Tag Archives: food policy

Non-GMO Cheerios: Something to Cheer About?

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The news that General Mills is going to eliminate genetically modified elements from their line of Original Cheerios was greeted with cheers by many. If true, it would represent a big change in the way the cereal is produced. But how big is this change, I wondered.  Reading closely we find that the main ingredient, oats, were not GM anyway, it is the corn starch and sugar that are being sourced differently and this will only happen for the Original line not for others like Honey Nut, Fruity Cheerios , Apple Cinnamon etc. It is, then, only a small tweak in only one cereal, right. Wait, there is more: on her blog, the Farmer’s Daughter  USA quotes Margaret Smith, Professor of Plant Breeding at Cornell University.

“In reality, Cheerios isn’t changing at all. Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell says:

Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a non-genetically engineered variety.

It is the exact same cereal.”

The statement from the company seems to indicate that the corn and sugar General Mills uses in future will be conventional, non-GMO (there is no mention of use of organic crops). The main reason for using GM corn is to prevent crop loss to pests,  not world domination ,as so much of anti-GMO propaganda insists. So, how are the pests going to be dealt with? Would this mean increased pesticide use to prevent crop losses? Everyone agrees this is not such a good thing: for the farmers who have to handle and apply the stuff, for the consumers or for the planet. The use of non-GMO crops involves a real cost in terms of crop loss which in turn would impact prices of these crops and the quantities produced, more here.  For example, if in a given year,  x hectares of corn was planted with the expectation of a yield of  y tonnes, and the yield is lower due to crop loss to pests; global demand for corn stays ahead of global supply, next year the farmers might respond by growing x+some hectares by cutting down forests. That is not a great outcome. Would it be better to switch to organic corn and sugar? There are doubts about organic cultivation bringing in the required yields . Besides, organic farming also uses pesticides, just different ones from those in conventional farms.

So far, none of this is positive. And the question remains, why this decision now? What does the producer get out of this?  Well, the company can, for example, put on a big label on its package saying “No GMOs Used” (or something to that effect). This highlights exactly my misgivings with the labeling issue. Basically  a label can obscure as much as it reveals. Consumers, overwhelmed with all the fear mongering on the GMO issue might be persuaded to buy more of what they think is “safer” for their families. This means more sales and more profits, good news for the company.While General Mills has a big chunk of the market, its share has slipped in 2013 (by a tiny bit) and this would be a good time to bump up the numbers.

Just as the insistence on a tortuous and long drawn out approval process for GMO crops tips the balance in favor of big corporations; the clamor for labeling can also have unintended consequences. It will make a difference , yes, but to the big  producers and not to the consumer. Not much to cheer about, after all.

Does Reading Blog Posts Change Your Mind?

 

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A bit of introspection brought about by the cheery wishes from WordPress because Thought+Food had completed another year. Even  with the stats and the kind comments, sometimes one  does get the “shouting into the wilderness” feeling. Who is reading this and do they keep any of it with them once they are done?  Hopefully , they do! even if for a short while. One would have to be Michael Pollan to leave an impact that lasts for a year, apparently.

And while food policy in this country and the world continues on its  incomprehensible way, there will be a huge motivation to write about it in the hope of bringing some change. Thanks for joining me on this journey!

GMOs: The View From Italy

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Absorbed as we tend to be in our own food system battles: food safety, labeling, etc; we tend to forget that similar struggles are taking place elsewhere. I always tend to think of Europe as solidly anti-GM although, there is a lively debate on right now in the UK, for example, on the adoption of GM technology. So, this piece on the import of GM corn by Italy was illuminating. First, the elaborate dance around growing/importing GM corn even when the current corn crop has been devastated by pests is entertaining to read. Also, I learnt that several countries in the EU do grow or import GM crops, somehow working through loopholes in the regulations banning this technology. And, finally, a familiar picture: no one is listening to what the farmers have to say. The final scene in the drama played out thus: Italian pigs will be fed GM corn imported from the US (but what will this mean for future prosciutto?!), while Italian farmers are left to deal with the consequences of a failed harvest. Too bad they cannot blame it all on Monsanto!

