Tuesday, July 17, 2012

food for thought

The Green Economy movement is really a greenwashed attempt to create a new model of capital accumulation for global corporate capitalism, based on "the commodification of the commons." Green Capitalism, like the first Industrial Revolution, is based on a large-scale process of primitive accumulation (a technical term Marxists use that simply means massive theft). The primitive accumulation preceding the rise of the factory system in industrial Britain involved the enclosure of common lands. The new green model of corporate-state capitalism partly based on agricultural land-grab but also on enclosing digital information and innovation, heavily reliant on patents and copyrights than the existing version of corporate capitalism. The "green capitalist" model is intended as a response to the primary threat facing corporate capitalism and its model of capital accumulation: the technological potential of abundance. If allowed to operate without hindrance, the free adoption of technologies and freely replicable digital information would not only destroy most existing corporate profits but render most investment capital superfluous. It's this threat, all the "progressive" rhetoric aside, that "green capitalism" is intended to head off. It's a last-ditch effort to rescue an entire system of class privilege and economic exploitation based on artificial scarcity from the revolutionary impact of abundance.

Organic food is riding a surge in popularity; across the globe, sales of organic food are burgeoning. And where consumers go, the multinational food companies follow: everyone from Uncle Tobys to Kraft, Heinz, Kelloggs and even Coca-Cola has jumped on the bandwagon. And developing countries are joining in too: China's organic exports grew 200-fold in a decade to reach US$200 million in 2004. Australia is also a major exporter, and plans to increase its organic produce by 50 per cent by 2012. Popular or not, it's clear that organic food is not necessarily healthier, nor more sustainable or better for the environment. With the Earth's climate changing fast, and the human population heading for nine or 10 billion, we need solutions based on scientific evidence rather than faith and good intentions.

Rachel Carson's  1962 book Silent Spring unleashed public concern about the dangers of synthetic chemicals, not just to birds and animals, but to humans. The incidence of human cancers were rising and suspicion fell on man-made farming chemicals. There's no doubt exposure to high doses of pesticides is hazardous to health: in countless studies, high doses given to laboratory animals have caused birth defects, sterility, tumours, and damaged organs. But as any toxicologist will tell you, most chemicals – natural or synthetic, are toxic at high doses. The question is not, "do pesticides cause cancer?" Rather, do the small traces of pesticide residue we eat in our food really cause a problem?

Organic does not mean “small family farm,” though big agriculture tends to want us to think that.  Many organics are what can be considered industrial agriculture, grown in monoculture, and take quite a bit of fossil fuels to grow. Organic does not mean “whole food” or even “fresh food.”  Many organics are highly processed, including organic cookies, chips, sodas, frozen dinners and mixes.  It’s still convenience food, which is fine in a pinch, but also higher calories and in more packaging. Organic does not mean “local” or “seasonal.”  Many organics are packaged in plastic and shipped long distances.  New Zealand organic apples, anyone?

Organic food is no healthier than ordinary food. There is little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce. The Food Standards Agency, which commissioned the report, and the researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at all the evidence on nutrition and health benefits from the past 50 years. Among the 55 of 162 studies that were included in the final analysis, there were a small number of differences in nutrition between organic and conventionally produced food but not large enough to be of any public health relevance. Overall the report found no differences in most nutrients in organically or conventionally grown crops, including in vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The same was true for studies looking at meat, dairy and eggs. Differences that were detected, for example in levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, were most likely to be due to differences in fertilizer use and ripeness at harvest and are unlikely to provide any health benefit. However, the review did not look at pesticides or the environmental impact of different farming practices.  The FSA was neither pro- nor anti-organic food and recognised there were many reasons why people choose to eat organic, including animal welfare or environmental concerns.

‘Big Food’ may be much criticised, but  large food producers have millions of dollars invested in their brands and reputations. They also have the scale of operation to put in place specialist safety testing and management.Historically, most food-related diseases are due to bacterial and fungal contamination, so in terms of health consciousness, focussing on pesticides is probably barking up the wrong tree. Three people from E. Coli poisoning related to spinach from a farm being converted to organic production, and 25 deaths from listeriosis caused by cantaloupes from a ‘pesticide-free’, family-operated farm in Colorado. A more recent incident, which may have occurred after the book went to press but confirms the point, is the death of 50 people after eating organic beansprouts from a farm in Germany last year. No matter how hard they try, local organic farmers may not be able to compost their manure properly or to control salmonella.

