Who Watches the Watchmen?
Although GMO health concerns are the primary focus of the Biotech debate, the food safety of the United States has always been a controversial issue. Throughout his career, Bill Clinton asserted: “people should know that the food they eat and the water they drink will not make them sick,” (Benbrook, 2006). Despite said promises, reports indicate an increased frequency of contamination outbreaks, and birth defects within our system (Kristof, 2012). Even individuals with PhDs admit that our food system has become complex to the point “[where it is] incomprehensible,” (Gussow J. , 1986). Before considering the implications of introducing a complex GMO product, it is important to first understand the United States’ capacity to attenuate possible risks regardless of perceived magnitude.
Ever since the early 1900s, researchers have frequently highlighted how many people are unaware of our food system’s numerous dangers unaddressed by the FDA, (Perrow, 1984). Evidence regarding frequent daily outbreaks indicates that the capabilities of the FDA are overwhelmed. Despite an ever-increasing number of new products being released upon the market every year, legislation deems the FDA responsible for the safety of only “roughly 80% of food in the United States,” (DeWaal & Plunkett, 2009). Additionally, despite an absence of substantial safety based literature and increased prevalence, The Food Safety Act of 2011 includes a clause specifically stating that the FDA “does not regulate GMOs, pesticide use, or antibiotic use in agriculture,” (FAQ’s about the Food Safety Act, 2012). The FDA is struggling to adapt to our increasingly complex food system. Unfortunately, these reforms are often strongly influenced by private interest groups seeking to exploit legislative loopholes. Although the FDA and policies of food safety were originally grounded in seemingly sound scientific principles, these recent reforms often abuse the shortcomings of the employed scientific model. This manipulation is demonstrated by private interests frequently hiding behind the protection of a distorted system of “quantitative risk assessment,” (Perrow, 1984). Food and drug corporations often seek a desired narrative that overplays potential positives while drastically under- representing possible risks.
A primary example of this flaw is the reactionary model favoring industry gain and related unreasonable burdens of the FDA. Studies generally only examine the safety of isolated elements in the short term, after a product has been released, and do not account for possible cross interactions or exposure beyond the doses utilized by the study, (Meyers, Dumanoski, & Colborn, 1996). History has demonstrated that unforeseen elements and increased exposures often result in widespread harm as exhibited by DDT, BPA, PCBs, and Thalidomide. Originally approved as safe, these products harmed millions before inefficient regulators could react. Our system has become even more complicated since these events. Thousands of new chemicals permeate the markets, in addition to increased involvement from foreign intermediaries. Numerous United States corporations promote interactions with Chinese companies, which are often notorious for egregious food safety violations, (McDonald, 2012). These interactions are protected by risk assessments that manipulate dollar amounts associated with lives as a means of engaging in additional risky measures, (Perrow, 1984). Furthermore, laws promoted by private interest groups have substantially degraded the abilities of the small farm to remain in business and increasingly favor large scale agricultural production. To produce giant yields, companies embrace high-risk policies that maximize the bottom line as opposed to less profitable risk-averse methods, (Perrow, 1984). This irresponsible behavior exacerbates current issues, attenuating food safety risks. Legislation appears to favor a trend toward increased output and complexity that overloads our increasingly vulnerable food-production system. Powerful self interests have, as Charles Perrow stated, relished in the ability of “the power to impose risks on the many for the benefits of the few,” (Perrow, 1984). Thus in relation to Biotech, although current short term studies indicate no possible immediate harm from GMO adoption, the aforementioned evidence suggests that our food system has become alarmingly unsafe and GMOs will only further increase complexity. Since the gravity of these current risks is increasingly severe, the key to proper management resides in regulations and ideologies that are risk averse. Mistakes are bound to occur, and it seems in our best interests to limit the overall degree and severity of such possible mistakes. This severity is inherent in our increasingly centralized food system, and is summarized by Willy Denner, who states, “it’s just very difficult for a small scale farm to poison thousands of people in 48 states,” (Frisch, 2009). Research regarding GMO safety is often performed on a small scale, but as previously mentioned, systemic collapse would be devastating.
Considering the limited repercussions of past harms in relation to DDT and BPA, it seems especially important to employ preemptive defensive measures against companies that lack “skin in the game.” A policy reflecting this objective is Nancy Meyer’s risk-averse “Precautionary Principle,” which has also been proposed by Taleb et al’s previously mentioned papers. Since Taleb and others have spoken extensively regarding unforeseen risks produced by an increasingly complex nonlinear system, it seems alarming to introduce a complex GMO entity into an already incomprehensible system. Many fear that our food safety system could be on the brink of a major catastrophe, similar to the unforeseen financial collapse of 2008. The agribusiness, pharmaceutical industry and related politicians, however, constantly battle these measures by insisting that smaller farming techniques and aforementioned methods are incompatible with current farming models, and therefore prefer to maintain current measures, (Frisch, 2009). Many politicians and researchers have asserted that our food system is in dire need of repair, inefficient, and is becoming increasingly susceptible to systemic failures each time a new complexity is introduced. Despite these claims, big agribusiness largely ignores the concerns and instead asserts that their models and GMO products must be introduced to address pressing concerns. Their argument regarding rapid adoption is often predicated on the need to address the chronic issue of world hunger and malnutrition. To once again understand the strength of these arguments, it is necessary to delve even deeper into the root of the issues at hand.
