I don’t want to spoil your appetite but something’s wrong with a lot of what we’re eating. Food issues dominate headlines today. They’re there cluttering the face filters of friends on your feed. Our planetary boundaries are being breached, and the link between what’s on our plate and the state of the planet is now undeniable. You probably clicked this this article because you are fed up and want to know what can be done (or want to see how far I can go with food puns).
It’s gratifying to realize that people are ready for the conversation. If the positive response to our book Makisawsaw is any indication, it’s that more people are now open to the idea that food is a possible path to effecting change.
You probably feel it too—this tiny but growing consciousness transforming food from mere gastronomic pleasure into a chance to “vote with our fork”. And where previously food meant comfort and escape, a quick Google search shows us how it has also become a platform for people to call out production and distribution practices that exploit the vulnerabilities of food workers, aggravate global warming, and create this double crises of obesity and malnutrition worldwide.
Giving a fork
Stepping up to the sustainable plate so to speak are chefs (such as Dan Barber of the US, Peggy Chan of Hong Kong, and Jordy Navarra and Asha Peri here in the Philippines) who, as traditional and influential points of contact between consumers and our food systems, are helping to create the critical spaces for conversations on what we eat and its power to shape (or mis-shape) our world. Good Food’s community-shared agriculture model is gaining traction as a working food production and distribution model that recasts consumers as co-producers with an active stake and role in creating a more equitable food system, inspiring similar setups in Palawan and Rizal.
Understandably, despite the shift in attitude, food issues can still be a thorny topic to take up in company. Food choices continue to be seen as deeply personal and therefore changes can be threatening. Food is also a time-honored social lubricant over which we bond and bridge, and nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer on such occasions, especially since the reality is quite bleak.
What’s eating food advocates?
In the Philippines, the people who work to bring us our food are among the poorest, most oppressed lot, with farmers getting killed over land disputes and laborers exercising their Constitutional right to demand better work conditions jailed. Because of rice liberalization, our local rice farmers were confronted with farm gate prices plummeting to as low as P7 a kilo, equivalent to a monthly income of P3,300—way below the government’s monthly recommended no-frills food budget of P7,500 and right up there in terms of the cruelest of ironies where the people who grow our food are the ones who go hungry.
And recently, also very quietly while the country was in the thick of holiday merrymaking, the Department of Agriculture approved the Direct Use for Food, Feed and Processing of Golden Rice after more than two decades of resistance from farmers, scientists, consumers, health advocates, artists, and children and women’s rights workers from all over the world and despite a lack of public consultation required by regulation.
Golden rice: the saga and the spin
Developed to fight Vitamin A deficiency in poor malnourished children, which can lead to blindness and even death if not addressed, the genetically modified Golden Rice, simply put, does not work.
First, Golden Rice carries inconsistent and negligible amounts of beta-carotene that degrade further when stored in high temperature and humid conditions, which is essentially tropical Philippines. Proponents instead recommend vacuum-packed refrigeration as a form of storage to protect what little beta-carotene content is in Golden Rice, a recommendation that is so clearly out of touch with our social realities, especially in poor communities where VAD is prevalent. Cooking Golden Rice further degrades its beta-carotene content to close to nil. Unfortunately, we like to eat our rice cooked.
Natural, biodiverse, and immediately accessible whole food sources like the stalwart kamote or the nutritional powerhouse malunggay easily kick Golden Rice’s claims of nutritional content to the curb—claims it shouldn’t even make in the first place because its beta-carotene concentration, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, is too low. Nonetheless this hasn’t stopped Golden Rice’s proponents from touting its supposed beta-carotene benefits, and has begun to market it as Healthier Rice, given “healthier” is a relative and unregulated term.
Some rationalize that those suffering VAD are not expected to source their recommended daily allowance (RDA) from Golden Rice alone. Fair enough. Except that a single medium carrot or kamote meets one’s Vitamin A RDA versus a mere fraction per cup of Golden Rice, on top of the fiber and additional micronutrients essential to good health that kamote offers.
In fact, just last February 7, 2020, a new study by Glenn Davis Stone, an internationally recognized expert on the human side of global agricultural trends and an early advocate for keeping an open mind about “humanitarian” GMO crops, states, ” The Philippines has managed to cut its childhood VAD rate in half with conventional nutrition programs.” IRRI itself admits in 2015 that “it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness,” and, in 2017 has yet developed Golden Rice varieties “shown to improve vitamin A status in community conditions.”
Second, on top of its lack of proven efficacy, Golden Rice continues to be plagued with persistent questions about its biosafety. Despite demands from consumers, farmers, and other stakeholders to show us that it is safe, the proponents have yet to release any published results of Golden Rice’s toxicology tests to assess its health risks. Recently it was announced that the proponents will proceed with sensory testing to find out what Golden Rice tastes like, setting aside safety concerns that continue to be raised.
