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Better living through chemicals – The Press & the Van Andel Institute

October 20, 2010

Yesterday’s front page of the Grand Rapids Press had an interesting article that raises some interesting questions.

The article was about new research being done at the Van Andel Institute for a new chemical spray that has “potential to boost agricultural production.” The article goes on to say that the “researchers have discovered a way to activate the hormone with a biodegradable spray that not only could ease global food shortages but maybe keep your grass greener in the summer, too.”

First, since the article states that this new research could help ease global food shortages it is worth asking the question if indeed there are food shortages around the world. According to organizations like Food First, the issue is not so much a lack of food, but who has access to food. The global food crisis that began in 2008 had more to do with food policy and food prices than it did with food shortages.

The Food First reports do acknowledge that drought in some parts of the world has limited to global food reserves, but is spraying chemicals (organic or not) on a plant to make it more drought resistant is a questionable solution. Wouldn’t the more appropriate response be to find out what is causing drought in the first place?

According to many recent scientific reports the number one cause of drought worldwide is global warming. If global warming is the main cause of drought, which leads to potential food shortages, should entities like the Van Andel Institute be looking into ways to reduce carbon emissions?

Second, as was already mentioned one outcome of this kind of research might be to “keep your grass greener in the summer.” This kind of application of such research certainly raises all kinds of questions about the waste of funds and which companies might benefit economically from a chemical which makes your grass greener. Historically, this has been the case with the use of lab-tested chemicals or genetically modified plants, where most applications are driven by profits and not improving access to food for people around the world. The profit motive certainly is what motivated the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1960s.

Third, what has worked in terms of high yields in food production and sustainable farming practices is not modern technology and genetic research, but traditional and localized methods. The world is full of examples of local farming practices that are not dependent on genetic research such as the Navdanya food project in India and the millions of small farmers who are part of Via Campesina. These farmers and organizations not only practice sustainable agricultural methods they work to influence food policies that take the power away from multinational corporations which control much of the world’s food supplies.

Lastly, one thing that is missing from the Press story on the Van Andel Institute research is an alternative perspective. With such a critical issue as global food shortages, genetic modification and chemicals used on food plants the Press should have sought out other voices for their opinion on this matter instead of publishing an article that presents the research as fact and in an extremely positive light.


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