Are my food choices aggravating world hunger? 


Yes! To grow food, you need fresh water, healthy soil with adequate plant nutrients,and viable seed that can adapt to climatic conditions. This latter ability arises from bio-diversity, that is, an abundance of different genes in the pool, so that the hardiest ones for given conditions can survive.

The amount of water on the planet is not becoming less, but to keep water where we need it, we need to combat climate change. Some water is best kept in ice packs at the poles, to cool the planet and reflect incoming sunlight. Other water needs to fall as snow and collect in glaciers, to provide melt water over dry summers at lower elevations. And some water must fall as rain, over the growing season.

Unfortunately, as we’re beginning to understand, climate change contributes to extremes of weather: too much rainfall all at one time, or too little over the growing season. Just as in the case of energy, we need to invest in water management technology and infrastructure. This may mean storing water and moving it around. Most of all, we need to address human activity that contributes to climate change.

Up until WWII, farmers around the world used traditional (organic) methods, often driven by animal labor, to till the soil. Crop rotation was used to fix nitrogen in the soil (via legumes such as beans and soy beans) and use it for cereal crops, such as corn and wheat, in the next season. Stubble and animal manure were turned back into the soil to fertilize and texturize it. Lime might be added to sweeten it. There were varying degrees of success, and some areas of the world experienced food shortages.

With the advent of modern farming, heavy labor was increasingly provided by fossil fuels, with petroleum-based fertilizers as a by-product. Research produced pesticides, to reduce crop loss, and hybrid strains with greater yields. These two worked hand-in-hand, as hybrids were often more susceptible to pests and required heavier use of pesticides. Crop rotation was discontinued in favor of concentrated cash crops.

Advocates of organic farming noted that intensive farming, with fertilizers and pesticides, often killed the natural organisms in the soil and left a hard, sterile clay unsuitable for agriculture without the additives. At the same time, farmers using these chemicals began to show increasing health problems. But the demand for cheap, abundant food – along with idealistic notions of the Green Revolution ending world hunger -- drove the petro-chemical revolution in farming.

Most farmers and gardeners were delighted with improved seeds provided by large seed companies, though farmers often found costs increasing for hybrid seed stock and the chemicals it might require. Nonetheless, the burpless cucumber and the low-acid tomato were seen as welcome additions to the table. 

In the late 20th century, however, technology opened a Pandora’s box … the genetically manipulated organism (GMO). Gene splicing allowed the best traits of certain organisms to be selected and concentrated. Some scientists even found they could place animal characteristics in plants and vice versa, to solve some particular agricultural challenge, e.g. disease resistance. Before long, though, odd side effects were noted from some crops. A strain of corn used in breakfast cereal might produce allergic rashes in people who consumed it.

Beyond that, there were other new developments. Monsanto, one of the seed/chemical giants, produced a ‘terminator’ seed. Planted once it would produce a lovely crop. But the crop, while edible, would produce no viable seed for the next year. Ergo, any farmer who planted it once, would have to buy seed from the company again the next year. Since farmers in poor countries often save seed to plant the following year, purchasing seed drove them out of business. Worse yet, once the ‘terminator’ was in their fields, bees and other pollinators would carry the gene to other plants. And the farmer in the end, might find none of his plants, or even wild species in surrounding areas, would produce viable seeds. The alarm was sounded. GMO might be more dangerous than ‘pest resistance’ or ‘increased yield’ were worth.

While seed and other GMO companies pressed governments for permission to market their products, protest mounted to prevent it. We are still at that crossroads. GMO is here to stay, whether we perceive it as good or bad. It is in wide use in the US, although mostly banned in EU. Still, strains will ‘leak’ out from fields and research facilities. Not all GMO are ‘terminators’ but the myriad, possible long-range effects are not known. If there were “good” GMO, they would help solve a lot of food related issues. They could also mean massive indenture to the seed companies that hold patents on surviving strains. In this atmosphere of distrust, whether deserved or not, Monsanto has become a catch-word for ‘evil corporation’ among food activists.

Most HELADA members would say: Focus on better research and environmental impact studies of GM organisms rather than a blanket rejection of the technology. Bring the technology to government organizations and smaller companies, so that it is not dominated by a few huge, agribusiness corporations. In the meantime, hold off on approving GMO!

A few of us would say: Wanna try some of the seeds I’ve grown on my balcony?

Read more:

12-Point Food Declaration

Irrigation water shortage

1,500 Farmers Commit Mass Suicide in India, April 2009
Birdlife International on EU Fisheries Green Paper


HELADA views in more detail:

Healthy Eating

Pesticides, Chemicals and Drugs

Water for All

Government at the Table


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