Are Industrial Agriculture and Genetic Modification the Answer to Feeding Humanity?
The following excerpt is from Just Cool It! A Post-Paris Agreement Game Plan, by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington (Greystone Books, 2017)
Over the past half century, the world has moved increasingly to industrial agriculture—attempting to maximize efficiency through running massive, often inhumane livestock operations; turning huge swaths of land over to monocrops requiring liberal use of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification; and relying on machinery that consumes fossil fuel and underpaid migrant workers. Industrial agriculture has made it possible to produce large amounts of food fairly efficiently, but it also comes with numerous problems: increased greenhouse gas emissions; loss of forests and wetlands that prevent climate change by storing carbon; pollution from runoff and pesticides; antibiotic and pesticide resistance; reduced biodiversity; and soil degradation, erosion, and loss. Depletion of fertile soils is especially troubling, with losses estimated to be occurring up to one hundred times faster than they can regenerate with current industrial agriculture practices. Biodiversity loss refers to both a reduction in the number of crop varieties—more than 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has vanished over the past 100 years, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization—and to reduced biodiversity among species that require diverse habitats for survival.
The “solution” many experts offer for feeding a growing human population is to double down on industrial agriculture and genetic modification. Some argue leaning more heavily on genetically modified crops, and perhaps even animals, is the only way to go. A new process called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, allows researchers to turn a specific gene on or off. It’s being touted as a way to produce “plants that can withstand what an increasingly overheated nature has in store” and create “a more nutritious yield, from less plant,” according to a 2015 Newsweek article.
Those who oppose increasing reliance on genetic modification for agriculture are often accused of being “anti-science.” Although it’s true that some activists focus on potential health impacts of eating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and many studies have found no real evidence for such impacts, the technology comes with a host of other problems, some of them intertwined with industrial agriculture itself.
Many GMO proponents point to “golden rice” to illustrate the benefits of genetic modification and to criticize “counterproductive” attitudes of anti-GMO forces. The rice, which unlike many genetically modified products, is not patented by a large company like Monsanto, is modified to produce more vitamin A, thus potentially reducing infection, disease, and blindness among poor people who don’t get enough of the vitamin. Noting that the International Rice Research Institute has itself admitted the rice hasn’t yet proven to do much if anything to address the problem, Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaigner Wilhelmina Pelegrina told the Washington Post, “Corporations are overhyping ‘Golden’ Rice to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops. This costly experiment has failed to produce results for the last 20 years and diverted attention from methods that already work. Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture.”
A number of researchers agree. Washington University researcher Glenn Stone, initially a golden rice supporter, said, “The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done.”
Industrial agriculture and increased genetic modification ignore how natural systems function and interact and assume we can do better. History shows such hubris often leads to unexpected negative results. Excessive use of pesticides such as DDT is just one example of human innovation and “dominance” over nature that came back to bite us. People thought DDT was a benign wonder chemical that would reduce diseases spread by mosquitoes and protect crops from insects. Then, in 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which showed that the chemicals bio-magnify as they move up the food chain. In other words, higher concentrations of the chemicals accumulate in fat cells of animals throughout the food chain, with the highest concentrations found in top predators, including humans. Predatory birds, such as eagles, were hit especially hard by widespread DDT use. Of course, our use of fossil fuels, once thought to be an entirely beneficial fuel that would improve lives and give people more freedom and mobility, is another example of how the lack of a full understanding of natural systems can lead to dire consequences.