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[personal profile] mirrorshard
What the problem is

In a nutshell: people are starving. They can't feed themselves, for two basic reasons: incentives for others to prevent them, and lack of infrastructure. The incentives are easier to address, so I'll talk about that first.

To us, starvation is a tragedy. To others, it's a business opportunity. There is a strong strand of thought that views poverty and inequity as good things; they provide the motivation for improvement, and a motor for economic growth. This is a naïve view at best, so I'm not going to waste time refuting it here.

As far as infrastructure goes – well, let's think about what's needed to eat well. You need food, and the means to store & prepare it. The latter half of that can basically be modelled by poverty as a whole, and anything that increases prosperity will help with that. So that's a relatively generic development issue. Food, though, is a whole other kettle of- what? That's part of the issue. Nobody lives by bread alone, and a lot of us can't live on bread, or in many cases even eat it. In many parts of Africa, they eat sorghum as a staple; in Ethiopia, teff; in the Deccan, millet; in Goa and Kerala, rice; in Europe, wheat and potatoes. In Northern India, they cook in mustard oil; in Kerala, coconut oil; in the Mediterranean region, olive oil; and in much of Northern Europe, in butter or animal fat. Most people can eat most foods, but that doesn't mean we can thrive on anything we're given. We need the food of our own culture, the food of our childhood, the food that will satisfy the heart as well as the stomach.

So there isn't any one food that will work everywhere, and looking for one doesn't work very well – try looking for good Mexican food in London. It's just not going to work. Similarly, trying to feed the starving poor from a boardroom in Birmingham or New York doesn't work very well, because applying leverage so far from the problem, without local knowledge, is futile; and trying to apply economies of global scale makes the answers you find so broad as to be meaningless.

On the other hand, it's a popular “solution”, because it's easy to apply from a distance, on a large scale. For decades, the standard IMF/World Bank solution to food insecurity was to advise developing countries to concentrate on export crops, sell the crops, buy food from the developed countries with the proceeds, sell the food to the populace, and reinvest the profits into cash crops so they can grow their business. I'm sure this did, at some point, make sense to someone, on some basis other than transferring wealth from developing countries to rich countries; but I don't think I want to know what that person had been smoking.

This is, of course, not a problem confined to the developing world. Here in the UK, we suffer something very similar – we're so used, here in the developed countries, to the pervasive marketization of food that we forget there's any other way. It's been nearly six months since I last ate something nobody bought, and as a result I'm poorer, I've eaten less well, and I've caused a lot more carbon emissions.

But in much of the world, food isn't marketized at all; it's just something you do. And to a lot of organizations, this is utterly wrong. It's bad for business, and it's bad for people. If there's no money changing hands, that's a wasted opportunity for economic growth; if people are going to spend all their time grubbing in the dirt like peasants, they won't have any left over to work for prosperity, and everyone suffers. So a lot of developing-country economic policies, historically and today, have deliberately discouraged self-sufficiency – both under pressure from corporate lobbyists, and on principle.

I'm not setting up a dichotomy between the market and subsistence farming, of course – that would be stupid and inaccurate. In some parts of the world, it's quite possible to feed a family from their own land, and earn a wage besides, but those aren't all that common. So the optimal solution is almost always a mix of the two – but markets should still be supplied as locally as possible, because their best function is to discover the best way to make workable, sustainable relationships between producers & consumers. (Ideally, everyone should be both to some degree, but that isn't always possible, and there's no shame in not being able to produce.) Markets are also very useful as reservoirs – they can cushion supply chain problems, from not having anything in the cupboard today to not having anything in the fields this year.

This shouldn't need saying, but I'll say it anyway: the poor starve first. The elderly starve first. Children starve first. Women starve first. The disabled starve first. People who live far from the market starve first. And it's a feedback problem; if you aren't getting enough to eat, and don't have the psychological security of controlling your own food supply, then it's so much harder to get more.

Why people are pushing GM

The answer they'll give you is that we can't feed the world without it; we need the new super-yielding varieties to solve the global problems of food security. This is in fact complete bollocks.

They're selling GM seeds because they can make money from them. What, you knew that? Yes, but it's how they make money from it that's interesting. The big agro companies – Monsanto, Cargill, and all their kind – aren't content with selling seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides; they want to sell complete solutions, and lock in customers to their products. And they want to have exclusive brands. Anyone can sell soybeans; only Monsanto can sell Roundup Ready soybeans. So they got out their genetic engineering kits, and made a tiny little change, and patented the results. Roundup (a herbicide that kills everything) and Roundup Ready crops (a crop immune to Roundup) make a perfect pair, and come with some attractive discounts and impressively glossy literature. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Monsanto didn't develop this for anyone's benefit but their own.

