All posts by Alex Tse

Alex Tse writes when no one’s looking. She believes in the true meaning of hipster and she’d like it if you became her vegan cupcake friend. Find her on the internetz @alexnotangry and http://alexnotangry.wordpress.com.

“Those Mainlanders” and other racist ways to start a sentence

I was at a restaurant with friends a few weeks ago. The conversation was kind of slow, so I mentioned my plans for travelling to Hong Kong next year and asked for advice on which attractions to visit.

One of the members of the group took this as an opportunity to talk about all the annoying “Mainlanders” – a term referring to people from Mainland China –  I should be wary of during my visit.

“Mainlanders go to Hong Kong to show off their money. They’ll go into an LV boutique and say to the sales assistants, ‘I’ll take all the bags in the store except these three’. And they won’t even really want the bags, they’ll just buy them to show how rich they are. They end up throwing them away. Even the sales assistants hate them.”

As if Mainlanders were the most wasteful, spoiled, decadent, and thoughtless people he could think of.

During this time, only two of the people at the table (one of them was myself), had polished off their meals. The rest (including the Mainlander Hater) had each left about a third of their food on the plate. Not one of them asked for a takeout box to save the food for later. All the uneaten food went to the garbage.

And as if that wasn’t ironic enough, our restaurant was located on a street which is lined with poverty. There are panhandlers on almost every block. The Mainlander Hater himself drives an extremely expensive brand-name SUV. I still get dizzy every time I think about how much his vehicle must’ve cost.

Relative to most of the world, we middle-class North Americans are the ones who are extremely wasteful, spoiled and decadent. I’m sure the tens of thousands who are living below the poverty line in Metro Vancouver think we middle-class bourgie-wannabes are pretty awful too. Goodness knows I spend enough of my limited cash reserves on frivolous crap like shoes and dresses.

My own parents love to complain about Mainlanders. But when they struck it rich, they started buying useless junk like Gucci watches and expensive cars too.  Rich people are always going to – surprise! – spend like they’re rich, regardless of their race.

But I guess no amount of irony is going to stop people from being racist when all you want is someone to point your finger at.

The Vancouver Food Policy Council And That Awkward Racist Guy

Mr. Bill Hard-done-by-those-coloured-people Zylmans. I bet even his strawberries are racist.

Please see the VFPC response at the end of this post.

I was really excited last Thursday to go to an event about farming in Vancouver. I’m really geeky about stuff like that. I think I’ll forever be the only one of my friends who uses the hashtag #AgMoreThanEver. I’m one of the few people I know that commit their entry-level wage (I don’t even know many people with higher wages that do this) to fresh produce from the farmer’s market. I even subscribe to newsletters from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, because you know, reading about mobile abattoirs and vegetable marketing workshops is totally relevant to a city girl like me.

The point is, I’m really passionate about farming. I want it to thrive in B.C. I care about the issues.

So when the Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) organized a panel discussion called “A Citizen’s Guide to the Agricultural Land Reserve,” I had to be there. It’s a critical point for farming right now in our province, and it all hinges on protecting farmland for future generations. It’s my job as a citizen to be informed.

So I was really excited about learning more at the panel discussion until, not even 20 minutes into the meeting, Bill Zylmans, B.C. farming bigshot, finishes his presentation to the audience with this dramatic flourish: “There’s not that many [of us] Caucasian [farmers] left.”

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The room got awkward, the applause was dry, but nobody said a word. Zylmans didn’t even notice.

He later added another gem; of the 500 acres that Zylmans farms in Richmond, only 120 acres belongs to his family. “The rest,” he said, “is owned by offshore investors. Figure out what that means. [The panelist from the Ministry] can’t say that, but I can.”

So … if it’s not already obvious why these comments are problematic: how many Caucasian farmers should Bill and other white men like him need to feel comfortable? What’s wrong with having farmers reflect the ethnic diversity of the region that they live in? Are there too many coloured people? Should that make us uncomfortable?

Zylman’s offshore comment is also a little misplaced. Yes, it’s difficult for farmers to make a living if they cannot afford to have their own land, and that’s a problem. But Zylman’s comment hinted, again, at the fear of too much involvement from Foreign Coloured People.

One of the reasons why I didn’t speak up at the meeting was because I really don’t care whether or not people like Zylmans ever learn not to embarrass themselves in public with racist comments. And it’s clear from Zylmans’s attitude that he doesn’t care either. Old white guys are gonna be old white guys. There’s not much you can do for a determined racist.

