What's the deal with GMOs?
Some of you may, or may not, be aware of the battle going on in Oregon right now over GMO labeling. Essentially, after the next election Oregonians will either know when there are genetically modified ingredients in the things we buy at the store, or, we will all remain in blissful ignorance.
Attitudes toward the issue range from, "I demand to know what's in my food," to "knowing what's in my food will destroy agriculture and the economy forever," to "just let me eat my burger in peace you hippie." But it's completely legitimate to ask, "What's the big deal about GMO's?"
Some of those who are for labeling worry about potential health impacts from GMO foods. Some people just don't like to eat things without knowing what's in them. Others are philosophically opposed to GMOs, for a variety of reasons. We are in the "all of the above" camp, but I think the philosophical arguments about the use of GMO's in agriculture are among the most convincing and underrepresented.
The whole debate reminds me of another debate in our history: cigarette labeling. The big tobacco companies poured tons of money into research studies and campaigns to bolster their argument that smoking wasn't that big a deal. Big Ag is similarly pouring insane amounts of money into studies, advertising, lobbying, etc. in order to make us feel like it will be the end of the world if we label GMO foods and that there is no reason to fear them.
For us, this issue is a microcosm of a much larger, much more pressing issue that often gets sidelined by a debate that focuses on whether GMO's are safe to consume. Namely, our food system is absolutely unsustainable and destined for a major crash if we continue the way we are going.
Forgive my doomsday pronouncement. I'm not quick to apocalyptic rhetoric, but there are some very concerning trends in agriculture right now that have left us very vulnerable. I'll boil it down to one idea: Bio-Diversity.
Why we must have Bio-Diversity
GMO's are designed to enhance traits that will increase yields, protect against various pests, diseases, weeds or some other trait that's deemed beneficial. They exist because mono-crops exist. One of the most prominent examples of GMO's (and mono-cropping) are corn and soy that have been modified to be resistant to RoundUp, so they can be sprayed more aggressively to control weeds and increase yields. This example can help us understand why the problem is so significant (I"m not even touching the reason we grow so much corn and soy to begin with, that's another post).
The weeds are now becoming resistant to RoundUp and it's requiring more and more to have the same effect. It's the same thing that happens when we overuse an antibiotic to treat a certain kind of infection. It's much better to support the health of the whole immune system so it has the capacity to do it's job.
Bio-diversity is like the worlds immune system.
Historically, problems like weeds, pest and disease were answered through bio-diversity. Farming was in service to the needs of a local community, so mono-cropping was not the norm. You can't feed an entire people with only corn, they need diversity in their diet. So people planted poly-cultures, many different kinds of plants and varieties of those plants.
Growers had a massive bank of genetics to draw from. If one variety of apple was being attacked by a certain fungus, you could select for the varieties that were resistant to it, and increase the genetic pool while you were at it. You made the fruit stronger, not the fungus. And, since apples were not the basis of your entire diet (or agriculture economy, "cough, cough, corn"), it wasn't the end of the world if you lost all your apples. You could just eat a persimmon instead.
Planting poly-cultures and cultivating diversity within species helps create a system that can sustain itself. It is the basis for a healthy food system that can feed whole communities and deal with inevitable set backs.
Now we are in a highly tenuous and insecure situation. So much of our land has been given over to mono-crop and so much of our own diversity is being lost, that a single disease could do enormous damage to the Ag economy and our food security.
By requiring GMO labeling (a practice already common in 64 countries) eaters have the opportunity to put their money into the sort of system they actually want to support. Along the way, they also have the benefit of knowing whether they are eating food that's been altered in a test tube, is likely to have been sprayed A TON or is contributing to the reduction in bio-diversity. This will give people the ability to, as they say, vote with their dollars.
But if you have the option of voting with your dollar, you might start to wonder where you should place that vote. That's a journey we've been on for awhile. It started with not buying things that had corn and soy in them, then buying food from farmers, making things from scratch and, at the end of the day, we bought a farm.
We don't expect everybody to buy a farm, so what does it look like for the average Joe and Jane out there to support the kind of food system they believe in?
That's our next post, and I'll give you a hint, it's not buying Organic.