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GMOs and Monocrop Agriculture: Why We Must Do Better to Make Our Case for Biodiversity

By Richard McCarthy, Executive Director, Slow Food USA

In the weekly Slow Food USA members-only Food News email, we have featured a number of recent articles that address the shrill and troubling tone that accompanies the GMO debate. Our side sends out plumes of smoke to alert consumers to the dangers of polluting our food supply with untested and unproven GMOs. The other side accuses us of Malthusian desires to starve the planet. Though we may find the science that supports our side compelling, it is safe to say that consensus about the safety of eating foods that contain GMOs does not yet exist. Consider what is to be learned from global warming debates. Overwhelming consensus among scientists about rising temperatures persists. And yet, the public relations campaigns to stymie policy changes have kept meaningful change at bay.

Right now all eyes are on Vermont, which last month became the first state in the nation to pass a GMO labeling law. However, before the ink on the bill was even dry food industry lawyers were preparing for a massive legal battle to overturn the law. Sadly, legal precedents may be leaning towards the industry’s favor. Time will tell. However, I hope that we spend that time building a case FOR biodiversity. If we continue to put all of our eggs into the basket of fear, we may fail to ignite the fire of hope. Calls for biodiversity and how multi-crop, integrated farming makes eaters happy, creates economic opportunity for wealth creation, and utilizes knowledge and technology suited to environments. These are the issues that attract supporters. Why are we not using them more often?

To this question, consider how our arguments stand up in the face of foes not just agreeable friends. We have watched our opponents’ call for intensive “feed the world” agriculture for a crowded planet hold sway among the reasonably informed. This is a problem. By contrast, we often sound naïve and dogmatic.

So, let us hold celebrations for new signs of transparency that will reach the store shelves in grocery stores that have made the strategic decision to bend to consumer demands for the right to know what is in their food. Let us also lick our wounds for battles lost; and then let us consider how our tone and our arguments need to be honed so that we can regroup in time for the next battles.

We are for traditional knowledge:

When we abandon agricultural knowledge that has accrued from generation to generation for new, centralizing short cuts, we limit our choices and we ask limited resource producers to not utilize some of the very assets they possess that in some ways levels the playing field: the use of traditional knowledge to build soil, work with finicky climates and ecosystems. We should be championing traditional knowledge and those who possess it.

We are for technological innovation:

Slow Food International Secretary General Paolo di Croce makes a compelling argument against GMO’s and for technological innovation when on the stump. Maybe you have heard him describe Slow Food’s stance, “Of course we are for technological innovation, why, why must the only innovation we entertain be GMOs? It’s ridiculous.”

Consider this line of argument, we cannot allow others to paint us as Luddites. If our beef with GMO’s relates to unproven science, inferior taste, and an implicit desire to centralize power and wealth by making farming communities dependent upon a few companies for inputs and seeds, then let us also expand upon our love for technological innovation. Stump speeches may not provide ample room for laundry lists of technological innovation we love. However, if we were pushed to describe the techniques that we would consider and those that we adore, which would they be? Drip irrigation, pioneered by Israeli farmers in dry land? Hoop houses to extend seasons and help farmers to ease the pressures of boom and bust agriculture? Or consider, the mobile phone.

We are for high-tech mobile communication:

How much have smart phones with cameras, texting and social media contributed to greater competitive advantage for farmers who utilize biodiversity and traditional knowledge to access more profitable markets? Or even more so, consider the role that mobile phones play in Africa to connect land and soil courses provided by cooperative extension offices and non-governmental organizations with marginal farmers who are desperate to access useful information in their farming ventures. Newly appointed Slow Food International Vice President from Uganda, Edie Mukiibi, describes how information technology investors have designed extraordinarily complex communication systems that enable thousands of farmers from hundreds of communities in Uganda to participate in distance learning in dozens of languages. Or consider the use of mobile phones by farmers to negotiate prices on markets for important cash crops, like yams, pumpkins and coffee.

When the chorus for GMOs sings loudly in support for technology, shouldn’t we as well cheer for the technology that equips ordinary people with the power to shape their lives? These represent just a few examples of hopeful technological innovation. What innovative technologies do you recognize operating in your community?