The number of food issues are vast and varied. Issues cut accross many dimensions that involve the environment, the economy and social spheres. In this section we'll try to give you a quick wrap up on some of the important issues. We are currently working on materials that will go into much more details about the issues.
Other groups are already campaigning on food issues and covering many of the issues below. We feel there is a real need to engage in some of the higher level issues looking at the corporate control of food, the diversion of food for biofuels, patents on seeds and the dominance of supermarkets. We also see the local level challenges of needing to support initiatives that enable local residents to be able to grow their own food with some reforms made to our existing water restrictions.
Science predicts that climate change will have numerous negative impacts on food production. With more varied and extreme weather events, some farms will endure more droughts whilst others cope with more floods. Overall temperature increases will result in more plant stress and higher evaporation leading the water stress and reduced yields.
Food and Agriculture play a unique role in the climate change arena. It will not only be impacted by climate change, but the sector also contributes towards its acceleration through land clearing and deforestation, methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from nitrogen fertiliser. People often ignore the amount of energy used to process, heat, chill and package our food. Also overlooked are the greenhouse gas emissions created by the waste as it biodegrades. This relationship means that food and agricultural policy can also play a role in sequestering carbon and reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions. To learn more about climate change impacts visit the FoE Australia Climate Change campaign
Peak Oil can be simply defined as a point in time where the supply of oil extracted can no longer grow to keep up with the growth in demand. Our dispersed industrial agricultural system is dependant on oil and energy. Farm inputs like fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides, to the fuel that drives tractors and headers and transports our food, they all depend on oil. We have recently seen the cost of oil reach new highs and this in turn is one of the key driving factors pushing up food prices. It is just a taste of things to come when the impacts of peak oil really kick in.
Corporate Control of Food
All over the world large corporations are buying up seed companies, food processors and there has been a great deal of consolidation in the wholesale and retail space. Even farms themselves are being treated as investments by superannuation companies as agribusiness expands. It is as if food were just another commodity to profit from. More on this issue soon.
Genetically Modified (GM) food, sometimes also referred to as being Genetically Engineered (GE), and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) means that a scientific process has been used to manipulate the genes (DNA) of the food crop to switch on (or off) some particular trait or produce some new specific proteins that give the plant new properties. For example, GM plants can be engineered to be resistant to a particular type of herbicide that would normally kill the plant, allowing the farmer to spray later in the growing season with a stronger dose of a broad-spectrum herbicide to kill weeds, but not affect the GM crop. Another example involves implanting the genes of a fish into the strawberry species to make it frost tolerant.
The four major GM food crops currently in commercial production are soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. The two main GM traits in these products are either, herbicide tolerance or the ability of a plant to produce its own insecticide. The United Sates, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China make up the top six countries that grow over 90% of the total acreage (approximately 102 million hectares) crops of GM yield.
What are the concerns? Well there are many and some are summarised below:
- health and allergy
- contamination. It is impractical, uneconomic and near
impossible to separate most GM and non-GM crops. After 3 years of GM canola in Canada, tests found that nearly all supposed conventional canola in Canada was contaminated with GM canola. GM Starlink corn was only approved for animal consumption, but ended up in the US human food supply and was present in 22% of corn samples. Thousands of people reported ill health effects and one man died after eating tacos that contained Starlink corn. There are similar examples of contamination of rice and soybeans;
- control of the food
chain. The biotechnology companies the design
GM seeds, also sell the herbicides and fertiliser to match the specific GM trait.
