Published on February 26th, 2013 | by Scott Cooney19
The Economic Argument Against GMOs: a Top Ten List
Ask an economist to give an opinion about any controversial subject in society, and they’ll turn to the data and start digging for answers. While I’ve covered the economics of GMOs in the past, Dr. Vandana Shiva, on a recent visit by the visionary sustainability guru to my home state of Hawaii, opened my eyes to the real economics in the GMO equation.
Dr. Vandana Shiva is an author (Earth Democracy), and was trained as a physicist. As such, she is a systems thinker. In her recent talk, she described the commodification of life as an affront to all of mankind, and described the system-level view that confronts us as we grapple with the GMO challenge.
The first truly eye opening description she made was that of our system of war. When Vietnam ended, chemical companies had to find new markets for the chemicals the U.S. military was using to destroy huge swaths of tropical forest in Vietnam. These companies shifted carcinogenic compounds like Agent Orange to become the agricultural chemicals of today. The same basic premise applies, according to Dr. Shiva: it’s a war against nature. Think about it. Companies genetically modify food crops to be resistant to chemicals (like Roundup and Atrazine). They then sell the seeds to farmers, and also supply them with the chemicals needed to wipe out everything else except that GMO crop.
So without further adieu…
Top ten externalized costs (externalities) in GMO agriculture:
First, there’s soil erosion
In Molokai, where much of the GMO corn seeds are produced, Monsanto’s extensive “farms” generate what local residents refer to as “fugitive dust clouds“. The dust clouds come from uncovered topsoil, a cornerstone of GMO agriculture, since all ground cover is removed by chemical application. The dust clouds contain high levels of pesticide residues, and go wherever the wind blows, bringing pesticides onto neighboring farms, communities, and into watersheds where it inevitably enters drinking water. In addition, when Monsanto or another GMO agribusiness leaves an area after farming for many years, this topsoil erosion is so bad it may take 20 years to regenerate even in ideal conditions, until which time the land is more or less economically unproductive.
The process of monoculture style agriculture itself is nothing less than a war against nature. Upon arriving in Hawaii, Dr. Shiva was given a helicopter tour by a local (non-GMO) farmer. Looking down on the landscape, it was so clear to see the local farms were integrated into the landscape around them, hardly standing out from other landscapes. But the GMO “farms” were like an extension of the military barracks, she said. Straight lines, obliteration. And it’s the same everywhere that monocultures are grown. According to Dr. Shiva, 10% of the formerly fertile agricultural land in the province of Punjab in India are now just dead zones. Nothing can grow there without heavy chemical additions of fertilizer because the soils have nothing left to give.
Second, there’s deliberate inefficiency built into the GMO food model
Did you know that only 2% of GMO soy is actually eaten by people? Or that most of the corn grown in the U.S. is actually not even edible? The GMO industry claims that GMOs are needed to feed the world (look at any of their websites and you’ll see this claim as a defense of their agricultural methods). But it’s simply not true. Most GMO corn is either processed into gums, pastes, additives, fillers, ethanol or other products. According to Shiva, 80% of our actual food comes from small farms, whereas only 20% comes from these monocrops that are claimed to be the answer to global hunger. That 20% goes to factory farms. Beyond the 2% of soy eaten by people, for example, the rest is factory farms (~70%) and biofuels (~25%). Normal (boring) economists like to look at ROI, but Inspired Economists like to look at EROEI, or Energy Return on Energy Invested, as a holistic metric for sustainable economic development.
(image from 80/20 vision) As for return on the energy put in, according to Shiva, when we grow GE corn and soy and feed it to animals before we eat the animals, we go from 100 units to 1 unit. If we just grow organically, she said, diverse food on small farms, we go from 100 units to 200, 300, 400…. Corn ethanol is another great example. It needs just as much energy put into it as it delivers on the other end, so its EROEI is about 1. Basically, to be economically viable, any EROEI has to be much higher than 1, so how does GMO corn survive the free market? (segue to number 3).
Third, there’s the subsidies
In economic parlance, there are incentives, and then there are perverse incentives: money that flows from the government purportedly for public benefit but that has the opposite effect. Think about highway spending: $52 billion in 2010 alone flowed from government coffers into maintaining the US highway system. It’s kind of good for people in that they are able to drive wherever they want without stopping to pay tolls (they’re paying tolls through their taxes), but at the same time, it has subsidized the movement of goods from China such that cheap imports outcompete locally manufactured goods. Here’s a post about why we should privatize highways, in case you’re interested.
The subsidies received by the agribusiness giants are overwhelming. According to Shiva, there are $400 billion in subsidies (globally) for chemical agriculture. In the U.S., large scale meat and dairy operations get 73.8% of all food subsidies over a decade from 1995 to 2005, whereas fruits and vegetables got 0.37%.
(Graphic from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.) What does that mean to GMO corn growers? Huge markets, that’s what. If you look at the EROEI of calories we consume in a cow, it’s mindbogglingly bad. It takes anywhere from 10 to 16 pounds of grains (GMO corn and soy mostly) to produce one pound of beef in the U.S. So we’re subsidizing this inefficient process at every level in the supply chain. If factory farms weren’t receiving ~75% of all subsidies from the government, a Big Mac would cost a heck of a lot more than a salad. And that leads us to…
According to Dr. Shiva, “When it comes to owning the seed for collecting royalties, they [GMO companies] say, “It’s mine.” But when it comes to contamination, cross-pollination, health problems, the response is “we’re not liable”.“ Monsanto has trumpeted the relative lack of toxicity in its keynote product, Roundup, for years. But, as a derivative of chemicals used in chemical warfare, it of course has health effects, such as birth defects caused by Roundup. According to Dr. Shiva, the heavy use of chemicals has left a terrible legacy in Punjab. The green revolution was applied there first and Dr. Shiva describes a train there that locals call the “cancer train”. Every day, a trainload of cancer patients who’ve been exposed to chemically intensive agriculture leave Punjab to go to Rajistran for treatment. “It’s an epidemic,” said Shiva, and indicated that if you do a map, the areas where chemical farming is the most intensive, it lines up perfectly with where cancer rates are the highest. How much is that costing society? And who pays for it? Certainly not the chemical companies.
But, is the “food” itself even safe? The answer is….who knows? So it is that safety testing for GMOs are only done by the GMO companies themselves. There is supposed to be oversight by the FDA, but that’s “regulation”, and you may have heard, there are a lot of people who use that word as a boogeyman to scare voters. Not only do politicians (usually from the Republican Party, but not always) cry foul about regulations of any stripe, but they go so far as to make sure that even when regulation happens, it’s completely stripped of all but the thinnest veil of legitimacy. How? By appointing none other than the fox himself to guard the henhouse. GMO lobbyists routinely pepper the halls of Washington, but appointing a former GMO lobbyist to head up the Food and Drug Adminstration? Now that’s just crazy enough to be true.
(image from Seattle Organic Restaurants) Putting a dollar figure on the health side effects of GMO foods and monocultures is virtually impossible. But be assured, that dollar figure is a big one. And guess who pays for it? Not them. Us.
Then there’s the farmer
The biggest loser in GMO agriculture is a difficult question, since there are so many negatives and so many people, ecosystems, and markets negatively affected. But a strong argument can be made that it’s the farmers themselves that buy GMO seeds and the chemicals needed to grow them that are screwed the most.