Food For Thought

A lot of canola crops are subject to genetic engineering

A lot of canola crops are subject to genetic engineering

25th May, 2013.

Imagine what it would be like growing up in Ethiopia, where food is scarce and safe drinking water is hours away by foot. It’s hot and dusty, your mouth is so dry you don’t even remember the last time you had a drink of water. Your stomach aches and convulses because you haven’t eaten all week, and somewhere across the Indian Ocean, there’s a privileged Australian, eating and drinking all they want because they are food secure.

Food security is something we don’t often think about in Australia because we have “boundless plains to share”. But those boundless plains aren’t going to be here forever, because according to Greenpeace, climate change is going to have an adverse effect on the future of Australian farming and our food security.

Greenpeace says that with various environmental factors such as rising temperatures, there will be a negative impact on the production of food.

“Increasing temperatures, declining and more unpredictable rainfall, more frequent extreme weather and higher severity of pest and disease are among the more drastic changes that would impact food production,” they said in an article.

Greenpeace also believe that the best way for us to avoid being food insecure is to implement biodiversity-farming methods, and genetic diversity is important in sustaining these methods.

“It is now predicted that genetic diversity will be the most crucial in highly variable environments and those under rapid human-induced climate change.”

Now, a lot of people immediately assume that genetic diversity means genetic modification, or genetic engineering. In this case, you’re wrong. Greenpeace believe in more natural methods of genetic engineering – which are very easily mistaken for actual GM methods.

In a nutshell, these biodiversity farming methods, for example, involve farmers selecting a seed that is drought resistant and a seed that is resistant to insects and breeds them together to make a ‘super seed’ that is both resistant to insects and the drought.

This, believe it or not, is actually what Greenpeace calls genetic diversity, where there are “traditional and modern conventional breeding techniques, including Marker Assisted Selection” which is what cross-breeding of a seed is.

Agronomist and owner of Boarder Rivers Consulting in Goondiwindi, Mr Jim O’Connor believes that there have been extremely positive outcomes for farmers who use these techniques. But instead of calling these techniques “traditional and conventional” he actually refers to them as genetic modification.

Roundup is a chemical used on plants that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to the plant pesticide. Mr O’Connor believes that the use of Roundup has been beneficial for not only the crop and the grower, but the environment also.

“We’ve noticed increased profitability, and decreased use of potentially disruptive pesticides” he said.

The cotton industry is a hugely successful market for a lot of Australian farmers, and there is a lot of research that goes into developing certain GM products before it goes to market, as well as passing various safety tests.

“There’s a legal registration process, a very stringent process that [they go through] before these products can be brought to market… and we’re lucky to have researchers being involved… to satisfy the various authorities to ensure the product is safe for the community and the environment” he said.

But, while Mr O’Connor believes that genetic engineering could provide a positive outcome for food security, he doesn’t believe that the entire future of farming depends on it.

“It is certainly a tool for farmers to use, and use effectively, but by no means is it the only way we can move forward. If we didn’t have it, we’d find other ways and means to progress as farmers.”

Dr Geoffrey Lawrence from the University of Queensland.

Dr Geoffrey Lawrence, Food Security Focal Area Co-Leader from the University of Queensland.

Professor Geoffrey Lawrence from the University of Queensland is a professor of sociology and Food Security Focal Area Co-Leader for the Global Change Institute.

Professor Lawrence has been with the Institute for four years now, and has found that there are a number of reasons why the future of Australia’s food security is concerning. During his time at the Institute, he has found that one of these factors is neoliberalism.

According to Professor Lawrence, neoliberalism is an ideology where we shouldn’t have the government interfering in the marketplace.

“If you let markets alone determine prices, you end up with a very bad outcome because you are trusting the markets will deliver the outcomes you want” he said.

And what’s more damning is the fact that every time the food price increases by 1 percent, 16 million people in the world are malnourished, and neoliberalism isn’t entirely to blame for this. Professor Lawrence agrees with Greenpeace, that climate change will have an adverse effect on food security in not just Australia, but overseas too.

“From all the projections we know… Australia looks like it is going to produce less food as climate change occurs because it’s going to get drier in some parts” he said.

By the year 2050 there will be a decrease in food production by approximately 10-15 percent, which is alarming considering how fast the population of Australia is growing. But Professor Lawrence stresses that increased productivity is the solution to a food secure future, but doesn’t think genetic engineering is the way to do it.

“Scientists believe that if they’re allowed to use the tools of genetic engineering, they in fact will come up with many important developments like productivity increases. But there are questions about whether productivity increases are really going to come out of that sort of genetic engineering” he said.

One of the biggest alleged myths about genetic engineering, or genetic modification of foods is that they will feed the world and increase productivity, and Professor Lawrence disagrees with this, saying that it’s just a way for large chemical corporations like Monsanto to make money.

According to the international organization GRAIN that works to support small farmers and biodiversity-based food systems, studies have proven in America that plants genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicide (like Roundup) haven’t proven to be any more effective than using natural methods.

“In the most extensive and rigorous study, the Union of Concerned Scientists analysed twenty years of GE crops and concluded that genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn are no more productive than conventional plants and methods” a spokesperson said.

GRAIN and Professor Lawrence also agree that world hunger and food security has nothing to do with how much food we produce, but more the fact it isn’t distributed properly and that we are running out of quality land to farm on. GRAIN said in an article that the world produces enough food to feed everyone.

“The world produces plenty of food to feed everyone, year after year. Yet hunger is still with is. That’s because hunger is not primarily a question of productivity but of access to arable land and resources. Put bluntly: Hunger is caused by poverty and exclusion.”

In the end, poverty, food security, and genetic modification are all extremely controversial and topical. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, one can’t exist without the other so where do we find the balance between a food secure world, without poverty and genetic modification to help it along the way?

All we can be thankful for is that we’re privileged to live in Australia at the moment. And while scientists are continuously debating over what really is the best way to solve the world’s food problems, we can sit back with a big steak in the comfort of our warm homes and spare a thought for those less fortunate than us who really are facing serious food security problems thousands of kilometres away.

-Annabelle Amos

Note: This is an assignment produced on 25.5.2013

One thought on “Food For Thought

  1. Pingback: Big farming machinery and Roundup: “the end is nigh!” | Annabelle Amos

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