Why GM isn't the answer

Basically, it's because the global food security problem is much, much more complex than there simply not being enough food. There is food, and the capacity to grow more; it's just not being produced in the right places, at the right time, at the right price. The economic incentives to grow healthy, nutritious food close to where it's needed are just not there in anything like the right quantity, and concentrated high-yield intensive farming exhausts the nutrition in the soil. (Not only that, but it does so while employing fewer people, enforcing the marketization of the food supply – which forces people to earn money in order to live – and increasing food miles due to centralization and transport.) So trying to solve the problem using a few specific crop varieties which produce higher yields per hectare – or, in the case of many varieties, such as the artificially dwarfed wheat strains, simply allow more chemical fertilizers to be used – does not help, because it just leads to even more concentrated high-yield intensive farming.

These crop varieties, from pure economic logic, constitute monocultures – and we know, from bitter experience, what happens to monocultures. But it's even worse than that, in the case of Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops – whether wheat, soy, corn, or anything else, they all share a few common genes. Which makes them potentially all vulnerable to the same disease strains.

In addition, many of the end-user agreements and restrictive practices involved are extremely unfair on farmers. The genetic modifications (which, incidentally, are extremely crude compared to traditional breeding techniques) are the agro firms' intellectual property, and saving seed to replant (rather than going back to the company for more) is forbidden under the EULA. Monsanto pledged, after public opposition, never to commercialise the “terminator gene” that would make this impossible – but that's only a grudging concession, and I have no words for how evil and wrong the idea is. So farmers using these seeds are forbidden to save them for another year; forbidden to give some to a neighbour who's having a poor harvest; forbidden to breed from them to improve her crop. And if they cross to someone else's field, as plants are wont to do, then the owner of that field can be sued for it.

The agro firms have been reassuring us for a long time now that their GM food is completely safe, but recent studies are saying otherwise. India has recently banned Bt brinjal (aubergine), and campaigns to ban other GM strains are gathering pace.

One of the issues that campaigning groups have raised a lot is the possibility of the transgenic characteristics hybridizing themselves with unmodified strains, wild relatives, or completely different plants; I'm not convinced so much of this one. It would be problematic if that happened, but it's by no means the worst effect of GM crops, and focusing on it specifically can mean that the huge social issues get swept aside.

What might actually help

This is a revolutionary idea, and won't make much of any money for anyone; but what would help would be just to support people in what they want to do. Local, regional, and national seed-saving and -sharing banks, farmers' cooperatives, grants to buy tools or set up tool production/repair businesses, sensible land use programs, official bodies to arbitrate claims to water rights fairly... all the “little” things that economic policy advisors tend to disdain. A focus on production as close to the point of use as possible (which also reduces food miles and therefore carbon emissions) actively militates against corporate interests, though, and it's a long term strategy which a lot of governments feel they can't afford. Fortunately, there are a lot of grassroots movements and bottom-up initiatives in developed as well as developing countries – farming cooperatives, education groups, lobbying groups, and many more.

So: Dig. Eat well. Share. Buy local, buy organic, buy from the person who grew it. And be seen to do so. That's all any of us can do, really – and in the end, it will work.

Further reading

I highly recommend Dr Vandana Shiva's work on this subject. The Navdanya website has a lot of information & links, and you can get a lot from her Wikipedia article as well.

Date: 2010-02-11 08:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirabehn.livejournal.com

This is wonderful, and so are you. Thank you for writing this. :-)

Hmm, must do more research for buying locally where Nick and I are...

Date: 2010-02-11 09:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
Very well-written piece.

I have long wondered whether Monsanto actually revel in looking evil, or just really suck at MR. I'm almost impressed at the regularity of their fail.

Did you ever read Lappe's 'Diet For A Small Planet'?

Date: 2010-02-11 10:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Thank you!

I haven't; what's it like?

Date: 2010-02-11 10:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
Not bad. She wrote an update a few years ago, of which I have a copy. You're welcome to borrow it, although I was a little meh about it. S'OK though.

Good timing; someone just posted a link to this (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19926731.700-what-is-your-dinner-doing-to-the-climate.html?full=true) 2008 article, which broadly argues that meat & dairy reduction is more important than local consumption in environmental impact terms.

Date: 2010-02-11 10:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Oh, yes, that's interesting. On the other hand, those figures are strictly for greenhouse-gas purposes - it doesn't take any account of the social effects of buying local or not. Which are, admittedly, much harder to quantify.

Date: 2010-02-12 12:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
I'm all for buying and growing locally, you know that. But I think it's important to get it in perspective, and assess what the aim of doing so is. It's not a panacea.

Date: 2010-02-11 10:22 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (allotment)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
If a variety of curly kale resistant to club root is developed by GM, then I'd buy seeds. I buy brassica seeds, only to lose most of my plants to club root. Resistant varieties are starting to appear for some brassicas, but not all.

