Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why I Still Don't Want Genetically Modified Food

Much modern farming less resembles gardening than strip-mining

A friend recently shared another of those articles “proving”—to the extent that science can prove anything—that genetically modified foods are perfectly safe. Perhaps they are, I don’t know. However, the article included multiple references to “conventional” agriculture, insisting that GMO foods are perfectly equivalent to foods produced through selective breeding, which we’ve enjoyed for years, and here I definitely know something. Conventional agriculture, as currently practiced, is deeply dangerous.

That seems controversial to say. Americans today enjoy the cheapest food in world history, quite literally: on your typical grocery run, you probably pay more for packaging than the food inside it. Massive technological investments constantly improve agriculture, improving yield and ensuring continued, affordable supply for whoever can afford it. Selective breeding has produced more fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grain than ever before. Am I calling this improvement dangerous?

That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I’ll offer examples. According to a recent Atlantic article, a single bull who lived in the 1960s produced so many offspring that fourteen percent of all Holstein cattle DNA descends from this one specimen. Anyone who lives in cattle country knows prize cattle semen fetches premium prices on auction. This bull’s DNA quadruples per-cow milk production, but also increases likelihood of spontaneous abortion in utero. Hardly an unqualified success.

Equally important, though, and something the article scarcely touches on: 14% of Holstein DNA is now genetically homogenous. This resembles the degree of crop homogeneity that preceded the Irish Potato Famine. The rise of genetically similar cultivars, some GMO, some developed through conventional selective breeding, has produced remarkable vulnerability to crop blight, resisted only through petroleum-based chemical pesticides and intrusive technological interventions.

Pigs don't live in pens anymore; this is where your pork comes from

One episode of the Showtime TV adaptation of Ira Glass’s This American Life features a visit to a contemporary Iowa hog farming operation. The selectively bred hogs raised here produce more piglets per birthing, and therefore more meat overall, a seemingly desirable outcome. But the pigs produced so completely lack native immune systems that they cannot survive outdoors. They’re raised in clean-room environments more restrictive than those used in silicon microchip manufacture, at massive expense.

So we have livestock so homogenous that they’re vulnerable to blight, so tender of constitution that they cannot handle the outdoors, and so expensive to raise that any output gains are offset by the extraordinary measures necessary to keep them alive. So agriculturalists are backing off these approaches, as reasonable people anywhere would, right? Of course not. A combination of government incentives and corporate marketing encourages increasing output, even during times of unrestrained surplus.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), marketed heavily by Monsanto and Eli Lilly, promises to increase milk outputs. This despite known health effects, including distended udders and pus in the milk, and suspected side effects—rBGH is a possible, but frustratingly unconfirmable, human carcinogen. And this also despite the fact that the U.S. government has purchased excess American dairy stocks and dumped them on the ground to prevent prices going into freefall. It has done this since the 1930s.

I use livestock as examples, because images of living creatures suffering tugs our heartstrings. But this pattern obtains across all farming: fear of shortfall justifies constant excess. According to agriculture journalist George Pyle, America grows twenty times as much corn as Americans could possibly eat. So most of the oversupply gets fed to cattle, making meat insanely cheap. But cattle cannot digest corn starches, turning their shit acidic, a perfect environment for toxic E. coli strains.

That’s saying nothing of the economic impact. When NAFTA became law in the 1990s, some Americans worried that manufacturing jobs would emigrate to Mexico, which somewhat happened. But when subsidized American agriculture hit Mexican markets below the cost of growing, rural poverty, especially in the agrarian south, hit record numbers. Mexican poor sought work where work existed: in the U.S. And Americans elected a demagogue promising to build a wall keeping those impoverished workers out.

Old McDonald had an assembly line, E-I-E-I-O
Corporations sell GMO seedstock by promising increased yields. Conventional farming currently produces enough food to feed 150% of the current world population, mainly driven by petroleum-burning equipment, with fertilizers and pesticides derived from petroleum. (The Rodale Institute estimates that farms currently produce more greenhouse gasses than cars.) When food is already so oversupplied that it’s cheaper than the packages it’s sold in, increasing yields makes no sense.

Yet, as George Pyle notes, American farm policy has assumed an imminent food shortfall justifies continual increases, ever since America devised its first farm policy, during the Lincoln Administration. One friend justifies continuing this approach because, he believes, near-future environmental collapse will require genetically modified foods to save the human race. Two problems: we cannot predict environmental outcomes any better than we could predict post-nuclear war conditions. And, Pyle writes, heirloom varietals are more adaptable anyway.

Starvation exists today, and chronic hunger exists close to home. But increasing supplies, whether through conventional or GMO means, makes little difference. People lack access to food, which usually means money. MLK noted, back in the 1950s, that fresh vegetables cost twice as much in poor neighborhoods as in rich neighborhoods. High-yield GMO seeds, often pitched to cure global famine, are expensive. People too poor to buy and plant heirloom varieties cannot trade up.

So basically, the demonstrable safety of individual GMO varietals doesn’t much matter. (Rampton and Stauber question that science anyway.) If they’re similar to selective breeding, well, breeding hasn’t been benign either. And they’re customized for an economic demand that doesn’t actually exist outside corporate PR. Yet the drumbeat of safety, quantity, and productivity has made these demands common coin. That’s just missing the point. Agriculture is hurting itself just fine right now, without gene technology’s help.

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