Arguing about the methods used to grow our food is a luxury of people living in affluent nations. There are one billion chronically undernourished people of low income in underdeveloped countries. They would find it appalling to reject a plate of food based on whether it was natural or genetically modified. Daily they face a life and death situation. So called “consensus based best practices” mean nothing to their struggle.
We need to put food production into its proper perspective. Biotech or organically produced food inspires wildly opposing positions. But are they really so far apart? The answer is “Yes!” if you hold the all or nothing position that natural is all good and artificial is all bad.
I have been part of conversations (usually after eating too much of a delicious meal) where the proposal from full stomachs is that the world would be a “better place” if we in the west ate less meat and fewer calories so that people in developing countries would have more. Pardon me. But that is baloney! Appreciate what we have? Definitely. Believe that our restrictions can be fairly doled out by some imaginary balanced delivery system? No way.
Do I dislike natural? No. But there are good reasons why most of us live longer than our natural farming forefathers. That reason is that some of the natural killers like e-coli and mould are not now taking their toll on our crops, our food and our years. I am also a realist and decided when my children were young to make it a mother-task to take classes in Materia Medica and Pharmacology. Like everyone, I am surrounded by naturals such as foxgloves, castor beans and lily of the valley that are all natural and all poisons that I keep away from my loved ones. Natural sugar, a not so obvious poison, is a particular sick-maker in our family. You won’t find me saying, “It’s natural so how much harm can it do?” “Natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown” and “all natural” are the holy grail of anti-GMO law makers who seek to keep those terms off of genetically modified or genetically engineered crops. The label alone won’t make any difference if sustainable agriculture becomes impossible.
Natural does not mean harmless. Everything has a chemical makeup which can be studied and copied and or modified – hence Genetically Modified Organisms. We are chemical beings. The good and the bad are derived from the combinations not the source of the combinations! So if you’re forewarned and realistic about natural, what is your position on modern technology? If it’s new, shiny, computerised and different…. does it necessarily follow that there will be health risks? We need to be responsible for the choices we make to nourish ourselves.
There has to be reasoned decision making. For example in 2011 natural organic bean sprouts were the cause of fifty-three deaths and thousands suffered kidney failure in Germany. The bean sprouts from Egypt were infected by animal manure. Closer to home, I have often marvelled at neighbouring organic farmers, who without bias use manure from their less enlightened neighbours to raise “all organic” food products that are then sold at a premium price. Talk about a loaded pitchfork. Any natural organism can be infected by pollution from ALL sources around it. Like the people in Germany, consumers chose this food because they thought it was safer, healthier and natural. The unfortunate conclusion. There are many natural ways to get sick and die.
In the 60’s we were bombarded with warnings that, because of overpopulation, millions of people would soon starve and that there was absolutely nothing that could be done to prevent it. Thankfully Paul Ehrlich’s “It’s already too late” warning in his book “Population Bomb” was proven to be wrong. His advice to allow people in India to starve sooner rather than later also never became the solution to population growth. Instead, Norman Borlaug, who did not succumb to this “truth”, was inspired to create the Green Revolution. Malnutrition was cut dramatically and India became self sufficient. Poverty and malnutrition continue to need addressing. Today there are close to 800 million people who go to bed hungry each night. They are the ones who need food that is safe to eat.
We are told that GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat. If you accept that statement, there is nothing to be said to help you. If twenty years of people consuming genetically modified corn, soy and other crops isn’t proof enough, nothing will be. In actual fact corn has been genetically modified since the first Europeans arrived in North America. Imagine the trillions of meals consumed without a single substantiated case that GMOs have caused harm. Where do the naysayers place the documented cases of death from organic causes? Organizations including the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Science believe GM foods pose no likely health risk.
Let’s turn to the potato for another example. A blight-resistant potato was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly-funded institute in Ireland. However the Irish Green Party was so adamantly opposed that they took court action against it. The attack was undertaken despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would require 15 less fungicide sprays per season. Further pollen transfer was not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated. The offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato. The case was won and for the second time in their history, the Irish suffered potato loss. The first time a million or more died during the 19th century famine. In the 21st century they lost the opportunity to defeat blight.
There are emotional stories on both sides of the GMO issue. It affects me personally and several members of my family. We would suffer if there was a total GMO ban. As a diabetic and two-time cancer survivor, I am really quite happy to keep chugging along with GMO insulin. Facing the issues with a balanced approach and trusting in the science makes an informed decision the healthiest one for me.
The issue is never about who is right and who is wrong. It is about who is fed. Who is healthy? As discussed in today’s challenge is how we will manage to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050 (Read more: GMO’s Beyond Right and Wrong). How can we do it on about the same land as we use today because we do suffer if natural areas are taken over by agriculture. How do we achieve this production using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides in the context of a rapidly changing climate?
Angry voices are raised by people who would not have their own children grow up to be farmers or grow food themselves. They are angry about how the food is produced – despite the abundance. Yet in countries where growing your own food is the only option, these same voices insist that food production must be done in the slowest method possible. Sitting at a computer where you can “share” anti-GMO sentiments with the tap of a finger does nothing to provide for those with empty stomachs. The image of natural works best when you have three meals a day!
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Today we face risks as food producers and consumers. But the risk is definitely not who will be harmed by GM food but who will be denied enough food. Yes the image of “natural” has appeal! But only for the rich. And that’s exactly what has me worried sick.