If I could wallpaper just one room in the house with bumper stickers, I’d do it. I’d call it my “thinking spot.” Bumper stickers are like tattoos, you know: often meaningful, thought-provoking, and personal, but without the commitment (and pain of needles). While passing through a parking lot this summer, I saw one of my favorites— “Monsanto patents life for profit” on a smooth, green background.
To me, that means that the food industry is playing God… again. Or maybe it just never stopped.
While I’ve long heard horror stories of Monsanto, an agriculturally-based business that seems to monopolize the modern American farming industry, I’d never investigated the corporation personally. When I began research, I read on its website that it tries to “provide farmers with sustainable agricultural solutions,” and these sustainable solutions, according to Monsanto, are becoming more important as our global population and competition for natural resources increase (1). The company also claims that, in order to make the food growing process more efficient, farmers should “use less water and land, and better utilize things like fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides,” so Monsanto continues to be the producer of the herbicide Roundup for commercially and privately-owned farms and lawns (2). I thought, What foresight! What innovation! What progress! And just for a moment, as I clicked through pages with pristine green images, promising environmental claims, and brilliant organization, I almost believed the beautiful lie.
The other day, I heard in a discussion on agricultural sustainability that food is safer now than ever before. Now, while I’m certainly grateful for the Food and Drug Administration’s life-saving interference in the food “industry” during the early 20th century, I can’t say that most government organizations and major agribusinesses haven’t grossly overstepped their bounds.
Specifically, Monsanto’s advocacy for the use of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides should be blatantly frightening. In his book titled Redesigning the American Lawn, Yale ecologist F. Herbert Bormann closely examines recreational and agricultural landscaping. He writes, “Fertilizer use can be linked to changes in the earth’s atmosphere. When nitrogen fertilizers break down in the soil, the gas nitrous oxide can be released into the air. Experts have pointed out that nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate warming” (Bormann 77). Considering Monsanto’s position on preserving global resources, this is alarming. Furthermore, Bormann warns, “In many areas of the nation, agricultural practices are responsible for most of the nitrate that reaches groundwater and wells,” which perpetuate issues of water contamination and destruction of ecosystems (Bormann 83). And if all that isn’t enough, California recently declared glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, a cancer-causing carcinogen (4).
But this is supposed to be progress.
In a New York Times article aptly named “Bread is Broken,” independent scientist Stephen Jones laments, “Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish¬ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health” (5). Yet, it’s interesting to me that Europeans, for the most part, don’t suffer from wheat or gluten-related illnesses the way we do; in fact, Americans with gluten sensitivity can generally enjoy pasta and pastries abroad, because wheat is minimally processed in Europe—compared to the complex refining process of modern-day American wheat. It’s because we’ve exchanged (pretty) good health for profit.
It wasn’t always like this, certainly. My grandmother admitted only months ago: “There wasn’t such a thing as peanut allergies when I grew up. That condition is fairly recent.” But what happened? What’s fundamentally different from our society now than society a half a century ago? From where did these food allergies come, if not from the very industry that claims to nourish us? As it is, America is quickly and eerily adopting a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory-esque approach to food. Like Violet Beauregarde who happily chews gum that doubles as a three-course meal, we, too, look for easy savory solutions— in the Silicon Valley. We know from an article published in The Economist March of this year that a handful of Northern Californian companies “share the ambition of creating new plant-based food that they say will be healthier, cheaper, and just as satisfying as meat, egg, dairy and other animal-based products, but with a much lower environmental impact” (6). The goal is, essentially, to mock nutrition (that is “healthier” for our bodies, our wallets, and our earth) in a laboratory-like setting. The article later cites research from the United Nations, writing that since “livestock uses around 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions,” we need a system of food processing that reflects an increasing population and decreasing global resources. And for those in the Silicon Valley, that means manipulating life in test tubes to create more “sustainable” meals.
San Franciscan businessman Ali Partovi echoes, “Anytime you can find a way to use plant protein instead of animal protein, there’s an enormous efficiency in terms of the energy, water and all sorts of other inputs involved— which translates at the end of the day to saving money.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I support sustainable agriculture with every fiber in my being. But I’m fundamentally against the deception that breeds and thrives within the food industry.
So be careful when agribusinesses say they’re going “green.”
Dollar bills are the same color.
- “What is Monsanto Doing to Help?” Monsanto.com. 22 November 2015.
- “Why Does Agriculture Need to be Improved?” Monsanto.com. 22 November 2015.
- F. Herbert Bormann, et al. Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.
- Trager, Rebecca. “Glyphosate to be Named a Carcinogen in California.” Chemistry World. 10 September 2015. 22 November 2015.
- Jabr, Ferris. “Bread is Broken.” New York Times. 29 October 2015. 29 October 2015.
- “Silicon Valley Gets a Taste for Food.” The Economist. 7 March 2015: 13-15. Print.