Agriculture is the world’s single largest driver
of global environmental change… and at the same time, is most affected by these changes.
Genetically Modified Organism~ An organism whose genetic material has been altered, by selecting a desirable gene from one individual, and inserting it into the D.N.A. of another plant or animal.
Anthropocene~ The current geological epoch, in which humans are the primary drivers of climate and environmental change.
Food Insecurity~ Lacking dependable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food to sustain a healthy, active life.
Monoculture~ A farming system that cultivates one genetically similar type of crop, instead of a variety of multiple crop species.
Biodiversity~ Biological diversity, a variety of life.
The Green Revolution~ A huge increase in agricultural production in developing nations that occurred during the 20th century, due to the introduction of new farming methods, machinery, & chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
For your personal enjoyment, featuring the genius narrative of Jimmy Kimmel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzEr23XJwFY
Genetically Modified Organism…
This dangerous combination of words evokes explosive, contrasting reactions, including the inescapable culinary doom of humanity, mentioning of corporate giants like Monsanto, intense confusion over what they are (evident in the video above), and various thoughts about corn.
So what are G.M.O.s, how do they fit into our food system, and why does the simple mentioning of their name unleash such hysterical panic?
My ambitious intentions to learn more about this heavily contested debate led me to an explosively controversial, confusing, and massively convoluted issue, with few satisfying answers. While I hoped to provide vivid insight into this clouded issue, my research led me away from the simple “yes” or “no” answer I initially sought, and towards the more complex discussion we should be having about the larger issue of global food insecurity in the midst of land degradation and climate change.
1 billion people worldwide suffer from food insecurity…
An additional 2 billion lack proper nutrition, and our rapidly growing human population is predicted to reach 9 billion within coming decades.
Given this cringeworthy inability to support our existing population, the thought of welcoming a few extra billion people to the planet in the midst of climate change and severe environmental degradation is slightly concerning. The question of how to alleviate existing starvation, while providing for future generations and maintaining a stable planet, has formed a volatile debate among academics, the media, and food producers.
In the midst of our hysterical struggle to resolve the unfortunate reality we’ve woven ourselves, what should be a very practical conversation about the sustainable intensification of agriculture has transformed into an explosive emotional argument. The polarized nature of the G.M.O. debate, coupled with our stubborn insistence on finding a simple solution to a very complicated problem, omits other relevant challenges and greatly hinders our progress towards stabilizing world agriculture.
So, before we even attempt to enter the volatile terrain of the G.M.O. debate, we must first examine the challenges facing our food system, most of which we’ve created ourselves.
The painful irony of our diet dilemma is that the issue itself stems from our own carelessness and environmental neglect, which have collectively beckoned a new geologic epoch in which humans~ rather than Earth’s natural cycles~ act as the primary drivers of environmental change.
In this new epoch, food production ~ the growth, processing, and transportation of food ~is the most forceful driver of global environmental change.
Ironically, our struggle to feed humanity is exacerbated by the creation of food itself.
What is the cause for humanity’s self-destructive palate? The answer lies in agriculture’s intense focus on productivity, through use of industrialization and harmful chemicals. These modern techniques lead to massive yields in the short run, but extreme environmental implications in the long-run.
Scrambling for solutions to world hunger through the tunnel-visioned mindset of the present selfishly ignores the needs of future generations, begging us to shift our mindset away from industrialization and fossil fuels, towards sustainable practices that prioritize biodiversity and ecosystem services. Sustainability~ meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs~ must become the centerpiece of agricultural development.
So what exactly is “sustainable agriculture?”
As a society, we haven’t defined it, but what we can be certain of is that it surely isn’t the system we have today. Let’s investigate the system we use today:
1 billion people starve, while 1.5 billion are overweight.
40% of Earth’s surface is devoted to agriculture ~ the majority of which is used to feed livestock, not people.
Agriculture is the leading cause of freshwater pollution.
Our current system allows for gaping rifts in accessibility to food. It promotes inefficient use of valuable resources, and focuses on feeding livestock before people. It demands a colossal amount of freshwater, while simultaneously acting as freshwater’s number 1 polluter. Meanwhile, health diminishes as diets emphasize sugar, animal protein, trans fats, and processed food, over nutritionally-dense whole fruits and vegetables.
Upon examining these engrained flaws, the wasteful, inefficient nature of our food system becomes strikingly evident. Land that could be used to feed humans is used to feed cows, and freshwater resources have been so exasperated by the thirsty nature of our food system that 20% of the world’s largest river basins no longer reach the ocean.
