Monday, July 28, 2008

Musings: Pretty Little Dream

A cool, wet night shifted almost imperceptibly into a cooler, wetter dawn that morphed into a quiet Monday morning, just the kind I like. Koko and I slipped out briefly, during a slight lull in the downpour, and it did my heart good to see my taro plants already rejuvenated from a couple of hours of heavy rain.

You can irrigate plants all you like, but if you watch them carefully, it’s obvious that rain is what they really want. It’s got stuff they need that we can’t even fathom — minus the chlorine from municipal water and the chemicals found in plastic hoses.

Looking at the perky plants all covered with raindrops got me thinking about an article that Farmer Jerry gave me a while ago, in part to convince me that scientists manipulating food crops have our best interests at heart and GMOs can play a crucial role in feeding the world.

Entitled “Ears of plenty,” and published in the Economist, which unfortunately doesn’t allow full on-line access to its stories without a subscription, it tells the story of wheat — “the strange little grass that has done so much for the human race.”

Although the author turned me off in the second paragraph by dismissing gluten allergies, which can be life-threatening, as a “fashion” making “wheat seem less wholesome,” I kept on reading about how some 11,000 years ago, people in what is now Syria began cultivating wild grass seeds, one of which “contains the identical genetic fingerprint of modern domesticated wheat.”

From there comes a fascinating tale of how wheat began to evolve and humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, with its accompanying “drudgery, subjugation and malnutrition.” The author goes on to state: “Population growth was now inevitable. Within a few generations, wheat farmers were on the march, displaying and overwhelming hunter-gatherers as they went…”

And we’ve been playing catch-up ever since, desperately trying to feed a steadily growing number of humans. As the author notes, the population crash forecast by Thomas Robert Malthus was staved off in the 19th Century by bringing more land in North America under cultivation — an action made possible, though not recorded in this article, by displacing the indigenous people and killing off the buffalo.

Then came the tractor, which the author said “released about 25 percent more land for growing food for human consumption” because draft animals no longer had to be fed.

But then soil fertility became an issue. The author notes that “British entrepreneurs scoured the old battlefields of Europe searching for phosphorus-rich bones.” Then it was on to seabird nesting islands, which were mined for guano — at an untold cost to bird populations.

When the guano ran out, the nitrate deposits in the uplands of Chile were mined. Then Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber figured out how to make nitrogen fertilizers, which at first were resisted by farmers who had the good sense to realize that “fertilizer must in some sense be alive.”

But they grew used to this synthetic substitute, and wheat was adapted to this new source of fertilizer, including several naturally-derived mutant strains developed by Norman Borlaug, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to averting famine in India.

From there, the author states, genetic modification was invented “as a gentler, safer, more rational and more predictable alternative to mutation breeding — an organic technology, in fact. Instead of random mutations, scientists could now add the traits they wanted.”

So here we are, with demographers now predicting that the population will peak below 10 billion people not long after 2050, according to the article, which goes on to state:

Of course feeding ten billion will not be trivial. It will require at least 30% more calories than the world’s farmers grow today, probably much more if a growing proportion of those ten billion are to have meat more than once a month. (It takes ten calories of wheat to produce one calorie of meat.) That will mean either better yields or less rainforest — which is why fertilizers, pesticides and transgenes are the best possible protectors of the planet.

But this article was published Dec. 24, 2005, before skyrocketing oil prices drove the cost of fertilizers made from fossil fuels right through the roof and farmers began planting crops not for food, but for biofuels, and rainforests were cut down to grow palm oil plantations, leaving the hungry among us in a decidedly more precarious place than was envisioned even two and a half years ago.

As I read this article, I wasn’t enthralled by the science that has brought us to this place but appalled by the consistent pattern of resource exploitation and human displacement — with all the concurrent wars, environmental degradation and misery — that has characterized our efforts to stay one step ahead of collapse.

And here we are still, on the very same track, now foolishly thinking the GMO crops peddled by multinational corporations driven by profit and the desire to control the world’s seeds, will be the ones to save us once again from the Malthusian crash.