It doesn’t matter how racist Bill is because what matters is how the VFPC, an established and respected leader for the farming movement in Vancouver, reacts when a speaker they invited outs himself as a bigot. It’s true that Zylmans is an important and knowledgable figure when it comes to farming. He likely has a lot of valuable insight when it comes to B.C. agriculture. But this knowledge will not help the cause when it comes with so much racist baggage.

Here I was, so excited to learn about farming, but because of the colour of my skin I suddenly didn’t feel welcome there anymore. Isn’t my support for the cause just as valuable? What if I fulfilled my dream of becoming a farmer one day, would I be Too Asian to farm in B.C.? Does Zylmans have any idea how much I’ve been advocating for local farm produce amongst my family and friends? What about celebrated food hero Arzeena Hamir, who has done so much to speak up for saving farmland in B.C.? Shouldn’t the success of her new farm in the Comox Valley be celebrated by farmers all over our province? Or is Hamir’s farm a threat to Caucasian B.C. farmers?

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You know white farmers have good reason to be afraid when the overwhelming majority of people that show up to a public farm policy meeting are white

Your movement cannot win if it fails to be inclusive. Here Zylmans was, saying the government needs to do this and the government needs to do that, and yet he didn’t consider the political support that ethnic minorities could lend to the cause!

But again, it’s okay for Zylmans to be racist. We don’t have to take him seriously. What’s not okay is if the Vancouver Food Policy Council continued to give a platform to racist speakers and to ask racist speakers to represent the cause. For the sake of the movement, the VFPC should distance themselves from Zylmans and not invite him to speak at future events.

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The Vancouver Food Policy Council response

We’ve been having email based conversation with the council over that last few days about this same issue, mainly Bill’s comments and how we can address such a situation in the future, if it arises. We’re also talking about how we can better ensure the VFPC meetings are a safe space for everyone. And we’re talking about how to incorporate anti-oppression training into our council work.

At the February meeting, we’ll make sure to include an update on our progress, and will start off the meeting by reminding all attendees and panelists that we expect them to be respectful in their comments.

The VFPC is working to plan a meeting in the upcoming months specifically discussing discrimination/oppression in the food system – perhaps highlighting some of the work being done locally.  This was our intention previous to the meeting last Wednesday and it seems even more important now that we are having this discussion within the community. Its very complicated and emotional territory to tackle and as volunteers the VFPC has its limitations as a forum to do so. However, we want and need to communicate around this issue in order to understand how to bring a just and sustainable food system forward. And so, I put the invitation to you and your readers that if there are any ideas or energy we would gladly like to hear them (http://www.vancouverfoodpolicycouncil.ca/contact-us/).

 

Rachel Parent and other lame anti-GMO arguments

Photo from CBC
Photo from CBC

Last year, 14 year old Rachel Parent was in the unenviable situation of being in the same room as Kevin O’Leary (click here for video). Parent did a commendable job speaking on national TV. I cannot pretend that I would have had half her poise and composure in the same situation.

However, I take issue with her anti-GMO arguments. To be fair, I don’t think that these arguments are unique to Parent alone – they are arguments common to the anti-GMO movement in general. But I am picking on Parent because she was going head-to-head with O’Leary. You really have to bring the big guns when debating the right-wing nutbars, and I don’t think that the arguments currently in vogue with the anti-GMO movement are doing that at all.

As O’Leary said in the video, if you want GMO labelling so bad then fine, have it – but you won’t have convinced anybody that GMOs are bad. And even if Golden Rice had to be consumed in massive amounts in order to get adequate amounts of vitamin A, that’s still better than having no vitamin A at all.

How are anti-GMOers responding to these arguments? Not very effectively. 

“Should we be messing with Mother Nature?”

“What about the potential long-term risks to health?”

Personally, I believe that the above two arguments are really important issues, and either one would dissuade me from supporting GMOs. But these arguments make no sense if you’re not already converted. This is a problem if we hope to attract/convert new allies and grow as a movement. 

A GMOer would hear those arguments and immediately label you as as an unscientific technophobe hippie. We are not any of those things (although maybe just the hippie part), so why are we eagerly reinforcing these labels? The refrains of “Health! Health! Mother Nature!” clearly do not work with people who do not already agree with you.

