The State of our Biodiversity

28 Feb

tomato

I just finished reading a novel by Ruth Ozeki called All Over Creation, a narrative that explored the issue of biodiversity, GMO’s, the terminator gene, and contrasted them with the complex relationships of the story’s characters. I had been impressed by her first novel, My Year of Meats and found that her second novel was a intricately woven as the first.

While there are of course people out there who will naturally disagree with me, it does seem that there is a crisis of biodiversity, or rather the lack of it. Just strolling down the aisles of the local supermarket chain, I notice that there are the same varieties of hothouse tomatos, apples and oranges. In making everything accessible, perhaps we have also made everything, well…the same. Weeding out, so to speak, only certain species to plant into our soil means that we lose the characteristics of other plants that might work better locally. I can only say thank god for the local farmer’s market movement, for the smaller farms are finding a market for their produce, at least here in LA.

Ozeki’s book reminded me of the documentary,The Future of Food. In it, Deborah Koons Garcia examines the impact of genetically engineered (GE) foods on modern agriculture, explores the use of pesticides and pesticide-resistant crops and then looks at the changes in the patent laws of the late 1970’s which allow for patents on living organisms. These are developments which have led agricultural corporations to patent seeds farmers have used for centuries – resulting in a dangerous lack of crop diversity.

The documentary details the creation of GE seeds, what one scientist refers to as a ‘cellular invasion’, in which E Coli bacteria and viruses are used to penetrate a seed’s cell wall to create a pathway for genetic material to enter the cell. The most frightening of the GE technology discussed, however, may be the ‘terminator gene’. Crops with this gene lose the ability to reproduce after one growth cycle, causing farmers to have to buy their seed stock each year instead of cultivating their own seed.

According to the film, another major agricultural issue is patent violation. In the U.S. Monsanto has sued 9,000 farmers for accidental cross-pollination of Monsanto GE seeds with the farmer’s crops. The most well-known case is that of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer accused of violating the Monsanto patent. In a sad turn of events the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the corporate giant, holding Schmeiser liable for the invasion of GE seeds to his crops and seed stock.

The Future of Food ends on a hopeful note, however. Garcia discusses the burgeoning consumer demand for local foods and increase of farmers’ markets nationwide. She also introduces the idea of community sustainable agriculture where customers support a local farm by buying directly from it. She paints a salient portrait of GE and equips the viewer with the facts needed to make wise food choices which one hopes may have a positive impact on the ‘future of food’.

Ozeki’s book also ends on a relatively hopeful note. But neither documentary film nor fiction can truly describe the impact current agricultural practices have on our lives. Except for maybe a select few, we all are part of the problem when we decide to buy produce from the supermarket chains (yes, even organic, since it is often grown abroad where standards are not nearly as strict as in the US). The only way we can truly start to become part of the solution is to educate ourselves through whatever means necessary. For this, I am thankful that Ozeki and Garcia are creating works of art that educate as well as please.

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