Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I recently came across ‘Unnatural Causes’ a 7 part documentary about racial and economic inequalities in public health. I have not watched it, but I did download the policy guide :

The main theme seems to be (that) ‘Building a social movement that can advocate effectively for more equitable social policies is critical to changing our economic, physical, and social environments so they can promote rather than threaten our health.’

On the surface, this does not seem so bad, but many of the policies they recommend in doing this show a lack of understanding of economic science and modern agriculture. Since economics is the study of our choices and how they are made compatible in a world of scarce resources, their neglect of economics leads them to adopt many policy recommendations that are incompatible with their stated goals.

Policy recommendation #9 : Improve Food Security and Quality, recommends among other things that we support ‘sustainable agriculture and local food production, especially organics.’

Now I don’t have a specific problem with organic food as long as it is not promoted at the expense of modern science and agriculture. Agriculture is a competitive industry and I believe that there is a niche for everyone including local/organic producers, but their explicit mention of organic and their failure to mention biotech options implies the exclusion of biotech.

This is not consistent with their goal of sustainability,considering the environmental, safety, and health benefits of biotech foods that organics could never provide such as the elimination or decreased use of toxic chemicals ( organics use harmful ‘natural’ chemicals like copper sulfate and mercuric), decreased tillage ( which organics depend upon heavily) and improved biodiversity ( tillage and use of broadcast Bt in organic production is detrimental to non-target pests and ecosystems).

One example is Bt corn( a biotech crop). Not only does it eliminate the use of millions of pounds of insecticide and save millions of gallons of fuel and water per year, but it also is safer for food consumption. The use of Bt corn decreases fumonisin ( a fungal parasite) infestation by 80% compared to conventional and organic corn. Fumonisin is responsible for esphogeal cancer and neural disorders in infants.

Another example is Roundup Ready technology. Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.

They also talk about reforming the ‘subsidy program’ that regards the producers of processed foods. They must be talking about nonrecourse loans. If they assume that these ‘subsidies’ lead to an increase in supply and result in cheap input prices for large processors, then they should wake up to see current commodity prices.

Given that they also mention multiple times throughout the policy guide that they support increased taxes, I assume they would support doing away with non-recourse loan programs and instead increase the income and inheritance taxes on grain farmers. In place I’m sure they would like to implement actual subsidies for local and organic growers.

Let’s just hope this propaganda does not make it on the local news or into school curriculums.


Abelson, P.H. (1990) ‘‘Hybrid Corn.’’ Science 249 (August 24): 837.

Enterprise and Biodiversity: Do Market Forces Yield Diversity of Life?
David Schap and Andrew T. Young Cato Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999)

A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates
Michelle Marvier, Chanel McCreedy, James Regetz, Peter Kareiva
Science 8 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 - 1477

Smith, J.S.C.; Smith, O.S.; Wright, S.; Wall, S.J.; and Walton, M. (1992)
‘‘Diversity of United States Hybrid Maize Germplasm as Revealed by
Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms.’’ Crop Science 32: 598–604

Munkvold, G.P. et al . Plant Disease 83, 130-138 1999.

Dowd, p.J. Economic Entomology. 93 1669-1679 2000.

Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.

Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2006.

1 comment:

Sara DownToEarth said...

Good point about how biotech can support sustainability. There are even some plant biotech companies (such as Arcadia) that are focused addressing environmental issues through their plant breeding.

As far as subsidies, I've long thought more (or all?) should be tied to the supporting goals of environmental responsibility, sustainability or food equity, rather than handing out money for the status quo.