Saturday, November 23, 2013

An open letter to Tank Riot

Note: One of my favorite podcasts, Tank Riot, did an episode a while back, one of their regular episodes on conspiracy theories. One of their conspiracy theories was opposition to genetically modified crops. As someone who is skeptical of GMO crops and their long-term benefits, I felt a bit hurt, and I felt labeling these concerns as a "conspiracy" was very dismissive. I get the feeling that Tank Riot collectively are techno-optimists and believers in "progress," and I felt I needed to express an alternative opinion, so I include the letter here.

Well, I doubt they care what I think, and they've done a couple of episodes since then (on the NSA and Lou Reed - they're nothing if not diverse). I don't know if I'm happy with it, or that it quite said what I wanted it to say, but here it is anyway.

Hello Tank Riot. I'm a long-time fan and enjoyed your recent episode on conspiracy theories, but allow me to sound a discordant note. I think your inclusion of concerns about GMO food as a "conspiracy" are a bit disingenuous. While you may have strong opinions on the topic, I think you're creating a straw-man argument, and are dismissing a lot of very legitimate concerns.

I will concede upfront that there is a lot of misinformation, pseudoscience, quackery, demagoguery, scare-mongering and alarmism on the topic, and you rightly pointed out.  I will concede that many of the claims made by the anti-GMO crowd do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

But I wonder, if all of the concerns over GMO foods are unfounded, then why have most of the countries in the European Union banned or restricted their use? Are we to assume that all of the citizens of Western Europe, collectively the world's largest economy, are all conspiracy theorists, as are their regulatory and legislative bodies? This would easily constitute the largest conspiracy in the history of the world (narrowly edging out the New World Order). Why has Mexico recently blocked the planting of GM corn in the country? Is the judge who issued the order a conspiracy theorist? Or perhaps he is in on the conspiracy? Surely, these enormous entities cannot be written off as irrational chicken littles. While certain individuals can exhibit irrationality on the topic, are we to believe that all of these countries are behaving irrationally? I find this difficult to swallow.

You may dismiss some of the more irrational and nonfactual claims made by opponents of GMO's, some of whom view anything man-made as unnatural (which would include, as you pointed out, all domesticated crops and animals - although I would argue that selective breeding is wholly different than intentionally manipulating an organism's genome). But for the reasons cited above, I think it's disingenuous to label opposition to GMO foods as merely a "conspiracy theory." And I think it's dismissive of a host of very legitimate issues that got no mention in your podcast and were summarily dismissed as somehow irrational. There are a lot of legitimate concerns that were glossed over or simply not mentioned. There are a lot of concerns beyond people eating glowing corn laced with jellyfish DNA. the Union of Concerned Scientists says the following:
While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.
At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.

In short, there is a lot we don't know about the risks of GE—which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.
And even though Monsanto may not be sacrificing babies to Cthulhu, I think it's understandable that there are concerns over putting the world's food security in the hands of multinational corporations.

I suspect that, like me and a lot of others, the gee-whiz factor of human cleverness and invention is something that is inherently appealing to people who are scientifically literate, technically sophisticated, care about big issues, and like to solve problems. Believe me, I totally get this. Like you guys, I used to be an unabashed believer in "progress." I would see things like GMO crops, insect farming, lab-grown meat, vertical farms, aquaponics, Thorium reactors, electric cars, desalinization of water, geoengineering, robots, shirts that never need ironing, and other high-tech solutions and be convinced that there were going to "save the world." I would spread these ideas, tout them, and like most people, encourage their adaptation as part of the solution.

But the more I learned about and studied these issues, a deeper picture emerged. What that picture told me was this: That these solutions almost always benefit those at the top strata of the income/power hierarchy, that often times those lower down are left worse off in the long-run; that these solutions are specifically designed to prevent us from asking deeper questions about the root cause of these problems, and that such solutions invariably led to more and even worse problems down the road. The more I learned and studied, the more I realized how true Sevareid's law is: the  major cause of problems is solutions, and my views completely changed. These high-tech solutions never really solved anything, and in many cases created problems that were even worse than the original.

It was also apparent that certain solutions were heavily pushed by the powers-that-be in government, corporations and the media while others were off the table. The difference seemed to be that solutions that left the existing power structures in place were deemed to be acceptable, while those that upset this order in some way were not, despite being easier to implement, more long lasting, and less likely to produce unintended consequences.

 My views did a 180-degree turn. Now I look upon such things with a critical eye. I ask myself, cui bono, who benefits from this invention, and what are the likely consequences of its implementation? And the answer more often than not is not positive.

