Talk presented at Light Millennium’s event, Celebrate Food, Knowledge, Health, and the Environment”
at Julie Mardin’s Photography Studio.
Part of The Light Millennium’s Issue #30: “Freedom of Information in the Genetically Modified Age.”
October 25, 2014
Question of GMOs
Jennifer ROBERS-BROWN, PhD
Julie Mardin’s compelling artwork challenges us to not only think about what is in our food, but also our own role in the future of food production. If we had the time today to fully tackle this challenge, we could examine farm life, public policy, corporate ownership, the role of technology, restaurants, advertising, and all of the other work involved in getting food to our table. Additionally, for most people in the world, food is not only consumed for sustenance, it embodies cultural rituals and plays a central role in everyday interactions within communities and families. For this presentation, I will talk about the current debate around genetically modified food and push us to complicate the GMO debate beyond human health.
What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Genetic engineering of seeds often involves modifying or inserting genes into a plant in order to enhance resistance to pests, shelf life, and nutritional quality. As opposed to natural hybridization and traditional breeding of seeds, genetic engineering is done in a laboratory where the seed is altered quickly and at the cellular level.
The GMO Debate
Jon Entine published an article in Forbes (Sept. 2014) declaring the GMO debate over in light of evidence that shows no health and safety risks from the consumption of GMO foods. In particular, Entine pointed to a recent study by Eenennaam and Young in the Journal of Animal Science. They found that 95% of the 9 billion animals produced annually in the US for human food consumption are fed genetically engineered crops, and the nutrition of their meat and the health of these animals are no different than animals that do not consume GE crops. Jon Entine considers this evidence of the end of the GMO debate. According to him, if these animals are healthy, then human health is also not at risk. What do you think? Does the debate begin and end at health and nutrition? This is not what I found when I interviewed Mexican farmers and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, civil society organizations, and farmer advocacy groups) who work on the question of GMOs.
I argue that the so-called debate around GMOs is dependent on social, political, and environmental context. For those of us mostly concerned with our health, then we will look at evidence around GMOs and health. However, for the farmers who pick the produce, they may ask questions about pesticide use, water usage, and the cost of patented seeds. For indigenous communities in southern Mexico, the concern may be about biodiversity, and the cultural and spiritual meaning of altering indigenous seeds. We cannot declare the debate over if we consider context and the intersectional issues of biotechnology in food production.
Let’s first set the stage with CONTEXT – It is often said that in order to feed our growing planet, we must turn to technological innovations, like GMOs, to increase food production, add shelf life, and increase nutritional value. If GMOs can do these things—as we’ve seen through increased yield of corn in the field and vitamins added to fresh vegetables—then maybe we can feel better about a world where, as the UN World Food Programme says “There are 805 million undernourished people in the world today. That means one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.”
What else gives us CONTEXT? Let’s consider the situation of industrialized food production. We live in a world that relies on a global industrial system of food production, where most of our meat is produced on large farms with intensive farming practices. These practices increasingly rely on a corn-based diet. This diet is supported by corn that is predominantly genetically engineered.
Neoliberal free market policies also give us a better picture of the global CONTEXT of genetically engineered crops. Policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up trade barriers between Mexico, the US, and Canada starting in 1994. Trade liberalization led to a shift in corn production from the smaller, rural farms in Mexico, to the large agribusiness, capital-intensive fields in the United States. Farmers protested in Mexico and even formed the Sin Maiz No Hay Pais (Without Corn there is No Country) campaign to petition their government to stop the influx of inexpensive genetically engineered corn and soy from the United States. Farmers and farmer advocacy groups claimed NAFTA and the influx of US corn drove 2-3 million corn farmers off their lands, threatened the biodiversity of their indigenous corn varieties, reduced farmer autonomy, and decreased the nutritional quality of local tortillas7.
Now that we have the CONTEXT, I’d like us to consider the INTERSECTIONALITY of GMO production. In other words, what are the intersecting issues? On one level we have the age-old debates around health and safety of genetically engineered foods, but I believe that if we look at the global supply chain, examine the stakeholders involved, and consider our environment, then health is not enough of the question.
There are a variety of intersecting issues. For example, research shows that the US public is not just concerned about health, they are also suspicious of the role of the biotech and food industry. When Monsanto designs a new seed, such as a genetically engineered corn seed that is Round-up ready, they are able to patent the seed. As owners of the patent they can sell the seed to farmers and sue farmers who grow the seed without purchasing it. When I spoke to farmers in Mexico, some were concerned what this meant for their autonomy and for their long-held tradition of seed saving. When corporations own the seeds, we see a reduction in farmer autonomy and less respect for indigenous knowledge. I have found that corn symbolizes religious heritage and tradition for Mayan peoples, and that technological modification (in a laboratory, rather than in the field) is seen as a threat to economic stability and indigenous practices.
Another level of INTERSECTIONALITY is the issue of biodiversity. What does the planting of genetically engineered seeds mean for the future of other plants? Industrialized food production relies on monocropping. Large scale monocropping leaves very little support for the wide variety of other versions of that crop. The production and distribution of produce on a global scale relies on monocropping to produce enough food so that we can get a banana, an avocado, a papaya, year round and anywhere we happen to be. Additionally, the impact of introducing genetically engineered seeds in vast monocropped fields in the United States may have different concerns than biologically diverse areas of Mexico.
Another INTERSECTIONAL level is water and pesticide use. Charles Benbrook in 2012 found genetically engineered crops led to a 7% rise in the use of pesticides from 1996-2011. In particular glyphosate, a weedkiller better known as Roundup, led to a rising number of weeds that are now immune to glyphosate. This in turn has led to more pesticide use. Zobiole and his team in 2010, found that water efficiency was significantly decreased in glyphosate-resistant soybeans. Therefore, the use of herbicide and insecticide resistant crops has increased pesticide use overall, resulted in resistant weeds and led to more water use—all at a time when climate change and water shortages are front page news. Not to mention what this pesticide use means for the people who pick our crops, for our ground water supplies, and for streams that receive run-off from these farms.
This brief intersectional analysis has gone beyond the question of health, to consider issues of water usage, biodiversity, pesticide use, farmer autonomy, and the role/power of transnational companies. What can you do with this intersectional background information, and a context of world hunger and unequal global food production? How can the public invoke their collective power and encourage democratic participation in the often veiled process of technological innovations in our food production? At one level we can work with NGOs and consumer interest groups, we can also vote when our states have pending laws about these issues, and we can also seek out important debates—such as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s lawsuit to block the rollout of Dow’s latest weed killer—Enlist Duo (a combo of 2,4-D and glyphosate). Additionally, I encourage you to learn about the emerging use of nanotechnologies in food production and preservation8. I don’t believe there is an easy solution here. We live in a global system that relies on new technologies to keep production going full speed ahead. But we have to ask who benefits and who loses in this global system and with these new technologies. It is not an easy question or an easy answer.
For the Video program of the event and above talk
Photo Album of the event