17 June 2011

Live Blogging Simran Sethi Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

This morning’s plenary speaker at the Christian Scholars Conference is Simran Sethi, a prominent environmental journalist who got her start at MTV News. I know much less about Sethi than the other speakers here, practically nothing in fact. But she’s got an impressive CV and should be an engaging speaker. The topic of her presentation is “Our Daily Bread: Food, Faith, and Conservation.”


We’re now discussing taking up a collection for the people of Joplin, especially students and faculty at Ozark Christian College.


She’s giving the genuinely touching personal wrap-up now, admitting that this has been a challenging presentation for her. She’s quoting biblical sources and yesterday’s “Augustine” quote from Collins about unity, charity, etc. (someone told me yesterday that it can’t be traced to Augustine). The plea is for us to look at the issues of climate change and creation care, to think critically about our food system, and to ask ourselves if this is the best answer. Cool McKibben quote to the effect of “There is no silver bullet, only silver buck shot.” When I was getting a “precautionary principle” link, I missed a cool thing about Kant and examining the intentions of Monsanto, etc., which was I think the boldest part of the presentation.


“Hungry people in the developing nations have no right to choose,” is our logic, she’s pointing out. They should, I’m extrapolating here, be desperate enough to eat whatever we have to offer, even if it’s dangerous. And it is, very likely: she’s now citing a first-of-kind study about “[m]aternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods” in Quebec. These toxins are in the animals, in the meat, and int he blood of humans, including “humans who aren’t even here yet.” So back to the precautionary principle (this is a technical term you may not be aware of if you haven’t followed the technology, science, and policy wars, see here).


Grant says solution to hunger problems are to double or triple yields. Pollan asks “yields of what?” Sethi thinks the best way to tackle these problems is to let farmers save their seeds. (I missed connection between these two ideas, sorry.)


What’s are the implications of GMOs and “terminator seeds” (GURTs) which don’t reproduce (Farmers will have to buy them every year)? Monsanto is talking up the ownership themes, which Sethi finds theologically problematic. Huh, the environmental discourse around this is known as “seed sovereignty.” Love it. Also, Monsanto’s CEO’s name is Hugh Grant.


The point of contact between man and nature is spiritual. She’s riffing on Matthew 31-33 metaphors. “Christ doesn’t say ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a chariot race’ … The kingdom of heaven is like a grape vine.” Food patents work directly against this spirit.


Public policy should follow the precautionary principle, she and other advocates maintain. But this hasn’t gone well. Monsanto has grown in proportion to GMO adoption. They control the seeds. It’s not germane to her argument that Monsanto created Agent Orange, she notes. She doesn’t want to give the impression that multi-national corporations are bad. That’s why she has a grad degree in business. She would want to celebrate Monsanto if they were doing good things, because “Man, they’re big. When they do something, the world changes.” But that’s not the case. They present themselves as feeding the world, but most of the crops they create are commodity crops generating bioplastics and biofuels. But “whoever controls the seed controls the food system.”


Up to 70% of packaged goods in the U.S. contain GMOs, mostly in corn and soy, which are a huge part of our diet, Pollan points out. Hehe, the only person in the room who raised his hand when she asked if this was surprising “is also wearing a DNA tie.”


GMed cotton sounded like it would be a good idea, since 25% of insecticides were being used on cotton. But, constant exposure to the toxin in this cotton has created an evolutionary pressure for insects to adapt resistance. “The engineered crop is no longer resistant to the pest it was designed to kill.”


GMOs and non-GMOs can cross-pollinate (“that’s what nature does; it tries to be fruitful”). But this drift (out-crossing) actually turns out to be detrimental. This doesn’t just contaminate local organic farms. It has also led to Monsanto, et al., to sue small farmers whose crops have been so contaminated. There’s a patenting of life forms going on.


She’s talking about Pluots, plumb-apricots that she would call “part of God’s plan” that any horticulturalist could do. Using recombinant DNA technology is of a different quality, and this couldn’t happen naturally. She describes this strategy of “man’s plan.”


“To understand the world as God’s creation is to understand … our accountability to God as tenants.” We can’t destroy what has been so richly provided to us. Our works should be “in harmony with the laws that produced them.”


She’s now moving onto GMOs (genetically modified organisms). She’s prefacing it with an admission that she longs for a silver bullet even though there isn’t one. But she’s saying that GMOs are, at the very least, not that silver bullet. Investors and many others have come to that conclusion, but she humbly disagrees, citing (in part) conflict of interest among the big seed makers. Do these practices honor life and stewardship, she asks? Simple asnwer: these GMOs feed people. But her point is that it’s not that simple.


