Today is Blog Action Day. Started in 2007, it encourages bloggers to post on the same day about the same global issue. As it coincides this year with World Food Day, a movement run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to raise awareness of food shortages around the world, this year's topic is food. I hope you'll forgive me if I get a bit more political than usual.
First of all, World Food Day could not have come at a better time. There's so much in the air lately: world population approaching the seven billion mark, the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, and the exponentially expanding Occupy movement to name a few key points. And it's getting more and more apparent how much the food system plays a part in all of it. So much of our global economy and the state of our environment are tied up in the industrial system that has taken over how the average person is fed.
We all know the health benefits to the individual that can result from cutting back on processed foods (poor white flour. I'm starting to feel bad for it, with the reputation it's getting. It's not like the stuff asked to be separated from the nutritious part of the plant), but it's not always as obvious that our everyday food choices are part of a much, much bigger story.
The July 2011 issue of National Geographic ran an excellent article by Charles Siebert entitled "Food Ark," which sheds light on the real-life consequences of growing just one variety of certain plants, as opposed to the genetically diverse array of heirloom varieties that small farmers have been using since the dawn of agriculture, and, to some extent, still do.
Let's take a hypothetical example. A farmer wants to plant corn. He uses some seeds that he saved from last year's harvest, he trades some to his neighbor in exchange for seeds from the neighbor's previous harvest, and buys still others at a local market. Now this farmer has a least three different varieties of corn.
Maybe the seeds he bought at the market do best under dry conditions. If there is a lot of rain that year, then those seeds will not flourish. Maybe the neighbor's seeds need a lot of water. Those won't produce a good yield if there is a drought. And maybe the farmer's own seeds are particularly tasty to a certain kind of bug. If that bug happens to migrate this year to the farmer's field, then those seeds will die.
In any of these scenarios, most of the crop stays healthy; healthy enough to produce seeds that will be planted the next year, and theoretically yield a better harvest because they will be better adapted than their predecessors to the environment of the farm.
But if there were only one variety of, say, the seeds that need plenty of water? In the drought year, most of them will die, severely affecting the farmer's yield. Luckily, it's still unlikely that they will all die, because each seed is slightly genetically different from the next, and there will be some variation in hardiness. These seeds are a lot like biological family members, who share many, but certainly not all, of the same genetic characteristics. Again, only the best will survive to reproduce, making for a healthier harvest next year. That's how natural selection works, right?
OK. Now think about the fact that the vast majority of the field corn grown on an industrial scale in the united states is not just of the same variety, but genetically modified to be exactly the same. Sure this particular variety was chosen for its hardiness under any kind of weather condition, ability to resist pests and disease, etc., but still. Aren't we tempting fate just a little bit here? Do we really think that there is never going to come a time when our national corn crop fails?
And of course, the kind of corn we're talking about isn't just corn. It's meat, ethanol, shampoo, chewing gum, all of which add up to a huge part of the U.S. economy, which we all know is tied up in the economy of the rest of the world. And when something goes wrong, the people it hits first and hardest are the people who were poorest to begin with, in this country and abroad.