Friday, February 25, 2011

Bittman and GMOs

Mark Bittman, the notorious NYT food columnist/writer, Luddite, elitist, and nauseating proponent of doing your homework and applying rigorous common sense, has been stirring the stew regarding whether we should be notified about the presence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in our food, or not.

The stew is bubbling quite a bit, in response. (In case you can't tell, I admire him quite a lot.)

I have something to add to the stew, which is a little crude (and I don't have time to do a re-write) but which is to the point.

Below is an essay I zipped off in October 1999, as a heartfelt response to picking up a Future Farmers Of America newsletter, and finding that what was then being dubbed "biotech"; which includes GMOs, was being presented to high school kids as the certain, and bright, future.

It's a big topic. I'll let the conversation start here. This, incidentally, is my bit mentioned long ago in "once and future topics" on "where have all the mammoths gone?"


Why Biotech Has No Clothes

I’ve noticed a highly disturbing trend recently; the Biotech mavens, pushers, junkies, and corporations have stolen a march on those few of us who would like a little calm discussion before completely destroying the bottle that once held the genie.

If you take a look at any publications aimed at our mainstream agricultural youth, you will find article after article stating that Biotech is our only hope to feed our growing world.

No discussions. Just the flat statement: there is no alternative. Occasionally an interviewee will have the grace to preface the statement with “I believe...” . But what always follows is: “ we simply have no alternative if we don't want people to starve to death.”

And the kids are receiving this wisdom from above quite cheerfully, even willingly passing it on, to those outside the farm community who couldn’t possibly understand the internal necessities and holy mission of the food system.

Population control? Don’t be ridiculous. And shut up about China, they’re still godless communists, and horrifying. Don’t try to tell me they’re just people, like us, struggling to deal with a near impossible problem.

Questions about who benefits from Biotech? Huh? Obviously, corporations would only do what is good for all of us. Why, just look at what wonderful things have already been done for dairy farmers! They’re so much better off now that Biotech has increased milk production; and the vets have so much more work to do, too.

What is happening now is in fact an echo of an earlier phase of human development.

I can hear precisely the same argument going on about 10,000 years ago.

“Our tribe is expanding! We will simply have to hunt more, and longer hours.”

“And with this new tool our hunters have developed, the wonderful Bow, so much more powerful than the quaint old spear-thrower, we can clearly feed all our people!!”

“Look, there’s that herd of mammoths we’ve never been able to harvest before!! After them!!”

Meanwhile, some moron in the background was mumbling “Gee, look at all the grass. And all the grass seed. Sure, a grass seed is smaller than a mammoth, but, there really is a lot of it. I bet we could eat grass seeds.”

Echoes come: “What an amazing, ludicrous idiot! We’ve always been mammoth hunters, and always will be! He’s just a damfool dreamer; no concept of hard reality. Besides, nobody would ever want to eat that stuff; we eat mammoths. Always have, always will. Period.”

Luckily for you and me, once that very last herd of mammoths was eaten, someone remembered this idiot.

We’re in the same place now. We’re about to run out of mammoths (soil and water), the women in the tribe are pregnant, and the mammoth hunters have a new tool. Soon our soil and water can be remembered in museums, right beside the mammoths. And the whole world can look like Iraq, the birthplace of agriculture.



(Being polite and kind people, we will refrain here from pointing out that the wonderful bow, over the years, has killed vastly more men, women, and children, than it ever did mammoths. An excellent tool, the bow; very powerful. Alas that tools have no conscience of themselves; the sharp knife cuts anything; neither knowing nor caring what it cuts, or who is wielding it. So who is the conscience to be for the new Biotech bows? Giant multinational corporations? Ah, well, that’s all right, then! Thank goodness.)

(We will also quietly refrain from pointing out that the “world will starve” statement is a lie, and a myth, used very effectively to make people feel guilty about arguing. The world has a tremendous surplus of food, and will for a long time to come. So much we burn tons of food to fuel our cars; so we can drive to the lake, to play on our jetskis. People do starve; but not because the world has no food for them; they starve for political reasons, and because of a lack of timely compassion. The World is NOT hungry; the World is mean.)

(In fact, while Biotekkies proudly state that they will be able to increase production of crop x by as much as 5%! (gosh) the fact is that in the 3rd World, sometimes 30-40% of each year’s crop production is WASTED. Lost. It rots, after harvest. Due to inadequate storage facilities and systems. Yes, it really is that much; almost never less than 20%. Unfortunately, there is no real money to be made by helping developing nations build appropriate transportation and storage. Nor scientific careers and reputations.)


Anonymous said...

Well said that man. Only two posts into this blog and I like it already.

The corporations are trying to get us to forget that we don't need genetically engineered food: we've got quite enough variety without it. Oh, except that in the EU it's technically illegal to sell unregistered seed varieties and it costs a fortune to register them, so only corporations can afford it.

Handy that...

esp said...

I lurk over here quite a bit, and enjoy thinking about what you have to say. I'm delurking to thank you for the link to Badgersett, as I was just today thinking about ordering some nut trees for the (sub)urban homestead.

Elizabeth said...

A long time ago, 1992 to be exact, I was working on a paper for my Microbiology class - just getting a lowly BS in Biology in a small, public Fine Arts school in Alabama - and the topic I chose was genetically engineering plants to "improve" them - even then it was overwhelmingly clear that it wasn't being thought through - scientists were pointing out a myriad of examples in which we had messed up certain ecologies by applying our latest and greatest. Even then they were discussing how adaptable insects and diseases were - that we could end up destroying what we sought to improve. In 1992. Information that a 3rd year undergraduate college student could easily find, read and understand. It breaks my heart.

Anonymous said...

hmm... agree mostly
(nice metaphor an' all)
but - i wish that grass seed eating idiot was forgotten or eaten or something

With all the wanders of "progress" it's hard to wish for more, and the grain was/is a giant part of our civilization.

I would think that after the mammoth was eaten we would have been better off partly dying off instead of finding new and new and new and new eco-niches to destroy. The surviving cavemen would have done much better resetting and going at a slower more thoughtful pace.
But that's just wishful thinking - we are still a bunch of amoeba eating clean our petri dish until we multiply out of existence.

etbnc said...

Elizabeth's comment seems to me to point toward a pattern of thinking and a pattern of behavior that consistently leads to a pattern of bad outcomes.

Unfortunately the outcomes often are time-delayed to the point that folks cannot recognize their causes.

Alice Y. said...

I like. Where are your figures from about food wasted in 3rd world, please? I would like to follow that up. (Interested in problems that open source hardware designs may be able to help with.)

Greenpa said...

AliceY - The numbers on spoilage are pretty broadly distributed; mostly mine were taken directly from the UN, which keeps a huge public database on agricultural statistics.

It's been a few years since I dug through this, but it should all be in there, including spoilage. Warning- you need to stay on your toes to make sense of it; some countries reports are wildly distorted, for all the reasons you can think of. Even so; this is usually the best data source available.

Note; this is just PRE- processing waste. There have recently been several studies showing that another 50% of food is wasted- AFTER processing and distribution. Both 1st and 3rd world.

No kidding.