The highest rates of obesity correlate quite compellingly with the highest rates of food insecurity. Telling a compelling story about the urban food desert in Sugar Hill, Harlem.


Insecticide endosulfan is a chemical cousin of DDT and was only recently banned. It’s an endocrine disruptor with risk of accumulation. 1.4 million pounds were used in the U.S. EPA is missing the point in saying small amounts are OK: what about the people handling it? What about people drinking nearby water? Why all the fuss, including the push to exempt Global South farmers who couldn’t afford substitutes? It was a multi-million-dollar industry, of course (I missed the exact number).


Agricultural chemicals can cross the placental barrier, studies say, so farm workers and city dwellers alike are doing great harm to, at the very least, their children.


“Monocultures deplete the soil of important nutrients: diversity creates harmony.” She’s very theological/philosophical, notice. Lovely speech and lovely visuals. Just as we could tell yesterday that Collins is a scientist (and now bureaucrat), we can definitely tell Sethi is a journalist.


Hehe, quoting “Good Crop, Bad Crop.” Its analysis of Green Revolution: farms had to adapt to seed variety rather than the other way around.


“Our food is oily,” both in terms of food shipping and petro-chemicals, as she noted before. Plus we’re “growing” plastics and fuel (ethanol, etc.). Many farmers feel like they can’t afford to grown anything but corn. Price volatility makes us incredibly vulnerable (and more so people who depend on us) with our one-crop economy. Historical and contemporary parallels: Irish potato famine, “rice crisis” in Southeast Asia. We’re pushing out crops that came about by “the methods of diversity” for a “one-size fits all” solution controlled by seed companies, etc., who want to maximize yield, not nutritional value (for the most part).


Food inflation hurts the least among us, she’s noting “the worst form of taxation on the poorest of the poor” (she’s quoting someone).


Food First Institute realized years ago that world farmers were producing four pounds of food per person per day. The fact that we won’t have enough of it is a much more recent occurrence. She’s noting that her home country of India has great poverty along with the most Forbes-list billionaires of any country in the world (think I have that right).


It’s going to be a luxury to have food at all “and as people of any faith … we should find this unacceptable.” Anglican Bishop Jeff Davies argues that overpopulation and overconsumption are our two greatest sources of environmental harm. [Lots of Anglicans are popping up at this conference, this one is happy to note.]


Talking about European e coli. Pointing out the petro-chemical inputs and transportation costs of our food practices and whether our answers about the global food market are misleading and detrimental. Food prices could double in next ten years, analysts say.


She just read a lovely excerpt from David Mas Masumoto about peaches and the coming of summer. Modern farming puts us out of touch with this spirit, and it’s causing us to be filled with a spiritual longing.


Sethi has an M.B.A but nevertheless has strong critiques for Big Agribusiness. Farm subsidies mostly help diversify these large corporations.


“How many of you come from agricultural states?” We have a luxury in that we can know a bit more about where our food comes from. Although we’ve lost 300,000 small farms in this country (?!).


“Eating is an agricultural act,” says Wendell Berry. “I just started growing my own food this year,” and it’s a humbling experience.


“Everyday meals carry with them sacramental power.” We know that food is a part of spirituality, a reflection of “what we hold sacred.” “We know that God dwells in the host, but can we bring [Christ] into the Big Mac?”


Need a food ethic that believes that the earth itself is sacred (“or very good”).


She’s having trouble with the slides “I’m ‘Girls Gone Wild’ with the clicker here.” [Laughs.]


She’s not a Christian but a believer (Hindu): “The food and the eater of the food are both forms of divinity.” Talking about Prince Siddhartha’s food experiences and discovery of the middle path between self-mortification and (missed the other exact term).


“We all eat,” she says. And “our food system is in great disrepair.” And–this is intriguing–she thinks faith-based efforts will be what helps bring about a solution to the food system problem.


Sethi says she’s a “an unlikely fit,” neither Christian nor scholar, used to seeing a lot more hippies in the audience.


The Provost of ACU (I think) is giving the introduction: Sethi is a “Top Ten Eco-Hero of the Planet” according to The Independent. She blogs on environmental matters, including on her efforts to “green her own home.” Sethi is “impatient” in her advocacy, saying we need to get way past new light bulbs and reusable bags.


Simran Sethi said...

Thanks for this great chronology of my talk. I appreciate it. - s

Kyle Matthew Oliver said...

Thank you! It was a terrific talk and a refreshing change of pace.

Monika Borua said...

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