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The “Sustainable” Mantra — Organic, Local, and Slow — Won’t Save the World’s Hungry Millions

by Robert Paarlberg

From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it’s certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.

Helping the world’s poor feed themselves is no longer the rallying cry it once was. Food may be today’s cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food “sustainable” — in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most. Even our understanding of the global food problem is wrong these days, driven too much by the single issue of international prices. In April 2008, when the cost of rice for export had tripled in just six months and wheat reached its highest price in 28 years, a New York Times editorial branded this a “World Food Crisis.” World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that high food prices would be particularly damaging in poor countries, where “there is no margin for survival.” Now that international rice prices are down 40 percent from their peak and wheat prices have fallen by more than half, we too quickly conclude that the crisis is over. Yet 850 million people in poor countries were chronically undernourished before the 2008 price spike, and the number is even larger now, thanks in part to last year’s global recession. This is the real food crisis we face.

It turns out that food prices on the world market tell us very little about global hunger. International markets for food, like most other international markets, are used most heavily by the well-to-do, who are far from hungry. The majority of truly undernourished people — 62 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — live in either Africa or South Asia, and most are small farmers or rural landless laborers living in the countryside of Africa and South Asia. They are significantly shielded from global price fluctuations both by the trade policies of their own governments and by poor roads and infrastructure. In Africa, more than 70 percent of rural households are cut off from the closest urban markets because, for instance, they live more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest all-weather road.

Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of “food insecure” people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

Original Sins

Thirty years ago, had someone asserted in a prominent journal or newspaper that the Green Revolution was a failure, he or she would have been quickly dismissed. Today the charge is surprisingly common. Celebrity author and eco-activist Vandana Shiva claims the Green Revolution has brought nothing to India except “indebted and discontented farmers.” A 2002 meeting in Rome of 500 prominent international NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, even blamed the Green Revolution for the rise in world hunger. Let’s set the record straight.

The development and introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice seeds into poor countries, led by American scientist Norman Borlaug and others in the 1960s and 70s, paid huge dividends. In Asia these new seeds lifted tens of millions of small farmers out of desperate poverty and finally ended the threat of periodic famine. India, for instance, doubled its wheat production between 1964 and 1970 and was able to terminate all dependence on international food aid by 1975. As for indebted and discontented farmers, India’s rural poverty rate fell from 60 percent to just 27 percent today. Dismissing these great achievements as a “myth” (the official view of Food First, a California-based organization that campaigns globally against agricultural modernization) is just silly.

It’s true that the story of the Green Revolution is not everywhere a happy one. When powerful new farming technologies are introduced into deeply unjust rural social systems, the poor tend to lose out. In Latin America, where access to good agricultural land and credit has been narrowly controlled by traditional elites, the improved seeds made available by the Green Revolution increased income gaps. Absentee landlords in Central America, who previously allowed peasants to plant subsistence crops on underutilized land, pushed them off to sell or rent the land to commercial growers who could turn a profit using the new seeds. Many of the displaced rural poor became slum dwellers. Yet even in Latin America, the prevalence of hunger declined more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2005.

In Asia, the Green Revolution seeds performed just as well on small nonmechanized farms as on larger farms. Wherever small farmers had sufficient access to credit, they took up the new technology just as quickly as big farmers, which led to dramatic income gains and no increase in inequality or social friction. Even poor landless laborers gained, because more abundant crops meant more work at harvest time, increasing rural wages. In Asia, the Green Revolution was good for both agriculture and social justice.

And Africa? Africa has a relatively equitable and secure distribution of land, making it more like Asia than Latin America and increasing the chances that improvements in farm technology will help the poor. If Africa were to put greater resources into farm technology, irrigation, and rural roads, small farmers would benefit.

Organic Myths

There are other common objections to doing what is necessary to solve the real hunger crisis. Most revolve around caveats that purist critics raise regarding food systems in the United States and Western Europe. Yet such concerns, though well-intentioned, are often misinformed and counterproductive — especially when applied to the developing world.

Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe. Traditional food systems lacking in reliable refrigeration and sanitary packaging are dangerous vectors for diseases. Surveys over the past several decades by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the U.S. food supply became steadily safer over time, thanks in part to the introduction of industrial-scale technical improvements. Since 2000, the incidence of E. coli contamination in beef has fallen 45 percent. Today in the United States, most hospitalizations and fatalities from unsafe food come not from sales of contaminated products at supermarkets, but from the mishandling or improper preparation of food inside the home. Illness outbreaks from contaminated foods sold in stores still occur, but the fatalities are typically quite limited. A nationwide scare over unsafe spinach in 2006 triggered the virtual suspension of all fresh and bagged spinach sales, but only three known deaths were recorded. Incidents such as these command attention in part because they are now so rare. Food Inc. should be criticized for filling our plates with too many foods that are unhealthy, but not foods that are unsafe.

Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.

When it comes to protecting the environment, assessments of organic farming become more complex. Excess nitrogen fertilizer use on conventional farms in the United States has polluted rivers and created a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, but halting synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use entirely (as farmers must do in the United States to get organic certification from the Agriculture Department) would cause environmental problems far worse.

Here’s why: Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture. Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.

Mass deforestation probably isn’t what organic advocates intend. The smart way to protect against nitrogen runoff is to reduce synthetic fertilizer applications with taxes, regulations, and cuts in farm subsidies, but not try to go all the way to zero as required by the official organic standard. Scaling up registered organic farming would be on balance harmful, not helpful, to the natural environment.

Not only is organic farming less friendly to the environment than assumed, but modern conventional farming is becoming significantly more sustainable. High-tech farming in rich countries today is far safer for the environment, per bushel of production, than it was in the 1960s, when Rachel Carson criticized the indiscriminate farm use of DDT in her environmental classic, Silent Spring. Thanks in part to Carson’s devastating critique, that era’s most damaging insecticides were banned and replaced by chemicals that could be applied in lower volume and were less persistent in the environment. Chemical use in American agriculture peaked soon thereafter, in 1973. This was a major victory for environmental advocacy.

And it was just the beginning of what has continued as a significant greening of modern farming in the United States. Soil erosion on farms dropped sharply in the 1970s with the introduction of “no-till” seed planting, an innovation that also reduced dependence on diesel fuel because fields no longer had to be plowed every spring. Farmers then began conserving water by moving to drip irrigation and by leveling their fields with lasers to minimize wasteful runoff. In the 1990s, GPS equipment was added to tractors, autosteering the machines in straighter paths and telling farmers exactly where they were in the field to within one square meter, allowing precise adjustments in chemical use. Infrared sensors were brought in to detect the greenness of the crop, telling a farmer exactly how much more (or less) nitrogen might be needed as the growing season went forward. To reduce wasteful nitrogen use, equipment was developed that can insert fertilizers into the ground at exactly the depth needed and in perfect rows, only where it will be taken up by the plant roots.

These “precision farming” techniques have significantly reduced the environmental footprint of modern agriculture relative to the quantity of food being produced. In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the “environmental performance of agriculture” in the world’s 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.

Seeding the Future

Africa faces a food crisis, but it’s not because the continent’s population is growing faster than its potential to produce food, as vintage Malthusians such as environmental advocate Lester Brown and advocacy organizations such as Population Action International would have it. Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region’s known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent’s cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential, but instead because too little has been invested in reaching that potential.

One reason for this failure has been sharply diminished assistance from international donors. When agricultural modernization went out of fashion among elites in the developed world beginning in the 1980s, development assistance to farming in poor countries collapsed. Per capita food production in Africa was declining during the 1980s and 1990s and the number of hungry people on the continent was doubling, but the U.S. response was to withdraw development assistance and simply ship more food aid to Africa. Food aid doesn’t help farmers become more productive — and it can create long-term dependency. But in recent years, the dollar value of U.S. food aid to Africa has reached 20 times the dollar value of agricultural development assistance.

The alternative is right in front of us. Foreign assistance to support agricultural improvements has a strong record of success, when undertaken with purpose. In the 1960s, international assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and donor governments led by the United States made Asia’s original Green Revolution possible. U.S. assistance to India provided critical help in improving agricultural education, launching a successful agricultural extension service, and funding advanced degrees for Indian agricultural specialists at universities in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development, with the World Bank, helped finance fertilizer plants and infrastructure projects, including rural roads and irrigation. India could not have done this on its own — the country was on the brink of famine at the time and dangerously dependent on food aid. But instead of suffering a famine in 1975, as some naysayers had predicted, India that year celebrated a final and permanent end to its need for food aid.

Foreign assistance to farming has been a high-payoff investment everywhere, including Africa. The World Bank has documented average rates of return on investments in agricultural research in Africa of 35 percent a year, accompanied by significant reductions in poverty. Some research investments in African agriculture have brought rates of return estimated at 68 percent. Blind to these realities, the United States cut its assistance to agricultural research in Africa 77 percent between 1980 and 2006.

When it comes to Africa’s growing hunger, governments in rich countries face a stark choice: They can decide to support a steady new infusion of financial and technical assistance to help local governments and farmers become more productive, or they can take a “worry later” approach and be forced to address hunger problems with increasingly expensive shipments of food aid. Development skeptics and farm modernization critics keep pushing us toward this unappealing second path. It’s time for leaders with vision and political courage to push back.

This originally appeared in Foreign Policy and is used here with permission. 

