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Global food studies
April 22, 2008 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Exposed: The great GM crops myth. A new study shows some genetically engineered crops (soy, cotton) produce less than equvilent conventional crops. Meanwhile the IAASTD - sort of the IPCC of agriculture composed of 400 experts from around the world - has concluded in a major report that GM crops are not the answer to world hunger and there must be a "paradigm shift" (IAASTD report summary). They predict global demand for food will double in the next 25-50 years, but with the current food crises, some GM crops are already less taboo, but PETA is banking on vat grown meat.
posted by stbalbach (112 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sure, they may produce less food, but the important thing is that they can be made to not produce viable seeds, thereby forcing impoverished third-world farmers to buy seeds directly from Monsanto each year. Get some perspective, man!
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:01 AM on April 22, 2008 [12 favorites]


And let's not forget the genetic manipulation that makes the crops immune to particular brands of herbicides (*cough* Roundup *cough*), thus opening yet another profit stream. Better living through chemistry, y'know.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:07 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would bet if you measured the yields in a drought season the GM crops would be significantly higher. Or during a disease outbreak. I have no real opinion on GM foods, I honestly don't care. I guess it's a sort of insurance to cope with possible droughts or disease or insects or whatever else may put a dent in yields.

You might not get higher yields during "optimal conditions", but optimal conditions are rare.
posted by sanka at 9:13 AM on April 22, 2008


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.
posted by utsutsu at 9:18 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought the point of herbicide-resistant strains was to make growing them cheaper, not necessarily to push yield up. It takes less work/money to spray herbicide than to weed by hand or machine.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:21 AM on April 22, 2008


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.

Well, whether it works is really dependent on how you quantify "working". From a corporate profit viewpoint, it works exceedingly well. From a biodiversity view, not so much.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:21 AM on April 22, 2008


As a avowed carnivore**, "vat grown meat" sounds really disgusting in a gut-wrenching, unnatural way. But I think it's just a perspective thing. I mean, if we'd been eating vat grown meat all along, and somebody came along and suggested, "hey, let's kill that animal, cut it up, and eat it", we'd be all "eeeeeeewwwww!!!"

** Okay, okay... "omniovore". I do like the occasional salad with my steak.
posted by LordSludge at 9:32 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.

Certain aspects of industrialized farming have worked just fine, while others - not so much. I think it's important not to take an 'all or nothing' approach when it comes to agricultural technology and innovation. GM crops, however, seem to sit at one end of the spectrum, while all of us scratching out sustenance garden is at the other. Neither on their own is any kind of reasonable solution to food scarcity in the future.

The fact is, we are going to have to manipulate our environment, including the plants within it, in order to meet growing food demands. GM foods need to be carefully considered as one among many possible tools, but not as a for-profit silver bullet.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:32 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


"omniovore", sigh...
posted by LordSludge at 9:32 AM on April 22, 2008


I thought the point of herbicide-resistant strains was to make growing them cheaper, not necessarily to push yield up.

The point of herbicide-resitant strains is to allow the farmer to be able to bomb his entire field with Roundup to kill everything there except the GM crop. It's a lock-in for a particular brand of herbicide. There might be some small increase in yield, due to the elimination of every other competing plant in the field.

I doubt that it's actually cheaper, since now the farmer is locked-into a GM crop and an expensive name-brand herbicide.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:36 AM on April 22, 2008


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.

I think it's time for us to reconsider the whole "food for profit" experiment.

Once food becomes an inalienable human right again, I think the wheat will separate from the chaff pretty quickly in terms of what makes sense and what doesn't in terms of agricultural practices, GMOs, etc.
posted by regicide is good for you at 9:37 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ugh, I just used "in terms of" twice in one sentence. Should probably eat breakfast...
posted by regicide is good for you at 9:38 AM on April 22, 2008


The GM crop – engineered to resist Monsanto's own weedkiller, Roundup – recovered only when he added extra manganese,

So did he spray both crops with Roundup? Wouldn't the yields in that situation be the relevant ones?
posted by smackfu at 9:44 AM on April 22, 2008


Once food becomes an inalienable human right again

Fixed, etc.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:50 AM on April 22, 2008


I think it's time for us to reconsider the whole "food for profit" experiment.

I think it's a practice that has moved beyond the experimental phase. As much as I'd love to live in a world where everyone shares, the children sings songs all day and I get take a nap after lunch, I think it's reasonable to talk about the world we actually live in. While giving up 'food for profit' is a solution, an ideal one at that, it is not one we will see in our lifetimes. What we need are actual on the ground solutions that can be implemented now and in the near future.

GMO's, the other extreme, are not the solution either.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:56 AM on April 22, 2008


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment.

We should leave plants as God intelligently designed them. Who are we to think we can improve on what nature provided? Go back to the plough, pick up the hoe, and get those horses harnessed. Sheesh.

Leaving science out of agriculture makes as much sense as leaving science out of medicine.
posted by three blind mice at 9:59 AM on April 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


Once food becomes an inalienable human right again

Please tell me about this time in the past when food was an inalienable human right.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:00 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


And certainly don't leave it out overnight!
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:01 AM on April 22, 2008


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.

Yeah right. Crop yields have increased by a manifold since the 1940s thanks to this "whole industrialized agriculture experiment" (aka "Green Revolution"), helping to sustain a much bigger human population. It isn't its fault if we humans just can't stop procreating.

I think it's time for us to reconsider the whole "food for profit" experiment.


Right, because that worked out so well before.

Growing food just happens to be hard work. How do you expect to motivate farmers to provide the six billion people in the world with that basic human right if not through profit? AFAIK, the only alternative is forced labour (aka "slavery").

Such idiocy can only be written by people who never ever had serious hunger, nor had to grow their own food. Not that it's my case either, but at least I'm modest enough to acknowledge it.
posted by Skeptic at 10:03 AM on April 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


In all my life, in all the things I am somewhat knowledgeable about, agrichemicals are the one thing that are the most intensely misunderstood and misrepresented. I worked in the industry for a number of years (over a decade ago). This essay is a pretty good example of not thinking things through.

Look, increasing crop yield is not the goal. It's a balance of total sales from your crop minus your total expenditures. If yield stays the same, but costs to get your crop to harvest go down, that means a better profit. If you have a roundup ready crop of beans, you may be able to cut your herbicide use tremendously if you can use roundup (an extremely effective at low doses broad spectrum herbicide) instead of a less effective herbicide. You may be able to get away with just one spraying instead of two or three. Gas prices being what they are, you may save dozens if not hundreds of dollars per acre in costs of crop maintenance by making fewer passes over your fields with a tractor. So even if yield is the same you make a lot more profit.

If you don't turn a profit, you lose your farm. Now that's an incentive.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 10:11 AM on April 22, 2008 [10 favorites]


From the article: A former champion crop grower himself, he drew the comparison with human runners. Since Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile more than 50 years ago, the best time has improved only modestly . "Despite all the advances in training, no one contemplates a three-minute mile."

Not true. We have contemplated the 3 minute mile through genetic engineering and performance enhancing drugs. We are just blocked by these world wide anti-doping zealots who are trying to block the use of science to make us super awesome. On this earth day let's pledge to get back to the 1960s better living though chemestry, nuclear power too cheap to meter future that we once had. I don't care if it is all built on silent springs and Karen Silkwood's glowing green ashes. Bring on the sprockets.
posted by humanfont at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


"vat grown meat" sounds really disgusting in a gut-wrenching, unnatural way.