Drought, Hunger and Syria

 

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Looking at the news these days, it seems that the world is just coming apart and understanding all of this is impossible. But it is also difficult to turn away from, so I started reading this piece to learn about the situation in Syria. And when I came to point 6, I had to stop and read it again. How did I not know this already?

There was a severe drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 which disrupted the rural economy. Lack of water meant that farmers lost their livelihoods and migrated to the cities to get whatever jobs they could, to keep their families from starving. The Syrian government, meanwhile, decided to sell off the grain reserves.  Already unsuccessful in dealing with the drought crisis, it now had no food to offer its citizens and had to import food. This, obviously, was not a viable solution and it is easy to see why violence, fed by this and other factors, has broken out.

Two things come to mind here: the issue of climate change and the breakdown of Syria’s food production system has largely remained invisible in the discussions on military action. How could a calamity that resulted in an estimated 2 to 3 million people being reduced to “extreme poverty”, have remained unnoticed?  And, for the future: as the impact of climate change on our food system becomes more intense;  this situation ,with minor changes in variables, could be repeated across the globe. What will we do then?

It is time to put the food system at the center of any debate on the future. If we talk of dealing with climate change, let us start by recognizing its crucial impact on how we grow food, if we want a more equal world, let us ensure that its roots lie in a just and fair food system, and if we want a secure world, food security needs to be the first step.

Another Green Revolution in India?

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In the 1960s, India was facing  a severe food shortage. The Indian economy was decimated by 200 years of colonial rule and the 3 wars fought after gaining Independence in 1947. The country was struggling to grow enough food to feed its people and did not have the resources to import food either. Finally, it was food aid under the US PL480 program that enabled India to to stave off the threat of starvation for millions.  It was in this situation that India decided to adopt Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed variety of medium wheat and what is known as the Green Revolution got its start. As productivity increased, so did rural incomes and many lives that might have been lost to famine were saved.

Despite the criticisms that have since been directed at this program, the enormous good that it did cannot be denied. This video captures the sense of what the adoption of this technology meant to India. While it highlights Dr. Borlaug’s efforts, what struck me most was the enthusiasm of the farmers for innovation, the openness to technology and the unsettling awareness that the path to adoption of technology today may be more difficult. Fifty years ago the decisions about farming were the domain of the farmer who had the knowledge to make those decisions, today the scenario is fraught with those who trust neither science nor those who have grown our food for years (in the case of Indian family farmers, this would mean over centuries!).

Bangladesh Gets Bt Brinjal

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It has been a recurring theme here at Thought+Food that the debates going on about the food system should not be overwhelmed by special interest groups. Instead, there must be room for the farmer to make her voice heard. This piece from a farmer in India who looks on in frustration as Bt Brinjal is being adopted in Bangaladesh while it has been blocked in India by the fear mongering of  anti biotech interests drives home this point. If anyone thinks we can solve our food problems by shutting out the very people who grow the food, then the road to reform and progress will be long one indeed.

India’s “Right to Food” Debate

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My vacation mornings here, in India, are usually spent in a leisurely session of  sharing newspapers with my father. As I read, I am fascinated  by the lively debate around the Food Security Bill. which basically ensures the right to a certain amount of food for everyone. The discussion is quite sharply divided among those who feel that these would amount to hand-outs and create the Indian version of  “takers”, a term familiar to us from the recent US election. The other side argues that despite impressive growth in recent years, the benefits remain limited to a few sections while most Indians, specially in the rural areas; live in crippling poverty without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity and education. Some effort, they argue, is required on the part of the state that everyone can partake of the growth pie.

