Thursday, December 27, 2012

The United States of Frankenfood

In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Yesterday, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal".  Today, it's all about food--frankenfood.

Frankenfood is a term used by many to refer to genetically modified food.  I posted several times this year on genetically modified food or GMO (genetically modified organism) agriculture.  Many countries are banning its use in agriculture and/or importation.  However, the United States has jumped aggressively into the strange world of GMO production.

GMO food production is an outgrowth of the biotech industrial revolution that began approximately 2 decades ago.  It coincided roughly with the economic breakdown of the family farm and the industrialization of agriculture in the United States.  Today, most of our food supply is produced in a highly industrialized and corporatized system that is very successful at bringing large quantities of inexpensive food to world markets.  GMO foods are a big reason for this success.

Despite protests, the U.S. public has
embraced GMO food.  Click for photo credit.
Nearly all the cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, and corn grown in the United States derive from GMO crops.  As one could imagine, the policy issues are immense.  Farmers are no longer allowed to save seeds because these highly productive organisms are patented.  Plus, we do not fully understand the impacts of the proliferation of these new organisms on the environment.  In many ways, we are living in the dystopian science fiction world that was only imagined by the likes of Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury.

I have always been an advocate of the precautionary principle when it comes to the environment.  It suggests that no action be taken on activities that have the potential to cause harm to the public or the environment.  In my mind, the jury is still out on GMO food.  I am not only concerned with policy issues and the safety of the environment and the health of people eating GMO crops, but also about the ethics of changing the genetic makeup of organisms that have evolved over millions of years.   In addition, I think that inexpensive GMO and corporatized food sets up class divisions around food in this country.  Many have mapped food deserts in the US where the only source of food is fast food or food from convenience stores.  Fresh local food is too expensive for many.  Non-GMO food is becoming an expensive luxury thereby making it difficult for individuals to opt-out of the GMO food system.

I know that reasonable people strongly disagree with me and believe that GMO food is entirely safe and appropriate.  Indeed, they believe that GMO agriculture is a solution to long-standing food supply problems.

That seems to be the public's sentiment as well.  As noted above, the vast majority of U.S. staple crops are produced from genetically modified organisms.  In California, often a bellwether state when it comes to environmental issues, a proposition to require the labeling of food that contains GMO materials was defeated by the voters in November.  Plus, just last week, the FDA approved the first GMO animal for food.  It is a salmon with genes of salmon and eel that grows twice as fast as a natural salmon.  

In some ways, this period of time is reminiscent of the 1950's and the rapid advance of organic chemistry and the proliferation of organic chemicals in pesticides and herbicides that were widely used across our country.  There was so much hope and optimism for a world improved by science and technology.  We came to regret the excesses of those days.  It is unclear if we will come to question our rapid leap into this new world of manufactured organisms.  For now, we live in the United States of Frankenfood.


Unknown said...

Bob, with all due respect, you sum up the critical issue in one sentence: "Today, most of our food supply is produced in a highly industrialized and corporatized system that is very successful at bringing large quantities of inexpensive food to world markets. GMO foods are a big reason for this success." With a world population of over 7 billion, it is not sufficient to decry technologies that achieve this goal without providing a viable and feasible alternative (along with rigorous analyses of the economics involved.

I also take issue with your statement that crop plants "evolved over millions of years." In fact, modern crop plants are the result of artificial selection and hybridization that has occurred over the past several thousand years (and in many cases much less), so in fact we have been "changing the genetic makeup of organisms" long prior to the advent of GMO technologies.

Third, I don't think the parallel you draw with pesticides is entirely appropriate. In fact, thee have been intensive research efforts directed at looking at the potential environmental impact of GMO foods; to date, I'm unaware of any that have substantiated the fears of the anti-GMO polity (although please correct me if I'm wrong).

Finally, can we agree to drop the use of "Frankenfoods" in serious discourse about this important issue? Even though "Frankenstein" is one of the great pieces of western literature, it has become trivialized by Hollywood and Italian film makers, to the point that use of a derivative of it suggests a good vs. evil dichotomy that is not the case here.

So overall, I come to the opposite conclusion that you do - to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, encourage but regulate. Feeding people must be our number one priority, and absent an alternative, to simply reject GMO technology is immoral and unethical. And I was very glad that the voters of Caifornia saw things the same way,

JoAnn said...

I disagree with the second writer view that we must concentrate on feeding 7 billion people. I would be advisable to address the underlying problem of over population. We are rapidly reaching the carrying capacity of the planet. More and more effort devoted to new GMO crops will be futile in the end if we do nothing about over population. One only needs to look at the many examples of species collapse due to overpopulation and then starvation. Our future is visible in the records of the past. Address overpopulation now