Ever visit an industrial feedlot, a battery pig farm, and/or a slaughterhouse? Vat-grown meat sounds absolutely lovely by comparison.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:24 AM on April 22, 2008 [9 favorites]


The fact is, we are going to have to manipulate our environment, including the plants within it, in order to meet growing food demands.

This is standard perceived wisdom forked out by the food industrial complex. There are other ways. See Pollan's recent talk at TED in which he dispels this myth. It is not "man vs nature", it is not a zero sum game where man must take away from or change nature in order to survive. So long as we follow that path, nature will win in the end.
posted by stbalbach at 10:28 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Skeptic: Far be it from me to deny anyone the joys of a good straw man (or straw comrade) thrashing, but you'll have to show me the page in the manual where it says that opposition to profit-mongering automatically equals support for state socialism. Government monopolies are just as distasteful as corporate ones.

While giving up 'food for profit' is a solution, an ideal one at that, it is not one we will see in our lifetimes.

I don't think I'll see real across-the-board solutions to any of the major social problems within my lifetime. Privileging theoretical one-off world-scale fixes over existing community-level experimentation is really disempowering. The great thing about big problems is that the solutions start small.

Sizeable community gardens and community-run urban farms can be found across North America, though they sometimes come under attack.
posted by regicide is good for you at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Have to agree, that whole PETA-meat-grown-in-a-vat thing just made me barf a little in my mouth.

Not condoning slaughterhouses here, but come on.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:31 AM on April 22, 2008


I love the idea of vat-grown meat and don't really understand objections to it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:34 AM on April 22, 2008 [11 favorites]


G_S: Ever visit an industrial feedlot, a battery pig farm, and/or a slaughterhouse? Vat-grown meat sounds absolutely lovely by comparison.

No, but I grew up on a small farm (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.), so I'm familiar with the, um, "guts" of the operation. But, yeah, that was kinda my point: If vat-grown were the norm, eating animals would seem not only barbaric, but disgusting.
posted by LordSludge at 10:35 AM on April 22, 2008


Patapsco Mike FTW.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:41 AM on April 22, 2008


I really, really can't stand food politics. Subsidies, market distortions, export quotas, patents, the terminator gene, they all make me nuts. Monsanto, ADM, et al have done quite a bit in their own right but they've only taken advantage of the legislative environment that we've helpfully provided them.

GM foods are the future, there's no escaping it. We should be throwing as much disinfecting light on the process of how they're researched, created, marketed, sold, grown, harvested and consumed as humanly possible. That we're not, and that the collective gormless fuckwit that is Congress has passed another brain dead farm bill is the saddest fact of the day.
posted by Skorgu at 10:46 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love the idea of vat-grown meat and don't really understand objections to it.

I'm with pope guilty--in fact, I'm practically drooling over the possibility of finally getting to chow down on a choice cut of steak that never had a face, a brain, or millions of twitching nerve-endings attached. (Haven't touched red meat in 5 years, but would in a heartbeat if it weren't necessarily connected to slaughtering an animal as intelligent and capable of feeling pain and emotional perturbation as some mentally-challenged human beings.) Go synth meat! Not only would it be more ethical, stricter quality controls could be applied to lab grown meats, making them far more delicious than the inconsistent, often gristly stuff we get now.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:52 AM on April 22, 2008 [10 favorites]



This is standard perceived wisdom forked out by the food industrial complex. There are other ways. See Pollan's recent talk at TED in which he dispels this myth. It is not "man vs nature", it is not a zero sum game where man must take away from or change nature in order to survive. So long as we follow that path, nature will win in the end.


While it's always fun to blame the big bad corporations, you're completely off base. We have already manipulated the environment--ever since the dawn of domestication, in fact. Without that manipulation 99.99% of the human population would not exist. Hippy-dippy platitudes about being one with nature don't change the fact that we will expand by whatever means necessary until we hit the limits of this planet's carrying capacity, and stay there until something happens to alter that capacity (global warming, peak oil, nuclear war). It's an evolutionary demand common to every single other animal, and it's nothing more than arrogance and self-delusion to assume that human beings will prove immune to it.

It's funny how the people who make such a big deal about living with nature, being natural, and whatever else refuse to see this simple fact. Human beings are animals, we're part of nature, and we obey its laws.
posted by nasreddin at 11:00 AM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Vat grown meat! Finally, I can ethically pursue my cannibalistic desires and eat human meat without killing humans!

Yum!
posted by lyam at 11:05 AM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's time for us to reconsider this whole industrialized agriculture experiment. I think it's pretty clear that it just doesn't work.

Are you out of your mind? The amount of food generated per unit of land, and (especially) per unit of labor are vastly, vastly improved over the past few decades.
posted by delmoi at 11:07 AM on April 22, 2008


See Pollan's recent talk at TED in which he dispels this myth. It is not "man vs nature", it is not a zero sum game where man must take away from or change nature in order to survive. So long as we follow that path, nature will win in the end.

I loved that talk, and took away a very different point: every species in nature is manipulating the environment to its advantage. Humans are not special in that regard whatsoever, and just as much a part of nature as bees or corn. We need to realize that when we go about our manipulations we can probably take advantage of billions of years of systems engineering rather than building one anew focusing on just one small part or crop.

On preview, amen nasreddin.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:15 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


The amount of food generated per unit of land, and (especially) per unit of labor are vastly, vastly improved over the past few decades.

Generalize "labor" to "work", and then "work" to "energy", and I think you'll find the improvements aren't what you think they are. Especially when we're going to be increasingly utilizing the crops themselves in order to provide that very energy, which as we're already starting to see, negatively impacts net food production really dramatically.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:15 AM on April 22, 2008


my cannibalistic desires and eat human meat

sorry to disappoint you, but I really doubt you could legitimately call it 'human meat' anymore, if it were grown in a lab--at least, from what i understand from my own experiences with the shallow, taboo-fetish oriented nature of the cannibalistic impulse, it's highly doubtful a would-be cannibal would be satisfied drinking such a wine that's never seen the grape.

It's funny how the people who make such a big deal about living with nature, being natural, and whatever else refuse to see this simple fact. Human beings are animals, we're part of nature, and we obey its laws.

I'd go one further, nadreddin, and reject these categories completely. How we behave isn't any more natural than unnatural, because the dichotomy itself is an illusion of convention. And to even get tangled up in those kinds of concerns at all misses the point: The question we should always ask, I think, is will what we're doing with the development of GM crops and other agricultural technologies benefit us or harm us--that's all that really counts. Not even profit motive in the conventional sense really counts, because the most basic form of profit--a profit motive we all share--is continued survival.

I think I'm pretty much in agreement with Skorgu's comment, otherwise, with the qualification that it cannot be stressed enough that we should proceed carefully before adopting any new technologies with potentially far-reaching ecological consequences--if only because there are so often unforeseen consequences that ultimately work counter to our original purposes.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:18 AM on April 22, 2008


oops. that's 'nasreddin' obviously.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:21 AM on April 22, 2008


I'd go one further, nadreddin, and reject these categories completely. How we behave isn't any more natural than unnatural, because the dichotomy itself is an illusion of convention. And to even get tangled up in those kinds of concerns at all misses the point: The question we should always ask, I think, is will what we're doing with the development of GM crops and other agricultural technologies benefit us or harm us--that's all that really counts.