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4 Comments for “The “Sustainable” Mantra — Organic, Local, and Slow — Won’t Save the World’s Hungry Millions”

  1. Or you could run Vivienne Armentrout’s thorough 3-part series on food:

    http://localannarbor.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/local-food-and-good-eating-in-a-season-of-plenty/

    I have to say that I don’t mind you running articles from viewpoints I do not share but for those who care about this issue and the way the Monsanto viewpoint has been wallpapered across the media landscape, it’s hard to ignore
    Vandana Shiva’s research on this topic and she is one of the few that regularly get on TV because
    she is so compelling.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3d9k23UyQQ

  2. PS: Pat: I’m curious as to how and why you came to run this piece — from Foreign Affairs, one of the quintessential corporate/1%-er/CIA/globalist-insider rags. F.A. is published by the CFR, a 1%-er old-boy’s club (and support structure for neocons, imperialists, warmongers, bankster apologists, etc.) from way back — think Rockefeller, Kissinger, Greenspan, Rubin, Brzezinski, Schultz, Cheney, just to name a few of the slimebags on their roster.

    Heck, if you want content pertaining to global food, nutrition and agriculture issues (who woulda thunk?), I could provide same, and do it with a slant much more consistent with the radical dissenting and socially-conscious/social-justice-oriented one that you project elsewhere on this blog. I mean, you really needn’t dredge out and re-run stuff from Molloch’s official publications. Haha.

    I’m also curious as to why you would run anything along these lines, from any angle; as I said, “who woulda thunk?”. It did not fit with the usual themes of the blog. Perhaps you have an interest in expanding the scope of A2P?

  3. Aimee Smith: “Hmmm, after doing a 5 sec google search, it turns out that Mr. Paarlberg is an advisor to the CEO of Monsanto.”

    Haha! Right. No surprise.

    I might add, Aimee, that Vandana Shiva is far from the only articulate critic of the so-called “Green Revolution”. There have been many. Here is just one of them — Keven Carson, writing from a mutualist (anarchist) position:

    http://c4ss.org/content/295
    The Green Revolution Saved Lives? A Poison Meme That Just Won’t Die
    Posted by Kevin Carson on Apr 2, 2009

    http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2006/01/so-called-green-revolution.html
    Tuesday, January 10, 2006
    The So-Called Green Revolution

    http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2006/01/follow-up-on-green-revolution.html
    Wednesday, January 11, 2006
    Follow-up on Green Revolution

    http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2006/03/real-green-revolution-and-you-dont.html
    Tuesday, March 07, 2006
    A Real Green Revolution (and You Don’t Even Need a Gene-Splicer)

    ……………….

    As for Africa’s problems: most generally, they have to do with the long history — continuing to this very moment — of resource extraction (less politely: looting) by the North/West. Resources are continually extracted from Africa, while our entropy in various forms (e.g. toxic waste) is exported to Africa. Africa has never been able to assemble sufficient capital (on any level) to lift itself. This is the real root cause, or at least a principal one, of Africa’s underdevelopment on all fronts, including agriculture. Just stop screwing them in the ass, and all kinds of good things could (and surely would) start happpening!

    Here’s some introductory material:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/aug/20/past.hearafrica05
    The wealth of the west was built on Africa’s exploitation
    by Richard Drayton

    http://www.liberationafrique.org/IMG/pdf/TJN4Africa.pdf
    Looting Africa: Some Facts and Figures

    http://www.civicus.org/new/media/PatrickBond-LootingAfrica.doc
    Looting Africa: The economics of exploitation
    By Patrick Bond
    [online book; full text is free]

    ………………

    Having said that, Mr Paarlberg should be given credit for a good point or two.
    He writes, for example, that “the smart way to protect against nitrogen runoff is to reduce synthetic fertilizer applications with taxes, regulations, and cuts in farm subsidies, but not try to go all the way to zero as required by the official organic standard.”

    Agreed. Going all the way to zero is counterproductive. Nitrogen is not a terrible toxin; it is a vital nutrient. It simply must be combined with a full spectrum of other plant, soil and microorganism nutrients, and used in judicious quantity, to be optimally effective, as well as sustainable.

    I would also agree that “If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming.” But there’s a problem, which is: who holds this romanticized view? Anyone? Who “romanticizes” preindustrial food and farming? I do not. No serious student of this matter does. Rather, we’re talking about not pre-industrial, but post-industrial technologies and understandings, which include that which is of value from the industrial paradigm, but transcends it and moves on, and in so doing corrects its shortcomings. We’re also talking about the embrace of SOME aspects of traditional and pre-industrial culture, as appropriate. The use in Africa, for example, of traditional dietary articles and patterns that served the population well for countless generations, rather than imposing on them new foods (the products of a chemical-intensive, capital-intensive monocropping) deemed “better” by our industrial/corporate High Priests. It is true, in a some instances, that the High Priests DO know better, but in order for that betterness to be expressed in a useful way, they need to shit-can the arrogance and understand that they can learn as much from Africans as Africans can learn from them.