When I grow my own veg, I'm cutting food miles. This year I'm going to try resistant cabbage for the first time as the seed catalogue had a variety available.

GM may not be evil in all cases.

Date: 2010-02-11 10:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Ah, that's an interesting data point! Club root is a lot like ragwort that way.

I wouldn't dream of condemning any technique wholesale - it's just the constant stream of "GM crops will save the planet and eradicate hunger" I hate.

Date: 2010-02-11 10:28 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (Eye of Horus)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
Thanks for seeing it as a good data point (counts you in as rationalist and not fanatic).

I agree that GM won't solve world hunger. I think only population control can do that. (population control in all countries, both rich and poor)

Date: 2010-02-11 10:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Hm, I'm not sure. Population control is probably a good thing in itself, but I'm not convinced that world hunger wouldn't be soluble by fixing distribution mechanisms. Of course, depending on how bad appalling climate change gets, we'll end up with a completely different set of problems.

Date: 2010-02-11 10:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
I don't like the fact that it's mostly well-off countries arguing for population control around the world so they can keep on consuming - it's the infrastructure and the disincentive to feed hungry people without profit being involved which seem to me to be the main problems.

Monbiot wrote something similar (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/09/29/the-population-myth/#more-1216) in Spetember from the environmental rather than the world hunger perspective, but I think a lot of his points work in both cases.

Conclusion: IANAS, but I don't think the numbers of people are the crux of the matter. It's ow supply is managed which seems to me to be crucial.

Also, there's an interesting perspective (which I can't argue for either way) which suggests that population growth is slowing and may go into decline soon. Thoughts?

I'm with you on brassicae though. Damn things never grow! Sod club foot, I can't even keep the creatures off them.

Date: 2010-02-12 03:56 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (Default)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
Note that I said population control was needed in rich countries as well. We consume far more than our fair share, so we need to reduce our numbers.

Supply is part of the problem, but there are also some interesting theories relating to complexity. (It's interesting to work out whether the rich countries *can* cut back without falling apart)

Enviromesh is what you need to keep the butterflies off. Works a treat.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
Note that I said population control was needed in rich countries as well.

I did note that.

I'm not convinced cutting numbers inevitably cuts consumption. More available resources tend to lead to greater individual levels of consumption, do they not?

Date: 2010-02-12 04:16 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (Eye of Horus)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
Yes, but not as much as the overall reduction. eg. forest cover increased during the years after the black death as land fell out of cultivation, but people were better off overall and wages rose.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
But without a culture which emphasises the benefits of low consumption, won't consumption levels just rise to fill the gap?

I agree about the period you mention, but existing and emergent technologies means we have the capacity to consume far more now.

Date: 2010-02-12 12:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the-alchemist.livejournal.com
Nobody lives by bread alone, and a lot of us can't live on bread, or in many cases even eat it.

Though that too is a problem GM could probably solve. My specialist was involved in a project to develop gluten free wheat, and thinks it would have been a viable option, but the project was cut short, because their funders were bowing to public squeamishness about 'frankenstein food'.

Date: 2010-02-12 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
In a nutshell: people are starving.

I think that's too much of a nutshell, really. Which people are starving? People are starving in southern Somalia, because the al-Shabaab are preventing the WFP from distributing food. People are starving in Haiti (or at least were until recently, I'm not sure of the latest developments) because of difficulties in distributing food aid given the damage to Haiti's infrastructure (which wasn't great to begin with).

But I don't think you mean these sorts of examples, where people are starving because of natural disasters or conflicts. You mean, I think, that people are starving because of fundamental inadequacies in their food supply. However, I'm not quite sure that's true. Certainly it would be helpful if you could give examples. It would also be helpful to put this in some sort of historic context: is starvation more or less widespread now than it was in the past?

For decades, the standard IMF/World Bank solution to food insecurity was to advise developing countries to concentrate on export crops, sell the crops, buy food from the developed countries with the proceeds, sell the food to the populace, and reinvest the profits into cash crops so they can grow their business.

Citation needed. AIUI, the point of growing cash crops is a more general one of development, rather than a response to food insecurity.

It's been nearly six months since I last ate something nobody bought, and as a result I'm poorer, I've eaten less well, and I've caused a lot more carbon emissions.

That's not at all obvious. The point of specialisation is that the people who grow food do it more efficiently than you or I would. We all end up richer than we would be if were subsistence farmers. Also, I don't know about your diet, but I'm sure that most people's diets are more varied, interesting and nutritious than they would be (were) under subsistence agriculture. After all, what grows in the UK about now?

It does so while employing fewer people, enforcing the marketization of the food supply – which forces people to earn money in order to live

I find it really bizarre when people suggest that employing fewer people is a bad thing. If we can grow the same amount of crops with half as many people, that frees up the other half to put their creativity to use for the benefit of humanity (and themselves). And what's wrong with earning money?

