Thursday, 16 January 2014

Let's break up the GMO/non-GMO monopoly on our environmental debate

Some environmentalists are rethinking their opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That's terrific. The line between GMOs and non-GMOs always was the wrong way to describe the problem our food system faces.

The best road forward for environmentalists and sustainable food thinkers is to end the monopoly that the GMO/anti-GMO fight has had on our food system debate. Like breaking up a big corporation so that smaller businesses can thrive, let us break up the GMO debate into its smaller pieces.

The highest-profile recent example of an environmentalist writer rethinking GMOs is Nathanael Johnson's six-month series at Grist. Johnson points out that GMOs are just one contributor to the many ills that have been attributed to GMOs. Hence, a world that had no GMOs would be surprisingly similar to our current world.
GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards.
This view infuriates some of the most respected people in the sustainable food movement. This week at Civil Eats, Anna Lappé describes Johnson as "meandering about in the woods for the past six months" leading to nothing more than an "attempt at a clever journalistic gesture." I read Johnson's series more favorably, and I'm not the only one. Dan Charles has a nice overview at NPR's Salt. Well, nobody said every post at Civil Eats had to be civil!

After the strong criticism, Lappé then turns to an excellent list of seven real issues at stake.
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.
This is a fine list of seven enterprises that are left behind after we break up the GMO/anti-GMO monopoly on our public debate. In a way, by focusing on seven multi-faceted challenges, rather than on the technical line between GMO and non-GMO foods, Lappé seems to me closer to Johnson than it might appear at first.

What attitude should anti-GMO environmentalists and GMO-tolerant environmentalists adopt toward each other, when they agree on these seven global challenges? I think they each should say, "Hi, friend, let's get to work!"

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