Right, that's what I was trying to get at. I don't think nature vs. culture is interesting or productive to talk about anymore.
posted by nasreddin at 11:21 AM on April 22, 2008


Vat grown meat could eventually be very good, but I'm willing to bet that when it first comes to market, it'll be kind of nasty. Maybe the flavor will seem flat, or the texture all wrong.

The processes that go on in living creatures that make meat what it is are, like all biological processes, vastly complex and only dimly understood. 'Flavor' and 'texture' are subtle phenomena, difficult just to define thoroughly, let alone replicate from scratch. We'll have a hard time making something that really does taste like chicken.

That said, I support the effort. I'll try it when it's available. But I don't see it taking the world by storm, at least not right away.
posted by echo target at 11:23 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Human beings are animals, we're part of nature, and we obey its laws.

Hear, hear!
posted by echo target at 11:27 AM on April 22, 2008


I for one, welcome our Uber-steak vatgrown subjugates..
posted by Thoth at 11:27 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Monsanto, ADM, et al have done quite a bit in their own right but they've only taken advantage of the legislative environment that we've helpfully provided them they bought and paid for.

FTFY.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 11:28 AM on April 22, 2008


'Flavor' and 'texture' are subtle phenomena

You'd be surprised at how few of the flavors and textures you find in your food nowadays are in any way "authentic". A mass-market hot dog without artificial flavoring would taste, at best, like a handful of rubbery lard. In any event farmed meats are less flavorful than game or even free-range domesticated meat to begin with.

Frankly the genetic engineers haven't got a very high bar to get over at this point .
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:30 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Monsanto, ADM, et al have done quite a bit in their own right but they've only taken advantage of the legislative environment that we've helpfully provided them they bought and paid for that we put up for sale.

FTFTFYFM :)
posted by Skorgu at 11:35 AM on April 22, 2008


Right, that's what I was trying to get at. I don't think nature vs. culture is interesting or productive to talk about anymore.

agreed. i just meant to make the slightly finer point that human activities involving manipulating the environment don't get a free-pass on the basis that they're natural either--another common mistake of the same kind.

That said, I support the effort. I'll try it when it's available. But I don't see it taking the world by storm, at least not right away.

It can't possibly be worse than tofu--on the other hand, grillers prime veggie burgers are pretty damn good already.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:35 AM on April 22, 2008


Vat grown meat! Finally, I can ethically pursue my cannibalistic desires and eat human meat without killing humans!

Sure. Why not? If its synth-meat, does it really MATTER what you make it taste like? This batch is beef. This batch is buffalo. This batch is ostrich. This batch is human. Who cares?

Vat-grown meat does seem disturbing, but I'm not quite sure why. As mentioned, it's not that the typical source is particularly enticing.

Also, like it or not, the industrial agricultural complex is directly to thank for preventing probably 1/4 of the world from actually starving to death in the last 40 years, and I have a feeling that is profoundly conservative.

I note that the GM crop producers cannot win. If they make their plants fertile, then groups start screaming about GM plants overrunning naturally occurring plants, crossbreeding, and reducing biodiversity. If they make their plants infertile, then it's a money-making scheme to make farmers buy seed every year.

I like commercial agriculture because I like being able to eat oranges in the winter. I like being able to eat bananas and not live in the tropics. I like having apples that are round and red and shiny, and not full of worm holes. I like being in Tennessee and even knowing what a pineapple IS, something my great-great grandfather probably did not.

Throwing out all GM crops is worse than throwing out the baby with the bathwater... you can always have another baby. Some of these crops would cease to exist in their current regions were it not for modification.

And that may not bother you, but it probably would bother the people who are able to grow crops now in semi-arid regions that previously could sustain almost no agriculture.

Also, ANY form of plant-based alternative fuels would require industrial agriculture thanks to the sheer scale of the endeavor.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:38 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are you out of your mind? The amount of food generated per unit of land, and (especially) per unit of labor are vastly, vastly improved over the past few decades.

And most of it is wasted.

I also tried to find some indication of what percentage of crops goes in to junk "food" and filler. My google-fu failed, but I'm guessing the answer is roughly "a lot."
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:42 AM on April 22, 2008


Vat grown meat! Finally, I can ethically pursue my cannibalistic desires and eat human meat without killing humans!

Yeah, but just wait until the bastard farms start growing political candidates. There will be no end to the scandals.
posted by homunculus at 11:43 AM on April 22, 2008


Yeah, but just wait until the bastard farms start growing political candidates. There will be no end to the scandals.

Huckabee does, in fact, look like The Smiler.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:46 AM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know what we really need? Soylent green.
posted by WalterMitty at 11:46 AM on April 22, 2008


It's a vats hot wing conspiracy.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:54 AM on April 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


regicide, if you are seriously suggesting that "community gardens" could subvene to the food needs of America, let alone the world, then, excuse me, but you're crazier than even the most Mao-loving, Little-Red-Book-wielding Red Guard, and only less dangerous because you've a snowball's chance in Hell of ever turning your ravings into actual policy. Seriously, how much of your country's food supply is provided by such "community gardens"? Heck, how many of their participants actually rely on them for a majority, never mind the entirety, of their food supply? And how many could do so without income from other sources to maintain their little hobby?

Even the most Utopianist of cooperative settlements (or at least all those who managed to survive more than a couple of seasons) recognized the need to turn at least a modest profit. You know, the nice thing about profits is that you can save them for a rainy (or, worse, not-so-rainy) day, or even invest them in securing your future food supply, as well as some nice little extras, like, for example, education or healthcare.

I recognise I was a bit unfair in my previous criticism: there is a third alternative besides profit-driven agriculture and rural slavery: it's called subsistence farming, and, as billions of people in the Third World could tell you if you actually bothered to listen to their little profit-hungry souls, it just ain't so great...
posted by Skeptic at 11:59 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


that whole PETA-meat-grown-in-a-vat thing just made me barf a little in my mouth

Again, not a high bar to get over. It shouldn't be too difficult to make it taste better than that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:02 PM on April 22, 2008


LordSludge: No, but I grew up on a small farm (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.), so I'm familiar with the, um, "guts" of the operation.

Except that's (probably) not really where your food is coming from anymore, despite what the people marketing it would like you to assume. Lots of Americans seem to hold the idea of a small farm, with lots of different types of animals doing animal-ish things, in their minds; in reality this could not be further from the truth that lies inside a modern CAFO. The animals aren't the same, the conditions they live in aren't the same, their lives certainly aren't the same, and the model it derives its inspiration from isn't the same.

I would go so far as to say that typical industrially-produced meat you buy today isn't produced on a farm at all. It's produced in a meat factory. The process that takes place inside that meat factory happens to involve animals, but only briefly, and it's certainly not about animals. They're merely a convenient catalyst for transforming various raw ingredients into flesh, which is then processed into meat products.

There's nothing that should be stomach-churning about vat-grown meat that doesn't already exist in the industrial meat production model; the animals as they exist in that system are already nothing but fine-tuned protein converters. It seems a little perverse to insist that if a conscious entity didn't suffer, that it's not really meat.