To achieve high yields from food crops requires disturbing nature to deliver just what the crops need. First off, crops need fertiliser, which is often nitrogen in the form of nitrate and ammonia, because most plants can't draw nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. (Legumes are a famous exception – their root nodules hold bacteria that turn atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate.) Second, there has to be a way of stopping all the other robust plant and insect species from competing with or consuming your crop. Non-organic farmers make use of chemicals to achieve these goals. Just prior to World War I, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch learned to make ammonia synthetically. Their chemical reaction is still used today to produce more than 450 million tonnes of artificial fertiliser per year, and sustains the agriculture which feeds about
60 per cent of the Earth's population.

Organic farmers source nitrate from manures, gradually broken down by soil organisms. They use only naturally-occurring products to control pests, such as the elements sulphur and copper; pyrethrins and rotenone (both made by plants); BT spray and Spinosad (both made by bacteria). However, these natural pesticides are not harmless. For instance, sulphur irritates the lungs, and rotenone has been shown to cause Parkinson's disease in rats.

Scientists are unable to test these chemicals directly on humans, so they use rats instead. To establish the maximum dose considered to be safe for humans, they find a dose that's completely safe for rats. Then they divide it by 100. Testing by Australia's national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, shows that pesticide levels measured in food are either well below the recommended maximum dose or are completely undetectable. People live about 80 years longer than rats: that's 80 years longer for pesticide cocktails to accumulate and wreak havoc. Even so, it turns out that a lifetime's consumption of synthetic pesticides is a drop in the ocean compared to the natural pesticides we consume from the plants we eat. Plants have evolved a vast pharmacopeia of chemical weapons, and we consume many of these 'weapons' daily: caffeine in coffee, solanine in potatoes and psoralens in celery, to name just three.

Even the freshest organic apples – as well as other plant foods – contain natural compounds which, when extracted and given to rats in high doses, cause tumours. Toxicologist Bruce Ames of the University of California became famous in the 1970s for sounding the alarm on the cancer-causing (or carcinogenic) potential of man-made chemicals. But after testing 'natural' pesticides in rats, he called off the warning. A paper he published in 1990 said it all. Entitled, "Dietary Pesticides (99.99 per cent All Natural)", it reported that in a regular diet, people consume about 10,000 times more natural carcinogens than synthetic ones. According to Ames, a single cup of coffee contains more natural carcinogens than a year's worth of the pesticide residues eaten on fruit and vegetables.

A comprehensive review of some 400 scientific papers on the health impacts of organic foods concluded there was no evidence that eating organic food was healthier. If chemical pesticide use was  hazardous to health, then farm workers should be most affected. The results of a 13-year study of nearly 90,000 farmers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina suggests we really don't have much to worry about. These people were exposed to higher doses of agricultural chemicals because of their proximity to spraying, and 65 per cent of them had personally spent more than 10 years applying pesticides. If any group of people were going to show a link between pesticide use and cancer, it would be them. They didn't. Compared to the normal population, their rates of cancer were actually lower. And they did not show any increased rate of brain-damaging diseases like Parkinson's. There was one exception: prostate cancer. This seemed to be linked to farmers using a particular fungicide called methyl bromide, which is now in the process of being phased out. According to James Felton, of the Biosciences Directorate of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who also chairs the study, "The bottom line is the results are coming out surprisingly negative. It's telling us that most of the chemicals we use today are not causing cancer or other disease."

Agriculture, both ancient and modern, has always been about adapting the landscape and finding ways to get more production out of the same land, as the authors point out. The assumption is that what we are seeing is potentially devastating soil degradation and/or enormous losses in biodiversity. In fact, soil degradation is much worse in poorer countries and among nomadic peoples. Big farmers have maintained soil quality and vastly increased yields. The best method to avoid such erosion is ‘no till’ agriculture, which relies on synthetic herbicides and genetically modified crops that food activists decry. The earthworm-rich soils, so prized by organic farmers, are being achieved through contemporary no-till (or no-plough) techniques. One high-tech solution is known as no-till farming. The plough may be the icon of farming, but it turns out that ploughing actually wrecks the soil. Compared to the bad old days where virtually every part of a field was ploughed, these days the scars are restricted to two-centimetre-wide furrows 30 cm apart. No-till systems also win hands down when it comes to hanging on to soils. An 11-year farming experiment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, compared crops grown three ways: conventional tillage, organic methods, or no-till. Compared to the conventional tilled plot, the organic plot was likely to hang on to 30 per cent more soil. But compared to the organic plot, the no-till plot hung on to 80 per cent more soil. (It's possible to combine organic and no-till on a small scale by relying on hand weeding. But that's not practical for large-scale farming. And without tilling, it's difficult to work manures into the soil.) In Australia, most farmers use rotation to get crops out of synchronisation with weeds and to return nutrients to the soil. Natural predators are being used to control pests, and companies such as Dow Chemical are producing safe, short-acting pesticides. In fact Dow's latest pesticide, Spinosad, is also happily used by organic farmers because it is naturally produced by bacteria.

