Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Rise of Frankenfood

Following up on previous posts that commented on the future of food ("The Future of Farming?" and "The Moderate Meat Movement: A New Way to Be Green"), I want to once again explore an intriguing development in the realm of food and sustainability: the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), otherwise known as "Frankenfood".

Now, I remember GMOs being an growing social issue as far back as eight years ago (with GMO corp. Monsanto as the primary villain), but with the rise of the organic and local food movements, GMOs haven't exactly been in the spotlight over the last few years. As an article in the April 12 issue of Canadian Business by Joe Castaldo describes, however, Frankenfood may end up being the solution to the growing food crisis.

What's wrong with GMOs, anyway?
  • As the nickname implies, GMOs involve introducing DNA from alien organisms (ie. bacteria, fungi, insects, etc.) to plants grown for food, the type of nature meddling can give people the heebie-jeebies
  • Although we've been consuming GMOs for almost 15 years, the long-term effects are still not known (and won't be for some time), and so they represent a potential health risk
  • Containing these super seeds also represents a problem - if GMO seeds spread beyond the commercial fields in which they're grown, they could potentially spread like weeds, destroying and competing with naturally grown plants
    Because of these problems, many have chosen to reject GMOs outright, lobbying against the companies that produce them. But the blind rejection of Frankenfood ignores a growing, more pressing issue: feeding the planet's growing population. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global food production will have to grow by 70% by 2050 in order to meet the growing demand for food. This need is especially pressing in developing countries.
    "The recognition of this possibility does not by itself justify stopping the technology, but does put a substantial burden on those who wish to go forward to demonstrate its benefits." - The Union of Concerned Scientists
    As previously explored, Vertical Farms in cities represent one possible solution. Eating less meat is another. Utilizing the higher yields from GMOs, however, probably represents the most viable option in the near future. In fact, GMOs may also represent a more sustainable way to farm.

    The Case for Frankenfood
    • Drought-tolerant crops, like corn, will be capable of surviving extreme weather conditions and droughts and will prove invaluable as climate change continues to affect farms around the world
    • Extreme-temperature crops can be grown in colder (or warmer) climates than normal, allowing farmers to make us of land that is currently unsuitable for farming (like the Canadian North)
    • Fertilizer-efficient varieties will allow farmers (especially those in the Third World) to get the same crop yield while using much less fertilizer, saving money and the environment (the nitrogen in fertilizers is derived from fossil fuels, pollutes our water systems through run-off, and can become a powerful greenhouse gas)
    • GMOs can sometimes be the only solution when trying to prevent diseases and infestations from wiping out a plant species, such as the fungi UG99, which is currently decimating wheat fields in Africa and the Middle East
    Despite these benefits, Castaldo argues that the resistance to GMOs has more to do with the public's perception of the corporations responsible for them. Global behemoths like Monsanto are viewed as greedy profit mongers who play god and bully farmers into buying their patented mutant seeds.

    "If the opposition to genetic engineering is broad spectrum, then we're throwing out the potential to really improve agriculture around the world because we dislike corporations." - Raoul Adamchak, UC Davis, California
    It is clear that in order for Frankenfood to truly be seen as a viable solution to the global food crisis, corporations like Monsanto will not only have to persuade consumers to forget about the creep factor, but they'll have to convince them to trust them as well...