Michelle Donaldson, Executive Chef of Tallgrass Prairie Table, continues our regular series of reports from the research fellows working on the theme of food at the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities.
The narrative of food is forever evolving. We all have ideas about what tastes good and what we want to see on our table as well as strong opinions about, organic vs. conventional, necessity vs. want, fast food vs. slow food, so on and so on. As a chef, I live in this narrative and have two varying perspectives: one as a chef the other as an everyday person. Sometimes they co-mingle, sometimes they argue, sometimes they’re in harmony, and sometimes they are polar opposites. We both, however, believe in the necessity of bio-diversity and feel strongly that corporate control of our food supply is a terrifying nightmare that makes Soylent Green seem more like a possible reality than a work of fiction.
If you’re not familiar with the premise of Soylent Green, a great sci-fi thriller from 1973 starring Charlton Heston, I will gladly refresh your memory or introduce you. In the year 2022, the world has been left overcrowded, polluted, barren, and starving. A giant corporation rations out Soylent Green, which it claims is made of sea plankton. Spolier alert: it turns out, humanity has exhausted that resource as well and, in the film’s memorable tagline, “Soylent Green is people!” If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it just to see Charlton Heston deliver that line.
I mention Soylent Green because we seem to be living in an age of fiction becoming reality. No, I don’t think we are about to start eating people, but I am nervous for the future of farming. In the last year four major mergers have been negotiated in big agriculture:
- Syngenta, the Swiss seed and chemical maker, has been agreed to be bought for more 43 billion dollars by China National Chem Corp., which aims to be the world’s largest agricultural-chemical company.
- Dow Chemical seeks to merge with Dupont to become one of the worlds largest seed and chemical companies, valued at around 130 billion dollars.
- Agrium Inc. and Potash Co. out of Canada combined to become one of the world’s largest fertilizer corporations.
- Finally,Bayer AG bought Monsanto Co. for 66 billion dollars.
Regardless of how you feel about conventional, organic, or non-GMO practices, we should all share a healthy fear of a majority of the world’s seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers being controlled by less than six corporations. This is, in effect, a hostile takeover of our food system.
In 2004, 138 countries and unions, along with some help from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), now known as the Plant Treaty. This far-reaching international agreement, in partnership with the Convention on Biological Diversity, will provide improved food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It also aims to recognize farmers’ rights, by allowing them the opportunity to continue their work as stewards and innovators of agricultural bio-diversity. The treaty solidifies the practices of seed sharing and provides access to the living genetic resources necessary for plant breeding and preservation.
So, I’m left thinking this: How, in this moment of corporate concentration, do we obtain and maintain agricultural bio-diversity, choice, sustainability, and conservation? I am scared to death knowing a vast majority of the world’s food could be controlled by only four corporations. I do however see hope. I see it in the ever-growing awareness of our food system. I see constant protest in the way people are choosing to spend their money on food. I have optimism for our global community when I see marvels like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and their capacity to protect 4.5 million distinct seed samples. Seed sharing, germplasm, and farmers’ rights are all recognized by the Plant Treaty. I hope all of us consider taking both individual and collective action to preserve the planet’s diversity, even in the face of big-ag buyouts and synthetic seed salesman.