Donal's picture

    Food for Fools

    In the Wall Street Journal article, Can the World Still Feed Itself?, Austrian Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, portrays genetically-modified (GMO or GM) crops as the hero, and food-for-fuel as the villain in the effort to feed six, seven, or even nine billion planetizens:

    "Politicians," Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, "do not understand that between the food market and the energy market, there is a close link." That link is the calorie.

    The energy stored in a bushel of corn can fuel a car or feed a person. And increasingly, thanks to ethanol mandates and subsidies in the U.S. and biofuel incentives in Europe, crops formerly grown for food or livestock feed are being grown for fuel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent estimate predicts that this year, for the first time, American farmers will harvest more corn for ethanol than for feed. In Europe some 50% of the rapeseed crop is going into biofuel production, according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, while "world-wide about 18% of sugar is being used for biofuel today."

    ... If the price of our breakfast cereal goes up because we're diverting agricultural production to ethanol or biodiesel, it's an annoyance. But if the price of corn or flour doubles or triples in the Third World, where according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe people "are spending 80% of [their] disposable income on food," hundreds of millions of people go hungry. Sometimes, as in the Middle East earlier this year, they revolt.

    "What we call today the Arab Spring," Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says over lunch at Nestle's world headquarters, "really started as a protest against ever-increasing food prices."

    I am no fan of biofuels, but I'm no fan of Braback-Letmathe's alternative - more and more GM crops - either. Years ago, I heard Vandana Shiva talking about Indian farmers buying supposedly pest-resistant GM seeds on credit, then committing suicide in the face of both crop failure and staggering debt. From her own website:

    GM crops do not produce more. While Monsanto claims its GMO Bt cotton gives 1500 Kg/acre, the average is 300–400 Kg/acre. The claim to increased yield is false because yield, like climate resilience is a multi–genetic trait. Introducing toxins into a plant through herbicide resistance or Bt. Toxin increases the “yield” of toxins, not of food or nutrition. Even the nutrition argument is manipulated. Golden rice genetically engineered to increase Vitamin A produces 70 times less Vitamin A than available alternatives such as coriander leaves and curry leaves. The false claim of higher food production has been dislodged by a recent study titled, Failure to Yield by Dr. Doug Gurian Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was former biotech specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and former adviser on GM to the U.S Food and Drug Administration. Sherman states, “Let us be clear. There are no commercialized GM crops that inherently increase yield. Similarly there are no GM crops on the market that were engineered to resist drought, reduce fertilizer pollution or save soil. Not one.”

    Coincidentally, in 2007, Braback-Letmathe and Shiva each received an award from the Foundation for Ethics and Economy. Shiva won the Blue Planet, "awarded yearly to a person especially dedicated to the preservation of our planet." Braback-Letmathe shared the Black Planet Award with Nestlé multi-shareholder Liliane de Bettencourt, "to pillory the Swiss multi-national for the irresponsible marketing of baby food contaminated by genetically manipulated nutrition, their tolerance of child labour and monopolisation of water resources."

    Nevertheless Brabeck-Letmathe still claims that there should be a market for water. He feels that water is used too freely because it has no cost.

    Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe even worries about the absence of a functioning market for water. Some 98.5% of the fresh water the world uses every year goes to agricultural or industrial use. And in most cases, there is no market for how that water is allocated and used. The result is waste, overuse and misuse of the water we have. If we don't do something about that, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe fears, we will soon run ourselves dry.

    Up to now, he says, our response to water shortages has focused "on the supply-side": We build another dam, or a canal to bring water from one place to another. But "the big issue," he contends, "is on the demand side," and the "best regulator" of demand is prices.

    "If oil becomes scarce," he notes, "the oil price goes up. But if water does, well, we still pump the same amount. It doesn't matter because it doesn't cost. It has no value." He drives this point home by connecting it back to biofuels: "We would never have had a biofuel policy—never," he contends, "if we would have given water any value." It takes, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, "9,100 liters of water to produce one liter of biodiesel. You can only do that because water has no price."

    I find this assertion puzzling because water rights have always been a, "big issue," especially in the American West. I can't believe companies are using water for free, though I can believe they are using it recklessly. But Nestlé owns Perrier and San Pellegrino and once claimed that, "bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world".

