Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q&A with Bill McKibben

Q: What concerns you most about genetically modified organisms?

A: Their effect on farmers and society. I think GMOs kill the playing field in almost every market, in favor of large agrobusiness and against small, local farmers. I think that really works at destroying the fabric of farm communities the world ’round.

I was in a village in Bangladesh when people from the government arrived with news of a so-called “golden rice” genetically engineered to produce vitamin A. As we got more hybridized varieties of crops and more agrobusiness, we did see an increase in grain yields, but we also saw an increase in micronutrient deficiencies because all that people were able to eat was the rice they were growing.

Saving seed is another important part of the GMO story. In the subcontinent, saving seed has traditionally been the work of women. It’s a very skilled labor, so when everyone switched to hybridized varieties, that skill no longer had any value. I spoke to the leading feminist in Bangladesh and asked her what she would like to see to improve the status of the women there and she said, “‘An end to hybrid seed, and a return to seed saving. When this skill was no longer required, the value of women dropped dramatically and domestic abuse went up.’”

Q: Is the local movement a step in the right direction? Should there be requirements on what local means?

A: My main work is on climate change and global warming, so obviously local food saves a lot of energy in the process, and that’s very good. I think trying to legislate what local means is a mistake in the same way that it was maybe a mistake to try to legislate organic. If I have to make a choice between organic and local (and you usually don’t), local is the most important characteristic. I don’t have any reason to trust the little organic label on something that comes from thousands of miles away. I have every reason to trust my neighbors because I see them every day.

Q: Do you see any good in the recession?

A: The recession in a certain way is the first time that carbon emissions have come down in this country in almost forever. So in that sense, it is good and probably helped us think a little bit more clearly about what was valuable. On the other hand, it’s a hell of a bad way to run an economy.
What we need is to figure out how to reduce the size of our footprint more gently than we did with this financial crisis. Certainly the days of people aspiring to build bigger houses farther apart may be done, and that’s a good thing.
We need to put a price on fossil fuels that reflects the damage that carbon dioxide does to the atmosphere. We’ll be eating local food, not just because it tastes better and supports our neighbors, but also because it makes complete economic sense. I think that changing the price of energy is probably the single most important thing we can do in the world.

–Interview by Morgan Bast

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.