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Just Food

Posted by tinako on July 17, 2011

I’ve begun reading Just Food by James E. McWilliams, but I don’t think I’m going to finish it.  It was recommended by a fellow vegan, activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, and I found myself wondering several times whether I’d gotten the wrong book.

I agree that blindly buying local is probably not very helpful.  This has been clear to anyone doing research for some time, but a lot of people still don’t understand, and he seems to do a good job of explaining it.  You’ve probably heard the argument that driving to the farmer’s market is wasteful, but even if you walk or buy local at your regular supermarket stop, it’s not always better.  The problem is that transportation is often such a small part of the overall environmental and energy impact of food production.  Also included are the efficiency of the farm machines, the climate where the food is grown, the use of inputs such as fertilizer, the consumer’s storage and cooking methods, and type of food purchased (here is short post I wrote about Local vs. Vegan).

His next chapter is on organics, and how they are not the golden answer either.  I had been clued into this in a previous book I read, The End of Food, by Paul Roberts.  That comprehensive book was so thoroughly researched, so deep and broad in subject, long and dense with information and thoughts, I was intimidated to post about it and never did.  McWilliams’ main issues with organics seem to come back to its inefficiencies – it takes more land and inputs to get the same amount of food.  Not only is this a waste of these resources, but the system cannot be sustainably scaled up to meet the demands of a growing world population.  As far as reducing the toxic impact on the environment, he points out that, for instance, manure can add heavy metals to the soils and plants use conventional nitrogen more efficiently than organic, leading to leaching and pollution.  Roberts and McWilliam agree that with both conventional and organic there just doesn’t seem to be any getting away from external inputs, trucking something from far away out to the field.  “Closed” systems with cows grazing and chickens eating bugs in the grass can be very efficient but just don’t scale up very well.

Where I part company with McWilliams completely is in his third chapter on GM foods.  I think I can sum up McWilliams’ position like this: he doesn’t like the business tactics of agritech companies, but feels we should trust them and government regulators with regards to safety, give the technology the benefit of the doubt, and in fact GM is necessary to feed the world.

I read a book, Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith.  I am not sure that book is perfect, but it raised some very good points, and left me in doubt of virtually everything McWilliams says on the subject.  When I got to McWilliams’ section on Bt, I had my “gotcha” moment.  I knew he was not giving the whole story.  Bt is a bacterium which kills caterpillars, and organic farmers use it as a pesticide.  It’s not harmful to other species, and so makes an excellent targeted pest control.  Biotech companies have modified the genes of corn, potatoes, and cotton to produce the Bt toxin, and thus their own pesticide.  McWilliams says that the opposition to this technology was about people not wanting to eat a food with pesticide in every cell, but that Bt is harmless to non-target species and in fact sprayed onto organic crops.  I thought that was fair enough until I read this, that GM Bt is not the same as natural Bt, only natural Bt has been tested with humans, and that Bt is now showing up in human (including fetus) blood, which would not happen with quickly-degrading natural Bt.

People were also upset that Bt pollen would get onto milkweed and kill monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, which eat only milkweed.  I didn’t like his criticism of the Cornell study which found this, which begins by telling us that “monarch larvae and their butterflies do not eat corn pollen, only milkweed” [p.82].  This is false, since while they only choose to eat milkweed, they will eat corn pollen if their milkweed is dusted with it, as would happen in or near a corn field, since corn is wind-pollinated.  This is the whole issue Cornell was looking into, not what would happen if monarchs changed their diet.  The rest of his reasons mostly seem to be the hope that corn pollination and monarch feeding would never coincide.  Cornell assumed it might happen at least sometimes, but McWilliams finds it “unlikely.”   I have to let this one go, since I don’t feel I have the knowledge to evaluate the sources of the studies that refuted this.