The harsh reality just may be that eight billion, 10 billion, people are not sustainable on this planet, no matter how hard we try push the limits — especially when so many of us are unwilling to share what we’ve got, to give up even a little so others can have more.

But no one really wants to think about that nightmare scenario, and how we might change our course instead of following this one to its inevitable dead end. Instead, we hold on to the pretty dream that we can keep growing our way out of our woes, and that science will somehow come to the rescue.


Katy said...

Do we really want to hand over our right to food to these GMO companies? This is a classic case of "disaster capitalism."

Sorry this is long, but this is a quote from Naomi Klein, from her Democracy Now! interview on July 15:

"So now we have this other talking point that we’re hearing again and again, which is genetically modified foods can feed the world. There is no scientific evidence for this. Quite the opposite. Genetically modified seeds do not increase yields for crops. They increase profits for agribusiness companies. They simplify farming. But they don’t increase yields, and in many cases they decrease yields....
they haven’t actually figured out the technology for how to increase crop yields.

One of the things that I find really worrying is that companies—and similar to the oil crisis... we’re seeing record profits from Monsanto, from Cargill, from all the big players, in the context of the food crisis. We’re also seeing something else, which is that these companies are buying up hundreds of patents on seeds that they claim are “climate-ready.” “Climate-ready” is—we’ve heard about Roundup Ready, which means they’re ready for roundup [herbicide]; now, the new phrase is “climate ready,” which means they’re ready for climate change, which means that these seeds apparently can grow in the context of drought, can grow in the context of highly salinated earth because there’s been a flood. And Monsanto and Syngenta, other of these big biotech companies, have bought up hundreds of these patents.
And this is worrying on many levels... because, once again, we’re seeing a disincentive to actually get us out of a future of climate chaos, because we see ways to profit. But then, when we look at how aggressively we know a company like Monsanto protects its patents, when it comes to their Roundup Ready seeds, the suing of small farmers, the surveillance of farmers—there was an incredible story recently in Vanity Fair about the heavy-handed legal tactics and use of private security, just harassing farmers who dare to save their seeds from one growing season to the next, breaking Monsanto’s patent...What we’re seeing is not a future of feeding the world, but once again a future of a kind of climate apartheid, where it becomes less accessible and more expensive to have the crops that will grow in this future.

And so, I think people need to identify this right away, and the discussion needs to be about the right to food, about food being a human right. This is far too important to allow players like Monsanto to privatize the future of the crops that can grow within a context of climate change."

Anonymous said...

I don't think the right to food is a human right; rather the right to produce food is.

To view food as a human right, without factoring in the moral obligation of labor, is a lopsided equation, an equation that perfectly positions people for victimization by agribusiness. (If food minus labor is a right, then it must be "their" fault if it's tainted.)

As the 'olelo no'eau goes:

Ne huli ka lima iluna
Pololi ka 'opu.

Ne huli ka lima ilalo
piha ka 'opu.

With the hands turned up,
Hungry, the stomach.

With the hands turnd down (toward the soil)
Full, the stomach.

I wonder if Naomi Klein has a garden?

Katy said...

In other words, people who work on wall street instead of farming don't have a right to eat....sounds good!

Anonymous said...

Ya, Wall-Streeters and do-nothing blabbermouthed bloggers!!

Anonymous said...

Ya, and the do-nothing, blabbermouthed blog commenters!

Anonymous said...

unless they are also farmers.

Anonymous said...

but then they wouldn't be do-nothings, now would they?

Anonymous said...

Science won't, but neither will any other plan devised by humans.

We put our faith and trust in the Bibie and what it states the future of mankind and the planet will be.

Jeramiah 10:23 states that it is not up to man to direct his own steps.

How true!

Anonymous said...

Mal·thu·sian: \mal-ˈthü-zhən, mȯl-, -ˈthyü-\: adjective :Etymology: Thomas R. Malthus :Date: 1821

of or relating to Malthus or to his theory that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine, or war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result

— Malthusian noun
— Mal·thu·sian·ism

Anonymous said...

Hoo boy. Religion has been used as a driver to kill more people than pretty much any other reason.

Maybe that's how we cull the herd. A nice, old fashioned, religious war.

