Technology in Food Production

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts about technology and food production. Food is a topic that I have been interested in from a sociological perspective for several years, and I have a few topics that I would like to address, from GM, to regulation, sustainability and organic alternatives.

Technology plays a huge part in food production. If we just think about GM products, transport issues, industrial farming techniques and globalization in generic terms, it becomes immediately apparent that this sector is the largest in the world. According to these statistics agriculture accounts for between 14 and 24% of all global emissions of CO2, and 19 to 29% of total greenhouse pollutant emissions. An interesting point here is that in the so-called developed countries post-farm emissions are very high, so in the UK for example 50% of these emissions are produced after the food has left the farm, presumably through processing and transport techniques.

But it seems to me that processing is where the money is. According to Forbes, Pepsi for example made almost $45 billion in 2009 and Nestle’ made $110 billion, and these profits only refer to US sales. This year the sector is one of the very few that is still growing.

If you look at vegetables though they make less money. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but in the same year made only $6.8 billion, leading me to conclude that the profit is in the processing and not in the actual foodstuffs themselves.

And this leads on to the question of what goes into these products. The answer is, largely, genetically modified (GM) organisms.

Genetic Modification

Genetic Modification

Yes if we look at the statistics that the US Department of Agriculture publish, we find the following:

93% of soybeans grown in the USA are GM

90% of all corn produced in the US is GM

95% of US sugar beat is GM

40% of all cropland in the US is used for Monsanto (the largest GM seed producer) production

40% of all global GM crops are produced in the US

35% of all the corn grown in the world is GM

81% of all the soybeans grown in the world are GM

I take some of my information from here, the Organic Consumers Association website and the rest from US government sources.

So as you can see it is big business. It is estimated that 70% of all the foods in our supermarkets contains GM organisms. 16.5 million people work in the industry in the US and it accounts for more than 10% of GDP.

And it is not just plants, there is a request for FDA approval for GM salmon. It grows at twice the speed of regular salmon.

The GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies contains a gene from a Chinook salmon that produces a growth hormone, and a genetic โ€œon-switchโ€ from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish) that keeps the growth hormone pumping out year round. The company state that GM salmon will consume 25 percent less feed, half of which can be plant protein.

Oh and in the US none of this is labeled, although currently 64 other countries do require labeling.

GM organisms have been found in many countries that do not allow their production however, Mexico comes to mind as the closest example to the USA. Seeds have blown across the borders from the US, over the mountains, across the seas, possibly even from Brazil and Argentina and landed and grown. Not to mention imports of contaminated produce. Read the scientific report here.

Corn is socially extremely important in Mexico, its cultivation all started there, and this contamination has caused some serious soul searching. In a related issue GM companies are currently trying to get permission for huge plantations in Mexico, as this Reuters article explains. We await the court’s decision.

For now I stop here, I think that is enough food for thought for this week (groan). Next week I shall delve once more into the murky waters of the global food industry however, and who knows what we might find. Comments please below.

10 thoughts on “Technology in Food Production

  1. Christopher Roberts

    The statistics you cite are shocking. I had no idea GM was so widespread.

    Whilst I don’t (currently) have anything against genetically modified food, I do believe it is really important that thorough ongoing research takes place before it becomes too widespread, and that and GM crops are contained – so seed doesn’t blow over to other farms, or indeed GM animals breed with other animals, as you mention it is in your article.

    It is also scary to see the profits made by processed food companies matched with those made by agricultural businesses.

    When I was young I remember going to the market with my parents and questioning why a banana cost more than a chocolate bar. It does still make me wonder whether that is sending out the wrong signals, although I can now see the business behind the numbers.

    With reference to the groan at the end was that in reference to the pun, or were you getting really bored ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Good article, I look forward to the rest of your series ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I groan at my sorry sense of humour, but as you know I like to persevere. You cannot contain GM, it blows in the wind, but there is another post to come about that. The cat is already out of the bag.

    • There have been few if any serious studies into the long term health risks of eating GM foods. Some argue that their use is a giant experiment, and we have to wait and see if there are adverse effects. The truth seems to be that nobody knows, the EU battles against introduction however because in Europe we have a more cautionary approach.

  2. I find the soybean numbers quite interesting. There must have been real scope for improvement if 81% of the worlds total crop is now genetically modified.

    When I lived in the UK several years back there was a big public outcry about GM products, obviously in the US they just got on with it all without making too much fuss.

    With so many farms producing GM foods and so much money behind it I really doubt anyones chances of keeping the products contained.

    • GMO soybean planting is likely to go down this year for the first time as farmers look for non GM options, so I wonder how much improvement they have actually seen. The EU refuses to accept it so that may be part of the change too.
      Regarding the figures I wonder how much the seed company monopolies pre GM had on the spread. Food Democracy Now state on their website that “according to AgWeb, the “big four” biotech seed companies โ€” Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences โ€” own 80 percent of the U.S. corn market and 70 percent of the soybean business”. But these combined companies also own more than half of all global seed supply, so have incredible leverage. Patent laws have made seed collecting a dangerous game as these companies have sued on grounds of contamination (and won) leading to the dramatic spread.

      • I’m assuming that seed collecting is dangerous due to the fact that you can be sued if you collect and use them without paying a royalty. Hard to understand how they can identify illegal use of their seeds however I’m sure that they have pretty defined methods. It certainly raises the bar for farmers in terms of what it takes to run a farm and will make it extremely difficult for 3rd world farmers to compete.

        • Yes farmers who have saved seeds that have been found to be contaminated with GM seeds (that blew into the crops in some cases) have been successfully sued for patent infringement. We are not just talking about saving known GM seeds for re-planting, but non GM crop seeds that have been honed over generations by individual families. The companies come and take a sample and run a DNA test, if they find their patented DNA in your saved seed collection then you are guilty. I will put up some articles in a follow on post next week, you will be shocked!

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