(Personally I think the vat-grown meat will be achieved, but it won't be by growing stem cells; it'll be by just editing out the brains and other unnecessary organs from current meat animals, until what you have left is nothing but a pork, beef, or chicken-flavored tubeworm, ingesting nutrients on one end and expelling waste on the other. That's the goal of the CAFO, so I see no reason why it won't be taken to its logical conclusion.)

Regarding the more general thrust of the discussion, especially the "Green Revolution," I think there's a non-trivial chance that a whole lot of people may starve in the not-too-distant future, unless we either decide as a species to stop reproducing quite so fast, or make some very wild technological leaps. Too much of the progress of the Green Revolution was premised on access to cheap energy, particularly petroleum. Very little of it seems to be truly sustainable, and as a result we have a whole lot of people alive on the planet whose lives are in a very tenuous position. I'm not sure there's an easy way out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:11 PM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Seriously, how much of your country's food supply is provided by such "community gardens"? Heck, how many of their participants actually rely on them for a majority, never mind the entirety, of their food supply?

In 1942, about 5.5 million gardeners participated in the war garden effort, making seed package sales rise 300%. The USDA estimated over 20 million garden plots were planted with an estimated 9-10 million pounds of fruit and vegetables grown a year, 44 percent of the fresh vegetables in the United States.

But by all means continue to focus on telling people what they can't do.
posted by ND¢ at 12:14 PM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Something I've noticed here in Canada that I didn't so much when I lived in the States is the percentage of homes with active garden plots is much higher here. And that's pretty odd given that the growing season here is so short vs. Florida's near-continuous cropping and that yards here seem much smaller. Then again, something else I've noticed about Canadians is that they're generally thinner and far more likely to be outdoors and active in good weather.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:38 PM on April 22, 2008


ND¢, are you sure that it's really analogous given demographic shifts in the past sixty-six years?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:38 PM on April 22, 2008


I think there's a non-trivial chance that a whole lot of people may starve in the not-too-distant future

Does anyone have an idea if the current food pricing weirdness is affecting food aid donations? I'm utterly unfamiliar with the intricacies of international aid systems, so my searching has not been especially fruitful thus far.
posted by aramaic at 12:40 PM on April 22, 2008


Excuse my cluelessness, but what demographic shifts do you mean? People moving from the country to the city?
posted by ND¢ at 12:45 PM on April 22, 2008


ND¢, I guess that is one of the demographic shifts to take account of. A much bigger population may be another, more significant one. Besides, that still did not answer my point. Even if garden plots may provide a significant source of fruit and fresh vegetables, those only provide us with a (quite) small portion of our calory intake, even for vegetarians. Or do you also propose garden plots for grain production?

But by all means continue to focus on telling people what they can't do.

When it comes to food and survival, I think that being made aware of what you can't do is a far better option than getting fancy notions about what you can do, and dealing with the lethal consequences afterwards.
posted by Skeptic at 1:02 PM on April 22, 2008


No I don't recommend garden plots for grain production, but here in the South there is tons of farm land that goes unused (or is planted with timber) because there is no profit to be had from growing food crops. Either that or it is used to grow tobacco. There is plenty of land to grow enough food to feed ourselves, it is just that we subsidize massive corn growing factory farms rather than real farmers.

As for realism versus optimism, I agree that a realistic assessment of a problem is advantageous, but just throwing up your hands and saying "yeah it looks like a bunch of people are going to starve" does not appear to me to be a good way to go about solving a problem.
posted by ND¢ at 1:12 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Doesn't really seem like a very convincing "exposure". They report studies of one kind of GM crop, soya, which wasn't even engineered to produce a greater yield, and report that it doesn't give a greater yield. Are we supposed to generalize from that therefore no GM crop can increase yields? The IIASD report seems to contradict that, saying:
For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10-33% yield gains in some places and yield declines in others.
Meanwhile, the "must be a paradigm shift" (IAASTD report summary) link doesn't actually seem to a summary by the IIASTD: from the about page, it's a summary of the IIASTD by an unrelated organization called "World Changing". The "we need a new paradigm" stuff seems to come from them, not the IIASTD. They also seem to be quoting caveats about GM crops from the report out of context, in such a way as to falsely imply that the report comes out against GM.

This post seems to be putting an awful lot of spin on rather little data.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:15 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]



As for realism versus optimism, I agree that a realistic assessment of a problem is advantageous, but just throwing up your hands and saying "yeah it looks like a bunch of people are going to starve" does not appear to me to be a good way to go about solving a problem.


Americans and Europeans won't be starving anyway. And as far as the Third World goes, the biggest problem has always been distribution rather than raw quantity of food. That's going to be the most pressing issue, not the source of the food.
posted by nasreddin at 1:16 PM on April 22, 2008


aramaic: a lot of the places where the food prices are rising get little or no food aid directly. As far as I know, food aid tends to be reserved for post-conflict emergency situations, where agricultural production has been wrecked. The aid community tends to avoid dumping free food on farming communities, because it pisses the farmers off.

I was wondering if one of the problems isn't simply that the world demand for cash crops has meant a lot of land in developing countries is turned to exporting stuff for which they can get ready money rather than growing staples. The free trade regime that is being forced through presents local elites with incentives to grow cash crops for export rather than useful stuff like rice, and there isn't a great deal that governments can do to stop that (even assuming that they want to, given that they often are the elites).
posted by YouRebelScum at 1:18 PM on April 22, 2008


Also, ND¢, according to current USDA stats, US total vegetable and melon production in 2007 was 1,286.4 million hundredweight, that is, 128,640 million pounds. Either the vegetable production has boomed beyond even my wildest estimates, or that 44% is seriously off (which sounds more likely: a total production of some twenty million pounds of vegetables in one year, divided by a total US population of 134 million in 1942, results in a yearly vegetable ration of about 2.4 oz, which looks kind of skimpy.
posted by Skeptic at 1:23 PM on April 22, 2008


I've seen 40% and 44% mentioned several places, but I have never checked it out. I can't guarantee that it is an accurate figure.
posted by ND¢ at 1:33 PM on April 22, 2008


So will the vats ruminate and be cloven? Will we need vat-grown rabbis to bless it?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:57 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


They also seem to be quoting caveats about GM crops from the report out of context, in such a way as to falsely imply that the report comes out against GM.

How do you explain this
the biotechnology industry, including representatives of Sygenta and Monsanto, pulled out in March, saying the study was biased against genetically modified crops
Every link in the FPP says the study came out against GM crops. I suppose one of us actually needs to read the PDF's of the report to see what it actually says, but from the news reports, and from the actions of the GM industry itself, clearly this was not a favorable report for GM crops.
posted by stbalbach at 1:58 PM on April 22, 2008


if you are seriously suggesting that "community gardens" could subvene to the food needs of America, let alone the world, then, excuse me, but you're crazier than even the most Mao-loving

Hey hey hey. Mao-loving?

What is this 1953? Easy on the commie baiting nonsense there, Senator McCarthy. No need for that.

When many people talk about CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) I assume they are not talking about just community gardens. They are talking about utilizing local productive lands for specific types of lower yield higher quality more sustainable agriculture that has a particular economic model in mind... the end user buying shares etc. What it is good for is the efficient use of fallow lands and the shortening of transportation distances. While it will not solve world hunger in and of itself it is a very real part of the solution and should be encouraged where ever possible.