Third, the approval of Golden Rice deals yet another blow to our rice farmers, already reeling from the effects of rice liberalization. Funded by the biggest agrochemical companies in the world (Syngenta, bought later by ChemChina), Golden Rice ushers in further dependence on toxic chemical inputs and contaminates our indigenous and traditional rice varieties, which threatens the already precarious state of our smallholder farmers and the attendant business ecosystem around local rice production.
All this isn’t new. Golden Rice brings to mind Miracle Rice’s playbook in the 1970s during the Green Revolution, when government took over the farmlands where IRRI was built. The hybrid semi-dwarf rice developed by IRRI earned its name after the farmers saw rice yields initially increase with its chemical-intensive production practices. Eventually, however, yields declined, leading to increased chemical inputs that still failed to match the previous yields. Exposed to chemicals, both the soil and our landless farmers were sick and dying. Our rice farmers were buried in debt, and our country started losing our rice’s genetic diversity.
Taking all these into consideration, the fact that proponents position Golden Rice as a humanitarian effort is an outstanding study in marketing spin. It also seems to rely too heavily on the positive associations to its name—golden, healthier—without wanting to do the much-needed heavy lifting to prove that it is safe and effective. Why not just take their word for it?
What do all these current challenges facing our food system—genetic modification, rice liberalization, toxic agricultural practices, a lack of genuine and comprehensive land reform, violations of labor and human rights—mean for you and me, standing there in the supermarket aisle, awash with choices?
Certainly one should not underestimate the power of the peso. Our personal food choices are never just personal food choices. What we buy not only has an immediate impact on our lives (e.g., health, convenience, etc.) but throughout the long chain of growers, makers, and distributors. Whenever we pay for something, we effectively endorse, knowingly or otherwise, the conditions that grew this rice, produced that soy sauce, made that lemon cake. This is why it is important to know your food producers and to ask questions about their practices.
Yes this is easier said than done, given the globalization of our food supply chains, but we have enough agency to make better selections, buying and boycotting according to our values.
However—and this may seem strange coming from someone who created a book borne out of a boycott—I have boycotted enough products to know that this often simply results in more supermarket choices rather than actual changes in the system.
I have learned that the sense of individual agency that animates our more conscious patterns of consumption is eventually the same thing that can inhibit it. After being fired up to make changes—Buy organic! Reduce processed foods! Eliminate plastic!—how many among us eventually end up thinking “I’m just one person, it will never be enough, it’s too inconvenient,” and give up sooner or later, dispirited by the sheer magnitude of the challenge? At best, our individual consumer action can create the feeling that our purchase is the highest and most effective form of protest, the best tool for effecting change—that it is enough.
It is not. And all to often, too much individualism in consumer action has become an effective way for some companies not to take action. After all, the solution has already been outsourced to the informed consumer restless for change. Let her buy metal straw while we skirt waste regulation. While every little bit counts, we should not allow these bigger issues to be framed as something that can simply be solved by personal lifestyle changes.
let’s change the world with food
Consumers have to come together as a community, speak up, and demand the change from our institutions together. We have to remember that the benefits that our societies enjoy today are ultimately the fruits of people coming together and organizing themselves into an institutional force and creating change. Contrary to Hollywood blockbusters, it is a not a single person that saves the world. The people are the heroes in these stories of change.
Coming together with our individual strengths and contributions and creating a consumer movement around food issues—e.g., fighting the entry of Golden Rice into our food system—help us see that our demand for greater access to safe food produced under fair and dignified working conditions that protect rights and do not cost the planet is something we share with other Filipinos no matter the background. Specifically, it challenges the myopia that pits us consumers versus farmers, justifying the price drops and flooding of cheap imports because it supposedly benefits us. We have to reject the false binary where the interests of our farmers must be sacrificed to benefit a greater number of consumers, or vice versa. It is not a zero sum game, where we only help either the farmer of the consumer. Supporting our farmers through national industrialization and comprehensive agrarian reform redounds to food security for an entire nation.
The times we are in have eroded much of our sense of community and mutual responsibility. We double tap instead of talking to each other. Lacking community, we effectively begin to erode our capacity for resilience because knowing that we can depend on one another, that we are not alone in this, is a critical resource that needs to be on hand when we want to create change.
Change is inconvenient, a bane in these times that put a premium on frictionless, faster, easier, and more. There are entities counting on the inertia of consumers, soothed by a sea of choices, so that they do not have to get their act together. But it is by coming together, strengthening the social ties that bind us, and being engaged in the bigger conversation that will allow us to become a force powerful enough to be listened to and reckoned with in this great food fight.