The New York Times recently highlighted some of the major issues regarding food security, including water reuse, soil retention, waste nutrient capture and seed banking. Resilience to climate change comes from unique solutions and reliance on “dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have [revitalized and enhanced with modern technology].”
CLIMATE CHANGE AND PLANT TOLERANCES
Norman Borlaug’s concern for food security, and the resulting Green Revolution, dealt with quantity in relation to population. Today food security relates to quality and location. The mass production monoculture system of agribusiness is a major contributor to food insecurity. Mass production of food and associated long distances between farm and table (storefront) have created a new set of challenges related to how monocultures impact geography and nutrient quality in food. Agribusiness is incredibly petroleum dependent – from the direct fuel for large machinery and water pumping to the indirect use for creation of synthetic fertilizers. All of these factors put this style of farming at risk.
Many proponents of agribusiness believe that the solution to the impending climate threats on food security can be solved through continual genetic modification of crops. Solutions proposed by the agribusiness system are little more than band-aids for symptoms, not solutions to core problems. Organizations like the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project propose a return to small scale, poly-cultured, local permaculture farm plots, urban and rural, as the key to resiliency. Best known leaders of these specific agricultural techniques are Polyface, Growing Power and The Plant, and Michael Pollan is a well known advocate.
The following points are designed to highlight to a few of these issues.
One of the challenges in fighting the subsidization of corn and soy are actually the non-food products and feed grains that are generated from the monocultures producing these crops. Subsidies for feed corn override the availability of subsidies for small scale, localized and diverse crop farming. Feed crop production, and agribusiness as a whole, have huge lobby clout. The side-effect of this industry is the mass production of low-nutrient, easily packaged food stuffs that spins into over-availability and low cost of these food products – like HFCS. Basically why a bag of Cheetos is cheaper than a stalk of broccoli, and certainly cheaper than a stalk of organic broccoli. The producers of the two documentaries Food Inc. and Fresh have put together a concise fact sheet on these issues.
It used to be common practice that farmers would store a certain percent of their crop as seed stock for the next year, and a lot of crop hybridization came from this practice. There is a major battle between GMO seed companies and farmers about the rights to store seeds and having local seed repositories. The biggest challenges for monocultures is combating mass spread of fungus and insect populations, because both go through many life cycles (and opportunities for response genetic mutation) in the single life cycle of a crop. Seed banks not only create a genetic repository for future hybridization efforts that would be required by a response to major climate impacts, but are also an insurance policy against the unthinkable scenarios that end civilizations. There has been talk about having a seed bank on the moon, even though there are a lot of logistical challenges that accompany this idea.
THE PATENTS ON LIVING ORGANISMS
The biggest argument for the need for seed banks has to do with the fact that it is legal to patent life by placing gene markers into the RNA of the seeds they engineer/genetically modify. This opens the door for companies to sue farmers for growing GMO seeds (usually round-up ready are the most controversial) without paying the company holding the patent. The fallout is that nature will cross pollinate, and a field can end up having a marker without the farmer’s intent. While Vernon Hugh Bowman’s case is not the best example it does get at the issue.
GMO IS NOT THE SOLUTION TO CLIMATE CHALLENGES
While the potential health risks have been debated, the biggest concern is the potential to engineer invasives that cannot be controlled. There was a recent issue in Oregon where 8 years after Monsanto’s last field trials, a group of GMO wheat plants volunteered themselves in a farmer’s field that were confirmed to be Roundup Ready. “Nobody knows how widely this genetically engineered wheat has spread, and whether it’s been in fields of wheat that were harvested for food.” Maybe the economics of GMOs will finally make some waves with policy makers in the US, because the EU and Japan do not purchase or condone genetic modification.