Biotechnology was supposed to trigger a food revolution: Higher crop yields and the end of world hunger. Or so promised once-chemical producer Monsanto, now the mother of all agricultural biotechnology companies. But 20 years on, conventional methods of breeding have actually done more to lift crop yield than genetically modified crops ever have, says food journalist, author, and professor Michael Pollan.
Best known for his 2006 bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan’s work has prompted Americans to rethink their place in the food chain. For example, in the US, the Monsanto dominates the production and sale of genetically engineered, pest-resistant corn, soybeans, sugar beets and canola, all of which end up in the consumer shopping cart without labels. More than 50 countries around the world require the labeling of genetically modified crops in food products.
The US does not.
That could change in this election. The state of California will vote on what many—including Pollan—are calling the most important food policy decision this decade. The passage of Proposition 37 would require labeling of all foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO), a policy that could have implications on the national level if passed.
Quartz spoke to Pollan, a California resident himself, about the nature of the factory farm industry and the reliance on corn products. While he doesn’t outright denounce GM crops, Pollan says not enough is known about its effects to make the risk worth taking.
“It’s a real moment of truth for the food movement,” Pollan says. “It will mark the first time when Americans voted on an issue of food policy and it will make the debate over whether we should label GM a national question. It puts a lot of pressure on the government to label it.”
Pollan also talked to us about what’s on the horizon for biotechnology in agriculture and how the use of biofuels could change immediately after the election. Below is an edited excerpt.
I was just reading an Al Jazeera piece about biofuel and what that’s doing to corn exports, so maybe that’s a good place to start.
Biofuel is under unprecedented pressure given soaring food prices and the increasing recognition of the impact. I think we will stop subsidizing biofuels very soon, perhaps right after the election. Certainly, it’s very hard to justify in a time of record high corn prices and food shortages. The justification for it was never very strong as a source of energy and it’s not nearly as green as people have contended because it takes so much energy to produce biofuels. To be using such an important food crop to feed our cars and not even feed them just well seems impossible to justify. Now there’s just an enormous amount of inertia to keep these things in play and there’s this giant processing industry in the West, so it’s not easy to politically remove it but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some movement in the issue right after the election.
Recently in our newsroom we were talking about the controversial French study on the dangers of genetically modified crops, which are really the bread and butter of agriculture in the US.
It’s not banned in Europe but there are requirements that it be labeled and that has kept the amounts of GM crops planted quite low. The debate is warming up in America with Prop 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods in the state of California; that’s polling very strongly right now. There’s a good chance it will pass. The industry is terrified of that prospect so they’re spending between $35 to $40 million here in California to stop it.
I think it’s a real moment of truth for the food movement. It will mark first time when Americans voted on an issue of food policy and it will make the debate over whether we should label GM a national question. It puts a lot of pressure on the government to label it.
What will it do to genetic modification as a technology? It’s hard to say whether if you labeled it, Americans would stay away from it or not. The industry is nervous that they will and I could see why one of the big problems with crops is essentially we have Roundup Ready crops that withstand herbicides sprayed on them and we have Bt [pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis] crops that make their own pesticides. Essentially together they must be 98 to 90% of the market. Those crops may offer benefit to farmers so farmers think they’re really great and that’s why they’re selling them but we do know they do offer no benefits to the consumer and certain unknown potential risks. The rational thing to do when faced with that risk/benefit analysis is probably not to buy them and that’s why the industry is terrified of labeling.
Are there any positive advances that biotech has made recently in the food industry? Any on the horizon?
They’ve been on the ever-retreating horizon for a long time. I started writing about biotech in ‘98 and I remember being told by executives at Monsanto that Roundup and Bt were just the first chapter in this wonderful story and within five years so many other interesting crops, crops that could withstand saline or salty soil or crops that could withstand drought or crops that might even be able to fertilize themselves with fixed nitrogen, crops with higher yields and for reasons that remain something of a mystery to me, those wonders have yet to appear. I don’t know why, whether they’re proving harder to engineer than expected might be one reason. Or they could tell you regulatory hurdles are standing in the way but in fact there are very few regulatory hurdles introduced in these crops. I think the big money is in herbicide-resistant crops like Roundup [one of Monsanto’s most popular crops] and the next generation [of crops], probably the ones that are about to be approved. There’s going to be a bunch of crops approved right after the election and that should tell you something right there that they are waiting until after the election.
You see why it’s so profitable though. If you’re Monsanto, you’re selling seed and then you get to sell the chemicals to spray on plants, that’s a great little business. But are they going to solve the problem of yield? Beats me but they haven’t yet and I think that there’s a common misconception that we need GM to feed the world because it will be so high yield there is no evidence of this. The significant gain in crop yield over the last 18 years since we’ve had biotech have come from conventional breeding not from genetic engineering. I await those products and I would love to see this industry make a significant contribution to solving one of the world’s problems. But they’ve been promising that for a long time and have so far grossly under-delivered.
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