Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Considering Genetically Modified Food in a broken food system

We organize a small food co-op which involves buying direct from farmers/small businesses (and a couple of medium sized businesses), at wholesale prices. Once a month, we supply this food to order, to about 30 families. 

We have a few motivations for running the group (which is one amongst quite a few such groups around the city): thinking about how to support access to healthier food, more ethical food, food that supports more sustainable farming practices, food that focuses on short supply chains where possible, rather than giving all power and money to distribution channels.

It’s evolving: we don’t supply everything we’d like to, and not everything we supply is from small farmers, or local, or organic (it is usually at least one, often two, of the three). The balance of the amount of time we have, the relationship we have with suppliers, the reality that we eat oats and certain legumes even though they’re not really grown in South Africa for human consumption, etc. It’s a great learning experience for us, and I know much more about the South African food system than I did a couple of years ago.

I’m a bit nervous about the exclusivity that such a group may foster, especially at a time when money and health are closely tied together (i.e. the wealthy eating from a growing set of ever-more-nutritious [add your adjective here] healthy foods, while the impoverished eat from a shrinking set of ever-less-nourishing foods). I’m not quite sure how to navigate this dynamic, except to name it and commit to figuring out what food attributes seem important to our family, and then think more about how to make these attributes a less exclusive option.

One question we get a lot is about whether the products we supply are non-GMO. In fact, we have some foods that suppliers proudly declare “non-GMO” even though there is no GMO version of that particular crop (various legumes, popcorn are often-labelled “Non-GMO” despite the fact that South Africa does not have GMO versions). I find these labels misleading. These labels suggest that GM foods are a key evil to organize around (and implicitly, that they’re hard to avoid if you do want to do so). I get the sense that label is added as a value statement, because the product isn’t certified organic, and the supplier wants to put something to show values, even when the product is coming from a large farm in Turkey (in the case of many legumes) or Australia (in the case of oats).

So I’ve been looking a bit more into GM foods in South Africa, as I think the GMO conversation can become a distraction (or sometimes shorthand) for a much more complex set of issues within our food system. It can be quite difficult to find trustworthy, neutral resources on GM foods: large commercial farmers put out information in favour of genetic modification* and rarely acknowledge downsides in a serious way. On the other hand, there is a also a fairly large anti-GMO lobby that tends to be quite sensationalist, without necessarily having much evidence to support their position— Mercola and the Weston A. Price Foundation are two groups that I’d consider examples of this category, where their articles are widely referenced on SA health sites, but if you follow the citations back to the actual research, there is a confusing mix of good science and pseudoscience published in dodgy journals (I say this with sadness because I like Nourishing traditions/Weston A. Price type stuff quite a lot).

So, I’ve been digging through journal articles to learn more, in the hopes it can help us navigate who we buy from, how we ask about their product claims, and how we think about good food more generally:

How widespread are GMO foods in South Africa?
GM technology is expensive and tends to be developed mainly for cash crops in very large scale production. There are three GM crops in commercial production in South Africa: Maize (not popcorn), cotton, and soya/soy— if you consume maize or soy you’re likely eating a GM crop, as a large share of the market is GM. The two main modifications of these crops is herbicide resistance- which is where the glyphosate concern comes in, and insertion of the BT gene which kills a specific corn pest- this is where pesticide resistance comes in. It’s not clear if any canola on the market is currently GM-- there may be a little, or there may in the future. There’s also interest in the development of GM sugarcane, and talk of GM wine yeast. Legumes (excluding soy) are never GM, and nor is oats (i.e. there is no GM version in commercial production anywhere in the world).

Maize and soy crops affect a wider array of foods because they are an important part of animal feed and processed food (partly because they are grown so cheaply and on such a large scale). For farmers farming chickens and livestock, unless they have a huge amount of space, it becomes fairly difficult to avoid GM animal feed. Soy lecithin is part of most chocolate products, and corn starch is also widely used as a thickener.

What issues with GMO seem most important to think about?
First off, I think it’s valuable to disaggregate the potential issues with GM foods, NOT to stoke vague fears and start labelling everything “non-GMO,” even when there is no GM version of that food. The gene transfer itself is potentially distracting as an issue: It is too easy for the farming tech giants to brush off unsubstantiated claims about the health effects of GM foods (and indeed, those claims are largely unsubstantiated to date). 

The broader— much more substantive I think— issue is that large commercial farms are designed to focus entirely on profit, at the expense of soil health or broader ecology. GM crops supports a type of farming that depends heavily on fossil fuels and very large acreage of single crops. In turn, this type of farming shapes our diets in important ways: they affect the soil our food draws nutrients from, and shapes the affordability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods on the shelves of our supermarkets. So GM crops form one part of that important discussion of food as a commodity.

Some potential issues with GM crops that seem to be borne out in the literature:
More broadly, GM foods undermine food sovereignty to the extent that farmers who used to own their seeds are increasingly pressed to purchase seeds. The production of cheap staples of soy and corn encourages ever-more concentrated animal operations, where feed is bought in— and this is driven the world's increasing demand for animal products.GM crops often present technological fixes to much broader, more complex issues— e.g. yield can be improved by supporting smaller farms in improving their soil over several years. However, supporting smaller farms is incredibly complex: markets favor bigger farms, because everyone (big or small) is forced to compete on equal footing, so smaller farms need a really wide range of supportive mechanisms to get their products to customers while earning a reasonable living.

So the issues with GM foods are intertwined with broader systemic issues in our food system. I am convinced that food should not be a commodity traded like any other commodity on the open market, because when it is, the costs to environment or health become invisible, and it is very difficult for impoverished people (and small scale farmers) to survive/make a living. It is too easy for bullies to monopolize farming practices for their own gain, even though it’s apparent that this style of farming cannot feed the world.

