With the right scientific studies, you can make pretty much any food sound like it’s going to kill you. This is a hard point for people to understand.
The point is that yes, there are real reasons to be concerned about basically any food that we consume, if that food is being consumed in large quantities, to the exclusion of other food. Or, as McEwen puts it, “Maybe you shouldn’t juice a pound of kale and drink it for breakfast every day.” But that doesn’t mean kale is bad for you. It just means that no food is a miracle food, and bingeing on anything — even kale — has its drawbacks.
Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,
Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2
Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama (The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1
Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”
In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,
“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2
There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.
Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says
“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3
The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.
The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.
The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.
“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1
You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.
How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.
This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.
In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth
KWTX did a story last night on the Texas Hunger Initiative. They interviewed me about the farm’s connection to the initiative. I’m also hoping to work with the initiative after the farm so this is now part of my resume.
I’m pleased to say I didn’t sound dumb. Therefore I will happily share the video with you.
Texas at the Table was a gathering of local, state and national leaders to coordinate efforts to end hunger in Texas by 2015. Lots of people in suits (me NOT included) gathered at Baylor University to launch a Food Policy Roundtable that will tackle this issue. This gathering was organized by the Texas Hunger Initiative and included Todd Staples Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Max Finberg Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships USDA and Julie Paradis Administrator for Food and Nutrition Services (to name the big wigs). There were also plenty of little wigs there today. Many folks I know from Waco and other non-profits working on sustainable food and hunger issues.
Here are some statistics I found most enlightening:
- Texas is now the 2nd hungriest state in United States (according to most recent USDA report 2009)
- 50% of people in the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) work full time
- Only 50% of eligible people participate in the SNAP program in Texas
- $4 billion in benefits goes untouched in Texas alone
- 70% of USDA budget is allocated to Assistance programs
I’ll start with the positives and then get cranky.
It was awesome to see so many people from so many diverse organizations, agencies, churches and faiths (one Muslim representative from Houston) gathered together for a common goal. All of the politicians said the right things and we all applauded at the appropriate moments. Clapping for cliches does not make change, but it does rally the troops and inspire people. Jeremy Everett of the Texas Hunger Initiative did a great job of putting a human face on hunger and clearly pointing out that the resources are already available and allocated to do the job. Camille Miller from Texas Health Institute did a good job asking us to put a face on hunger and pointing out where some of the gaps are in our knowledge and network.
Waco’s Mayor Dupuy recently visited Saudi Arabia and found that they had a food reclamation program that curbed food waste in their country. Why can’t we do that in the United States? We have a great mayor in Waco!
Baylor, as always, does it up fancy. They pulled out the good china for this event and touted a menu all from local Texas farmers. Unfortunately these local farmers remained anonymous and I cannot corroborate what local meant in this particular meal. Texas is a big state and if everything in Texas counts as local we might as well stick with California produce. I requested the vegetarian entree and almost shrieked when I saw the ASPARAGUS on my plate… in November… in Texas! This was wrong on so many levels, particularly considering the event’s claim to support local farmers. It was also disconcerting to see the coffee labeled “free trade” when they clearly meant “fair trade.” I applaud Baylor’s steps to start efforts to compost and reclaim food waste on campus, but there is clearly a long way to go for them to grasp the full concept and implications of sustainability.
This highlights the need to be on our toes to spot the difference between appearance and reality. Even well-meaning people using terms like “local” and “sustainable” need to be held accountable and educated about the reality.
As I said, Todd Staples said all the right things. There was one question I wanted to ask him. He touted the agricultural products of Texas. We’re #1 in cattle, of course, and cotton and mohair. The problem is we can’t eat cotton and mohair. We also know what kind of beef our corn-fed cattle are producing and it’s part of the problem. What is the Texas Department of Agriculture doing to encourage more fruit and vegetable production from small diversified farms in the state? If you’re reading this Commissioner Staples, just reply in the comments.
The breakout session on local food access was very good. I asked a question about better connections between Texas Agrilife and folks who are trying to do urban/community gardening, but don’t have any gardening or agriculture skills. This is a barrier for a lot of people and the A&M extension system could be a great resource for those people to get the help, knowledge and training they need. Unfortunately the system is not set up or able to do that the way it is currently. The emphasis is different in each county. Agents, particularly in urban counties are more likely trained in turf grass and landscaping. They need to also help the urban and community gardening people.
Finally, John Garland had the best quote about food deserts.
In the Rio Grande Valley people have to drive 20 miles to get to a grocery store. They drive through miles of land producing food to get to that grocery store.
I’m excited about the possibilities, but there is a lot of work and a long road ahead of us just to accomplish something that should already be happening. Let’s get busy.
photo from Boggy Creek Farm Austin, TX.
The first session Genetically Modified Foods and Mammal Health was presented by Howard Vlieger of Verity Farms. The session covered a lot of the basics of GMO foods and crops and the issues involved. There are some good places you can go to read up on these basics. I was mainly interested in some of the connections made in the presentation.
The process for creating GMO plants injects viruses or bacteria with genes into the DNA of plants. This process was described as “shooting a bullseye with a shotgun.” This is a very imprecise process that cannot hit the same place twice within an organism. It is known that the process of creating a GMO creates new proteins. The speakers conservative estimate was that 1200 new proteins are being created in GMO corn and soybeans. When these plants are fed to animals in the form of feeds, their stomachs do not recognize some of these foreign proteins and this causes irritation and ulcers in the animal’s stomach. Mr. Vlieger was clear that this was not a scientific study, but was based on his experience and data that he collected.
Mr. Vlieger was able to take pictures at the hog slaughtering facility that he uses for slaughtering his pigs. He took pictures of the stomachs of his own pigs, “A” Natural pigs, “B” Natural and conventionally raised pigs. Of course his pigs had very healthy looking model pig stomachs. Both of the “natural” pigs were not given antibiotics or hormones, but there are no restrictions on GMO in what is fed to these animals. Their stomachs both showed significant irritation, inflammation, and ulcers.
What I found really interesting was the difference between “natural” pig stomachs and conventional. Those of us who are predisposed to think the worst of conventional agriculture would assume a bloody mess. In fact, the antibiotics are effective in keeping the inflammation and irritation down in the stomachs. The stomachs are not red and irritated, but they do appear more pale than the Verity Farms pig. However, it does not prevent the immune system from attacking the foreign proteins and creating ulcers.
If GMO feed causes this kind of reaction in pigs (and/or other livestock), what might the effect be on the end consumer, you and me?
The final piece that I found interesting was the connections that were made concerning the corporations that produce both pharmaceuticals and seeds. Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto and others are first and foremost chemical companies. They use these chemicals on and in crops which are then fed to livestock. When the livestock inevitably become sick the veterinarian is brought in to make them healthy using drugs also produced by the same companies. Producers also feed hormones to their livestock to improve their production.
The purpose of all of this is to sell meat to consumers. So what happens when we buy this meat and eat it? We get heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux. So we go to the doctor and he prescribes drugs to deal with that which the same companies benefit from. The point is that these chemical companies are creating and driving a market and a need that depends on sick animals and sick people. It is also important to point out that the promises of GMO feed and seed has yet to be realized.