To illuminate this, I need to give a brief laundry-list. Increased food production has led to a population explosion such that we now need to desperately innovate just to feed seven billion people, heading to over ten billion by 2050. The fundamental problem has always been that as the food supply increases, so too does the number of hungry mouths to feed, such that you are no better off in real terms than you were before. What has increasing crop yields really solved? Even the founder of the green revolution, Normal Borlaug, stated that we have not solved the food crisis, only "bought time." But eventually time runs out. Kicking the can is not a solution.

We have run ahead of the dire predictions of Malthus and others by an even greater folly: the construction of an entire society, including food production, around the use of staggering amount of fossil fuels. This has allowed us to construct a society capable of supporting seven billion persons (although a significant percentage still live on the edge of subsistence, probably more than half). It's been estimated that each calorie of food on our plates in the United States today requires ten calories of fossil fuel energy to get there.

And, of course, those fossil fuels are a finite and limited resource, destined to go into eventual decline in production. We are already relying upon lower-grade sources of fuel such as tar sands and shale oil, as well as radical, expensive procedures like hydraulic fracturing and sideways drilling to keep the gas flowing, procedures that have significant environmental consequences like groundwater pollution and earthquakes. Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima Daiichi are reminders of the consequences of our insatiable appetite for energy, and also showed that we are quite capable of instigating problems that we don't quite know how to solve. An apt and often-used metaphor is of someone climbing a ladder and kicking out the rungs underneath them as they ascend.

But the consequences of our previous use of fossil fuels are well evident. The pollution of our world has made even the air we breathe and the water we drink toxic to us. A recent article began with the following sentence: "The air we breathe is laced with cancer-causing substances and is being officially classified as carcinogenic to humans, the World Health Organization's cancer agency said on Thursday." Recently in the city of Harbin in China, the smog was so intense that the city shut down, and visibility was limited to twenty feet. Mercury from smoke stacks ends up in the bodies of fish, meaning that we can not eat too much or we will suffer from poisoning from heavy metals (just ask Jeremy Piven). And, of course, we are altering the earth's climate, a fact now all but agreed upon by climate scientists, with unforeseen consequences. A recent story in The New York Times began with the following line: "Climate change will pose sharp risks to the world’s food supply in coming decades, potentially undermining crop production and driving up prices at a time when the demand for food is expected to soar, scientists have found."

It's now been found that pesticides and fungicides combine to create colony collapse disorder. Plastics find their way to the oceans where the break down into their constituent chemicals. The widespread abuse of antibiotics, an invention so miraculous and powerful that most of us are probably alive today because of it, has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria so dangerous and powerful that the UK's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies,  has called antibiotic resistance a "potential apocalypse," and an associate director at Centers for Disease Control has recently declared that, "we’ve reached the end of antibiotics, period." An Australian sailor who recently traveled across the Pacific declared flatly that "the ocean is broken." These are just a few of the consequences of our "progress" to date.

Thalidomide was once given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. DDT was once widely sprayed on crops (as you pointed out in your podcast on Rachel Carson). Lead was once commonly added to gasoline and paint. Asbestos was once widely used (and may have killed Steve McQueen). I could cite other examples. All of these substances were deemed "safe" and in widespread use at the time of these discoveries (whose conclusions were resisted by industries profiting from their use). The fact is, we humans are often ignorant. We know a lot, but we also don't know what we don't know, as indicated above.  And now you're expecting us to trust these guys? The same guys who fought for years against the idea that tobacco caused cancer? I feel a facepalm coming on. It should be noted that the GMO industry is fighting  tooth-and-nail against the labeling of GMO foods. Why?

The precautionary principle applies here. I repeat: we don't know what we don't know. The long-term consequences of GMO foods are simply not known, and people who say that they are are lying. And the issue goes far beyond whether such foods are "safe" to eat. Screwing with nature does not typically lead to beneficial outcomes in the long run. The key phrase is, in the long run.

I would simply ask that you think about the deeper issues involved here, rather than seeing GMO crops as a solution. How have we gotten to this point? And what happens when GMO crops are no longer enough?

I wish a fraction of the time you spent looking into the research on GM rice was spent looking into the reasons why 1.7 million Filipino children cannot afford a common nutrient like vitamin A, found in orange foods like carrots and yams (and making 'golden' rice golden), and one which few American children have to be worried about getting enough of. I wish you had asked why in a lush tropical climate, farmers cannot grow these foods. But you didn't ask those questions did you? Yet somehow, those of us who do ask these questions are standing in the way of "progress" and have even been labelled as "wicked."