Yes. We will have to maintain high yield grain to meet total caloric needs of the world population for the near future. But we have learned a great deal about crop rotation and the effects of mono-crops on soil BECAUSE of the studies done with farming methods like CSA 's and others. And with that information we can make the yields we get much more sustainable over time.

Moving our food raising closer to our cities is a very good idea. It will mean that the suburb will have to go, however. Which will happen anyway as fuel prices keep rising. And that is good because suburbs are inefficient land, water, and energy wasters.
posted by tkchrist at 2:02 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


stbalbach:
How do you explain this
the biotechnology industry, including representatives of Sygenta and Monsanto, pulled out in March, saying the study was biased against genetically modified crops
Every link in the FPP says the study came out against GM crops. I suppose one of us actually needs to read the PDF's of the report to see what it actually says, but from the news reports, and from the actions of the GM industry itself, clearly this was not a favorable report for GM crops.
Because I suspect the biotechnology industry may not be entirely neutral on the subject of biotechnology. They may be objecting to the report because it doesn't favour them enough, rather than because it's flawed.

I haven't read them in detail, but I have looked through the PDF conclusions of the report, and it seems reasonably balanced. It points out that GM crops can increase yields, but warns of the dangers of higher costs and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR/patents) undermining developing world farmers.

I think those are valid concerns, and need to be balanced against the benefits. But the report does not itself seem to come out against the use of GM crops: it just states some benefits and some risks.

The things like "GM crops are not the answer to world hunger" and "GM crops are not the answer to world hunger" don't seem to come from the report itself. They seem to come from the Independent newspaper and the "World Changing" organization. "World Changing" seems pretty dubious, and British newspaper op-eds are not generally the best place to look for objective scientific information.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:17 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you have a roundup ready crop of beans, you may be able to cut your herbicide use tremendously if you can use roundup (an extremely effective at low doses broad spectrum herbicide) instead of a less effective herbicide. You may be able to get away with just one spraying instead of two or three.

That's part of the problem. Heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, as a routine matter, is the factory-farming way. Monoculture for profit is another terrific road to ruin. Agribusiness has chosen a basically non-sustainable path and made it profitable through chemistry. The number of species and varieties grown today is a fraction of what is was 75 years ago. Now, if a climate change or other threat occurs, we run the risk of losing most, if not all, of what was planted.

Biodiversity is crucial, no matter what agribusiness says. Healthy, diverse plants are naturally resistant to pests; pests are predators that attack the weak. Not to mention that 5,000 acres of one crop attract pest infestations that 40 acres don't.

The family farm was eminently capable of supplying the world with food. People lucky enough to still be able to farm at that level routinely grow food at much higher yield levels (and quality)than factory farms. Unfortunately, corporations have had deep enough pockets and enough friends in high places to run most small farmers out of the game.

So, factory farming is what we've got. It's what we have to live with. Just don't sing its praises. It's growing profits, food just happens to be a byproduct.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:26 PM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Yeah, it seem to matter more who has the patents on the GM crops and what the traits are that are being investigated. With the green revolution in the hands of folk like MS Swaminathan and the international public institutes, it was driven by a public agenda, for all that the agenda may be questioned now. With the GM agenda is being driven at the moment by Monsanto et al's desires to tie in farmers to purchasing inputs the useful stuff - like drought or saline resistant strains - is marginalised, given that prviate funding is now dwarfing public funding. It'll be interesting to see whether the price of the staples rises and stays high, and how this will shift the research agenda. Incidentally DfID just jumped on the publically funded agriculture wagon.
posted by YouRebelScum at 2:28 PM on April 22, 2008


It's funny how the people who make such a big deal about living with nature, being natural, and whatever else refuse to see this simple fact. Human beings are animals, we're part of nature, and we obey its laws.

Yeah, nuclear bombs are natural too, does that make it OK to use them for mountain-top strip mining? "All Natural Mining" *ka-boom* Seriously, it bothers me when people twist the whole natural debate around with this logical fallacy that everything is natural, and therefore nothing is un-natural , and therefore, there is no right and wrong way to treat the natural world, it's there for our use and taking to do whatever we want because we are part of nature. It misses the point - yes, we are part of nature, which makes it even more imperative that "we" take care of nature so that it doesn't destroy "us". To put it another way, don't shit in your backyard, don't pee in the wind, leave your campsite the way you found it (Boy Scout motto).
posted by stbalbach at 2:29 PM on April 22, 2008


Theophile Escargot, sounds reasonable. Thanks for taking the time to download and read the report.
posted by stbalbach at 2:37 PM on April 22, 2008


If the previously mentioned vat was a pig-shaped mould and if the contents were turned out like a giant meat-blancmange I'd find that a lot more appealing.

Actually, should meat-blancmange be hyphenated? I've never had to use that phrase before.
posted by Brian Lux at 2:47 PM on April 22, 2008


Skeptic:
I recognise I was a bit unfair in my previous criticism: there is a third alternative besides profit-driven agriculture and rural slavery: it's called subsistence farming, and, as billions of people in the Third World could tell you if you actually bothered to listen to their little profit-hungry souls, it just ain't so great...

Did you even glance at the link I posted? The South Central Farm fed 350 families before the farmers were evicted.

You seem to be responding to a suggestion I'm not making - some all-or-nothing, magic bullet, unalloyed single-system solution of kulaks, or wholesale regression to neo-primitivism, or whatever. I'm simply suggesting that there is enough ingenuity and resources to be found out there - and some seriously big cracks in the profit system that they could probably fill - that numerous hybrid models are probably quite possible. They would, of course, require people to give an extra shit or two. I think that will get easier as food security issues really begin encroaching on the lower middle classes.

As for the profit argument, sorry, I should have been more specific - I differentiate between profits which are collectively put back in to food production to increase ability to match hunger, and profit made off of that hunger and put back in to one's stock portfolio. The former is alright, of course. It's also not the sort of profit the profit system is really built on.
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm totally behind vat-grown meat, and kudos to PETA for offering the tasty reward. That being said, I'm still not going to eat the stuff, because meat is just really disgusting.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:58 PM on April 22, 2008


so there's somewhat misleading information being ballyhooed. GM crops are not used currently for yield. they are used currently for economic reasons that have to do with ease of cultivation.

now the problem of biopatent precedence set in the 1980s by the US Courts has permitted companies like Monsanto to monopolize and burden farmers themselves. Honestly the only way GM crops can benefit mankind as they should, is to have government-held patents only on modified food products...however this socialized form of agricultural science likely won't fly for a long time.
posted by wantwit at 3:24 PM on April 22, 2008


also, vat grown meat is so wasteful of energy compared to growing an animal that PETA is actually pro-environmental destruction on this issue. this is how short-sighted alot of these movements are and why they will never gain mainstream traction.
posted by wantwit at 3:26 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think "vat meat" is inevitable given a our energy and water problems raising animals for food. I have already registered the brand Real Meat (TM). So don't even try.

As for the "sqick" factor? People eat McNuggets. And that shit is disgusting.
posted by tkchrist at 3:30 PM on April 22, 2008


also, vat grown meat is so wasteful of energy compared to growing an animal that PETA is actually pro-environmental destruction on this issue. this is how short-sighted alot of these movements are and why they will never gain mainstream traction.