    Further: Paarlberg is seriously wrong in his assertions about the inadequacy of organic techniques in terms of yields, as well as in terms of nutritional value. I would document these things, but this response is already too long, and it is likely that no one will even read it. (My being so late to the party.)

  4. The author fails to address (or perhaps even grasp?) the careful and
    well researched criticism of Vandana Shiva when it comes to the
    Green Revolution in particular and corporate dominated industrialized
    agriculture more generally.

    Hmmm, after doing a 5 sec google search, it turns out that Mr. Paarlberg
    is an advisor to the CEO of Monsanto. Perhaps that is why his praises
    of technology improvements in agriculture fail to mention the most
    controversial of the last decades – genetic engineering.

    People don’t eat organic foods because they expect them to contain
    more nutrients. They eat them to *avoid* Monanto’s Roundup and other
    pesticides and herbicides, to avoid irradiated food, to avoid food grown
    with sewer sludge, and – most important to many – to avoid the unevaluated,
    unregulated, and even unmonitored risks of genetically altered crops.

    Unfortunately, those who attempt to assess the risks in the scientific
    community fall prey to Monsanto’s dirty tricks campaign and are at risk
    of losing their livelihood. Ask Arpad Pusztai or Ignacio Chapela.
    http://www.naturalnews.com/033804_Scientists_Under_Attack_GMOs.html

    And while Monsanto would like people to believe it is pursuing GMO
    crops as a means to use technology to address world hunger, the truth
    is it is driven by dreams of monopolizing the world’s food supply. If
    Coke can be working toward a world where every drink that people
    reach for is a Cocacola product (even if it is our own water sold back
    to us in plastic bottles) then why can’t Monsanto have big dreams too?
    Check out the history of the terminator seed. It was designed to
    produce crops that generated only sterile seeds so that the farmers
    would have to return to buy new seed each year. The other main
    focus is “Roundup(TM) Ready” seeds. The plants that grow from these
    seeds can withstand Monsanto’s broad spectrum herbicide called
    Roundup. If herbicide residues have dropped in recent times (the
    article doesn’t mention them) you can be sure that Monsanto’s
    sales of herbicide are doing just fine.

    BTW, Monsanto brought the world DDT, Agent Orange, Saccharin and
    aspartame and had a role in the Manhattan Project. They like to claim they
    are a “Life Sciences” company, but I think “death sciences” is a more
    accurate description. But don’t take my word for it, look into their
    history and present practices yourself. (The lobbying part is quite
    interesting. Ever wonder why the FDA made no attempt to regulate
    or even label GMO foods?)

    There are other seed suppliers like Cargill. The industry has suffered
    a tremendous amount of consolidation making agriculture inputs
    more and more difficult to afford for farmers. This has led to an
    epidemic of farmer suicides in India. Dr. Vandana Shiva has written
    about this epidemic and the risks of genetically modified crops. No
    wonder she is dismissed by this Monsanto cheerleader.

    I think the case of Cuba is instructive. Due to harsh trade restrictions,
    Cuba was not given the opportunity to reap the “benefits” of the
    so-called Green revolution in agriculture. Organic farming is thriving
    there and it isn’t just for the wealthy who can afford to avoid GMO
    crops.

    If eliminating hunger in the world is something you would like to
    see, then work to help prevent agriculture input monopolies, unfair
    trade terms for US farmers due to subsidies here while disallowing
    such practices in other countries by means of World Bank and
    IMF loan requirements, and doing your level best to stop our
    society’s role in devastating other societies by outright invasion
    and/or fomenting of conflict. The role of war in generating
    poverty on an extremely culturally and mineral rich continent
    such as Africa can not be overstated. Learn more about the
    US and Western roles in instigating that state of affairs.

    Another thing one might consider is giving up meat. I gave
    up meat when I learned that it takes a lot more calories to
    create a calorie of meat. More of us could eat if the existing
    food supply was directed towards feeding humans instead
    of livestock. But, I also know, it is not lack of food that is the
    main source of hunger…

    So yes, support organic as much as you can, support your
    local organic farmers, grow your own garden, teach your
    children about food, gardening, and about corporate dishonesty.

    And try to seek out sources that are not on the payroll of
    those who stand to profit from the “biotech revolution.” Not
    all technology is beneficial (think Thalidomide, lead paint,
    leaded gasoline, etc.) In a sane world, new technologies should
    be carefully studied and proven safe *before* widespread
    proliferation.

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