The soil that farmers prize has a structure that resembles a stack of peas with pores running through it. Earthworms and other creatures maintain this structure, and the whole thing is meshed together by the tendrils of fungi and plant roots. In other words – a spongy soil that holds onto water and won't blow away. Too much tillage destroys that structure, so a method of no-till farming had to be developed.  Tillage is used to bury the previous year's crop residue and destroy weeds. But in no-till farming, herbicide removes the weeds and the new seed is sown directly into the stubble of the last crop. Leaving the stubble in the soil means the planet benefits. All that carbon kept in the ground by no-till farming reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to eight million tonnes per year.

The concept of‘"food miles" and eating local is flawed. Despite its popularity, the concept and its underlying rationale have been convincingly debunked in numerous life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies, a methodology that examines the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life cycle, from raw-material extraction to disposal of the finished product. Transportation is only one small element of the environmental impact of food production. In the US, for example, researchers have found that the "food miles" segment (the bit from producer to retailer) only accounts for 4% of total emissions, but 83% of a household’s carbon emissions related to food come from the production of the food. Therefore, food should be produced in the most ideal circumstances in order to minimise those emissions. That’s why it makes more sense for British people to eat New Zealand lamb or Spanish tomatoes, environmentally, than eating local, because the efficiency of production more than makes up for the distance travelled. Moreover, buying fresh from around the world makes more sense than storing local production. Indeed, the short hop to the supermarket by car to bring home a comparatively small amount of food may cause more carbon emissions than the shipping - or even flying - of food in bulk from thousands of miles away. You specialise in what you do best rather than being a jack of all trades  , you become more efficient at it and we are all better off. One of the main lessons to be learned from  experience over the last century-and-a-half is that autarkic food policies, relying on their own production or that of their local area can only result in disaster. If improving sustainability and reducing the environmental footprint is the goal, we need to be prepared to use the best tools we have. Going ‘organic’ and/or ‘local’ would mean lower yields and hence more wild land being brought into food production. That hardly seems to count as sane stewardship. Our problem is that we’re not globalised enough. There is one way the world can feed all the billions alive today with organic farming: we all go vegetarian. Half the world's grain is grown for cattle, and this is undeniably a highly inefficient use of soil, farming land and resources. But the reality is that the demand for meat is forecasted to double by 2030.

Modern farming techniques have evolved after decades of pressure from the environmental movement and decades of work by a generation of scientists inspired by environmental awareness. In fact, conventional farming is starting to look a lot like organic farming. For example, organic farmers will use litres of BT spray (BT is a 'natural' pesticide made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), yet they often demonise the genetically modified (GM) cotton crops that carry an inbuilt supply of BT, and which therefore require less spraying. However, these GM varieties spare farmers – and the environment – from the risks of pesticide overuse. For instance, according to Richard Roush, the Dean of land and food resources at the University of Melbourne, cotton farmers in India have reduced their use of pesticides and accidental poisonings by 80 per cent since the introduction of genetically modified BT cotton.

The free market is seriously flawed, but the answer is not to tinker around with it but to supersede that system with something better and not retreat into the limitations of the past. The real fact of the matter is that there is already enough food to feed the world's population right now and into the future. The US and Europe wastes millions of tonnes of food each year. Quite simply, GM food is not needed to feed the world. Let's farm along with nature, not against it. The message is clear: develop sustainably and conserve thoughtfully. Agricultural biodiversity is the foundation for all food production and our food security. GM crops which have come up in the recent past are the greatest singular threat for biodiversity. A broad genetic base is vital for healthy agriculture and overcoming new epidemics of pests and diseases and for adapting to climate change. Such a base is immensely reduced in the case of GM crops as they encourage monoculture. What socialists seek is a self-organised, decentralised economy, in which ordinary people take advantage of new technologies of abundance. The beauty of the age we live in is that we possess new production technology. So the question is, which model do we want to follow?  Toiling under the domination of bosses and corporations or a society of self-governance, leisure and mutual cooperation. That said, agriculture - of whatever kind - is there to feed people.

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