After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.
Mark Lynas writes How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food, particularly how GMOs impact the places where crops are needed the most. If you’re looking for a catch-up check out this link collection on ma.tt last year.
24 thoughts on “More on GMOs”
Oh Matt, so disappointed.
That is the only thing a rational person can do.
GMO is the way to go for sustainable agriculture in future.
Does Monsanto serve GMO in the executive cafeteria? It would be interesting to see if they choose to serve non-gmo or if they also eat “food-like” products shown to cause tumors in mice.
Eating GMOs doesn’t bother me… It’s growing them that worries me. Great take on climate change and GMOs thougj, thanks for sharing.
Science is agnostic, neither good or bad. GMOs are also agnostic; but while science is a process GMOs are a product. It is bad science that will create bad GMOs.
The Irish potato famine killed millions of Irish during its run, it was lack of genetic diversity in the Irish potato stock that produced the famine in large part; and I would argue that today’s GMO approach, to plant monocrops “fencepost to fencepost” discourages the diversity that nature has spent millions of years creating, and that we have benefited from.
I will bet that my naturally produced super bug, blight or rust will eat your GMO product every time; given enough time. And if nothing comes along that won’t eat it, why should you?
A better solution for world hunger is in respecting and optimizing the gifts that nature has given us.
For more on this natural approach study the work of the fathers of the “Green Revolution” Borlaug and Vogel.
You say “The Irish potato famine killed millions of Irish during its run, it was lack of genetic diversity in the Irish potato stock that produced the famine in large part;”
While many Irish and non-Irish historians report:
“Was the Potato Famine an ecological accident, as historians usually say? Like most famines, it had little to do with declines in food production as such. Adam Smith was right that “bad seasons” cause “dearth,” but “the violence of well-intentioned governments” can convert “dearth into famine.”
In fact, the most glaring cause of the famine was not a plant disease, but England’s long-running political hegemony over Ireland. The English conquered Ireland, several times, and took ownership of vast agricultural territory. Large chunks of land were given to Englishmen.
As a British/Irish/American, I would like to see the old and tired presumption that all the Irish ever ate and only had to eat were *potatoes.* That’s silly. The Irish suffered from many famines under English rule. Like a boxer with both arms tied behind his back, the Irish could only stand and absorb blow after blow. It took the “many circumstances” of English policy to create the knockout punch and ultimate answer to the Irish question. It was overt British government actions against the Irish and not lack og genetic diversity that caused the deaths of many Irish. The Irish also had chickens, sheep, and assorted plant crops available to keep them from starving.
To cut to the chase, the British soldiers siezed the available food from the Irish and took it for England. That’s what ultimately starved over a million Irish people.
Fully with winstonford on this one. And my opposition is not even on the “unsafe for consumption” reasoning mainly (though I’m unconvinced of the safety as well and it’d require them being tested at the very least as strictly as new drugs, and for longer time, and by teams without the slightest connection with or interests in those making or supporting them, before I’ll budge from that position there as well), but on corporate control, clash with organic agriculture, harming small farmers and the effects or spreading in and interacting with the environment.
Remove corporations, profits and patents from the equation and we may discuss testing. Put them through rigorous long-term testing on both human volunteers and strictly controlled and properly isolated areas of interaction with other species / the environment and we may discuss widespread use. Until then, no way.
I think both sides are overly zealous. I don’t think we should look at GMO’s as the focal point of agricultural concerns. A lot of the discussion of personal concerns gets mixed into the systemic discussions. This also confuses the issue.
Major issues we have yet to solve are soil degradation, erosion, water pollution and biodiversity loss. This needs a systemic approach and has wider implications than “I’m scared of Franken food”.
Considering GMO’s at a systemic level, See precautionary principal. And remember the potential of benefit is not the same as potential of risk.
I also think it’s wrong to assume this is black and white or that the issue of GMOs is the centre of feeding the world. I know in some other writings of Mark Lynas he mentions concern for biodiversity and how GMOs allow more intensive crops vs clearing new land.
I think we all need to be honest and not conflate the issues that differ around the world with each other. So, looking at America: how much GMO crops are even grown for human consumption?
How many monocultures exist to feed cows? For ethanol? For tobacco? For alchohol?
How are we going to feed the world? Why is 30-40% of all grown food wasted?
How can we control pest issues? How can we have crops adapt with climate change?