- limited long term
peer reviewed studies of human or environment impacts of consumption of GM
- difficult or impossible to disband the technology once it is released into the open environment;;
- evidence of more
chemical herbicide spray being used on GM crops despite claims that GM technology would reduce the need to spray. (Whilst herbicide usage is higher, evidence would suggest that insecticide usage has declined);
- super weeds.Through the process of evolution and natural selection, weeds begin to emerge that are resistant to herbicides that previously killed them. In addition to natural evolution, there is potential that GM crops can cross-pollinate and interbreed with weeds of similar species and transfer their GM herbicide resistant traits. This might result in the creation of invasive weeds becoming a real problem on farms and the natural environment as the most common herbicides would not be able to control them.Â
- biodiversity impacts.With more farmers planting GM crops there will be a loss of open pollinated plant varieties that have been selectively breed over hundreds or years to produce plants that perform optimally for each specific bioregion and climate (soil, rainfall, temperature);
- weak labelling.There is no requirement to label food that contains small traces of GM ingredients or ingredients derived from GM crops. For example, there is no requirement to label GM canola oil, as the oil is derived from the seed of the GM canola plant;Â
- no choice for
consumers.With no mandatory labelling there can be no real consumer choice for people who want to avoid GM food;Â
- no choice for
farmers.For rape seeds like canola that are pollinated by insects and the wind, pollen from GM canola can contaminate a conventional or organic farmers non-GM canola kilometres away;Â
- litigation. Again, Canada serves to document the problems with the increases in litigation with Farmers growing GM-free crops suing for damages after their crops have been contaminated by nearby GM crops. In addition, there are documented cases of biotechnology companies lodging suits (for breech of license agreements) against farmers who have had their supposed GM free crops contaminated by a neighbours GM crop;
- false claims. Pushed on us under false claims, that we need it to feed the worlds population. We already produce enough food to feed everyone in the world. The real issue we have is with equitable distribution and providing disadvantaged people with an income to afford to buy food;
- unfounded promises
of salt and drought tolerant varieties that we are told are years way'. Many environment specific traits like drought tolerance can be and have been developed using conventional open pollinated breeding or hybrid technology;
- patenting life forms. Dr Jeremy Smith, for example, has recently released a book documenting 65 health risks of GM food where he also exposes the corruption of regulatory agencies that allowed GM food into our food chain and the damming scientific evidences that has been suppressed.
- loss of traditional
Nanotechnology is a term that describes the science of manipulating matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. A nano-particle may be around 100 nanometers in size. For comparison, a human hair is 80, 000 nm wide.Nano-particles provide a greater particle surface and are therefore more chemically reactive. Their small size also means that they can be more easily absorbed by our bodies. Nanotechnoloyg is currently used in our food production system and growth is expected to dramatically increase. Some examples of how nanotechnology is used are:
- Chemical delivery systems in the field. Nano-particles can encapsulate existing chemical sprays to deliver more effective or timed release of the chemical to a crop. In the future nano-devices are predicted to be able to monitor crops and fields.
Food fortification. Nano-encapsulated nutrients called 'Neutracuticles' are added to existing food products to artificially increase
Modify appearance and taste.
Fat and sugar can be lowered whilst still leaving the taster feeling
satisfied by a rich sweet taste.
Packaging and tracking. Nanocomposite packaging is already in wide-scale commercial use. For example, it is used to improve the barrier functions of plastics, especially in PET drink bottles (keeping carbonated drinks fizzy for longer periods). In the future, nano-plastic wrap might change colour when a food like meat is beginning to spoil. The Mars company has a patent on "edible products having inorganic coatings" that can be used to extend the shelf life of its confectionery. Some companies are now using nanotechnology to create intelligent packing in the form of RFID tags to track items through the supply chain.
Many of the criticisms of GM technology also apply to nanotechnology. In addition, the high chemical reactivity of the nano-particles and their ability to be easily absorbed into the human body through the lungs, skin and digestive track pose serious health concerns and worries about toxicity. There are worries that nanotechnology may bio-accumulation through the food chain and there is the very real risk that over time we will end up with invisible nano-contamination of our waterways and land. The nanotechnology industry is inadequately regulated. There are no requirements for specific health, environment or safety testing of nano food ingredients. In addition, there is no mandatory requirement to label foods that contain nano particles.
To learn more visit the FoE nanotechnology campaign
Australia is the driest continent on the plant and so water issues touch us all. In this section we will explore water rights, water scarcity, the inappropirate forms of agriculture that are consuming lots of water and at a local level the right for Melbourne dwellers to be able to grow their own fruit and vegetables which is being hampered by water restrictions that limit watering to two days a week.
More details and more issues will be added in the near future.