Well, since nobody has ever actually grown meat in a vat, how do we know this? And are you including the millions of square miles of land used for animal feed in your calculations? What about the harvesting and processing of said feed? And the transport, are you remembering the transport? And all the electric juice used by the slaughterhouses?
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:31 PM on April 22, 2008


Skeptic & ND¢: 20 millions pounds is obviously not the right figure. This page says 20 million gardens (i.e. about 1 per 7 people) and 9-10 million tons (i.e. ~19 billion pounds, or 142 lbs per person), which was "an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables". Fresh produce consumption in the US is currently about 174 lbs per person (excluding potatoes and mushrooms, from Skeptic's USDA link). Current US total consumption of vegetables and melons (minus potatoes, mushrooms, and dried legumes) is 296 lbs per person or 428 lbs per person including potatoes, etc. Forty percent seems reasonable in that context.
posted by ssg at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2008


Recently I partecipated in an intersting exchange with Paulsc in this Monsanto thread that quite a recommended reading. I'll definitely read it again and learn from it, as Paul mounts an excellent defense of Monsanto in particular which is worth reading.

Among his observations
I'm not against bio-diversity, seed saving, non-GM agriculture, or any of that, for anyone who wants to roll that way. But I am mightily put out by people who want to restrict my ability to eat corn fed beef, and hybridized corn products, and fish that are fed soybean meal. I'll wear cotton which can only be grown with aid of nitrogen fertilizer and broadband insecticides, and wool grown on Dolly, if the price is right and the products are good.
Which is a quite popular position whose primary concerns are perceived quality and price (read affordability) of the good ; because of its popularity it's rarely challenged as simplistic position because almost any critic would, in practice, follow the very same behavior of buying the the best for the lowest price, aka the best bang for the buck. So it would be extremely easy to attack ta critic as an hypocrite, so distracting the attention from any of his arguments, exactly as environmentalists are attacked for using cars or CFC containing products while they preach the merits of not "harming" the environment.

What is maybe missing from the "big picture" at local joe level are the side effects of his feeling good right now, as Joe is concerned with here and now, exactly as drinkers are concerned with feeling good drunk now and dealing with hangover later.

Imagine Joe when he learned his asbestos insulated house was an enormous danger for his health : he probably was quite unhappy and maybe also felt cheated, as he remembers not being said about asbestos being lethal, as he wouldn't have bought it had he known about that hazard. I wonder how many in this thread know what asbestos is and how dangerous it is for you , and if you ever learned about it from TV or mass media.

In light of increased food prices, GM crops certainly look more attractive as their alleged higher yeld, when compared with other crops, produces a big fat number that makes them look even more profiteable, exactly like any oil field appears to be a lot more profiteable today , when we measure its profit with dollars.

Yet it still seems a vicious cycle to me ; vicious because any propertity that isn't conductive to an higher profit is likely to be discared if and when it conflicts with profiteabilty. That , of course, isn't necessarily the case, but it's quite dependant on mass perception of which properties are desiderable. If unexpensive is more important a property than healthy , then healthy is more likely to succumb if in conflict, exactly as healthy would prevail should it become more important than unhealthy.

BUT if unexpensive is more profiteable to produce that healthy, then the marketed demand is likely to be heavily suggested toward choosing unexpensive , but this extraprofit would come at a socialized not necessarily perceived or measured cost of being less healthy.
posted by elpapacito at 4:24 PM on April 22, 2008


I think "vat meat" is inevitable given a our energy and water problems raising animals for food.

These problems, however, are largely a result of the way in which we produce meat and are not inherent to the production of meat*. For example, cattle eat grass, which grows from the ground without any chemical fertilizer, etc. and grows on land that is unsuitable for growing conventional crops. Cattle will even walk around, find the grass, and eat it! Water is a little bit of a tougher issue, because, although cattle will happily find a body of water and drink from it, they can make a real mess of things if you let them trample (and crap) all over the banks of a creek. However, with a solar-powered pump, you can bring the water to the cattle. Compared to the amount of water we use on our lawns in the summer, cattle don't drink a lot.

The problem is that we feed our cattle grain, which must be raised on good-quality farmland and uses a lot of oil, fertilizer, etc. as inputs. Then there are the antibiotics required because of the grain diet, the manure disposal problems, and so on.

* Our enormous consumption of meat contributes too, of course. I'd venture a guess that there is no way we could sustainably raise all the meat we currently consume in North America.
posted by ssg at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2008


Well, since nobody has ever actually grown meat in a vat, how do we know this? And are you including the millions of square miles of land used for animal feed in your calculations?

Cells grown in a vat still need to eat. And they'll need some sort of immune system for keeping them safe from infection, respiratory systems for keeping them alive, and so on. Nature has already spent millions of years evolving solutions to these very problems.

Biological evolution still produces some very efficient machines for turning sunlight into edible forms of chemical energy. This doesn't mean these systems can't eventually be bettered with human ingenuity, but generally we've seen significant advances in food production from scientists who study and incrementally improve upon existing methods, rather than call for huge paradigm shifts.

The goal of vat-meat doesn't seem to be improving the efficiency of agriculture; rather, like any number of vegan dishes that do cost more than meat, it seems to be intended to avoid the bioethics issues involved in animal husbandry. If we all ate vegan, we still wouldn't be eating very efficiently - people would still eat chocolate cake, for example, because no culture's diet is governed entirely by efficiency.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:41 PM on April 22, 2008


When we have vat-grown bacon, can I have some that has no fat in it? Or I guess, with whatever minimal amount is necessary for taste.

Also I'd like to establish prior art right now on printing words in the fat and meat patterns of vat-grown bacon. I need to patent this.

To have proper taste I think the vat-grown meat will have to have some muscle tone. So this means some nerves and twitching in the vats. Sounds a little more creepy to me now, but I'll still eat it.
posted by marble at 4:43 PM on April 22, 2008


ssg - I agree. But also by "water problems raising food animals" I also meant pollution of water tables, etc.
posted by tkchrist at 4:48 PM on April 22, 2008


nice response kid ich. and turgid dahlia, scientists have indeed grown meat in a ex vivo althought it's consistency needs work!
posted by wantwit at 5:46 PM on April 22, 2008


As it has been explained to me by a colleague who specializes in agricultural technologies, GM seeds and plants are remarkably weak, in terms of surviving from generation to generation. Because they have been engineered, they are nowhere near as hardy as traditional crops. They can only exist within a human biosphere before they die out, their genetic makeup is diluted from generation to generation.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:04 PM on April 22, 2008


Ynoxas writes "Also, like it or not, the industrial agricultural complex is directly to thank for preventing probably 1/4 of the world from actually starving to death in the last 40 years, and I have a feeling that is profoundly conservative."

We are basically eating oil to get the gains we currently enjoy, which is not sustainable.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:22 PM on April 22, 2008


@Benny: I agree mass pesticides are a poor solution. But while we wait umpteen seasons for a variation of a crop that is resistant and has a good enough yield to cultivate, what will we eat?

I agree that nature solves its own problems. But with enough knowledge, humanity can solve those problems more quickly.
posted by Monochrome at 6:32 PM on April 22, 2008


Humanity can solve it's problems, but they tend to fuck other shit up in the process.
posted by Eekacat at 6:52 PM on April 22, 2008


We can only solve problems for awhile til overpopulation catches up and stretches resources to the breaking point again. Until we solve *that*, we are doomed.
posted by marble at 6:56 PM on April 22, 2008


We are basically eating oil to get the gains we currently enjoy, which is not sustainable.