Which brings me to a related point.  I don’t know who to trust any more.  I don’t consider myself paranoid or a conspiracy theorist.  Maybe I have read too many fear-mongering books, but here’s the running tally: I don’t feel I can trust business, the USDA, the FDA, Congress, the Supreme Court, universities (many of whom rely on corporate funding), or the media (many of whom rely on corporate advertising).  I’m sure these bodies are mostly composed of good people, but so often the ones in real power have an incentive to omit or lie.  In order to know whether Bt crops are truly harmful to monarchs, I need to not only evaluate the study’s methods, which fortunately is done in peer review, but also know who is paying whom. Monsanto is so enormous, has so much at stake, and has clearly engaged in intimidation (seen “Food, Inc”?), that it is not inconceivable that much of this research is biased.  I’ve lost my faith, not in people, but in institutions.

Returning to the gotcha point, there is another issue regarding GM Bt, and I read this chapter in vain for his discussion of it: insect resistance.  Wikipedia puts it well: “Constant exposure to a toxin creates evolutionary pressure for pests resistant to that toxin.”  Organic farmers foresaw this, and indeed it is happening, despite some measures biotech has taken to forestall it.   A population of Diamondback moths is now resistant to the spray form, and a population of pink bollworms is resistant to the GM crop.  Organic farmers are opposed to Bt crops because it takes an important public resource, Bt toxin, makes money off of it for a short term, and then ruins it for everyone and moves on.  Maybe we could call it “resistance pollution.”  McWilliams is silent on this important issue, and it is my main criticism, my firm handle to know that he is leaving important points out of this book.

One of McWilliams’ prime reasons for supporting GM crops is that it reduces pesticides.  Indeed it does seem to, but I don’t think it’s worth it.  As bad as pesticides and herbicides are in the environment, they are nothing compared with a new plant let loose, if it turns out to be bad.  We can stop using pesticides and slowly the environment clears the toxin.  But once you have introduced a seed into the wild, the incredible power of reproduction, the whole reason for all life on earth, takes over.  Unintended contamination has already happened.  We’re tinkering with things that can’t be undone, genies that will not go back into their petri dishes.

McWilliams concedes in the end that this is a very complex issue with many counterarguments.  I just wish he had not come down so squarely on the biotech side.

I’m going to move on to one more chapter, or actually, I just skimmed half of it – on meat, McWilliams and I seem to agree.  He is a very, very reluctant semi-vegetarian, having come to the conclusion that “a necessary precondition for eating a sustainable diet is to radically reduce meat made from animals that dwell on land” [p.118].  It’s too bad he has such a hard time with a vegetarian diet – I wonder if he would do better with more support.  But it does lend credibility to his research, and he seems to do a good job of summing up the enormous breadth and depth of negative impact that livestock has on the environment.

But he was preaching to the choir here, and I don’t think I’m going to read any more, since his Bt resistance omission has caused me to lose faith in his take on other issues I quietly questioned but could not downright refute.  I applaud the idea of a citizen (he’s a history professor) speaking out and challenging the wisdom of the crowds.  I think these are very important discussions to have, even when I disagree with him, and it’s probably unfair of me to criticize him when I didn’t let him finish.

I would recommend The End of Food.  Having read two opinions on the GM issue, I would like to read another book on that, perhaps more credible than either Smith’s or McWilliam’s.  How I evaluate that is beyond me.


One Response to “Just Food”

  1. As Bt Cotton turns 10, observational data certifies it a Super-Flop

    2011-12 will mark ten years since the GoI permitted the commercialization of transgenic cotton commonly known as Bt cotton. The issue of transgenic cotton had been and continue to be one that generates heated controversy with claims made by civil society and counter claims made by Bt seed manufacturers. This paper, in 3 parts, tries to analyze whether 10 years of observational data gives us any clues that can dampen the fires of this controversy. Specifically, it tries to answer two questions, both related to the main touted claims of the Bt industry:

    a. Is Bt either a necessary or a sufficient explanation for increased cotton productivity?

    b. Have Bt succeeded in decreasing pest infestation in cotton to indirectly boost productivity and consequently bring about reduction in pesticide expenses?

    Read more:

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