and the demands for human rights and just food policies?
  • What secular and religious ethics and values can help to balance and/or solve food problems at all levels of the food system? What human and institutional resources are now available or need to be developed to catalyze meaningful solutions to food problems?
  • What are the potentials of a combined science and religion approach to achieving sustainable solutions to world food problems?

One of the conference’s aims is to derive, develop, and disseminate a statement of principles for achieving sustainable solutions to some of these issues, based on such a combined approach;  and to issue an accompanying call to appropriate action at personal and communal levels.

An IRAS conference is a rather unique interdisciplinary experience, combining serious cutting-edge talks with many opportunities for in-depth discussions and workshops, as well as relaxed, informal conversation. Most speakers spend the entire week at the conference, giving plenty of opportunity to follow-up points over coffee and meals. Also, since conferees represent a wide spectrum of disciplines in the sciences and humanities, as well as coming from many different religious traditions, discussions are eclectic, stimulating and sometimes robust! And alongside the hard work of thinking and talking, and our traditional reflective sessions, there’s plenty of less serious stuff to enjoy too – music, art, laughter and jokes at Happy Hour, and all the rich and varied recreational facilities on offer to us guests at Silver Bay.

The deadline for poster proposals is April 19, 2013 and for workshop proposals is May 6, 2013. Visit the conference website for additional information, including a list of confirmed speakers that include several SAFN members.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, Call for Papers, culture, economics, farming, food policy, food security, Food Studies, foodways, GMO food, markets, nutrition, obesity, sustainability