This debate is front and centre right now because the political parties are using it in one way or other to substantiate their position in the upcoming elections; the ruling party is pushing for it and worked around the problem of passing it in Parliament by getting it passed as an executive order. This would be applicable for 6 months, close enough to the elections for those in power to claim it as their record. Others think this a bad idea for several reasons: difficulty in deciding eligibility, execution of the program through the existing, leaky public distribution system, cost to the taxpayer etc. But it is simply the more visible version of an underlying dilemma: should India pursue growth alone and let the results work out for themselves or should social goals like education, sanitation etc. be actively pursued by the state? And it is one that reflects the differing attitudes to economic development in India, presented in an excellent article here.

Despite the differences on the ground between India and the US there are ways in which they echo each other: a certain impatience/indifference to those who are struggling. The “if they were any good they would have pulled themselves out, instead they are holding us back” school of thought has supporters everywhere it seems; the ability to ignore increasing inequality is global and the willingness to exploit the issues for political points is robust on every continent.

A very good summary of the debate  can be found here.

“I Have Measured Out My Life With Coffee Spoons”

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T.S.Elliot spoke for so many of us when he wrote that, but now, this warm indulgence so crucial in equipping us to fight the cruel world is under threat.  Coffee plants in Central America  face the possibility of being wiped out by a pathogen called Coffee Leaf Rust (Hemileia vastatrix).  This pathogen was earlier responsible for the devastation of coffee plantations in Ceylon.  Is there a way to avoid this? Yes, it can be dealt with by using a synthetic fungicide called Triazaline. The problem? Coffee drinkers in the US and other prosperous countries want their coffee to be organic. The organic fungicide that is used by farmers who grow organic coffee is copper based, much less effective and the run off from the plants poses environmental problems. Most of the organic coffee is grown by smallholder farmers who would lose their organic certification if they used the synthetic fungicide. However, if they had the option of using the synthetic fungicide  solely in order to deal with this crisis, they could save their crop (coffee is grown from seeds which could be saved from the current year’s crop) and be re-certified after 3 years. But faced with the consistent insistence on the organic label, these smallholder farmers may have to lose their livelihood.

How important is the “organic” label anyway? We already know the organic fungicide is not a good option. For farmers to receive certification, they have to pay stiff fees which puts a huge burden on them. Unless the coffee is shade grown, it means forest cover has been cut down to make way for farms (even organic ones) which is not environmentally optimal. Often, middlemen buy from the poor, smallholder farmers paying them a fraction of what this coffee will eventually earn in a market driven by the drinking tastes of consumers who remain unaware of the ground reality of those who produce the coffee.

Colombian coffee growers with the help of their government were able to eradicate leaf rust. Could these results be replicated elsewhere? I am still trying to research what methods were used there. Accessible and detailed information on the leaf rust issue is here at Applied Mythology. Solutions are available, the outcome is not inevitable. In this as in so many problems with the food system today, two things are essential: first, the voice of the farmer has to be heard on par with the consumer; second, a pragmatic perspective that brings us a good outcome for all and not just a few privileged people.  Otherwise those coffee spoons might just be left there, unused…

Bananas for Mother’s Day

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Flowers are traditional, yes, but this Mother’s Day I am thinking about bananas. Specifically, the plan to grow iron fortified bananas in India.This plan, predictably, is being met with resistance in some quarters. But, first, some background: India is the world’s largest producer of  bananas and almost all of it is consumed domestically. India also has a very high incidence of anemia. The India Human Development Report 2011 noted that approximately 55-35% of women in the age group 15-49 were anemic and this number had increased  by 3% from 1998-99.  Anemia in pregnant women increases the possibility of pre-term or low birth rate babies. It also implies less than optimal development in utero which means that the physical and mental development of  a new generation is impaired and the cycle of poor health outcomes continues. We also need to consider  a new variable in all of this: climate change.  It is predicted that climate change will have critical impact on maternal and new born health from adverse environmental consequences. It would make sense, therefore, to give special attention to improving maternal health before the worst of the crisis is here.