Land use, water scarcity, and pollution are just the beginning of the long list of modern agriculture’s innate flaws.
The industrialized nature of food production also presents its fair share of staggering challenges. Monoculture farming, that focuses on breeding a few species of genetically uniform crops, establishes very simple ecosystems. This causes severe biodiversity loss, shrinking the gene pool, and lessening the resilience of seeds against disease, pests, and other threats. Stripped of nature’s innate biological defense mechanisms, we are then forced to depend on synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers to accomplish ecosystem services that could otherwise be achieved by harvesting diverse, healthy ecosystems and promoting agricultural biodiversity.
To better understand how monocultures weaken species resilience, imagine a field that contains one species- let’s say corn- that is genetically similar, purposefully bred for a favorable trait that makes cornstalks bigger. The farmer is happy because he can mass-produce his spectacularly enormous corn- then, enter mysterious new disease or pest, and the entire field dies, because it lacks the biological diversity to withstand the outbreak. To prevent this unfortunate incident from happening again, the farmer blasts his fields with pesticides, effectively killing pests (until they develop resistance, which is a whole new problem in itself) as well as everything else, including the beneficial organisms that inhabit soil. What started as a happy, productive cornfield then wreaks environmental havoc on the ecosystem, diminishing soil quality, contaminating water resources, and killing vital organisms.
What could possibly be more dangerous than the happy farmer’s diseased, dystopian corn field? The answer lies in our intense craving for savory, juicy animal flesh, as many studies have concluded that “meat and dairy products cause by far the highest greenhouse gas emissions,” as well as extreme overuse of land and water resources. Agriculture is the single largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions; half of these emissions emerge purely from producing cattle feed, while another 40% result from chemical manufacturing of fertilizers and pesticides to dump on our weakened crops.
Additionally, world agriculture is also the most powerful force of biodiversity loss through intense pollution and habitat fragmentation, and perpetuates serious social challenges as well, as the rise of fewer, bigger corporations in the food sector replace small, independent farms. Agricultural companies and supermarkets comprise some of world’s biggest, wealthiest corporations, giving them enormous power over farmers and food production. While farmers used to sell their crops primarily in local markets, they now comprise small roles in complex supply chains, leaving them subject to the price controls and farming methods demanded by agribusiness overlords.
So, given that overwhelming bit of depressing information about the state of modern food production, it’s evident that we must find a way forward that encapsulates a variety of methods to sustainably intensify agriculture, reduce its environmental impacts, and eradicate poverty.
It is here that G.M.O.s enter the debate.
Their use has been hailed by some as a miraculous “Second Green Revolution,” that will increase crop production to feed a growing population and eliminate food insecurity.
Some claim that they are absolutely necessary to feed the future, while others demand we use “the best technology possible” to solve one of our society’s most pressing challenges.
While the innovative technology governing G.M.O.s has been successful in alleviating many cases of food insecurity, we need to evaluate their effectiveness in resolving the problems discussed above.
As I stated in the first few sentences, my search for an absolute “yes” or “no” answer to this convoluted issue was massively frustrating and hopeless from the beginning, as extreme views from both sides omit crucial truths. Those who stand stubbornly against G.M.O.s forget that many of the food, clothing, and other luxuries we enjoy on a regular basis contain genetically modified organisms, and the underlying technology itself offers promising advancements towards developing food systems in impoverished regions.
However, claims that promote genetically modified crops as the single, cure-all solution to modern agriculture forget that while they do, in many cases, increase crop yields, limited crop production is not a singular issue.
It is a symptom of a much broader, fundamental flaw in the inefficient, careless way we grow our food.
Furthermore, the wildly optimistic exaggeration that G.M.O.s are a “Second Green Revolution,” would be possible, if we were actually using them for this task.
The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century specifically strategized the development and spread of agricultural technology in impoverished regions to enhance food production~ G.M.O.s have no such plan.
Instead, 99% of their use is devoted to producing industrial soy, cotton, and corn, for animal feed and ingredients in processed food.
As U.C. Berkeley Food Systems Researcher Maywa Montenegro eloquently puts it, “The technology itself might work, but so far, it’s been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to make a dent in global food security.” Rather than developing seeds for resilient traits against drought and poor soil, we breed them primarily for herbicide tolerance, consequentially intensifying pesticide use, perpetuating monocultures, suffocating ecosystem biodiversity, and breeding herbicide-resistant weeds.