It's actually pretty easy to feed the number of people on the earth. But you can't put vast quantities of grain through cows/hogs/chickens or make biofuels out of it.

Man made fertilizers need not come from oil/natural gas/coal. Any energy source will do. Gas/Oil have just been cheap.

Katy said...

The problem isn't a lack of food, it's a system of maldistribution of the resources we have and as the comment above points out, a misguided way of wasting grain on cattle and biofuels.

We need to be aware that overheated rhetoric about the food crisis which focusses on "shortages" can set the stage for control over the food supply being put into the hands of a tiny corporate elite.

It's one of those situations where they gave us the disease and now they'll sell us the cure.

Further, rhetoric about population control can slide easily into racism and manufacture consent for deeply unjust policies. When we think about the "population boom" we tend to think about the people of the global south. We don't often think about an urgent need to sterilize the women of Europe or the United States! And we forget that the people of the global North use a vastly disproportiante amount of the world's resources, which is the main factor contributing to the current crisis.

Anonymous said...

Just because gluten allergies exist (in an infinitesimally small portion of the population) doesn't mean it's not in fashion in some circles to overstate the problem and make wheat seem less wholesome than it really is.

Ed Coll said...

It's the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and Mother Nature is up at bat.

Anonymous said...

If baseball had been invented yet that's exactly what Thomas Malthus would have said. Manufactufacturing crises is a time-worn technique for trying to impose public policy.

Joan Conrow said...

Anon wrote: Just because gluten allergies exist (in an infinitesimally small portion of the population) doesn't mean it's not in fashion in some circles to overstate the problem and make wheat seem less wholesome than it really is.

Would you care to actually provide some proof that any circle is overstating the problem? And believe me, if you had a gluten intolerance you wouldn't be so cavalier.

Anonymous said...

"actually provide some proof"

That's rich coming from this blog!

Andy Parx said...

I’m not sure which you are talking about Joan- gluten “allergies” or some sort of gluten “intolerance”. You’ve used them interchangeably.

A true gluten allergy, known as Celiac disease, is a horribly debilitating and life threatening genetic condition where anaphylaxis can occur upon ingestion of gluten. Intolerance or hyper sensitivity is extremely subjective and subject to people’s usual appalling lack of knowledge about anatomy and physiology, many times resulting in magical thinking especially when it comes to the relationship of the food we eat to the perceived effect on our bodies.

I’ve seen studies of many people who were double blind tested, using a placebo and the substance in question regarding their perceived intolerance, that showed they were not indeed intolerant to the substance they thought they were.

There are malingerers who either fake or fool themselves into thinking thy are sick. And hypochondriacs too, who actually get sick and have a major psychological component to their illness. These are serious medical problems that unfortunately do exist.

This all doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who have a hyper-sensitivity to or intolerance of gluten products. It just means that it’s probable that not all are actually intolerant. And many times that can be dangerous because it masks the real reason they “feel sick”.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Andy. Exactly right. Everybody's pet 'intolerance' is overstated.

Joan Conrow said...

actually provide some proof"

That's rich coming from this blog!

So in other words, you don't have any. I didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

"So in other words, you don't have any. I didn't think so."

You must be confusing me with anon. 7:27. I didn't say "any circle is overstating the problem." I just said it was rich you demanding proof of anything. You the innuendo queen and all.

Joan Conrow said...

Yes, you Anonymous mudslingers are difficult to keep straight.

I think you need to consult a dictionary. I don't make innuendoes. I state it flat out. And if you want to keep leveling personal attacks, like I've said before, at least have the balls to use your name.

Andy Parx said...

Now wait a minute I did not say “Everybody's pet 'intolerance' is overstated.” Each case is to be judged objectively. Many people do have sensitivities and intolerances. I may not be “allergic” to milk products but I am intolerant. But then again I don’t care for okra but that doesn’t mean I’m intolerant or hypersensitive. But I do wretch a little at the thought and smell of okra. In that sense I am a hypochondriac regarding okra- my thoughts on the subject physically make me sick when I smell okra.

How ever when it comes to insensitive louts, although I don’t really get sick I claim to get nauseous when I read stuff like you wrote. That makes me a malingerer