The True ‘Hunger Games’ and the ‘2 Degrees from Destruction’
In addition to possibly “enhancing our crops”, one of the most common arguments for rapid GMO adoption, is the need to address world hunger and malnutrition. Opponents of GMOs are sometimes denounced as selfish individuals who callously ignore pressing world issues such as world hunger and malnutrition. Although substantial improvements in technology have saved millions, in 2013 the State of Food Insecurity in the World report research indicated that hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined, (Hunger Statistics , 2013 ). Their findings reported that over 842 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, (Hunger Statistics , 2013 ). In addition to starvation, the report demonstrated that “poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five amounting to 3.1 million children each year.” If you regularly watch television, there is a good chance you have seen commercials concerning donations to feed victims of hunger. In addition to viewer donations, many politicians and nations have pledged efforts to address world hunger in the form of millions of dollars devoted to “food aid.” Since over $2.1 billion has been donated to help the victims of famine, one must wonder why hunger and malnutrition still plague millions. GMO proponents assert that their products are needed to ameliorate these issues with crops such as “Golden Rice”, (Harmon, Golden Rice Life Saver, 2013). The GM crops are said to increase crop yields, protect against pests, and also exhibit inborn micronutrients that can reduce malnutrition. Contrary to the claims of Biotech though, research appears to largely suggest that world hunger and malnutrition do not primarily reside in production but are more related to poverty and inequalities.
Contrasting Biotech’s popular narrative, for the past two decades the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2013 reported that the world already produces more than 1.5 times the food necessary to feed everyone on the planet, and accumulates 2 billion tons of food waste every year, (Aggidis, et al., 2013). This amount is enough to feed the predicted population peak of 10 billion people in 2050, (Aggidis, et al., 2013). When analyzing these reports, Biotech’s call for increased production, to “feed the world,” seems puzzling, especially when the United States has largely been unable to feed its own population. This conundrum is presented by census data and policy research which concluded that “one out of every two kids in the United States at some point in their childhood will be on food assistance and that 1 and 6 Americans can be classified as food insecure (A Place At The Table, 2013).
As an economic leader, it seems peculiar that the United States exhibits an inefficient food system that paradoxically results in a stuffed and starved population. When analyzing crop production though, it appears that the bulk of our crops are ironically not dispersed to the World’s 1 billion hungry but instead largely dedicated to biofuels and confined animal feed. Biotech’s original call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over people, (Gimenez, 2012). These contradictory behaviors are apparent in trends for US farmers growing the corn plants genetically modified for the sole purpose of supplying ethanol in petrol tanks. Many researchers claim that these products are unsuitable for food and as Suzanne Goldenberg warns: “could further worsen a global food crises,” while cross contaminating edible foods from fuel only plants,” (Goldenberg, 2011). These warnings are often dismissed as our country’s leaders stoke fears of coming energy shortages.
Once again opposing the claims of Biotech and recent trends, when addressing world hunger, there exist many viable alternatives. Danielle Nierenberg’s research, for instance, highlights international entities such as Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), or local initiatives within the United States as a potent means to address these issues (Nierenberg, 2013). Unfortunately, these economically and ecologically sound solutions are largely ignored by those, such as Biotech and the Bill Gates Foundation, who are invested in Big Agriculture’s preferred models. Instead, the Western food system continues to promote the overconsumption of a few consolidated commodities such as rice, wheat, soy, alfalfa, and variations of corn. It is rarely discussed that these trends highlight the inability to purchase a variety of foods due to economic inequalities, as the primary determinant of malnutrition.
In addition to Nierenberg’s efforts, many reforms are also squelched by private investments. Speculation by institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Barclay capital frequently increase food prices and plunge millions into poverty and hunger, (Livingstone, 2012). Similar to how Wall Street has starved millions by means of commodity indexes, investors often simply view food resources as a tool for financial gain, (Kaufman, 2010). History has demonstrated that the loyalty of the banker often opposes efforts solve world hunger as they instead favor the bottom line and conceptualize the impoverished as a “growing consumer market,” (Ashton, 2012).