My point is, instead of trying to determine if A) GMOs are good, or B) GMOs are bad, we should instead be looking at actual issues of agriculture.
So, take any one of those issues I mentioned above and start looking at the research. What research on our current agricultural practices contribute to those problems (other huge ones being soil degradation and water pollution). Then look at research that tries to address those issues.
GMOs are just a symptom. Converting crops to GMOs does not address all of the issues I mentioned above. And neither does converting all GM crops to non-GM.
This conversation is a waste of time when it comes to actually fixing issues of agriculture.
Specific to GMOs, sure, let’s talk about labeling which is a social/political issue. Or, let’s talk about the precautionary principle.
But there is way too much variability in the usage and implication of GMOs to argue, at a global scale, that GMOs are good or bad. Like, having a GM eggplant benefit a farmer in Bangladesh does not give a pass to GM rapeseed in Europe. Those are two separate cases with their own implications.
“Oilseed rape can be described as a high-risk crop for crop-to-crop gene flow and from crop
to wild relatives.” (From Genetically modified organisms (GMOs): The significance of gene flow through pollen transfer)
That issue of cross-pollination and biodiversity is specific to GM rapeseed and does not conclude much in terms of eggplants in Bangladesh.
If that is scientific then it would seem that science is broken … and science doesn’t seem to know it.
Science has a clear view on one aspect of climate change: the past. Scientific community is able to study effects of our past actions on the present state of climate and ecosystems. It has much less to say and even less paths-of-action to offer about how to meet and act on the climate change front (and some of what little it has to offer is ecologically even more dangerous).
GMO’s are a relatively new scientific domain. Science and scientists have no way to scientifically say much about the effects of GMO’s because there is little evidence to observe and research. In a generation or two (or ten), assuming of course that GMO’s proliferate, we may have a body of evidence with which scientists can work and draw conclusions about the effects of GMO’s.
Saying that GMO’s are safe / healthy / ecological is speculative and wishful thinking … not scientific. GMO’s are an experiment … and should be treated and presented as such. It is one thing to tell a farmer that we have developed a genetically modified plant that is pest resistant. It is another thing to tell a farmer that we have developed a GM plant that is pest resistant but that we don’t yet know its effects on human health, on soil fertility or on a wider ecosystem.
What about inquiring into why the pests are there in the first place? What if the proliferation of pests is an indication that the ecosystem is out of balance and it needs to be treated. What if that is a signal for us to change our relationship with land and ecology? The GMO intervention, regardless of its biological merit, represents an attitude of manipulating, controlling and overpowering.
That attitude also treats weeds as “pests” … but what makes them weeds is the fact that they are growing where we don’t want them to grow or we want to grow something else. A different view of weeds is that they serve two complementary and valuable functions. First they are indicating that the soil ecology is out of balance… there is too little or too much of something(s) … looking at weeds can tell a knowledgeable about the condition of soil and the life in it. Second they are, by growing in those conditions, working to create a healthier soil ecology by adding missing elements and removing excesses.
It gets even more interesting when you learn that some of those weeds are edible and much more nutritious then cultivated foods. In my climate, at this time of year (early spring) there is still very little cultivated food and what is available comes from greenhouses. However I can go outside and pick a salad from 4 or 5 different “weeds” that are growing abundantly … without me having to plant a single plant.
That shift in attitude toward “weeds” represents a shift away from a deeply rooted underlying mentality of control, manipulation and subversion of nature (and ourselves!) to our will, towards a mentality of co-creation. Working with nature rather then dominating it.
There is scientific evidence that we have been mistreating our soils for a long time. A long time ago someone realized that plowing fields resulted in better yields (the “scientific explanation” was that plants have little mouths and the broken up soil is easier for them to eat). Over the years it became clear that the initial improvement was a short term effect … that the yields did not improve the same way year after year … they actually got worst. So we invented more and more technological interventions to increase yields. Modern agriculture is this stack of interventions … one technological patch on top of another … leading up to petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides … and now that those are failing we are applying more force in the form of genetic modification.
Since then (but fairly recently) microbiology has revealed that plants get their nutrition in chemical exchanges with life in the soil (fungi, bacteria, etc … there is an entire living food chain in soils.). Microbiology also teaches us that every time we plow our soils we injure the life in it. Most agricultural cycles are therefor cycles of soil fertility depletion … and whatever we are giving back (such as cow manure is some of my neighbors do) is not enough … or even causing further destruction of soil life (as is the case with petro-chemical fertilizers).