People forget this fact. The whole argument about "we have plenty of food to feed the planet" thing. Yeah. Today we have more than enough food to feed the planet. But we don't have enough oil to get it where it is needed efficiently to keep feeding it. It's that simple.

Think about all the fisheries currently collapsing. Every major fishery on the planet has peaked and is in steep decline. A huge portion of the planet used ocean products as a protein base... and that is nearly gone. So we are gonna replace all that with grain? Right. Sure we will. All when populations tip 7 to 8 billion people?

Combines and tractors and processors run on what? How we getting all this new protein to people? Trains? Boats? Trucks? Donkey? What kind of fertilizers - 'cause typical organic fertilizers can't meet that level of demand. Where is the fresh water coming from?

All this is based on fossil fuels. Fertilizers especially.
posted by tkchrist at 7:12 PM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


But while we wait umpteen seasons for a variation of a crop that is resistant and has a good enough yield to cultivate, what will we eat?

Well, the thing is, we already have great variations. We just don't grow them.

Plants, like any living thing, have strengths and weaknesses. A balance has to be made when picking cultivars to grow. Using tomatoes for an example, you might have one breed that yields great, but is susceptible to fusarium. You have another that tastes dynamite, but is susceptible to verticillium. You have yet another that ships well, or grows fast,or is exceptionally good-looking that is susceptible to blossom-rot.

So what do you do? You can plant them all, knowing that if one does poorly this year, the others will fare better. Or you can breed a hybrid that takes good points from all of them, and put all your eggs in one basket. Which is the more sensible approach in the long run? Don't forget - most hybrids are sterile, or if they aren't, they won't breed true in future generations. Great for profits if you're the breeder, but not so good for the farmer.

When Monsanto and ADM breed plants, they don't care about taste, or even really about yield. They want a plant that A. they own, B. will be tough enough to be handled by equipment, C. ships well, D. responds well to the chemical defense systems they sell, and E. keeps farmers from being able to save and bank their own seeds. They are like pushers; they are recruiting farmers to a whole "system"-their scientifically designed and backed monoculture profit machine.

On top of all that, the whole idea of monoculture is a crock. When have you ever seen a natural setting of only one plant? Nature doesn't work that way. Plants cohabit; they share and complement each other. One plant attracts certain pests, but its neighbor repels that pest or attracts that pest's enemies. Home growers know this. For example, many gardeners have found that planting tomatoes, peppers and marigolds in close proximity to each other keeps detrimental pests of all three plants in check- in other words, a sustainable system without the need for petroleum based pesticides.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:32 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


tkchrist - All this is based on fossil fuels. Fertilizers especially.

I honestly can't think of a better use for fossil fuels. Can you? It sure beats burning them.
posted by NortonDC at 7:53 PM on April 22, 2008


NortonDC writes "I honestly can't think of a better use for fossil fuels. Can you? It sure beats burning them."

But it doesn't work out in the long run either way. Supplies of fossil fuels are finite.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:43 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would bet if you measured the yields in a drought season the GM crops would be significantly higher.

Actually, from what I've heard, GM crops are even worse under adverse conditions, because they have not been bred for adverse conditions, but for growth under good watering and heavy fertilization, etc.

Basically, they are designer crops (just like selectively bred organisms). Which means you have to ask yourself: who and for what purpose are they designed for?

As pointed out in a comment upthread -- they aren't necessarily bred for increasing yeilds. Many GM crops, including Round-up Ready crops, are bred to reduce the costs - of a Western farm business. They are not necessarily the appropriate or best choice for the vast majority of agriculturalists on the planet, who do not operate under the same conditions.

I have a huge beef with the GM lobby, and it's all about why and how GM crops are modified, and then how they are sold. The GM world is (for the most part)* not interested in GMing crops to improve yeilds under adverse conditions, which produce good children harvests (is that possible?), etc -- they are interested in serving the needs a powerful but small Western model of industrial agriculture which does not feed the world.
(Oh, and I don't like the loss of genetic diversity, because I don't like it when a whole bunch of organisms all die of the same disease.)

* major kudos should be given to those researchers, mostly in the non-profit sector, who are working on GM for these other purposes.
posted by jb at 11:52 PM on April 22, 2008


Cells grown in a vat still need to eat. And they'll need some sort of immune system for keeping them safe from infection, respiratory systems for keeping them alive, and so on. Nature has already spent millions of years evolving solutions to these very problems.

The First International In Vitro Meat Consortium just released a preliminary economic viability report (pdf), estimating that in-vitro meat can be produced in large quantities at about 3300 Euros per tonne. Wired covered the said conference, and the following quote from the article is interesting: "To produce the meat we eat now, 75 to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue... With cultured meat, there's no body to support; you're only building the meat that eventually gets eaten."

The idea of meat substitutes still squicks me out a bit though...
posted by hellopanda at 12:33 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048, you had me until:

"...what you have left is nothing but a pork, beef, or chicken-flavored tubeworm, ingesting nutrients on one end and expelling waste on the other."

UR NOT HELPING!!!
posted by LordSludge at 9:36 AM on April 23, 2008


NortonDC - I honestly can't think of a better use for fossil fuels [than fertilizer]. Can you? It sure beats burning them.

krinklyfig - But it doesn't work out in the long run either way. Supplies of fossil fuels are finite.

Using fossil fuel derived fertilizer to make food affordable, even temporarily, sounds better than than not using it to make food affordable.
posted by NortonDC at 10:45 AM on April 23, 2008


I honestly can't think of a better use for fossil fuels. Can you? It sure beats burning them.

Okay. Great. So tractor and combines are out. Mechanical processing plants are out. So that leaves human and animal labor. Which while certainly less polluting and more sustainable is FAR, FAR, less efficient and more expensive.

And then how do you get all this food anywhere? By donkey cart? So it rots.

There goes increased production.

Or do we only burn fossil fuels for food production and mass transportation purposes? We still face a steepening price curve and supply scarcity and some point very soon, especially if populations continue to grwo exponentially as they are projected to do.

And by the by: fossil fuel produced by fertilizer is a by-product of making large amounts of fossil fuel and is only currently cheap becuase of that fact.
posted by tkchrist at 1:46 PM on April 23, 2008


NortonDC: but what if without the increased yields there wouldn't be as many people to eventually starve when the fuels do run out? Bacteria in a petri dish expand, cover the surface and then die out when all the resources are exhausted. Is it that bad to aim for sustainable rather than aiming for a die-off of 8 billion?
posted by nobeagle at 1:46 PM on April 23, 2008


tkchrist, your statements assume that the only way we'll ever be able to power such machines is with fossil fuels, and that's simply not the case.

And by the by: fossil fuel produced by fertilizer is a by-product of making large amounts of fossil fuel and is only currently cheap becuase of that fact.

Fair enough.

As for population expansion, nobeagle, that has slowed from its peak, and done so during the years cheap commodity food prices. Given that, I'm not convinced that we need to or ought to use food prices as a family planning tool. I do credit people with a little more planning ability than bacteria.

