Please, Lord, don’t turn GMOs into boutique superfoods!

The United States opposes use of GMOs to increase food production in Africa. American elites may now have a reason to embrace GMOs. What if gene scientists could produce a new superfood? Guess what!  They already have produced one! It is the Indigo Tomato. It’s purple. It’s chock full of antioxidants. It would not be part of industrial agriculture. It can be grown in small quantities. It could be flown to exclusive boutiques and sold in limited amounts. It would attract outrageous prices from rich patrons who only dine on superfoods. Don’t we have enough superfoods for health snobs already? Is there room in the world for families who need enough affordable food to survive? Is it OK to take advantage of biotechnology while denying it to the starving masses?

OK, I exaggerate. The article referred to above provides an overview of the state of GMO technology. The author only uses the Indigo Tomato as an attention getter to entice her reader. I do the same with this introduction. It is a subtle form of marketing. We condemn it when a food company markets their product. We applaud it when a journalist or a blogger does the same thing. That is, unless the writer markets an idea we don’t like. Then there is ice cream that is GMO and affordable to all! Is it worth fighting over? Why would anyone want the GMO dairy dessert? Aren’t anti-GMO activists in general against ice cream, an ultra-processed food?

Is the promise of biotechnology to impoverished nations revolutionary or illusionary? Gene jockeys sold the concept of GMOs as a way to battle world hunger. Miracle seeds increase yields of local crops on marginal land. These crops can feed the food insecure in impoverished nations. GMOs thrive in drought-stricken fields with lower water requirements. Such crops resist pests and disease in weed-free fields. These advances lead to the use of fewer agricultural chemicals. Some fruits and vegetables enjoyed enhanced levels of specific vitamins and minerals. That was the vision expressed at scientific meetings where I was the outsider.

Or would biotechnology thrive only on large farms in wealthy nations? Would such changes further industrialize agriculture and expand the global food system? Foreign genes find their way onto about almost every food product in supermarkets. Most of us consume fragments of GMOs daily without knowing it. No labeling requirements distinguish GMO food from non-GMO products.

It turns out that biotechnology has been both revolutionary and illusionary. American processed foods with GMO corn or soy ingredients are revolutionary. We can only be sure if labeled non-GMO. Four produce items—GMO apples, papayas, sweet corn, and russet potatoes are for sale. For many American farmers, these seeds are critical for their survival on today’s farms. GMOs are also illusionary in combatting world hunger and improved nutritional quality.

Whom can we blame? There always needs to be someone or something to blame. Anti-GMO organizations such as Greenpeace come to mind. European governments that have kept these seeds out of Africa bear some responsibility. Large corporations did not see enough profit potential to fight the anti-GMO groups. Anti-GMO activists were successful in limiting the scope of adoption of the technology. These groups failed in stemming the industrialization of GMOs in the United States.

African child being measured for adequacy of diet
Will GMOs help improve Africa’s nutritional profile? Photo courtesy of Dick Phillips

Speaking of Africa, the battle over GMOs has begun in earnest. The debate is at a crucial point. RESOLVED: Africa should push for rapid adoption of biotechnology to transform food systems. Advocating for the Affirmative is the Cornell Alliance for Science. CAS see GMOs as the answer to food insecurity in the African continent. Representing the Negative is the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. AFSA suggests that biotechnology will lead to further industrialization of agriculture. Left behind will be African consumers, farmers, fishers, pastoralists, and women. For them agroecology is the answer to hunger on the continent. Is it Big Ag vs. the people? Or is it science vs. the tree huggers?

What is agroecology? It “is farming that ‘centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.’ ” Agroecology is our only hope to save the earth’s resources, say its advocates. It sounds nice in theory, but it is impractical counter its detractors. Nourished Planet presents the most extensive defense I have seen on agroecology. Robert Paarlberg points out weaknesses in Resetting the Table and Starved for Science. He describes cases where NGOs introduce agroecological techniques that impede crop production. In Seeds of Science Lynas cites Paarlberg to defend more use of biotechnology in Africa. Amanda Little, a skeptic of industrial agriculture, travelled to Africa. Her visit led to supporting much greater use of GMOs on the continent in The Fate of Food.

Th UN hosts a summit on this topic as I write this post. The biggest target of the opposition is Bill Gates. Defending the poor people of Africa is Marion Nestle. Both sides claim that the need is to supply the smallholder farmer with tools to succeed. Are rich nations condemning smallholder farmers to subsistence agriculture and continued food insecurity? Or is the push for massive introduction of GMOs a means to industrialize African farming? I don’t know. I am not close enough to the scene. My academic background and reading support the extended us of GMOs on the continent. Too many Africans are food insecure. Combine that with its rapid population growth, and we have a problem that needs a solution. Climate change is advancing. A direct link between food insecurity and climate change complicates solutions. We need bold action.

Golden Rice or Indigo Tomatoes? There appears to be a growing appetite for more GMO foods. The hold that anti-GMO lobby had on the conversation seems to be breaking up. There are some serious questions that need answering before we proceed. Who benefits—the rich or the poor? Rich nations enjoy the benefits of GMOs. Then why oppose use in developing nations? Can we expect poorer nations to embrace the technology? We need to get beyond binary choices like mass-produced bad/limited supply good. Slow-organic-local food systems do not fill the stomachs of hungry families. Fast-conventional-global is not always the answer either. Fresh, whole foods grown under subsistence conditions will not halt hunger. Poor infrastructure prevents crops from getting to market. Should our focus be to improve yields and nutritional quality of foods ? Or is supplying upscale communities with boutique superfoods more important? Climate change affects agriculture. What technologies will we need to keep pace?

Next week: Processed weaning foods to fight malnutrition in Africa by Allison Bechman

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