Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Food Science - Non Boating

I have recently seen two documentaries on modern food. Food Inc. is in theaters and The Future of Food is free on Hulu.com. Both films focus on the increasing industrialization of the food supply. Major consolidation has occurred in meat production, seed production, and food purchasing driven by fast food companies and the retail market sector.

Food Inc. looks at multiple sectors, while The Future of Food deals mainly with genetically modified crop and seed production primarily driven by Monsanto. The GMO problems look more important at this time.

Having worked in Agriculture in the mid-Eighties when the genetic revolution was getting started, I thought that GMO might be a good idea. 20 to 25 years later, I am reconsidering.

Monsanto has acquired many of the pioneering startups and has released GMO seeds for several major crops including soybeans, canola and corn. They are pushing for wheat, but have met some resistance. The following problems have arisen:
  1. Some crop failures and reduced yields.
  2. Some allergic reactions from consumers. This may have occurred with both Flavr Savr tomatoes and Taco Bell taco shells. Both products were pulled from the market.
  3. No labeling requirements for GMO foods. This makes it very difficult to trace a health problem back to the technology.
  4. Seed contamination of fields not planted to the GMO strains. This has allowed Monsanto to sue non-customer farmers and seed handlers for patent infringement. They claim that the farmers owe them royalties. This effectively gives Monsanto a complete monopoly on a crop such as canola. This is like a computer owner owing a virus writer money because a virus had invaded his machine.
  5. No FDA/USDA/EPA oversight. GMO crops were ruled substantially equivalent to their non-GMO predecessors, so no regulation was required. At the patent office, these same crops were ruled novel, unique and valuable.
  6. Government conflict of interests. Former Monsanto employees and board members are in strategic positions in all branches of government including the FDA. Clarence Thomas used to work as Monsanto's legal counsel. He later wrote the majority opinion on the case allowing patents on life and nature. Congress and the public have never voted on the rights of corporations to patent life.
  7. Genetic contamination of wild and heirloom strains of Mexican corn. If we lose the genetic diversity of these crops there will be no way to fend off the rise of certain diseases and insects.
  8. Loss of markets in Europe and Japan for banned American crops because they may contain GMO components.
  9. An attempt by corporations to patent all genetic material in seed banks containing wild and natural species to obtain preemptive ownership.
  10. Upcoming introduction of terminator genes. These genes would render the second generation of a GMO crop sterile so that it would not produce seed and/or the food component of the plant. This is seen as a remedy for seed and sub-species contamination that is causing patent infringement law suits. The main problem here is potential escape of the gene to unintended plants through cross pollination. If this were to occur as it did with heirloom Mexican corn, we may lose those strains forever.
I still hold some hope for GMO crops in the future. It is clear that a more balanced approach to science and regulation driven by more than a handful of conglomerates is needed.

Similar arguments can be made for tempering the general industrialization of the food chain.

Organic, traditional and local farming are making comebacks. Despite the size of the industry players, the consumer still has a say. It is heartening to hear that Walmart is expanding it's offering of organic foods and it's relationships with suppliers such as Stoneyfield Farms.

These two movies are informative and entertaining way to learn about these issues.

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