Given this scenario it makes sense that the Indian government has approved a project for the transfer of technology from Australia to grow iron and nutrient fortified bananas. Bananas, grown locally and easily available, would be an ideal way to meet the nutrient needs of women suffering from anemia. And  where a busy mom pressed for time may not have time to prepare an iron-rich dish separately, she can always grab a banana on the go.

It has, however, been met, with resistance from groups that claim that the “indigenous biodiversity” which is supposedly sufficient for India’s nutritional needs will be “destroyed” and suspect a plot by dark forces to take over the banana domain in the country which is the biggest producer of the fruit. Well, if the indigenous bounty of nature would have been sufficient, we would not be facing these alarming  health statistics. Clearly, women’s diets still remain nutrient deficient and this needs to be addressed. The indigenous variety does not have the same iron content as the fortified one, of course, and none of these critics seem to have suggested any options for either increasing access to indigenous bananas or meeting the nutrient needs in any other way.

To understand the threat to biodiversity, I started researching banana cultivation and found that this is done by planting stem cuttings, so the possibility of threat to the native species is hard to discern. The other fear that this will result in “monocultures” is not a significant one because the most widely eaten banana on the planet is already the Cavendish, the kind familiar to us from grocery stores. In addition , some local varieties are grown in several countries but one variety of banana seems to be dominant already. The technique to fortify bananas already exists and we can speculate that the time taken to bring the fruit to the market would not be that long, so that some improvement in health outcomes might be expected despite the expected adverse impact of climate change in the coming years.

Along with the adoption of fortified bananas,efforts should also be made to revive indigenous iron rich crops which have been overshadowed in recent years.This is not an either/or situation, we can and should take advantage of all the solutions available to us. Certainly we need to protect biodiversity but we cannot overlook the health of mothers and children which will determine how strong our next generation will be. An interesting example in this regard is that of Uganda: faced with banana wilt which was destroying crops and could have resulted in the abandoning of banana cultivation, scientists have developed a variety with a sweet pepper gene which stays can combat banana wilt. Better a GM banana than none at all in a country which prides itself on its banana tradition.

Just like biotechnology, the celebration of Mother’s Day in India in recent years is sometimes criticized  as a western import, alien to indigenous traditions. So it is fitting that my wish for all the moms on this Mother’s Day is that India does grow fortified bananas and we have healthier moms and babies in the future.

The Price of Fear

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An interesting piece on the price we pay for our fears, in The European Magazine. This question is central today in much of the issues being debated in the food world. There is distrust of biotechnology because there is no way to prove that they are “completely” safe. If its not food, then its public health which is vulnerable to fear and distrust.The irrational (and, as proven recently,) baseless fear of vaccination is being blamed for a measles epidemic in Wales and also a persistent Pertussis outbreak in the US. Why have we become so fearful?

If our ancestors had not been adventurous and ready to take a risk, we would be living in a very different world. One where we would never have been to the Moon because no one could show conclusively that it was safe to travel there or even tried a fruit like the rambutan which, looks somewhat scary but is actually delicious.

When new seeds and fertilizers were introduced to the Indian farmer in 1963, they too may have been fearful but they adopted this technology thereby bringing in the Green revolution that ultimately saved so many from hunger, malnutrition and untimely death. Instead of obsessing about what is on my plate and in my food, can we agree to try something that might provide solutions for those who have nothing on their plates? At this point in the discussion usually some one jumps up to say that production alone cannot solve the problems of the food system. I could not agree more but I would point out that by spending all our time and energy talking about GM food/organic cultivation/local or not, we have little left to spend on enormously important matters like consumption patterns, food waste, or malnutrition, among others. That is also part of the price we pay for being fearful , we are left with less than optimal solutions because we did not use our time and resources wisely.

And we can start with baby steps, perhaps move on produce item from the organic to regular column on our grocery list and try that or trace a news report to the actual study they are talking about and decide for oneself what to believe. And if you should choose conventional watermelon instead of organic this week,  you could  also try out this watermelon stroller, bringing you portable and chilled watermelons just in time for picnic season!