We are doing something similar to ourselves. I recall that you once posted about research into bacteria. It turns out that our excess technological intervention in our own ecosystem (a living bacterial pool) via antibiotics have left us bacteriologically deficient. Your post linked to a long research paper which, if I remember correctly, stated that because of a drastic increase in c-section, births there is a generation of human beings which are bacteriologically deficient because they have been deprived of exposure to bacteria that takes place during vaginal birth. A technological solution was of course promised … someone will develop a magic pill filled with missing bacteria. Another approach would be to inquire why we are drifting away from natural birth, is that a direction we want to go and if not can we change course?
I worry about GMO not so much because of genetic modification (for which we have little evidence either way) but because of the underlying attitude that leads to simplistic manipulation of complex ecosystems which we are just beginning to grasp. If scientific truth is inherently temporary (science is a process of constantly challenging our theories and replacing them with better ones) … why do we like to treat it as permanent with “truths” such as “GMO’s are safe” or “plowing increases yields” or “antibiotics are god”. Doing so is scientifically wrong!
… and there are other expressions to the GMO story that are worth addressing. A social one … for example: thecompanies that are lading the way in GMO’s are also working to lock in their discoveries with patents. They are trying to take over one of the most obvious commons resource we have been gifted with … nature and food. There are places (like here in Romania) where they are also actively working to pass legislation that will outlaw traditional seed saving and trading. They are working to create a world where it would be illegal for me to save seeds from my own tomatoes and grow tomatoes from them next year. They want to force everyone to buy seeds from them … and those seeds cannot be saved because they have been genetically modified not to grow from second generation seeds AND they (the seeds) are patented and “legally” owned by their producers.
There are other solutions to care for the health and livelihood of peasants in poor countries. Solutions that come with long term vision of human, social and ecological well (and inter)being. A mono-culture crop of a genetically modified plant is one of the poorest technological solutions that mankind has to offer.
… for more on the systemic faults in science I recommend Rupert Sheldrake and The Science Delusion:
… for more on the transformation from a story of controlling and manipulating nature (and ourselves) to a story of interbeing I recommend Charles Eisenstein and Sacred Economics:
“In our journey of separation, we have developed amazing creative tools of technology and culture that would never have existed had we not departed from our original wholeness. Now it remains to recover that wholeness and bring it to a new realm, to create with nanotechnology and social media things of the same life, beauty, and soul that the old masters created with adzes and song. Let us insist on nothing less. For what purpose have our forebears sacrificed, if not to create a beautiful world?”
I also believe that there are interesting examples of how these worlds come together in the ecosystem that makes and is WordPress … but I think I’ll stop here.
What Lynas’s motivations really were for making his switch supporting GMOs most likely has little or nothing to do with science. He has become part of the PR machine being run by biotech to brand everyone against GMOs as anti-science Luddites. The campaign, which is huge, wants us to believe that the science of GMOs is settled and that trillions of meals served without negative effect proves it. The fact is that FDA’s own scientists had grave concerns when GMOs were first submitted for approval and wanted testing. They were overruled politically. Other scientists and studies calling GMOs into question have been ruthlessly attacked and ridiculed. Monsanto claims to the FDA that there is no difference in the “foods” made with GMOs than non-GMO. But to the US patent office they make the exact opposite claims. Food Advocate and former food industry financial analyst Robyn O’Brien has excellent, non-hysterical coverage of this subject on her site: http://robynobrien.com (WordPress of course!)
Matt, do you walk the talk? Do you show the example – eat GMO food? Then it is your choice… I will keep supporting local farms that produce nonGMO food.
I hope Monsanto will not contaminate all crops with they GMO insanity…
It’s important to break out Monsanto stuff and GMOs in general — as the article shows the latter can be created and useful without all the bad stuff that Monsanto does.
Personally I’m sure I eat GMO food, as well as a lot of non-modified stuff. It’s not too important to me.
How Matt? When Monsanto and similar companies own the gene patents not only on those genes introduced into the life form, but according to many courts, the life form itself. And they own the damn seed production for all GMO seed. How do you separate the owner from the serfs? And yeah, you eat GMO food. Because once GMO is introduced into a farming staple it can never be removed. And it cannot be contained. And you, nor the science, has a clue what the impacts of GMO will be. But we know what the environmental impact is already. Don’t care? Maybe you should.
