Robert Indiana, Eat/Die, 1962.
Award-winning journalist Tamar Haspel makes the case in her latest Washington Post column for exchanging our polarizing arguments about food issues for debates about stuff that really matters.
As polarizing ideas go, . . . the green revolution’s got nothing on genetically modified crops, and in Africa, as here [USA], that topic is dominating the debate about food. And there, as here, GMOs are a proxy for the excesses and dangers of an industrialized food system.
In the United States, that means we’re having all the wrong debates.
‘We’re arguing about whether genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have increased or decreased pesticide use, rather than trying to figure out how systems such as integrated pest management can help farmers grow food with fewer chemicals. We’re arguing over how evil Monsanto is, rather than asking how government can effectively regulate a system in which corporate, agricultural, consumer and environmental goals are often at odds. We’re wasting time, money and ever so much energy.
Take that proxy — arguing about GMOs instead of industrialized agriculture — to the developing world, and the stakes are much higher. Lives and livelihoods are on the line, and overwrought arguments about genetic modification will cost both.
‘. . . While I was in Africa, I talked with scientists who were trying to improve agriculture from just about every angle. Some organizations have opted against using genetic modification (as AGRA has); Ravi Prabhu, at the World Agroforestry Centre, is looking for ways to improve farm productivity by incorporating trees. Others are going the GM route; Leena Tripathi, at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, has developed a banana resistant to bacterial wilt. Nobody was very focused on genetic modification per se; they were all too busy solving problems. . .
‘After spending many hours talking with scientists, touring labs and visiting farmers, I came away convinced that the most important conversation we can have isn’t about GMOs, and it’s not about traditional crop varieties. It’s not about corporate control of the food supply, and it’s certainly not about dignity. It’s about money. Because there’s one thing — and, as far as I can tell, only one — that we absolutely cannot export to the developing world, and that’s the idea of farms that don’t make any. . . .
Widening options to help farmers lift themselves out of poverty is, I think, about as honorable as work gets. Any attempt to narrow them is advocacy gone awry.
Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. Unearthed, winner of a 2015 James Beard Foundation award for the nation’s best food column, appears monthly in the Washington Post. Follow Haspel on Twitter: @TamarHaspel