Overall, most research largely indicates that Biotech’s claims are false and that promoting food sovereignty is key to addressing hunger. Groups such as Food Secure Canada, promote food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,” (What is Food Sovereignty , 2014) This concept is rarely recognized by GMO proponents who instead favor the paternalistic notions of larger centralized mechanized industrial farming. Numerous studies report that only providing food, such as BT Corn, can actually worsen outcomes, since it undercuts food sovereignty, and disrupts supply chains, (Rosenberg, 2013). In many instances dominant nations use these food aid efforts and altruistic claims as a means to engage in corporate land grabs (Holt-Giménez, 2012). Promoting food sovereignty, instead, facilitates collective self-efficacy as a means to revitalize economies. It empowers formerly downtrodden societies and breaks cycles of colonialism. Evidence such as the successful efforts of independent Mali women to provide food for their country counters paternalistic notions that struggling nations lack the means to develop innovative solutions, (Hufstader, 2009). The movements minimize the “deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity,” discussed by author Ivan Illich in his essay, To Hell with Good Intentions, (Illich, 1968). Many reports demonstrate that these local, sustainable efforts not only address world hunger, but can also contribute to worldwide efforts to end racism, inequality, terrorism, and improve the environment. In addition to SEWA and Mali women, the IAASTD suggested that “rather than pursuing industrial farming models, ‘agro-ecological’ methods provide the most viable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change,” (Aggidis, et al., 2013). Their methods were based on “practical scientific research regarding traditional seed varieties and local farming practices adapted to the local ecology over millennia,” and concluded that “Agro-ecology has consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity,” (Aggidis, et al., 2013). To truly abolish world hunger, food system researchers implore activists to redirect financial aid to support these movements. GMO proponents however, seem to largely ignore these alternatives in favor of a fallacious argument for increased production.
In addition to the aforementioned analyses of the true sources of hunger and malnutrition, a dark topic rarely discussed by both camps, is world hunger in relation to climate change. Despite the Koch Brothers efforts to fund over “$67,042,064 to groups denying climate change science since 1997,” the world community has largely accepted that our current climate trends are ultimately unsustainable (The Koch Brothers: Funding $67,042,064 to Groups Denying Climate Change Science Since 1997, 2014). Although they have recently increased in popularity, climate change and threat of irreversible ecocide, are not new issues. The state of our “suicidal” progression is much more alarming than asserted in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. This information has been readily since 1960’s and 70’s regarding coal consumption, CFC production and related ozone degradation. Movements such as The Limits to Growth and “The Club of Rome” think tank, have attempted to popularize the disastrous consequences that would result if humanity failed to properly regulate our unsustainable trajectory. As early as 1970, the estimates of the MIT researchers warned “if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and precipitous population decline could occur by 2030, (Strauss, 2012). Unfortunately, the models have been proven wrong. Recent reports demonstrated that their predictions were too conservative as carbon dioxide release has increased to a level that will soon surpass the 565-gigaton allowance which would destroy our ecosystems, resulting in what scientists have deemed “a planet straight out of science fiction,” (McKibben, 2012). Reports concluded that even if the international negotiations to substantially reduce consumption rates were successful, the atmosphere might still rise 2°C, which would destroy most of Africa, (McKibben, 2012). The pleas of the African nations at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference were largely ignored, as “neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions,” (McKibben, 2012). Contradicting their claims for international concern, the United States, petroleum interests, and big agribusiness, plan to continue and expand their environmentally harmful models. Their strategies involve promoting relentless fracking and invading the Arctic as means to provide the energy required to increase consumption, (Ryan, 2009 ). Biotech’s publicized efforts to feed malnourished populations would therefore become irrelevant since global warming would instead forever eradicate their existence.
It therefore appears that no matter what course of action is pursued, the United States’ proposed actions are primarily reliant on technology to maintain current behaviors. Despite our impressive scientific accomplishments, Georg Borgstrom states “technology has not changed in one iota man’s dependence on soil, water, and food,” (Borgstrom, 1973). The calls to increase consumption appear to ignore humanity’s numerous diverse populations and their dependence on dwindling finite resources. The actions conform to dominate historical analyses that conclude “the material welfare of mankind was increasingly based on a vast world market in which the interests of all nations converged and interacted.” Borgstrom concludes that this narrative “mirrors in almost uncanny terms a gruesome and myopic ethnocentricity or possibly reflects the callousness that only Western man counts in history,” (Borgstrom, 1973). These assessments in relation to the actions of the West seem to effectively deconstruct the seemingly humanitarian stated goals of Biotech’s crusade to end hunger. This aforementioned grim aspect of the debate is rarely addressed. As early as the 1970’s, the Club of Rome concluded that every proposed solution to hunger and wealth disparities could still possibly result in climate disaster and as of now it appears that we are accelerating this course of action. Although the solutions are unclear, what is clear is that the answer for hunger is far more complex than simply increasing production.
Part 3 will discuss GMOs in relation to political implications and the ramifications of rapid adoption as well as overall concluding thoughts
A complete list of references will be published with part 3. You can also download the entire series with references as one pdf here: GMO-Boon-Bust-Blight
Guest post by Matt Stranberg
Bio: I am a health and performance consultant. I have devoted my life to mastering health, performance and improving the lives of others. I emphasize a holistic, evidence-based, results driven approach in conjunction with solutions that are catered to the specific needs of my clients. Although prepared in a variety of bodies of knowledge, I primarily specialize in applied exercise physiology, nutrition, and counseling as they relate to health and performance enhancement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @StranSolutions