Besides their unfortunate entanglement with monoculture cropping, shrinking biodiversity, and degrading ecosystem resilience, G.M.O. use presents a variety of other challenges that limit their ability to simultaneously enhance agricultural production and maintain a stable planet.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to a heated rant about Monsanto, you’re well aware that one of the most commonly expressed concerns with biotech is its embroilment with corporate interests. The world’s three largest biotech companies control almost 70% of global seed sales, giving them incredible autonomy over food production and seed prices. Seed patenting has severely deepened this issue, as biotech companies can now copyright their genetically modified seeds. Inevitably, purely through the simple workings of Mother Nature and plant reproduction, patented seeds blow into and contaminate nearby farms. Because genetically modified seeds are intentionally given favorable characteristics, they become dominant in agricultural ecosystems, outcompeting other crops and replacing the entire field. Then, the corporation that originally patented the superior seed either sues or forces the farmer to pay, perpetuating an unfortunate cycle in which farmers are squashed by the oppressive green thumb of large biotech companies.
The desperate struggle doesn’t end there~ because the genetically modified seeds essentially breed an inadvertent monoculture through their biological dominance, farmers are then forced to buy pesticides to sustain them as well. Coincidentally (or not…), the biotech companies that produce genetically modified seeds also happen to be the giant chemical companies that produce pesticides. So when you’re forced to buy their seed, you also have to buy the pesticide to go along with it, creating a downward spiral of intensified pesticide use, weakened biodiversity, and monopolized agriculture.
Despite these daunting truths and what we know about the broad, complex issues surrounding modern agriculture, the biotech industry has woven a convincing argument that modern crop studies must have a molecular focus, rather than including discussion of biodiversity and plant science. Deceptive front groups, spokespersons, and lobbyists hired by the biotech industry work very hard to dispel public concern, while simultaneously distracting us from focusing on the broader agricultural issues~ discussed above~ that hold massive importance. As Montenegro eloquently puts it, “No science exists in a cultural vacuum.”
Nonetheless, we devote most of our agricultural research funds to investigating G.M.O.s, even though studies indicate this investment would be better spent in other areas of plant science focused on sustaining biodiversity.
While genetic modification is an extremely promising technological advance that offers promising, innovative benefits, its backwards relationship with corporate giants cannot be ignored. Given our current application of G.M.O. technology, it seems they perpetuate the broken system they’ve been designed to repair, and we must ask ourselves if fully embracing biotech will add to the same vicious cycle of self-deprecation that currently plagues modern agriculture.
So where do we go from here?
While some hail G.M.O.s as the miraculous solution we’ve been searching for all along, a serious examination at the inefficiency and carelessness underlying modern food production shows that we don’t need a “miraculous solution,” we need a better system.
While biotechnology has, and will, play a crucial role in improving our food system, it is not a scapegoat for avoiding our environmental obligations to the planet. We cannot fight the Earth system that we are a part of~ the future of agriculture will have to blend biotech with sustainable, conservation farming techniques, that prioritize biodiversity and ecosystem health. Limiting deforestation and expansion into existing ecosystems, optimizing water usage, and incentivizing farmers to implement sustainable production methods are imperative to the progression of our global food system.
But What Can We Do?
As consumers, we can’t personally implement legislation or alter business practices; however, we can question and reverse the stagnating system, through the simple, everyday act of voting with our dollar.
Buying organic, local fruits and vegetables, rather than processed food and crops grown with synthetic pesticides, reduces your dietary footprint. One of the easiest, most influential actions we can take~ far more influential than taking a passionate stance on G.M.O.s~ is reducing our meat and dairy consumption. This not only lessens greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and land and habitat degradation, but lessens your ties to the not-so-great side of the G.M.O. industry, that creates huge monocultures for producing industrial animal feed.
Even better, whether you go all-out vegan or enjoy the occasional “Meatless Monday,” it requires absolutely no appeal to any higher authority, and Monsanto can’t sue you for doing it.
So, while biotechnology may have a role in increasing the efficiency of our food system, no single technology or approach alone is going to resolve the overwhelming challenges that face world agriculture in the midst of population growth and climate change. Evidently, we need to find a way to eat and enjoy our food, without royally screwing over our planet and lives of future generations.
So, while it may not be the inherent existence of G.M.O. technology that is dangerous, the risk lies in our tunnel-visioned mindset towards seeking a simple answer to an extremely complicated challenge.
This blog was created with the help of the academic sources listed below.