Let's link together two food and environmental issues getting some much needed light shone upon them this October: 1) labeling of genetically modified food -- currently mandated in the EU and many other nations, but not in the United States; and, 2) factory farming -- behind the 20% rise in global meat consumption over the past decade, and an utter disaster for both animal welfare and the environment as a whole.
Everyone Deserves To Know What Food They're Eating
Blog Action Day 2011, October 16th, falls smack in the middle of what's been promoted as Non-GMO Month. The organizers describe the project as "a non-profit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO sources." The Non-GMO Project site says, "Our shared belief is that everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified organisms."
Driving the message home is a 300+ mile march from New York City to Washington DC demanding the labeling of GM ingredients. They reach the White House on October 16th.
Over Half of Americans Wouldn't Eat GM Foods, If They Knew About It
Even though the US produces the greatest number of GMO crops in the world (94% of soybeans, 90% of cotton, and 80% grown in the US are genetically modified), this fact is, I'd argue, deliberately hidden from the public by the companies developing and promoting these crops. Claiming that genetically modified crops are no different than conventional bred hybrid crops, companies like Monsanto have actively lobbied to prevent labeling of GM foods in the US -- even though a CBS News poll has shown that 87% of Americans want GMO ingredients labeled.
No doubt part of the reason for the opposition to labeling is related to another stat coming from the same poll: 53% of Americans would not buy genetically modified food if they knew that's what it was.
GM Crops Benefit Companies Producing Them More Than People
Though proponents of GMO technology unfailing claim that such agricultural "advances" are needed to feed the 7 billion (and still growing) people on this planet -- and well-meaning organizations such as the Gates Foundation push it on poor nations, much in the same way international lending organization such as the World Bank mistakenly did with export-led development in previous decades -- the fact is that genetically modified crops in the balance fare no better than conventionally-bred crops in terms of crop yield or climate resistance. And with a tiny number of exceptions GM crops end up feeding livestock and not people.
A better solution would be reversing the tragic trend of consolidating agricultural cultivation into a shockingly small number of crop varieties, instead preserving heirloom and locally adapted varieties (with a priority towards ones that are climate-resistant). Doing so we'll have a far better chance of preserving food producing in a changing climate and thereby reduce global food insecurity.
What GMOs do do though is make a lot of money for their developers in terms of seed sales (GM seed can't be collected and saved like conventional seed has been for millennia) and in selling pesticides (to which most GM crops have been bred to resist).
It all comes down to control and commodification of nature. GM seeds can be patented; conventionally-bred seeds cannot.
Factory Farming, Too, Is About Commodification of Nature
Factory farming comes from the same disrespect of nature and disregard for our fellow conscious, living beings with which we share Earth.
At the end of October, Arlington, Virginia will see what's being billed as the first-ever National Conference to End Factory Farming. TreeHugger is a media partner of the event, and I'll be in attendance.
It's all organized by Farm Sanctuary and backed by the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, Compassion in World Farming, Mercy For Animals, and a number of other environmentally-aware non-profits and for-profits. If you're interested in attending, here's the info: National Conference to End Factory Farming: Registration
Here's how the goals are presented:
Over the past few decades, the rise of factory farming has institutionalized animal cruelty, caused massive environmental destruction and resource depletion, and posed a constant threat to human and animal health. While there are a wide range of reasons to speak out against this detrimental system, it is clear that many experts and movement leaders today share a common goal: To end factory farming.
No doubt, apologists for factory farming argue along similar lines as GMO proponents that it is only with cruel industrialized, technologized, commodified, production of meat and dairy products that the growing human population can be fed. They obviously wouldn't described their technologies and methodologies as I have, but I believe as objective analysis as can be done bears out my characterization.
A recent Worldwatch report copiously lists the problems with factory farming and increasing levels of meat consumption. A host of environmental and health problems -- from climate change, to deforestation, to water pollution, to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer -- all increase significantly. Currently global livestock production, increasingly intesified under factory farming, is responsible for (conservatively) 18% of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Consider that in the United States some 80% of all antibiotics used are used on livestock. Then consider that 75% of those antibiotics, the report notes, "are not absorbed by the animals and are excreted in waste, posing a serious risk to public health."
It's just an ugly, ugly situation. And there's a better way.
While I'm personally a vegetarian and think it's the best diet for human health (in most cases), environmental protection, and spiritual development, I also recognize that my path isn't necessarily for everyone. There are different points of focus within the sustainable agriculture, environmentally-aware diet picture.
Fortunately, as the same Worldwatch report also highlights, even if you just reduce meat and dairy consumption, there's a better way to raise those animals (for both their welfare and the environment). It says:
Eating organic, pasture-raised livestock can alleviate chronic health problems and improve the environment. Grass-fed beef contains less fat and more nutrients than its factory-farmed counterpart and reduces the risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. Well-managed pasture systems can improve carbon sequestration, reducing the impact of livestock on the planet. And the use of fewer energy-intensive inputs conserves soil, reduces pollution and erosion, and preserves biodiversity.
To restate the thread tying this all together:
Factory Farming & GMOs Rooted In Outmoded Worldviews
Both genetically modified crops and factory farming are relics of what I can only describe as an outdated, unenlightened view of the natural world and those creatures that make it up. It is a worldview ignorantly compartmentalized in its thinking, failing to recognize the profound ecological, physical and metaphysical connections between all of life on this planet. It is a worldview which views non-human life only as a commodity valued by human utility. It goes against the implications of the latest research into animal cognition and emotion, ecology, theoretical quantum physics -- as well as ancient insights into the nature of being itself beyond the material.
In short, for the sake of people, the planet and all of life, we need neither genetically modified crops nor factory farming. We can and must do better.