I will acknowledge that the situation is dire, and that golden rice, if it can alleviate suffering right now, is acceptable. But I don't see it as a long-term solution. I see it as a kludge, and one that doesn't really solve the problem of poverty or malnutrition. And as for those alternative solutions that are off the table, according to the BBC:
Anti-GM campaigners fear Golden Rice threatens the nation's food security, through as-yet unknown long-term effects on natural varieties resulting from cross-pollination. Daniel Okompo, sustainable agriculture campaigner for South East Asia at Greenpeace says rice is too precious to tinker with: "Golden Rice is one of our biggest battles to date mainly because it's our staple. Rice is eaten by more than half of the world's population every day."And if you have Golden Rice out there or any genetically modified rice that will eventually contaminate our rice varieties, this is a very big problem, especially for the farmers who don't want to plant [GM] rice," he said. "We don't know how this variety will evolve and that's why we think it should be contained in laboratories."
Mr Okompo advocates more government spending on their Organic Agriculture Programme. In fields outside the town of Tayabas in south Luzon, Dr Chito Medina, national coordinator of charity MASIPAG, is working with farmers to improve the diversity of their crops using organic growing techniques. He argues that a more diverse harvest contains naturally high levels of Vitamin A and other nutrients, making Golden Rice redundant."Malnutrition is a broader issue, therefore the solution needs to be broader also," he explained.

"The more important thing is alleviating poverty, providing more diverse seeds to farmers so they can grow more diverse crops and having more diverse food and a more balanced diet. Then there would be no vitamin deficiencies at all. There are so many natural sources of Vitamin A, especially in tropical countries: almost all green and leafy vegetables, yellow vegetables and fruits like mangos and cantaloupes."

Dr Medina added: "We have a variety of sweet potato which has five times the level of Vitamin A than there is in Golden Rice. Ecologically, this is more sustainable and it's the way agriculture should be in the future.Economically, it generates more income for farmers because there are fewer expenditures: they don't have to buy chemical pesticides, fertilisers or seeds."

So, in conclusion, assuming anyone's still reading at this point, I think dismissing anyone who has concerns about GM rice, GMO foods, or whatever new techno-fix is being dreamed up by corporate America and the plutocracy to solve the problems of a society that has made them very, very rich, should not be dismissed as a "conspiracy theorist." Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not really out to get you.

BONUS: A similar concept is well articulated in this article:
So here, finally, is the principle: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural."

I take this principle directly from a book I've mentioned previously, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And, my discussion of it is largely based on his observations. This principle is the clearest expression of the precautionary principle I've ever seen, and it is even more stringent.

Now, those who shower our air, water, soil and bodies with newfangled chemicals (some of them called pharmaceuticals), tell us that it is our responsibility to provide evidence that these novel chemicals are harmful. In fact, logic dictates that those who introduce non-natural substances into the environment should be obliged to prove that those substances are safe. Nature's record is long, unassailable and open to inspection. The chemical industry has been with us for less than 200 years, and the modern chemical industry as we know it is a post-World War II phenomenon, an industry not exactly celebrated for its openness to public scrutiny.

So, here's a corollary to the principle above. A novel substance or action used to address a perceived problem for individuals or society should have far greater benefits than natural substances or than just doing nothing. Taleb suggests absolutely NO medical treatment for minor ailments such as headaches (the temporary kind), muscle spasms, and indigestion, for example. Nature suggests a change of diet, a change of routine, or even a change of jobs, strategies which have little risk associated with them compared to novel treatments.

3 comments:

  1. It might have been a stronger letter without the journey of self-discovery in the middle. Something like "Dudes, golden rice is a hack solution to a deep problem, poverty. It may not be harmful but it is also not the solution. And besides, like, really smart ppl are concerned about possible long term consequences so shouldn't we be more cautious?"

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  2. That's certainly the tl;dr version, lol. I think the middle part was more writing for myself. Sometimes people ask me if blogging has actually changed my opinions on things. I think that's one instance of where it has, along with my views on money and debt (and there are probably others too).

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  3. Right on. GMOs are bad news. I studied genetics. My professor was very pro-GMO.
    You hit on a number of good points. Over-population is going to lead to die-off anyway.

    More importantly, and you touch on it, is that dependence on high-tech ALWAYS leads to dependence by the "poor" (and ex-independent) peasants on the "advanced" nations. And dependence leads to a baby-boom, apathy, starvation, and malnutrition. It's game over, anyway, despite the temporary respite that was never even a respite. Mass starvation episodes have only become more frequent since the green revolution led to a temporary increase in the carrying capacity via food of lesser quality and nutrition. At the same time, the green revolution led to a terrible loss of genetic diversity in food crops.

    I am not spending much energy on these issues, and I'm glad I don't read the blog you critique - there's no time for such waste, when one must be learning how to relocalize and re-skill.

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