So I think it’s valuable to say what/how we WANT our farmers to be growing, to articulate how we will support small and medium scale farmers, and to figure out in very practical terms how to do that, perhaps by bypassing existing structures (supermarkets) as well as by actively creating alternatives.  Relationships with farmers are a key part of this: if we are not producing the food ourselves we need to learn about the priorities and logic of those who do, so that we can make alternatives viable for them. The thing is, small and medium scale farms are competing against larger operations, and it’s an incredibly difficult competition to be a part of, because ecological damage/nutrient density is not factored into price. 

One thing I’m always afraid of is making farmers claim to be something they’re not, because that’s what this emerging niche market demands. This creates false expectations for emergent farmers as well as consumers, because consumers think that they can request something that is terribly difficult to actually supply and still make a living, at least for the first five years of farming. Sustainability is not just about the earth’s resources, it is also about Human Resources: all too often, in order to compete, farmers are faced with the choice to either pay their workers too little to sustain them and their families, or burn themselves out.

How we navigate GM foods in our family
We generally don't eat much processed food in our family (a goal is to bypass supermarkets completely by year-end), and this is where one would eat GM foods. I try to acknowledge that a large range of foods are enjoyable to eat, and I try to think with gratitude about the farmer/worker growing our food, no matter how far removed s/he is from us. On the occasions where we consume processed food, I try to enjoy the food rather than panic, and I try to see if there are lesser evils (e.g. chips from a smaller company with fewer ingredients). I don't really worry about these occasions, I see them as learning experiences for my kids who are growing up in a big, beautiful, world where we are often the odd ones out. I focus on making it possible and pleasurable for our family to eat from scratch most of the time, for the long-term. While large scale systems are at fault (one could argue that the evil is unleashed when a company becomes an entity), I doubt that specific farmers, scientists, or even specific company employees, are deliberate villains. I tend to think that we need margin to eat well and to think of alternative models (at the expense of our work and/or time and/or our money). 

On our small permaculture farm we buy in supplemental feed (which inevitably contains GM maize) for our chickens and ducks. We also grow organic barley micro greens for them. Our farm can support a larger number of free range ducks and chickens (currently around 25 chickens and 10 ducks) if mixed fowl feed is a supplemental option, because we don’t have time to do enough barley micro greens and there’s not enough diversity in the farm to support the chickens and ducks without supplemental feed (we’ve tried— using chickens to process compost was a useful supplemental feed option but wasn’t enough).So, the chickens and ducks obtain much, but not all, of their nutrients and calories from eating scraps, weeds, insects, and having supplemental barley sprouts when I have enough time to grow them consistently. I.e. they’re consuming about 15% of their overall diet in supplemental grain, which is partly corn. We even soak the mixed feed because I read somewhere that that helps with digestibility. I think the supplemental feed improves their health (they know they have enough food, which is important for preventing annoying chicken behaviour, which is not pretty). The eggs we consume have a very low carbon footprint relative to others. We have extremely happy chickens, though my time with chickens suggests they are not terribly sentient. Let's just say they get to live free as chickens.

The factors shaping our decision-making include time, best use of land, costs, etc. (and where we are in our own learning and experience). And the fact that I really like the guy who drops off grain for us each month, and that it takes a while to be brave enough to ask him about alternative feeds. I suspect that as we learn and our farm improves, our need for this supplemental feed will fall away— our animals don’t particularly like the corn in the feed, anyway. Our experience is shared just to highlight that farmers’ priorities should not be judged too quickly; as far as possible, they should be carefully understood (and vice versa), to promote transparency and common ground.

Some last thoughts (sorry this is so long)
As our co-op tries to buy direct from farmers, knowing how hard it is to make a living: I want to focus on learning (in an open interested way) about how farmers cultivate their soil, about how they prioritize, about how they improve the lives of their farm workers. That is, I do want accountability. 

To me, this type of accountability is much more important than asking more stark "do you ever" questions. Open and interested questions may lead to increased knowledge about sustainable food practices and supporting common priorities. On the other hand, avoiding farms where GM feed is used may squeeze out other priorities, because of how difficult it is to be profitable. Over time, when other priorities are realized, it becomes easier to consider the issue of GM feed. Taken alone, a one-to-one substitution of non-GM feed, for example, would not necessarily result in a substantive benefit (just an expense), whereas gradually building up the soil and building capacity to grow alternative feed on site, may facilitate a more sustainable and resilient system.

 Small farmers fight an uphill battle and my sense from dealing with small farmers and companies is that if they seem to be perfect (or worse, put in a lot of effort to seeming perfect), there's often something that we're not seeing.

If we return to the issue of divergent diets between wealthy and impoverished South Africans, one key goal would be supporting suppliers/farmers in providing viable, dignified livelihoods for themselves and their workers, while caring for their soil and their animals. Supporting sustainable livelihoods through farming is an important piece of facing up to inequality. Promoting healthy soil and healthy workers when we buy from farmers and suppliers, and finding ways to support reasonably diverse, relatively unprocessed diets, to me goes a long way to creating a better food system. GM crops are a symptom of problems in our food system (where it is very hard to make a living unless you go big and farm a certain way), and we need to be thinking of the illness itself.

*[This publication does a fairly good job of laying out some of the evidence simply, though I balk at the continued mention of food security, since in South Africa food security is an issue of access, not overall supply, and there’s virtually no evidence that GM crops make nutritious foods more affordable.]