    As is common with the WSJ, comments were often politically-charged and off-topic, but even so, a few comments were much more informative than the article. Commenter David Williams wrote:

    There may be less paralyzing fear about GMOs if those like Brabeck-Letmathe would be a bit more honest about GMOs. The majority of GM crops are designed to resist the pesticide, Roundup, or produce Bt. GM crops do not provide increased yields; in fact, most of them suffer from a yield drag. I am a scientist who works with genetic engineering. I believe that GM crops could potentially provide a significant benefit to feeding mankind. Unfortunately, they have been introduced prematurely and touted by those whose primary interest is corporate control of agriculture, rather than proper science.

    and Mark R Kissinger replied:

    From what I've understood from the commentaries on GMOs, no independent labs of agencies have actually tested the long-term health effects of these organisms. Recent studies have shown a link between GMOs and heart attacks. Other information has shown that the herbicide-resistant plants have actually caused herbicide-resistant weeds!

    It would be wise to take Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe's opinions with a grain of salt: He has an obvious vested interest in supporting the industrialized agriculture system, in which his company plays a major role. While he makes valid points about the impact of subsidies for food-based bio-fuel crops, he completely avoids the question of agricultural use of fuels, and the potential environmental disasters awaiting the largely monoculture crops he is supporting.

    As for water having "no market value", the instances where his company has attempted to institute such a process have resulted in degraded water supplies for the poorest segments of the population, who can not afford to buy his "monetized water". While I believe that water SHOULD have a value, the water itself should NOT be owned by any private entity, but should be carefully managed for the benefit of all people. In the western US, for instance, much of the waste & mismanagement comes from archaic water laws based on "first use" rights.

    There is much controversy these days about a little pipeline from Canada to Texas. If water had value, such a pipeline might be built to transfer water from water-rich flood-prone areas to storage areas in the higher ground of Colorado. From there, such water could be distributed to irrigated fields downhill.

    My problem with blanket statements that the "market" should control water is that all too often the "market" is controlled by a privileged few, to the detriment of the many users left with no control over a public asset. At this juncture, the "market" is not free, but controlled by the much too greedy, not for the common good, but with the intent of amassing even more wealth for the already wealthy few.

    Take a look at the street system in nearly every city in this country, and you will see how city planners have treated rainwater as a nuisance, something to be gotten rid of, instead of using rainwater runoff to irrigate the land. In Colorado, it is illegal to capture rainwater! Why? Because all the rain that falls in Colorado is already owned by people downstream. Insanity!

    Asked why farmers chose GM crops, Kissinger replied:

    First, farmers are subject to heavy marketing by Monsanto. They succumb to the advertizing, and to lower prices. The farmers usually must sign a contract that says they can not save seeds from what they grow. Therefore, they are forced to buy all of their seeds every year.

    Since Monsanto controls around 80% of the seeds in the world, they have an effective monopoly in many areas. Seed prices have been climbing, and farmers must go along with them, since there are precious few other sources.

    Additional problems arise from the prohibitive costs of using Monsanto's seed, since they require capital investments in machinery, and large amounts of expensive fertilizers, in addition to the herbicides and pesticides that the Monsanto system requires.

    There is a problem in the lack of genetic diversity that this system causes: Diversity is nature's way of ensuring survival in an ever-changing world. With Monsanto's dominance of the seed market, we have lost much of that diversity.

    There ARE alternatives. well-managed sustainable farming methods, utilizing mulches, manures and compost, and low-tillage methods have been shown to produce yields equal to Monsanto's, and these methods have the added benefit of building up the humus and organic material in the soil, which increases the soil's ability to absorb and hold water, as well as being better at sequestering CO2.

    Farmers may initially choose to buy into Monsanto's promises, but it is a devil's bargain that many poor farmers can not back out of.


    They are fighting allowing GMO crops in Boulder County CO where I live.  The community is aware enough to feel there would be threat of contamination.  We have a lot of local, small organic farms here.  I am fortunate to live in a community where the majority agrees on this issue.  I am very concerned about where all of this is leading. 

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