Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reviews of Food, Inc.

Responding to Marc Gunther's review, "Food Inc: tasty but unsatisfying":

Enjoyed your review, but took Food, Inc. more favorably on several key points. It’s not surprising that you have trouble distinguishing the real merits behind the save-the-world green marketing of Coke, Pepsi, Cheerios, and Post. The movie did well to raise questions about even the most green brands like Stonyfield. The real contrast it draws is between conventional and local and organic food.

I understand the question about whether the world can produce enough food, but I have a pair of standards for those who raise this concern: (a) Did they acknowledge that advanced non-GMO technologies are immensely productive and that GMOs make only a modest further improvement?, and (b) did they discuss the inefficiency of historically unprecedented per capita grain-fed meat and dairy in the same paragraph as their concern about non-GMO technology? Without these points, the repeated mantra “But how can we feed the world” risks misdirection.

10 comments:

The Almond Doctor said...

What about the contributions of modern fertilization which is allowing us to meet our global food demand? And now, through climate change, how fertilizers are now considered "bad" (NOx, Leaching, etc.)?

Fertilizer strategies have pushed crop development and production levels. We have inadvertently bred our annual crops to match our production practices - which include fertilizers. An indisputable point, but should be realized none-the-less.

Concerned Citizen said...

Wanted to make a quick point about posed question (a) - about GMO crops. It is important to realize that our understanding of the true value of GMO crops is limited. We can only base our guesses of GMOs based upon what we have seen - which are traits that have been selected not for higher yields, but for agronomic purposes (Glyphosate resistance, starlink, etc.). If the focus was pushed on increasing yields, it would occur - dramatically. If the emphasis was placed on disease resistance - it would work with a significant use reduction of fungicides. It is much too early to predict that "GMO's make only a modest further improvement." Of work within the field of genetic plant improvement, the traits being developed with the most foresight include increases in salt and drought tolerances (IMHO).

Aliza said...

appreciate your very nuanced paragraph two. found myself in an identical conversation this weekend in which the "how to feed the world" mantra re: GMOs as the only solution is a bit paralyzing. especially when Malthus is then referenced.

Ryan said...
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R said...

Point (b) is complicated by the fact that the majority of current meat consumption and the VAST majority of future growth in meat consumption takes place in the developing world. It’s easy to make a moral case for why an obese American should eat less meat; much harder for a poor Malawian farmer or Chinese laborer with a protein-deficient diet.

As far as I understand, the jury is still out on both the long-term environmental sustainability of the “Norman Borlaug” model (i.e. high fertilizer/pesticide/herbicide use, monocultures of GM seeds, etc.) and whether the “Michael Pollan” model (i.e. organic inputs, high crop rotation, etc.) can deliver sufficient yields on a large scale to feed a world population of 8-10bn people a nutritious diet without dramatically expanding land use (which causes deforestation, reduces biodiversity, etc.). I’d love to know if anyone is aware of balanced, authoritative academic research into these topics – most of what I’ve seen is fairly polemical from one side or the other.

peopleandresources.blogspot.com

Parke Wilde said...

What interesting comments -- a more productive conversation than one often gets on this issue! I imagine Almond Doctor is right -- I believe it is unfair to tar all GMO opponents with failing to feed the world, but heavy fertilizer use is necessary to feed the world. A question I want to read up on is how far non-petroleum-based fertilizers could carry us.

I also think Concerned Citizen is right that one should distinguish GMOs today from GMOs as potential technologies in the future. The most severe critics suspect that GMO technologies are inherently doomed to do wrong. I'm distressed that the United States has failed to set up a regulatory system that acknowledges the distinct issues raised by GMOs, and suspicious of the current leading GMOs for Roundup-ready and bt features. But, I wouldn't be surprised if better proof of safety and better features could be developed in the future. Depending on the research arc, I might or might not be a GMO supporter a decade from now.

Parke Wilde said...

Oh, and, as R indicates, it would be great to have a convergence in global meat consumption patterns at a level above that of Malawi and perhaps a third that of the United States. Under the current pattern, especially if you focus on feeding good food crops to animals (as opposed to using undeveloped grassland for animals), I can't think of meat consumption excess as a poor country problem. It's a rich country problem.

R said...

I love the idea of harmonious convergence, but running the numbers it's hard to see how meat consumption could even be held constant without some combination of 1), a massive, awareness-driven global shift toward low-meat, high-protein diets (I'm all for trying, but seems quixotic), 2), continued widespread malnourishment, and/or 3), a severe population adjustment.

According to FAPRI, current per capita meat consumption is 115 kg/year in the U.S., 80 in the EU, and 50 in China (growing to 62 in the next decade). They don't appear to have numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa, but I've seen ~15 elsewhere. Hard to know where needed protein intake ends and excessive consumption begins, but for the sake of argument say it's around where China will be in a decade (~60kg/capita/year). 1bn Africans shifting up to 60 would outweigh all of the U.S. and Europe shifting down. Less-developed E/SE Asian countries will likely rise as well. So hard to see per capita consumption falling on a global level, and overall consumption will have positive population growth layered on top for some time to come.

Parke Wilde said...

I'm not sure if R is advising: (a) that we should pursue GMOs now (because the alternative of moderating meat consumption is unrealistic), (b) that we should come to grips with the challenge of seeking convergence at and average annual meat consumption of, say, 40 kg per person rather than even the modest 60 kg per person, or (c) despair.

R said...

To point (b) in your original post, I think we should come to grips with the fact that meat consumption is unlikely to decline on a global level, and let that constraint inform the discussion of whether a local/organic ag system can feed the world. I certainly don't know the answer to that!!