An interesting point this has reminded me of, but for which I'm currently unable to find a citation, was an assertion that draft animals were actually at least as efficient on the farm and dominated until post WW2 excess industrial production was put into subsidized tractors. I wish I could find that.
posted by NortonDC at 2:20 PM on April 23, 2008


An interesting film that I was reminded of by NortonDC's comment about draft animals is The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. It is interesting to learn how Cuba went from a system of industrial agriculture, which depended heavily on imports of oil, fertilizer, and machinery, before the collapse of the Soviet Union to a more local, organic type of agriculture. In particular, they replaced a lot of tractors with oxen, which not only require grass instead of oil as fuel, but produce fertilizer and cause much less soil compaction.

Of course, the big difference between the US and Cuba in this area is that labour is very cheap in Cuba compared to oil, while oil is very cheap in the US compared to labour. Unfortunately, that isn't about to change soon, but eventually the price of oil may be high enough to force the US to use some more labour intensive, but less energy intensive methods.
posted by ssg at 3:02 PM on April 23, 2008


the big difference between the US and Cuba in this area is that labour is very cheap in Cuba

A bigger difference is you can walk across Cuba, north to south, in a day or two and you can bike east to west in less than a week.

I also forgot to add before that in order to make the nitrogen for fertilizers - Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis - you literally burn tons of natural gas. Though you don't HAVE to make fertilizer this way. You can make the ammonia with coal. It's just air, water, and energy basically. But the cheapest and fastest source of nittrogen we have is from fossil fuels.

BUT you also need phosphorus, and potash and that has to be mined and transported around the world. And guess what? We use lots of fossil fuel energy for that.


tkchrist, your statements assume that the only way we'll ever be able to power such machines is with fossil fuels, and that's simply not the case.



I assume no such thing. I KNOW that right now all the alternatives are not cost effective.

Oh. Sure one day we might invent dilithium crystals. But we are talking about millions of people starving in the next decade.

So bio fuels? Isn't THAT a one of are big problems driving up food prices? Ethenol is net energy loser and a boondoggle. Bio-diesel, okay, maybe. Still currently very environmentally damaging to make cheaply in any abundance - eventually it will work I think.

Pure battery electric technologies for things like tractors, combines, airplanes and heavy freight movers are currently totally inadequate. And likely to remain so.

Besides, something has to generate the electricity. And the grid is already stressed. Solar is out for quite some time except as on site low yield generation. Hydro is is not available in most places. Nuclear. Yes. But...

Dude. The issue is cost. There is nothing remotely as cost effect and efficient as fossil fuels were when they were cheap. Nothing. Yet. Will there be? Maybe. But we are decades away from that. Maybe a century. And we don't have much time to figure it all out.

Personally, I think vat grown Algae based bio-diesel is the future. Combined with electric hybrid engines. And then nuclear for industrial energy needs. Maybe wind turbines in some places.

But it wont matter if populations keep out-stripping our abilities to keep up.
posted by tkchrist at 9:26 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ethenol is net energy loser and a boondoggle.

Corn-sourced and carbohydrate-based ethanol is a net energy loser and a likely boondoggle, or just maybe a break-even proposition. Other large scale ethanol sources, such as sugar cane, as already deployed in Brazil, are net energy wins. The problem is that they are net carbon losses, huge ones, because they replace the huge carbon sink of the rain forest with cane plantations. That carbon problem applies to anywhere you cut down existing native vegetation and replace it with a crop for burning into the atmosphere.

But of course both ethanol and biodiesel are forms of solar power mediated by organisms, and as such will always have losses linked to the organisms' needs for self sustainment, much like how it's dramatically more water and calorie efficient to eat grain than to feed grain to a cow and then eat the cow.

Add on diesel's well documented carcinogenic particulate emissions, and biodiesel looses its luster. I expect a move to electric ground vehicles (and factories), with power eventually coming from nuclear, wind and solar energy.
posted by NortonDC at 5:28 AM on April 24, 2008


A bigger difference is you can walk across Cuba, north to south, in a day or two and you can bike east to west in less than a week.

I read this line of argumentation on Metafilter pretty often and I simply don't understand it. I agree that Cuba is smaller than the US, but I fail to see how that fact impacts Americans ability to feed themselves in a less oil-intensive manner. I can think of many factors that are important (climate in much of the US being a major one aside from labour cost), but I don't see why it matters how long it takes to bike across the US. Could you lay out your argument here?
posted by ssg at 8:19 AM on April 24, 2008


but I fail to see how that fact impacts Americans ability to feed themselves in a less oil-intensive manner... Could you lay out your argument here?

You fail to see? OH. C'mon.

It takes a ton more energy and time — thus oil— to transport food and other material across the US. And the cost is order of magnitude higher the farther you get away from the places you grow food.

We have our most dense population centers much farther away from the most productive lands. Where as in Cuba (like Europe) you can literally bring your populations TO the food efficiently. Instead of the other way around, IE: without the large scale use of rail, ocean freighters, or trucks— or, god forbid, airplanes.

Food spoils. You need to get it places fast —OR— you move it in refrigerated containers. This also takes energy.

Not to mention mountain ranges and the rugged geography (and weather) of the US and how that impacts transportation.

What we would have to do in the US is start preserving fallow lands close to our populations centers and convert them to food production. Which we SHOULD be doing where ever we can. But this is not always possible due to climate, water, and economic (land near cities is expensive) constraints.

In the US it would be more efficient if MORE people lived in cities , and not suburbs, so we could create more efficient populations centers and convert suburban lands to food production and water/land conservation. But that is a very long project.
posted by tkchrist at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


We have our most dense population centers much farther away from the most productive lands.

Absolutely. The climate in the US (and soil qualities, topography, etc.) varies a lot across the country and the population distribution is quite different than the distribution of farmland quality. In fact, I specifically mentioned the issue of climate in my comment.

That said, the US doesn't have to grow crops on the most productive farmland and then ship them very far away. If conservation of oil and reduction of greenhouse gases were a major factor, then it would make sense to grow many crops closer to the point of consumption, even if yields per unit of area and per unit labour were lower. The fact that the US is a large country doesn't demand that food be grown a long way from where it is needed. Cheap oil, farm subsidies, etc. make it economically preferable to do so.

It so happens that the Cubans have, on average, better quality farmland near their population centres than the Americans do, but that fact is not a result of the relative sizes of the two countries.
posted by ssg at 12:32 PM on April 24, 2008


Umm Skeptic, in WWII such gardens produced 40% of our food supply. I wouldn't discount them if I were you. I know a lot of people who grow a substantial amount of their own food is these gardens with very little work and with rising food prices this number will increase. The fact is that a lot of those green lawns have productive soil.

I've actually lived with people who grow all of their own food on community farms and no, their lives are not miserable. In fact, they have a lot of leisure time and I envy them. People act like organic and sustainable farmers are a bunch of 12th century peasants, when in reality they just technology like machines and pesticides too...just different machines and pesticides. And yeah, a lot of them do want to make money, they just have to rely on quality rather than quantity.

GM crops, for most farmers, are a management issue. You can have really good yields with GM crops, but it requires a lot more skill. I've heard farmers talk about how easy it is just to do a blanket spray on their roundup ready crops rather than having someone go out and spray selectively.

I'm not saying industrial ag will die or I won't purchase a bag of flour from a 1000 acre farm to supplement my home grown tomatoes, but industrowonking is just as pessimistic as ludditing.
posted by melissam at 7:59 PM on April 24, 2008


Regarding the use of fossil fuels to create fertilizer: How to Make Fertilizer Appear Out of Thin Air, Part I.
posted by NortonDC at 4:51 PM on May 8, 2008


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