Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed

2008-07-29

in Books and literature, Economics, Law, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Writing

This collection of essays, edited by Vandana Shiva, varies considerably in tone and degree of novelty. The manifestos themselves seem ham-fisted and loaded with unsupported assertions. It is not that no convincing case can be made for many of the arguments raised; rather, the authors simply choose not to do so. It is an approach that will win them few converts. In general, the book contains a number of positions towards which I am sympathetic: that patents on living things are highly dubious, that the present food system is unsustainable, that the agricultural policies of most states are inappropriate and often immoral. It simply manages to convey most of these points in a shrill and off-putting manner: the kind of voice that makes you take an opposing stand almost by reflex.

Most of the authors seem to profoundly misunderstand the nature of the global trade system. As with so many other blanket anti-globalization activists, they seem to think the WTO is some kind of wicked and powerful entity, enforcing its will against states. It is more accurate to say that it is an imperfect vehicle for trying to create some trade rules formulated on something other than economic and geopolitical power. It is a goal rarely achieved – how could it be? – but a worthy one nonetheless. Similarly, the WTO does not impose outside restrictions on the kind of food safety laws states can adopt. It simply requires that the same standard be applied to domestic producers as importers. You cannot reject beef produced using recombinant bovine growth hormone abroad while allowing domestic industrial agribusinesses to use the same substance. Naturally, if you are big and economically powerful, you can more or less do as you like (witness WTO rulings against American maize subsidies, for instance).

The book also seems to be a bit short of real content where genetically modified organisms and antibiotic resistance are concerned. Both naturally raise important questions of health, safety, and ethics. The nuances of the discussion, however, are poorly served by a book that asserts that the Green Revolution was actually harmful to the world’s poor. Genetically modified organisms could certainly produce adverse outcomes. At the same time, they might be able to help us reduce our dependence on toxic pesticides, reduce the carbon emissions associated with shipping and refrigeration, and deal with the consequences of climate change. Similarly, while there is much to lament about current global trade practices, the kind of protectionism advocated by most of the authors is unlikely to help either the poor or the sustainability of agriculture. What is necessary is that the total social and environmental costs of economic activities be borne by the relevant parties: not that food is grown in a particular place, domestic producers receive preferential treatment, or that the world re-fragments into disparate economies.

While the book doesn’t really make it, there is an excellent case for a global transition to new forms of agriculture. Important elements include replacing vulnerable monocultures with resilient polycultures, sharply restricting the use of antibiotics, reducing the intensity of fossil fuel use, and otherwise taking into account the many social and environmental costs of agriculture that are ignored when it is undertaken in an industrial manner. There is likewise a very strong case to be made about reforming the global intellectual property regime. It is extremely dubious to be able to patent a gene that you have moved from one creature to another. It is similarly dubious to sell seeds on a ‘licensed’ basis, where they can only be legally used for one crop.

In the end, it is hard to see who this book is for. It doesn’t contain enough substantive argumentation to convert anyone – though there is one good essay written by a local foods grocer, railing against both Walmart and Whole Foods. It likewise does not contain a viable plan for changing the nature of the global food system. Here, Michael Pollan seems to adopt the most reasonable position: accepting the popularization of organic and local food as progress, while others angrily reject them as insufficient. A book that helped to enlarge that beachhead, while providing some strategic direction towards a genuinely sustainable global food system, would have a lot more value than this short, flawed text.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 11, 2008 at 11:41 am

By contrast, relatively little GM investment is going into the crops that do matter to poor farmers—cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut. These crops are more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to the local soils and often-tough climates of poor nations. Yet, because poor farmers can’t afford high-tech seeds, GM companies have little incentive to invest research dollars to improve “marginal” crops. Instead, they focus on the money makers: According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, just four commercial crops—corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton—account for 85 percent of all GM crops planted worldwide.

. August 18, 2008 at 10:43 am

A prince’s dream: Far-fetched fairytale or a real future of food?
Prince Charles sparked controversy when he expressed doubt in GM crops
Posted by Meredith Niles (Guest Contributor) at 2:52 PM on 15 Aug 2008

The British royal family is no stranger to controversy and media attention, but Prince Charles caused a new kind of worldwide media flurry on Tuesday when he sat down for an exclusive interview with the Telegraph (U.K.). This time around, though, it seems unlikely the media story will be covered by the British tabloids since the Prince of Wales didn’t discuss his sons, his love life, or even his future reign as king. Instead, the Prince talked about genetically modified organisms, our food supply, and the future of food security for the globe.

. August 18, 2008 at 10:46 am

“And what about GMOs? Is Prince Charles accurate to note that they are an experiment with nature and humanity? The majority of GM crops are designed to resist herbicides and repel insects. Despite what some people may think, not a single GMO is commercially available that is designed to enhance nutrition, increase yield potential, tolerate drought, or manifest other attractive traits touted by the biotech industry. Rather, 82 percent of commercialized GM crops are designed to resist continual applications of herbicides. In reality, this means that GM crops are being developed to allow for greater pesticide use. In the United States from 1994 to 2005, there was a 15-fold increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate on soybeans, corn, and cotton, driven by adoption of Roundup Ready (Monsanto brand) versions of these GM crops. Use of other more toxic herbicides, such as atrazine and 2,4-D, is also on the rise to deal with the epidemic of weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate.”

. October 8, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Perennial wheat progress
October 8, 2009, 10:41 am

A week or so ago, Jeremy had an interesting post at the agricultural biodiversity blog on developments in the field of perennial wheat. Perennial wheat would be cheaper to farm than conventional wheat — less fertilizer, pesticides, sowing costs, tilling costs, etc. The advantages get even greater under some conditions when you look at factors such as increased soil moisture and soil carbon and reduced erosion. So perennialisation of wheat and other crops has lots of fans.

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