Saturday, September 12, 2015

Cheap Food--Friend or Foe?

At the beginning of the semester, I was enrolled in both an organic gardening class through the Horticulture Department as well as international trade and development course for my Masters in Applied Economics here at Virginia Tech. The first few weeks were super exciting and there was a lot of discussion and overlap on how far food and agriculture has come in both classes, but with two very different contexts.

Image result for international agriculture and. us agricultureIn the international trade and development course, the focus was on how countries develop differently and what the key factors are that lead to some countries like the US and most in the European Union to have become developed, versus countries that remain developing like India and many African and Asian countries. These key factors included political climates, education, and of course agriculture, among many others. As you look into the literature surrounding development, you'll find that developing agriculture and increasing access to food, and hence reducing hunger, is absolutely key to moving a country forward. The professor of this course continues to do research and is constantly traveling abroad and even spent many years in the Peace Corps, developing agriculture in impoverished countries. He spent most of the class referring back to his personal experiences, and needless to say, I left the class pretty inspired by the role agriculture plays in the global context and all we still have left to do to empower people out of poverty and into thriving economies.

The next day, I had my organic gardening class. The class was structured around the history of agriculture, mostly in the United States, from subsistence gardening and farming throughout the 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th century, to consolidation in the late 19th and 20th century to agricultural technology development, urban migration, and the current state of agriculture-- ie less farms, more food, and the average American being 2-3 generations off the farm, and thus fairly disconnected from their food origins.

All of this was a good reminder of the changes agriculture, specifically in the United States has undergone, but there was one comment the instructor made that made me pause. He referenced to the fact that as farming technologies have been developed and agriculture in the United States has become more efficient, our food has become cheap. At this point I was thinking "Yes! American farmers provide the safest, most affordable and most abundant food in the world!" But he followed that with "why would we want food, an essential component to our being to be 'cheap'. Of all things we consume, the one thing we actually put into our bodies shouldn't be 'cheap.'" I hadn't really thought of the low food prices we as US consumers pay in this way before. In a lot of ways, he was right, usually we don't associate cheap with a positive connotation, and of course, I want to put the best quality product on my plate. But this comment also bothered me, as it discredits the main point of economic development and the hard work of American farmers.

When we go back to the literature, one of the main goals of developing countries is to make food "cheaper" and more affordable so less people go hungry, more energy can be spent on education and increasing other industries, and economies thus flourish. So in essence, the United States mastered this and because of all the advancements and "cheap" food, we are the most well off country and the super power we are today.

However, I do recognize that this "cheap" food has come at a price and there is a lot of work and improvement to be made within US agriculture to make it more sustainable and responsible. We do see the trend towards what some consumers perceive as better quality food in the form of organic, non-GMO, local, and other value added food products. In essence, this is our way of pushing back against "cheap" food, but the whole reason we can afford to pay the premium for this food lifestyle is because of the increased incomes and better economies we have, which of course gets linked back to our agriculture development from the beginning. So what I'm getting at here is that everything comes full circle and we shouldn't bash the current food system we have, because it leaves room for everyone to make food choices that best fit their income and lifestyle.

Some may then say that everyone should have access to the best quality food, that it is a basic human right. And I agree. There is still a lot of work to do in bringing fresh produce and vegetables and healthier choices into food deserts, but we also have to recognize that this comes at a cost not everyone can afford--at least not at this very moment. However, I believe that US farmers--big, small, old, young, organic, and conventional--will make this happen so that everyone has access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food that will never have a negative connotation of being "cheap."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 3: GMO Myths and Facts

I'm not one to reinvent the wheel, so for this post, I wanted to share with you a video and two articles that I have found which are really eyeopeners to the GMO debate and many myths that surround them. Check out this video first:

These next two articles give further explanation into other claims that just aren't true or fully explained. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn more:

However, I have decided to highlight a few myths and give you the facts as I have come to understand them:

Myth #1: GMOs cause cancer: FALSE--there has been no scientific linkage between consuming GMO products and cancer. GMO research has actually been useful in helping understand BRCA mutations which in turn could lead to better cancer treatments and even possibly a cure with enough time and resources dedicated. Stay tuned for a post dedicated to this topic in the future!

Myth #2: GMOs are responsible for more herbicide use: Maybe--the most popular GMOs have been created to be pest resistant (meaning less pesticides--yay!) but also herbicide resistant (meaning the farmer can spray the crops and weeds more without killing the crop--not so good). BUT, you should keep in mind that herbicides are expensive and farmers don't want to spend more money than they need to AND they strive to have the best quality products and be good stewards of the land, so it is unlikely they are spraying tons of unnecessary herbicide. I love this quote from the recent Slate article put out by William Saletan: "The more you learn about herbicide resistance, the more you come to understand how complicated the truth about GMOs is. First you discover that they aren’t evil. Then you learn that they aren’t perfectly innocent. Then you realize that nothing is perfectly innocent. Pesticide vs. pesticide, technology vs. technology, risk vs. risk—it’s all relative. The best you can do is measure each practice against the alternatives. The least you can do is look past a three-letter label."
Myth #3: Monsanto will take over the world: Unlikely--Monsanto, DuPont, and other big ag companies don't have evil intentions. All these companies are made up of people just like you and me who have families and want to do good in this world. Yes, farmers may have to buy seed every year, but it takes huge investment on the part of these companies to create better yielding crops that allow for less inputs and more profit for the farmer, while also feeding a growing world. 

Myth #4: GMOs decrease genetic variability: Maybe-I heard this argument for the first time last week. A colleague of mine mentioned that his wife was concerned that if crops are genetically modified, then the DNA will be the same and should a disease come, it could wipe out the whole crop completely. She was also concerned regarding "inbreeding" of such similar crops and the negative side effects of crop existence and quality. I think there is some merit to this concern, however, that's the beauty in heirloom varieties that many farmers are working hard to preserve. In addition, when a GMO crop comes out, there has been research on many other varieties as well, which may have the option to also become commercially available. 

Image result for monarch butterflyMyth #5: GMOs are responsible for the pollinator crisis: Not Entirely--While there has been some concern of milkweed being contaminated with Bt corn pollen, which then in turn affects Monarch butterflies, there isn't a direct relationship between GMOs and pollinator decline. The bigger concern is the loss of pollinator habitat from increased monoculture. Monoculture and increased urbanization has led to a decline in natural bee habitat, which is more directly related to the decline of pollinators. I'll be putting out an article with more details on this soon!

It would be wrong to say that GMOs are completely innocent, but so would saying that a world of non-GMOs would be better. As with anything in life, the GMO debate is a balancing act and all perspectives and consequences must be evaluated.

The last and final part of the GMO low down will feature practical advice when shopping in the grocery store and some clarity on many of labels you see on food products!