Monday, February 28, 2011

Industrial Food Systems Vs Vandana Shiva

Debates about food systems are very much in vogue at the moment.  These issues are especially salient because they include numerous linked corollaries, including everything from public health, legal issues, globalization, resource security, climate, social justice and others.  The industrial food systems that many Americans are dependent upon are in many ways non-sustainable, require food to be shipped thousands (limiting local resiliency in the face of crisis), are controlled by corporate interests who have hindered the ability of farmers to alter practices, and are contributing to obesity and other health problems.

Further, the industrial food system is further supported by a gargantuan program of subsidy that serves as a form of corporate welfare that further limits the extent to which medium and small-scale farmers (the very farmers the subsidies are said to be in place to benefit) can compete.  Things seem to be very much amiss within our wider food systems - problems that journalists and social critics such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, (the latter of who's work I have reviewed here) have brought to the fore of the general consciousness.

An especially controversial issue is that of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  GMOs have seen proponents and critics across the board.  Especially among scientists - there is little consensus.  Some scientists see GMOs as a means of improving both crop yields and food security, while others view them vehicles for continued corporate control of food production.  Some countries, notably France and Japan have banned GMOs and GEOs (Genetically Engineered Organisms) entirely.  There remain a multitude of questions around the genetic safety of GMOs as well as to the extent to which scientists can safely tinker without reducing us to mono-cropping.

Thousands of previously eaten grain, fruit and vegetable varietals have already disappeared as a result of the industrialization of our food systems with varietals selected frequently because they travel well and keep for long periods of time rather than for taste.  Some  in plant science argue that they are in fact improving plant safety, and it is unfair to claim that what they are doing is creating 'Frankenstein crops' as they are most commonly just altering or introducing one or two genes.  However, many of the changes made by large-agricultural business companies has been to transforms perennials into annuals, thus driving farmer dependency upon companies for seeds every year - for which in many developing countries, usurious rates are charged - and diminishing overall food system security

The ability of large argro-business firms such as Monsanto to patent genetic material and then sue farmers for cross-contamination is problematic.  It is highly dubious as to whether a firm should even be able to patent genetic material or a gene sequence within food.  As most crop-varietals have already undergone millennia of genetic manipulation by farmers through cross-breeding, in order to improve yields and improve crop edibility and robustness, it seems farcical that a company - and most simply use software to highlight genetic strains in plants that share common features and then seek a patent - should be able to patent plants at all.

Cross contamination regularly occurs accidentally when wind carries seed from trucks as they travel down the road.  Monsanto meanwhile regularly (and illegally) collects soil samples from farms in order to demonstrate cross-contamination and thus infringement upon it's patents and then litigate.  This has resulted in mass protests against attempts by large-seed companies, especially in developing countries such as India where farmers, as a result of litigation by Monsanto have committed suicide.

This controversy is further compounded by large-scale illegal agricultural subsidies that benefit many of the large agri-business companies in the United States.  These subsidies effectively serve as a mechanism of corporate welfare, especially for those companies that are actively suing farmers, when ironically, organic farmers should be suing them for contamination.  As Joseph Stiglitz notes in a recent editorial:

Corporate welfare accounts for nearly 50% of total income in some parts of US agro-business, with billions of dollars in cotton subsidies, for example, going to a few rich farmers, while lowering prices and increasing poverty among competitors in the developing world.

Clearly the status quo remains unacceptable, and if farm subsidies are to exist they should be to the benefit of the small and medium-scale farmers for whom the subsidies were initially envisioned.

Perhaps the most vocal and eloquent critic of GMOs and the current corporate led globalization of food systems is Vandana Shiva.  I have long been an admirer of Shiva and have recently had the pleasure of seeing her speak several times.  Shiva posits that agricultural systems need to be re-localized and organic.  She is a proponent of urban agriculture and speaks at length about the problems associated with corporate driven agriculture systems which are exploitative of farmers.  Shiva's extensive scientific credentials, strong rooting in her locality, sharp sense of humour and general sense of righteousness make her a ferocious opponent to Monsanto and other large agri-business companies.

Perhaps Shiva's greatest strength is that her righteous indignation is tempered by effective activism.  Shiva has developed a seed bank in her native India to insure that farmers have access to many of the crop varietals that they have traditionally eaten.  In this way, Shiva is changing the world and how we interact with our food system.

As the realities of peak-oil, general fuel price volatility and the impacts upon food prices for bio-fuel production, Shiva's advocacy for the re-localization of agricultural production appears to address the frequently overlooked elephant in the room.  Knowing that many of these issues will be further compounded by anthropogenic climate change further strengthens her position.

Perhaps the greatest problem with GMOs is that they represent a short-term solution as a means of improving crop-yields and developing resistance to particular pests, however in the long run, they merely further wed us to an agricultural system that is ailing and that cannot serve us in the future.  Though one may quibble with some of Shiva's positions, one cannot help but feel that she is certainly on the side of history.  It would be fools errand to not heed her warnings and implement policy that is responsive.  Otherwise, that daily question of 'what to eat?' may become all the more pressing.

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