From what I’ve read and learned so far, the science says there’s nothing inherent to genetically modifying crops that make them dangerous. (I’m sure you could make a dangerous GMO if you tried.)
The business practice around Monsanto in particular is still a cause for concern, similar to how I worry about how patents are used in software and technology, but that’s orthogonal (interesting but separate) to what the article and I were talking about.
Possible health issues aside, I’ll take issue with your support of GMO’s from the agricultural perspective: its not as rosy as the articles paint for farmers or for production.
The article you mention in your post references eggplant that produces BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) – a biological pesticide discovered in the early 1900s and used by organic farmers to this day. BT is not toxic, and makes a great insecticide when used properly (eg when needed) – the issues here are more complicated.
By inserting the BT gene into the plant, the seed companies take the farmer’s care out of the equation – all plants have the BT, instead of having the farmer decide when to apply the pesticide.
Pesticides in every plant invariably leads to two obvious new problems: insects resistant to the pesticide, and secondary insect pressure – new insect problems when the first class of insects are completely removed from the system. Both of these issues are well documented in the early versions of BT transgenic crops, and will recur with the current versions. So begins the transgenic race, and so ends the usefulness of BT to farmers after a hundred years.
Supportive articles often paint GMO crops in the light of helping or even saving farmers – in fact, these seeds entrap farmers into varietal dependency, and reduce their role in production. No longer can they save their own seeds and apply the inexpensive, non-toxic BT pesticide. Instead they depend on expensive seeds each year from the seed companies. Eventually as the problems outlined above play out, production declines and the expensive bet turns sour. While big ag may love its GMO science, small producers the world over are being sold a broken promise.
I’d like to help you explore this topic a bit more by posing two questions: what problem or set of problems do GMO purport to solve? And who benefits by solving these problems?
why is what you eat and how it is grown less important to you then the open-source values that you stand for via WordPress?
That’s an excellent question! I’ll have to give it some thought. Perhaps I have a finite reserve of “issue passion” and exhaust it on software- and tech-related issues. It’s also possible that I haven’t directly observed or experienced negative effects or externalities from how my food is made (except in obvious cases where you get sick from a meal), where I have experienced and been burned by a lack of software freedom.
Blindly cheering GMO when the introduction and promotion of it is based entirely on profit and the willful destruction of small farmers who had nothing to do with the invasion of GMO patented seeds on their land, but who have been sued out of existence through use of huge amounts of legal resources and pools of cash makes me quite angry. And if crop yields for foodstuffs are the point, then it is a complete loser as overall yields have decreased along that marker. I won’t get into the environmental destruction that has com in the wake of its introduction in land and, even more so, in water resources.
Really, Matt. I have never been more disappointed. And for your cheerleading posse, sure. Let the science decide. But only when the science has been thoroughly vetted and peer reviewed, and in totality. Go learn a little more about the destructive forces at work behind this. They don’t give a damn about some farmer in Ethiopia. They care about corporate revenue and stockholders.
Agreed. GM technology has the potential to improve food production, parasite and virus resistance, as well as nutrition. There are simply too many benefits for a pragmatist to write off.
It isn’t about food. it’s about our ability to have food in the future. Pesticides from gmo farming operations on kauai (so the world can have gmo seeds) are literally killing people on Kauai.
Who cares what anyone eats. I care what’s in the air and water in Hawaii. It’s not okay to eat your gmo food at the expense of lives somewhere else.
Compassion. Listen carefully to your hearts. mahalo
#passthebill #gmofreekauai #ordinance960
GMO means genetically modified foods — which is a spectrum of technology, not a binary organic vs franken crop thing; modifying crops to perform better in dry areas, for example.
Yes, Monsanto’s suicide seeds are deplorable. Yes there are other examples. But it’s not all bad. I am impressed this author decided to take a scientific look at GMOs.
This box was not enough to share my thoughts, so I opened a blog to write a comment in a friendlier reading format. I know you’re a busy man, but I hope you’ll get a chance to glance at my comment http://wp.me/p6ahem-4 regarding your two GMOs posts. I even manage to link this back to Automattic/WordPress. 🙂