The Future of Food

I missed the previous screening of the documentary the Future of Food, but this time was invited to participate as part of the Ethical Co-op, along with other NGO’s such as SAFeAGE. I attended the final evening at the Labia.

The film is a documentary about GM foods, focusing on the sorry situation in the US, Canada and Mexico. Of course famous cases of abuse such as Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser got a prominent mention. I thought the documentary was well-done as it didn’t only focus on the health risks – it also spent time unravelling the complexities of an issue more interesting to me – corporate control of our food supply.

Apparently the previous night a number of well-prepared pro-GM people attended, leading to some robust debate. In response, the night I was there the organisers had invited well-known activist Glenn Ashton, and he was ready to take on the pro-GMers. However, most of the audience seemed to oppose GM foods – a pity, as I had been looking forward to some fiery debate. In the absence of any support for GM foods, the discussion afterwards revolved around practicalities, the South African situation (we’re awash with GM soya and maize, and have the dubious honour of being the first country to have its staple diet genetically modified – white maize), as well as the support of the supermarkets (a quote: Woolworths is very approachable, Pick n Pay somewhat approachable, and the rest terrible). There were questions on the economics of organic foods, and how poor people can participate in what is being marketed as a rich luxury.

That last question has been concerning me as it wasn’t well answered in the discussions. It’s not simply true that organic goods cost more than chemically-produced foods. Rather, there’s a process of acquiring the kind of knowledged that used to be part of the farming experience, and has since been loss with the imposition of the factory model of farming (which claims that by applying just the right quantity of fertilisers, pesticides and so on year after year, all will be well).

One of the co-op’s suppliers, Buffelshoek Farm, are to my knowledge the only organic olive farm in the country. They are pioneers. Olives grow well in poor soil, but specific poor soil. In the poor soil of the Karoo where they’re grown here, they struggle with various diseases, including a leaf mold, and are heavily sprayed as a consequence. Going organic means finding natural ways to deal with this. At present, their yields are much lower than chemical organic farms, and thus are much more expensive. However, given 5 or 10 years more experience, yields may be almost identical to their chemical-farmed equivalents, as they are in many other organically-grown crops, and the price discrepancy may not be that noticeable. So I hold out hope that organic crops will not always just be the preserve of the rich, or those willing to pay a premium for good health.