Wendell Berry, who has written extensively about the use and abuse of the land in the United States, has described the problem with genome editing better than I could. When asked about genome editing, Berry said:
“The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. And the kind of agriculture we’re talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can’t do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us to do here? That’s the critical issue.”
My problem is not with the “science” of genetic modification (GM); many have noted the toxic quality of the foods sold in grocery stores today including Scott Nearing,1 Murray Bookchin,2 and more recently Robyn O’Brien.3 This is not because of the “science” of GM, it is because of the economies of scale and the mentality that produces mass-marketed products. This food is “safe” and standardized, otherwise fit for consumption by human beings or animals. Our food is “certified non-injurious to the human body,”4 — in other words “FDA approved” — but is the entire paradigm to which we are enslaved an unhealthy and untenable one? Can there be anything but a complete reevaluation and overhaul of our relation to food and our way of living?
Berry shows that the industrial ethos that legitimates corporate landholdings that destroy local communities and homes, disemploys farmers and puts people who eat at risk is ultimately bad for us. Is it any surprise that “the germs in our food have been replaced with poisons?”
We must be prepared to face the history and complicity of “Science” in the industrial revolution and the culture produced from it. This culture crudely sees nature as a separate entity over which it asserts “control” and dominance. This culture has been really good at provoking calamity.
What needs to be done is a reevaluation of what our food system is and whom it is for. Is it for producing food? Or is it for making profits for a consolidating (read: monopolizing) number of corporations? What year will we finally have the One Greatest company that will bring all the “sustanence” we need in a blended liquid form with added “non-injurious” vitamins and minerals?
The Environmental Working Group takes data from USDA and other governmental organizations and conveys the data in graphics and reports, released a report in early 2017 indicating that “feeding the world” on genetically modified foods is not only unlikely, it is a marketing scheme and a lie.
According to this report, “86 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural exports last year went to 20 destinations with low numbers of hungry citizens and human development scores that are medium, high or very high, according to the U.N. Development Program.”5
Regions and localities must be in charge of their food systems. Academics call this “food sovereignty.” This means that more people are allowed to engage in the practice of farming. This includes the masses of young people graduating from universities with debt who more than likely are disillusioned with their job prospects.
Many of these jobs only provide enough payment to sustain the transportation costs of arriving at work on time, the rent for the place they happen to fall asleep at each night and the payments to the institution that “afforded” them an education.
The work itself is not rewarding or even productive in a meaningful sense and is actually dehumanizing. They are “misemployed.” More and more people in my age group choose to remain unconscious through “the best years” by gulping down highly potent (and literally deadly) mixes of liquor-and-energy-infused drinks, compulsive shopping and ingesting prescription medication “in order to focus.”
The corporate food system has been legitimated over every American and most of the rest of the world in a fairly totalitarian manner. Any break with massive solutions to “big” problems would essentially exclude the corporate control of genome sequences for plant varieties. A diversity of crops, methods (animals and plants) and varieties, not a monoculture of crops will protect the livelihoods of farmers and those who eat.
What I’m saying is that if people were in control of their food systems (that is, not a food system at all, but a cultural arrangement of growing, trading, distribution) they would not want or need to employ the use of genetically modified materials, synthetic chemicals and so on.
Berry’s phrase, “food is a cultural product,” was made famous by Michael Pollan. I would add that if it were a cultural activity, it could then not be a scientific enterprise. If we can see no other possibility beyond the “modern” way of living and its food delivery system (that privileges access to food based on how many bits of colored paper one happens to have, or how many numbers appear in a digital bank account), we are doomed.
1 Nearing, Helen, and Scott Nearing. 1979. Continuing the good life: half a century of homesteading. New York: Schocken Books.
2 Bookchin, Murray. 1974. Our synthetic environment. Revised ed. New York, etc: Harper and Row.
3 O’Brien, Robyn, and Rachel Kranz. 2009. The unhealthy truth: one mothers shocking investigation into the dangers of America’s food supply- and what every family can do to protect itself. New York: Broadway Books.
4 Watts, Alan. 1971. Does it matter? Essays on man’s relation to materiality. New York: Vintage Books.