If you’ve been reading the running commentary over at Grist for the past six months, journalist Nathanael Johnson has been opining about genetic engineering in agriculture, diving into the debate and surfacing now with a final “what I learned” piece. His column has gotten a lot of attention from news media writing about his “exploration” of genetically engineered (GE) food or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and has sparked heated comments on his blog, but his reporting has done little to help people understand what’s really at stake in the debate about this technology, which in my opinion, is a hell of a lot.
After meandering about in the woods for the past six months, Johnson, who positions himself as open and searching on this issue, says he’s come to this conclusion: “The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.”
Imagine two alternate futures, he writes, “one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side ‘won’ the debate.” In both cases, he says, not much would really change at all. “The point is that even if you win, the payoff is relatively small in the broad scheme of things. Really, why do so many people care?”
Well, a lot of people care for good reason. In Johnson’s attempt at a clever journalistic gesture, his thought experiment misses the heart of what many of the people I’ve met and interviewed over the past 12 years are not just against, when it comes to GE crops, but what they’re for.
What they’re fighting for is a kind of sustainable agriculture that is gaining an international consensus of support from reports by the National Academies of Press to the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development to the clumsily named, but hugely important, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).
What’s become abundantly clear is that there are at least seven things we need to get right in agriculture, right now. We need to:
- Reduce reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture;
- Conserve water in agriculture systems;
- Free ourselves from dependence on chemicals, especially those most toxic to humans and wildlife;
- Promote on-farm resilience to climate change;
- Protect biodiversity and the food security it engenders;
- Limit the expansion of confinement livestock operations; and
- Support farmers to learn practices for productivity that don’t come at the high, and rising, cost of inputs such as chemicals, seeds, or technology fees to chemical companies, especially Monsanto.
Like most, you’re probably not an expert on agricultural systems, but you’re still likely nodding, yes: Less oil, less wasted water, less chemicals, and more food? Sign me up!
This is not just me saying this. The sense of urgency around meeting these seven needs is a growing consensus among top agricultural researchers around the world, like those 400 experts who spent four years developing the IAASTD report, endorsed by over 60 governments from across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
We care so much about genetic engineering because the technology sends us in exactly the opposite direction of where global consensus says we need to head. (Excellent reporting by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, formerly of Grist, has reminded us of this, time and time again.)
The GMO technology commercialized to date has not reduced fossil fuel use or chemical and water dependency. At the same time, it’s decreased biodiversity and entrenched farmer dependence on purchased inputs. What’s more, the technology, with its focus on commodity crops like corn and soy largely for feed in factory farms, spurs the confinement model of animal agriculture, with terrible implications for the climate and our health.
The evidence-based IAASTD report confirms the disappointing “contributions” of the technology, while noting that to date the technology’s main beneficiaries have been its corporate manufacturers, rather than resource-limited farmers struggling to feed their communities.
Let’s also remember why proceeding with caution is just plain smart: Not just because we’re talking about our food supply—kinda important, people—but also because we should learn from history. Monsanto and Dow, two of the biggest producers of GMOs, are chemical companies with long histories of failures to protect human and ecosystem health—with tragic consequences.
Consider Monsanto and Dow’s chemical 2,4-D used in an herbicide concoction called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which caused untold cancers, birth defects, and other serious illnesses among Vietnamese and veterans. (And the companies are now pushing the chemical again through corn and soybean seeds engineered to be resistant to, and therefore used with, 2,4-D.)
Perhaps my biggest concern about this technology—and a concern that Johnson plays right into—is that it is a grand distraction of time, money, and resources away from the kind of technologies we could be developing for truly sustainable food production. (Remember those seven things we need to do right now?) Even the fact that I’m sitting here writing, once again, about why I’m no fan of GMOs or the companies pushing them, is itself a distraction from focusing on the solutions at hand.
Over the past decade, I’ve learned a lot about the intersections of climate change, food security, and agriculture and what’s been most exciting is to learn that we have so many of the answers for feeding the future in the incredible innovations of agroecology.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network and a co-author on the IAASTD report, describes these solutions as practices that “blend indigenous knowledge with the latest research findings produced by farmers and scientists and offer a vibrant and sustainable way forward for the planet.”
Studies from the Global South (like the case studies in this UK-commissioned report) are showing fabulous results in yield and nutritional content from agroecological practices, without the risks and costs of the current crop of commercialized GMOs. Studies from Europe are showing that agroecological practices can yield comparable harvests, or even better, than conventional farming, while promoting biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and fossil fuel use.
All this despite agroecological practices getting just a sliver of the funding that goes toward chemical agriculture and genetic engineering, which is one reason IAASTD authors highlight the importance of governments increasing investments in and policy supports for agroecology.
Ishii-Eiteman has written extensively about the emergence of these really exciting results from agroecology. As she says, “farmers and scientists around the world are co-creating the ecologically and economically resilient farming solutions we so urgently need to meet the pressing climate, water, environmental and energy challenges of the 21st Century.
Conventional farmers from India to Iowa are gradually abandoning pesticide-intensive GE agriculture and transitioning to non-GE, while many more farmers around the world are already adopting highly sophisticated, biodiverse ecological farming systems to meet not only basic survival needs, but also the multifaceted priorities of their communities.”
Johnson says that “genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt,” but as long as the funding for alternative tools in that toolbox is so limited, and the consolidation of power in the food system is so great, we won’t get the support for real innovation where we need it.
To paraphrase one of my favorite New York City mayoral candidates: The stakes are too damn high. Sadly, one of the few online outlets dedicated to reporting on the environmental crisis and how we can respond to it–in our cities, homes, and our farm fields–has just helped confuse one of the most important questions of our time.
Grist likes to say it’s a beacon in the smog. When it comes to Johnson’s reporting on genetic engineering in agriculture, I’m sure missing that beacon.