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Squash Pots and Bad Bananas: The Cultural Myopia of American Food Activists

If you're living on the edge of famine, you may not be able to afford a squash pot, or even seeds. But when you're an American elitist, eager to reject the idea that a vitamin-fortified crop could rescue children from the tragic effects of malnutrition, you go to the edge of reason and fall off.
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"You can't build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery."

So said Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace-prize winning biologist who helped develop specialty crops to grow in poor nations and saved millions of hungry people from starvation in the late 20th century.

Although Dr. Borlaug is no longer with us, his sentiment and purpose live on. That quote is certainly still applicable to Africa, where despite economic gains over the last few decades, it is still home to millions of empty stomachs. Peace is fleeting and food often weaponized. Whether it's due to poverty, climate, or war - food stability still alludes Africa. Several countries are struggling with massive food insecurity. South Sudan is on the brink of famine; areas of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Somalia are also on high alert.

One-third of the world's children who suffer from stunting and wasting (low height and weight) due to malnutrition lives in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 40% of people live on less than $1.90 per day.

As lucky American moms, we can only imagine the horror and heartbreak of trying to find enough food to feed a hungry, sick child. But tragically, this is a reality for hundreds of millions of mothers (themselves hungry) around the world. Staple crops like rice, cassava, and bananas are routinely threatened by diseases that poor farmers are powerless to stop. Often times, farmers must watch as the only food they are able to grow is stricken with pests or diseases they cannot prevent.

We would never suggest that an African country should give up on a crop that has been part of its culture and heritage for generations. But that is exactly what a California mother and food activist did last month at a food conference - ironically enough - named after Dr. Borlaug.

Zen Honeycutt is the founder and director of the Moms Across America, an anti-GMO activist group. Honeycutt attended this year's Borlaug Dialog, an annual symposium on global agriculture and food security. Some of the discussion centered on the need for GMOs (genetically engineered crops) that could help food stability in parts of Africa. This offended Ms. Honeycutt's First World sensibilities, where her ample food choices are often dictated by the presence of GMOs. She confronted one man from Uganda who indicated GMOs might be the only way to save his country's banana crop. In her words:

"I got to speak to Erostus Nsubuga, chairman of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, from Uganda. His main defense of GMOs was not that GMOs and related chemicals are safe, but that they have been trying for 20 years to grow bananas naturally and they have not been successful, implying that they need GMOs. He never indicated that Uganda might be a better place to grow other types of crops besides bananas."

So here is an American mother (who evidently knows very little about Ugandan agriculture) having the audacity to suggest to someone from Uganda that maybe they should just throw in the towel and grow something else. Clearly, she doesn't realize that Uganda is the 2nd largest producer of bananas in the world. They are a critical staple crop and a storied part of Ugandan culture; there is evidence that bananas may have been introduced to the area as early as 4,000 years ago.

Mr. Nsubga's concern is that bananas in Uganda are being threatened by a disease called Banana Wilt which destroys the crop and causes premature ripening and discoloration of the fruit. The loss of this crop is having a devastating economic impact on Ugandan farmers who rely on it, not only for income, but in many cases as their primary source of food.

A promising biotech solution (developed by Ugandan scientists for Ugandan farmers) involves the transfer of 2 genes from green peppers into the banana plant to give it resistance to the disease. It has had tremendous success in field trials but is running into opposition from anti-GMO activists who, not unlike Honeycutt, would rather see this solution fail than risk the success of a genetically engineered crop.

Sadly, Honeycutt's view is representative of the larger American food movement where GMOs are enemy number one. Much of the anti-GMO sentiment by elite foodies is fueled by political or profit motives as well as a deep-seated hatred of Monsanto, one of the companies that develops GMO seeds.

But even humanitarian "GMOs" are anathema to elite foodies like wealthy author, activist, and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, so he proposes that it might be better

"to encourage them to plant squash or greens in pots around their houses or around the edges of their fields."

Now that sounds completely logical for the people of Berkeley, who can easily afford artisanal pots and heirloom seeds; not so much for hungry people experiencing crushing poverty. If you are living on the edge of famine, you may not be able to afford a squash pot - or seeds for that matter. You may not have access to clean water, much less fertilizer or a nice open field.

But when you're an American elitist, eager to reject the idea that a vitamin fortified crop could rescue children from the tragic effects of malnutrition, you go to the edge of reason and fall off. That's what Pollan did here. With zero sense of compassion or introspection, Pollan blithely tells impoverished people to essentially starve since his advice is utterly useless.

Pollan and Honeycutt share a way of thinking that is pervasive in the food movement, particularly with anti-GMO activists. They are so blinded by a hatred of biotech companies like Monsanto that they are now traveling down a squash-lined ideological path that defies reason and substance.

But what exactly are anti-GMO activists and elite foodies trying to accomplish with their campaign against biotech in Africa? Their rhetoric and attitudes have consequences beyond what happens in the cereal aisle at California grocery stores. These humanitarian applications have nothing to do with Monsanto or pesticides, a fact American food activists are well aware. Yet they are so determined to demonize a technology, they won't even separate the issues for the sake of human lives.

Maybe it is impossible for them to fathom a place where Whole Foods and hipster co-ops don't exist or where children die daily from malnutrition. Maybe they can only imagine farmer's markets as quaint places with natural pet treats and specialty jams rather than places where narrow margins can mean the difference between eating and not eating. And where one batch of bad bananas may mean your children will go hungry.

Perhaps American food activists, especially mothers like Zen Honeycutt, will someday move beyond their cultural myopia and realize the human cost of their words and influence. Because the people of Africa - all people - deserve more than misery and empty stomachs. And, they certainly deserve better than flippant advice and imaginary pots of squash.

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