Something I often wonder about is whether all the bad food industry practices that occur in the USA also take place in Australia. I’m a big business sceptic, so I assume they do….without really knowing. I’m going to start using this blog as an excuse to research some of them and develop a few ideas I have a little further.
The first example that crossed my path recently is that of GE (genetically engineered) crops/food. A lot of doco’s I’ve seen make reference to these – particularly soybeans and corn – in the USA, and here’s a brief outline of the problems as I see them, from my knowledge gained in the films.
GE crops are grown from a seed that is resistant to a pesticide which kills everything else in it’s path. OK, there’s the first problem – the crops rely on pesticide use to be grown. I am firmly pro-organic and anything that promotes the use of (invariably synthetic) pesticides is unhealthy in my book. In a broader sense, large scale cropping (which includes GE) has an over-arching issue of dependence on fossil fuels – through power for machinery, fertilizer and pesticide use. I buy organic food because I believe all the chemicals used to grow non-organic food are unhealthy for both the planet and my body.
Health concerns are the second major problem with GE crops. Science is divided, again seemingly into two groups that align with whoever supplies the funding for the research. Despite what the industry-backed science might say, I’m skeptical that GE has no adverse personal effects. I guess this issue comes down to ‘who to trust’ again. I feel that short-term studies miss out on long-term effects. Are there studies from the 50’s showing that high sugar consumption is OK? I’m not sure but willing to guess not, and I’m sure today’s diabetics will be unhappy with yesteryear’s scientists for that.
The third major problem, and the one of biggest outrage to me is surrounding the intellectual property of GE crops. The pesticide resistant seeds that are in a field of GE-whatever are patented by the manufacturer, so farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year rather than practice traditional methods of seed-saving from one year’s harvest to the next. If the farmer harvests a GE seed, and plants it the next year, he has created a product that is owned by the original manufacturer – and is in patent violation. Of course, the pesticide that is used to enhance the field’s weed-free status is made by the same company that supplies the actual seed – and so begins corporate dominance over small farmers. Farmers have a choice whether to plant GE or non-GE seed, but nature doesn’t stop at man-made fence lines, so contamination occurs and it seems rather easy for a non-GE farmer to have GE seed blown in from a neighbours property (just one of the ways), which brings on another patent violation law suit. This is just one of many bullying tactics used by the chemical giants to dominate the market. When GE soybeans started in the USA in 1996, they had a 2% market share, by 2008 it was 90% – that situation is only good for a handful of people within a few companies rather than the majority of the world’s population.
Ironically, this is the argument most commonly used by pro-GE (and increasingly pro-conventional or ‘anti-alternative’) folk – namely ‘this is how we will feed the world’. By appealing to our inner humanitarian, the companies’ propaganda machines play quite an effective hand. I see a few problems with arguing that GE crops are the best or only way to feed those starving in the world. Firstly – this thinking assumes that we can’t feed the world now, which is nonsense. As a planet we grow enough to feed every person alive – no-one should go hungry, but politics continues to allow it to happen. Growing a GE crop instead of a conventional one in Somalia will not reduce their starvation rates, but removing barriers that make it cheaper to buy first world grains than their home grown one will. Secondly – GE promoters claim they will feed more mouths through increased yield. Again depending on who you believe, this has be shown to be a fallacy – yield might increase in the first few years after switching but reduces to original rates over the medium term, 20 years or so. Thirdly, as mentioned above, it just doesn’t seem sustainable to me to be relying on crops that rely on fossil fuels. Lastly, it smacks a little of desperation to feign compassion for the starving – as often the only time anyone mentions this argument is within this issue. Anyone who mentions this and is not vegan, has no children (or at least one adopted from a starving country), and actively presses politicians to remove subsidies, is hypocritical in my eyes and probably cares more about ‘winning’ the discussion rather than feeding the masses. Yes, I care about the starving millions and it’s a horrible situation but I’m not going to pretend to solve it by planting a GE crop.
So, where does that leave Australia? So far, there’s just canola and cotton grown using GE, but there’s trials for more including wheat. I’ve signed a petition on this issue and actually got a response from Tanya Plibersek (I’ll try to attach it somewhere here sometime). But I’m going to need to do some research and I think I’ve written enough for today….so more in Part 2. In the meantime, if one is interested, these guys are where I’m going to start the researching.