Of course, GMOs are bad for your health because many of them are engineered specifically to be pesticide dependent, and pesticides are bad for your health and the general environment. And just to stretch it a bit further, GMOs also poses a risk to biodiversity, which is harmful to the environment, and environmental degradation is bad for human health.

But aside from pesticides and the loss of biodiversity, anti-GMO activists have to be honest with themselves – GMOs have been consumed for decades with no solid evidence that they cause harm once consumed. I’ve probably consumed tons of GMOs by now and I can’t prove that my health has suffered as a result. Aside from a few studies, the scientific community is far from reaching even partial consensus on the harms of GMOs to human health. And when it comes to science, it’s the wider consensus that counts – not a couple of studies here and there. Activists need to understand this. Activists are not the authority on health issues – scientists are. If you want to argue using science, you gotta make sure the science is behind you. In this case it’s not, so you shouldn’t try to convince someone like O’Leary by telling him GMOs are bad for human health. 

Same goes for the Mother Nature argument. Some people are fully on board with messing with Mother Nature. Gasping in shock and clasping your hands to your heart is not going to be a convincing response.

The real reason why Golden Rice should be rejected is not because they have minuscule amounts of Vitamin A — an argument like that is just asking Syngenta (the developer of Golden Rice) to keep tinkering until they have rice with higher vitamin A content. An argument like that doesn’t get to the core of the issue. 

Even if Golden Rice did have adequate amounts of vitamin A, it still wouldn’t be a solution for the world’s poor. According to The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, Golden Rice is targeted at “the poor whose diets are based mainly on rice or other carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor calorie sources“. As the Board itself implies, these people are deficient in a wide variety of essential nutrients because they mostly eat only rice. Who in their right minds looks at someone who is lacking in many different nutrients and then says they will solve the problem by only supplying vitamin A? People consuming such a diet could still suffer or die from a host of other vitamin and mineral deficiencies (but hey – at least they won’t go blind!). Even O’Leary should’ve seen the flaw in this logic.

The only reason why impoverished populations would only eat rice and little else is because they lack access to a variety of healthy foods. Convincing the poor that they need to rely on GM technology is clearly just self-promotion from the GM industry . In fact, Golden Rice was not designed to help the poor at all. It was first developed to be marketed in developed countries. When the market for that died, Golden Rice was then foisted off onto developing countries so that it could be spun into the poster child for GMOs Save Poor People.

If Syngenta cared so much about vitamin A deficiency in children, why aren’t they advocating for impoverished children to have access to a variety of fruits and vegetables? Wouldn’t that be an entirely obvious and WAY less costly solution – and one that is an actual solution to malnutrition? No respectable nutritionist would make supplements (which Golden Rice effectively is) their first choice in rectifying nutrient deficiencies – it is always optimal to get what your body needs from a diet containing a variety of healthy foods. A single medium carrot provides over 200% of the daily value of Vitamin A – along with a whole host of other nutrients. I didn’t need to spend millions of dollars on genetic engineers to figure that out.

Here’s where the money used to invent Golden Rice could’ve been better spent:

  1. Vitamin A capsules (again, not a nutritionist’s first choice), which are cheaper to produce than GMOs and which, unlike GMOs, don’t require inventing
  2. Purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables for the poor. This is way cheaper than engineering Golden Rice. If bought locally, it would have the additional benefit of stimulating the local economy.
  3. Giving fruits and vegetable seeds to the poor. Non-GMO seeds are ridiculously cheap, can be reused year after year after year, and again, don’t require inventing.

All of these solutions are drastically cheaper and more effective in curing malnutrition than Golden Rice. The only reason why Golden Rice would be posited as a solution is because of 1) a self-promoting GMO industry and 2) a baseless insistence on using high-tech solutions because technology is shiny.

It makes no sense to pilot Golden Rice in places like the Philippines for example, when the Philippines is a major world producer of mangoes, which are extremely high in Vitamin A. There is already plenty of vitamin A in the Philippines – it’s just that the poor probably don’t have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables that contain it. Without addressing this socioeconomic aspect of the problem, Golden Rice proponents cannot pretend to offer a solution.

Saying that we need Golden Rice in order to save vitamin A-deficient children is thus a gross misunderstanding of the underlying problems. It reveals a pitiably simplistic thinking process that assumes technology can solve all our problems, regardless of what the problem actually is. This isn’t about nitpicking a brave young activist’s arguments. It’s about what we as movement need to do to eliminate GMOs forever. Let’s start by not preaching to the choir.