This is a revolutionary idea, and won't make much of any money for anyone; but what would help would be just to support people in what they want to do.

I'm not sure that's a very revolutionary idea. It seems to me that people have been suggesting that to me for some time. People want to do very diverse and often contradictory things. They want to drink Coca-Cola and own iPhones. Some subsistence farmers want to remain as subsistence farmers, but many want a greater degree of material prosperity than that implies.

I'm pretty certain that all the things you suggest are the sorts of things that Oxfam (for example) are all ready doing. There's a fairly substantial body of literature on whether that's effective, and the answer seems to be "it's hard to tell".

Date: 2010-02-12 03:59 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (allotment)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
"After all, what grows in the UK about now?"

Precious little. You're pretty much down to beetroot and cabbage by this time of year, with maybe some spinach and brocolli if you're lucky.

Even our veg box supplier has to import some stuff this time of year.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
I'm not sure about that. There were previously a lot more traditional vegetables people used to eat a lot more of (things like winter greens, good king henry, etc, and people would leave root veg in the ground to pull later) - those have fallen out of fashion with an increased diversity of products from abroad, and I expect many varieties no longer exist now. I suspect there would be food if we grow it, but it would simply not be as desirable as the tasty foods we've become used to.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:14 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (allotment)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
We have an allotment and we do try and grow some stuff through the winter, and we do try to get some variety.

Try it. It isn't nearly as easy as you think. Not all root veg are frost/snow hardy (hence the existence of clamps). Things grow so slowly in the winter that you simply run out before spring arrives.

It's known as the 'hungry gap'.

Winter greens are fine for vitamins, but not much good for calories.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] friend-of-tofu.livejournal.com
I've been trying. Had to give up cos I couldn't spare the time for the garden (full time work + study, not happening). I did get a decent store of potatoes earlier in the year, and fortunately I'm not trying to feed myself totally, just grow a bit. I certainly wouldn't claim it's easy though.

I've had people swear to me that both parsnips and swedes are better after frost. I'd have tested this out myself if my parsnips hadn't been dug up by cats :-(

My point wasn't that the gap doesn't exist, more that some of the more traditional things to eat around this time are no longer eaten, because we import more food and store more food.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
The couple of times I've spent time on (partially) self-sufficient communities, the gardens had a much larger variety of food than I've seen elsewhere - as many native-growable species as a large supermarket, and more (and more interesting) varieties. And that's without considering the forage (sorrel, chickweed, &c.) too.

It was also tastier.

Date: 2010-02-12 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elettaria.livejournal.com
I used Grow Wild (http://www.growwild.co.uk/) for years (organic box scheme in Scotland), and even in the winter, I seem to recall that most of the box was local produce.

Date: 2010-02-12 05:29 pm (UTC)
ext_15862: (allotment)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
The key word being 'most'. I think our people manage about 70% local in the winter.

Date: 2010-02-12 06:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] elettaria.livejournal.com
Sounds about right, especially since they probably want to keep enough variety that they won't scare off the customers. "Precious little", on the other hand, sounded like a lot less than that.

Date: 2010-02-12 04:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I'm not sure that you and I will ever be able to agree on any of the basic principles involved.

Date: 2010-02-13 07:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] robert-jones.livejournal.com
If you'll forgive me for saying so, that's a bit of a cop-out. I'm sure we do have some basic differences of principle (e.g., I suspect, in our understanding of what justice means), but I think we do agree that it is better that people don't starve. So that leaves us with a straightforward empirical question. And while there are substantial gaps in the evidence base, there is at least some relevant evidence. Your post, on the other hand, seems to proceed almost a priori.

Date: 2010-02-13 11:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
If you'll forgive me for saying so, that's a bit of a cop-out.

Actually, that was me being polite; I'll try bluntness instead. I'm not willing to engage with those comments because some of your positions leave me staring at the screen in baffled incomprehension - not of the "what did he mean?" kind, but more of the "did he really just say that? Does he really believe that?" kind. If I attempted to answer properly I would risk being uncivil, and I strongly prefer to avoid that. I don't have the time or energy to spend on discussing this with someone with your views on them.

Date: 2010-02-12 01:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] yvesilena.livejournal.com
You are teh awesome <3

Date: 2010-02-12 05:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cal-boudicca.livejournal.com
Hi! This is Tad Williams. Please excuse the interruption to your regularly scheduled bloggery. People here have mentioned my work, or love fantasy and science fiction, so I just wanted to pop in and say that anyone interested in reading a chapter from my new book, SHADOWRISE, should drop an email to:


and we'll send one to you. We won't do anything rotten with your email address, either, we promise. This is real!

Thanks – Tad