Food Goes Where it’s Most Profitable — Even When it’s Genetically Engineered
Posted November 18, 2021
With rising inflation, your holiday turkey is going to cost more this year than last. But considered broadly, that fat juicy bird is still remarkably cheap. One reason, according to Bill Winders, a political sociologist in the School of History and Sociology: Genetically engineered (GE) grains.
GE foods could help feed the world, he said. But instead, they go toward making meat ever cheaper. “Our entire system rests on a market economy, where food goes where it's most profitable,” Winders said.
Winders has spent his career studying the global grain and meat industries. His 2017 book Grains examines how the political and economic divisions between food grains and feed grains influence issues like international trade, world hunger, biotechnology, and land rights. He followed that up with the edited 2019 volume Global Meat, which examines the production, consumption, and trade of the global meat industry, and its impact on the environment, workers, animals, farmers, and the economy. Now he’s focusing on the rise of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and GE foods.
Where are GE Foods Going?
“GE is not geared toward developing low-cost foods that could then feed the 800 million people who suffer from food insecurity around the world,” said Winders. “Almost all of the genetically engineered foods that are produced either go into processed foods, or even more likely, into livestock feed.”
Although wheat has been genetically engineered to be more herbicide-resistant and rice has been genetically engineered to have more vitamin K, no GE varieties of either crop are commercially available. Instead, the three most common GE crops are corn, soybeans, and canola, because that’s where the profit is. For example, corn can be turned into high fructose corn syrup and baked into a loaf of bread, which is more profitable than selling a pound of flour; and soybeans can be fed to pigs, whose meat is more profitable than selling the soybeans themselves.
Winders also highlighted another reason for the dominance of these genetically engineered crops that hasn’t been previously identified. The corn and soybean markets are largely controlled by two countries: Brazil and the U.S. So, they can produce GE foods with little consequence because consumers have few other options. Meanwhile, the rice and wheat markets are more competitive, which makes switching to a genetically engineered crop risker for the countries exporting them, because there are more options for consumers to turn to if they reject it. And finally, Winders added, putting GE crops in processed foods and meat also makes them easier to hide.
The effects of genetically engineered livestock feed are far-reaching. It helps to fuel the expanding global meat industry, leading to more meat consumption worldwide. This accelerates the environmental damage inflicted by the meat industry. “In addition to that, there are health and safety issues for the workers in meat processing,” says Winders. “There's the issue of contract farming — the way that the poultry industry works can put farmers in a very precarious economic position. And consuming that much meat isn't good for human health, so it’s not advantageous for consumers either.”
So, what does this mean for you and me?
It can feel heavy to think about food insecurity and climate change (and now, the increasing cost of groceries with climbing inflation, which also hits low-income families harder than others) as we head into our food-focused holiday celebrations with family and friends. But there is one actionable solution.
“We have farmers markets all around Atlanta,” says Winders. “I think probably on any given day, you could go to a different neighborhood and find a farmers market.”
Purchasing your fruit, vegetables, and meat from local farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) this holiday season can lower the environmental impact of your purchases. It can also help support local growers and keep more of your money in the local economy than when it's spent at big box stores. The Georgia Fresh for Less program also matches EBT and SNAP benefits at participating farmers markets, helping make fresh food more widely available in lower income communities.
“The smaller the supply chain for food to get to your table, the less of an environmental impact it has,” said Winders, “and the better it is for you and your community as well.”
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