Last year I wrote an open letter to Tank Riot, a favorite podcast of mine, who included opposition to GMO crops as part of their ongoing series of conspiracy episodes.
Mind you, I didn’t think they would actually read it! But they did mention it briefly in their latest podcast (on Jane Goodall), so I thought I would revisit it. I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat argument, but actually I really don’t think we’re very far apart on the subject.
One of the hosts (Viktor, I believe) said that he almost responded. I sort of wish he had, because I don’t know which points he objected to. So I will briefly reiterate my arguments here for clarity.
I agreed that there is no conclusive scientific evidence of adverse health effects by eating GMOs. I have heard arguments that GMO wheat is behind the increased incidents of celiac disease (most notably in WheatBelly), but I do not have the expertise to evaluate such claims. That seemed to be the main thrust of their arguments for GMOs and their criticism of those opposed.
My arguments were as follows:
I objected to categorizing concerns over GMOs as a “conspiracy.” I pointed out that the regulatory agencies of large governments such as the European Union and Mexico have raised concerns over these crops. This has less to do with whether the foods are unsafe for consumers but rather their effects on the environment and agricultural practices. These concerns include cross-contamination, food security (i.e. dependence upon large corporations for seeds) and the potential to develop “superweeds” which are resistant to pesticides. Now, these concerns may be overblown, and the regulatory agencies may eventually determine that these concerns are not valid given the weight of scientific evidence, but they are not a conspiracy in any sense. Here is the Union of Concerned Scientists making much the same point:
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.
I also believed that “safe” might be an overstatement. I pointed out numerous products which were widely disseminated into the environment that were considered “safe” – cigarettes, thalidomide for morning sickness, lead in gasoline and paint, and DDT. Increasing evidence is coming to bear on BPA, endocrine disruptors, flame retardants and Glyphosate (Roundup) which has been linked to increased incidence of Parkinson’s disease among farmers. Science cannot come to absolute conclusions because 1.) Scientific knowledge is inherently limited. 2.) Much science relies on funding, and much of that funding comes from corporations themselves, or governments which have an incentive to find such products safe. This may sound conspiratorial, but it has been found to be true again and again. Of course, you could counter by saying that this standard may preclude the approval of anything. However, one of Barry Commoners’ laws of ecology is that “Nature Knows Best,” meaning that artificial solutions should only be used if there are no other options. We do not follow this in practice (because artificial solutions are more profitable for corporations and the wealthy).
My other main point was that GMO crops are a “technofix” that is being pushed instead of alternative solutions which deal more directly with the problem. No increase in crop yields has fixed the problems of hunger and overpopulation. Every food increase has come with an increase in population to the limits of the food supply. I wondered why, in the case of golden rice, there are such a large number of people suffering from vitamin A deficiency in a lush tropical environment like the Philippines. What’s going on here? I felt that things like GMO crops were just a way to use technology to solve a problem so that we don’t ask questions about the deeper issues raised by this.
More broadly, I made a larger philosophical point unrelated directly to GMOs (which was the main thrust of my article). I pointed out that using expensive and complicated technological fixes, which has happened over and over again, has led to unintended consequences. These consequences usually lead to even bigger problems. These are proposed primarily to keep the "growth" economy going at all costs, rather than to provide solutions that would further human betterment. But isn't human betterment, not "growth" the point of an economy? It should be, but in practice it's increased profits for the few and decreased well-being for the majority.
Moreover, such solutions are being proposed more and more – vertical farms, lab-grown meat, insect ranching, aquaponics, algal fuels, biofuels in marginal lands, industrial monoculture, electric cars, embedded computer chips, nuclear power, large-scale desalinization, geoengineering schemes, and so forth. I argued that high-tech means of intensification 1.) will not solve problems and only lead to worse living standards for the majority 2.) are pushed by wealthy and powerful interests for their own benefit, and 3.) more effective and simpler solutions are not considered which actually would be more beneficial for the average person and the environment, and less likely to lead to dependency or unintended consequences (e.g diversified small, local farms; habitat restoration; agroecology; walkable cities; public transportation; bicycle paths; urban gardening; local foodsheds; restrictions on carbon; solar/wind power; water and energy conservation measures, working less, etc.). This has been a major editorial theme of this blog over the years, and, as I pointed out, a major change in my thinking. I naively hoped that I might cause them to at least look at technological solutions with a little more of a skeptical eye.
I hope, if I have not convinced Tank Riot or anyone else of my arguments, that I have at least given them food for thought.
I'll extend the offer to be interviewed in person if they would like, since I've managed to get Skype working well enough to do a podcast. Heck, I’ll even drive out to Madison with some Lakefront or Milwaukee Brewing Company’s finest (if it's a weekend - especially Saturday if the farmers market is going on). Much like the ancient Persians used to do, we Wisconsin folks like to debate issues both drunk and sober to get to the heart of the matter.
Roundup, An Herbicide, Could Be Linked To Parkinson's,Cancer And Other Health Issues, Study Shows (Huffington Post)
The foregoing contradictions between ecology and the economy can all be reduced to the fact that the profit-making relation has become to a startling degree the sole connection between human beings and between human beings and nature.
This means that while we can envision more sustainable forms of technology that would solve much of the environmental problem, the development and implementation of these technologies is blocked by the mode of production-by capitalism and capitalists. Large corporations make the major decisions about the technology we use, and the sole lens that they consider in arriving at their decisions is profitability.