Addressing the wrong questions

June 2014

Two demonstrators hold a placard which says real food not fake, save the bee, protect, not profit
March against Monsanto Washington, US October 2013.
CC photo: Stephen Melkisethian on Flickr
In 2008, US food writer, Michael Pollan, produced an “Eater's Manifesto” whose short answer to the question of healthy eating was: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
He says now “The fact that it was even noteworthy is what's noteworthy about it. It's a measure of how perplexed we've become about food as a result of what the food industry has done. You have to be pretty lost for that to come as news.”

How did Americans become so lost that they don't know what food is, nor know when their bodies have had enough of it? (And the rest of the world seems to be fast following them down that path.)

Pollan notes that the US Administration is intent on the question of how to reform health care (a.k.a picking up the pieces after its people have eaten themselves sick), instead of the question of reforming eating habits to prevent the healthcare problem arising in the first place.

That the wrong question is being addressed seems to be due to Washington's apparent fear of the food producers.

Disturbingly, this fear seems a product of democracy (as practised in the USA).  

Basically, a challenge to personal food choices is “getting a little intimate”, and so politicians steer clear of the subject. Social engineering at all levels of the food supply system (from farm subsidies and commercial seed availability to product positioning on the supermarket shelves) is firmly in place and blatant, but goes unnoticed. “But as soon as it's done by elected officials on our behalf, it's anathema”, and a great vote-loser. The conundrum of how to please the food industry which wants to grow and use GM crops, while not being seen to be force-feeding the public a diet they might not want, has been solved by avoiding GM labelling at all costs: what voters don't know might, indeed, hurt them but it won't change their voting habits.

The reality of GM agriculture in a nutshell is that the promises of less need for pesticides and higher yields which sold it to the regulators and farmers “haven't come true save in isolated cases”. What has resulted from GM crops with their attached patents is “dramatic consolidation” of agri-supply companies. GM reality is a complete corporate control of what's grow and eaten, accompanied by an increased use of pesticides. And it's the same few companies who are profiting from supplying both the biotech seed and the chemicals. In this scheme, there's no actual incentive to supply high-yielding seed, nor seed which need less pesticides.

Behind the industry scare-mongering of how to feed the growing world population, “the problem being solved wasn't a problem in how we grow food, but in how companies grow profits”.

Put another way, “Capitalism is very powerful. But it solves its own problems, not always ours”.

To increase food supplies by industrial methods involves high-yielding crops which will need lots of water and lots of fertiliser. Super-sized plants have weakened defences, so they need lots of pesticides and an environment which doesn't change too much. Until the global resources actually run out, the first few of these needs (good seed, water, fertiliser and pesticides) can be addressed by technology, including GM, but the last one, environmental capriciousness, can't.

Environmental fluctuations are a fact of life which can only be addressed using buffers which can alter in step with the surroundings. A healthy, living soil undamaged by chemicals and full of organic matter is “an incredible buffer against climate problems”. Organic methods are also the only truly sustainable system.

“The question may really be not whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world, but can anything except sustainable agriculture feed the world.”

The further conundrum here is that, if you put plants with artificial DNA into a healthy soil, the nature and balance of soil-life which forms it and lives in it will be altered both by horizontal gene transfer and by feeding off the altered plant matter. There's no common-sense reason to suppose that GM-altered soil will ever by healthy, nor support healthy plants. And there's no reason to suppose that our GM-fed bodies with ever be healthy either.

Want to put some flies in the US GM industry/government ointment?

Americans are “largely ignorant” (USDA) about the GM content of their food [1]. Right now, there's a rising wave of awareness and an increasing demand for transparent food labelling. Catch that tide.

If you have friends, relatives, or colleagues in the US make sure they know the realities of their food.

A good place to start is to follow the US Organic Consumer's Association's News Bytes and on-going campaign at
  • Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food, 2008, ISBN 978-1-846-14096-9
  • Ezra Klein, Big Food: Michael Pollan thinks Wall Street has way too much influence over what we eat,, 23.04.14

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