Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tank Riot Letter Revisited

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.

See also:

The four laws of ecology and the four anti-ecological laws of capitalism (Climate&Capitalism) Also linked above. Outstanding article and a must-read:
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.


  1. So basically was the Unabomber correct?

    Also how come we cannot contact the site's owners directly. Its such a one sided discussion.

    1. A lot of other people besides the Unabomber have been making these same points for years – you might want to check them out. It’s unfortunate that he turned to crime and murder, which accomplished absolutely nothing but ruin his life (which was probably already ruined anyway), and cause people to dismiss all the points he raised about our relationship to complex high technology outright.

      Given that the overwhelming majority of all media, and most of the money is dedicated to promulgating the high-tech solution agenda, I doubt it is much of fair fight. People like me are lonely voices, and I have not earned a penny off of writing here for years (causing me to seriously wonder what I’m doing).

      You can contact me via the comments (and did!). Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not much interested in a dialogue. Any blog is kind of a one-way street. It’s not arrogance- I barely have enough time to write, have a full-time job, work on other projects, and have some leisure time as it is. If I could do this professionally, it would be a different story. So don’t be offended if I don’t engage as much as you’d like, and this goes for all readers. I understand there is a discussion forum on Reddit (or I could be wrong, I don’t know).

    2. I humbly disagree.

      A lot of other writers and academics have been saying the same things, but are to a certain extent hypocrites; they want to enjoy all the fruits of an industrial society, they just understand that it unsustainable in the long run. If he did not use violence he would end up like one of the numerous writers that "challenged" high technology, but have simply been forgotten. In this regard, he was far more honest, and forthright about his convictions than most anti-technology academics. When compared with most revolutionaries (Mao, Hong Xiuquan, Lenin, etc), his actions are consistent with his philosophy. And, in all frankness, a peaceable solution to the problems of complex technology ala Gandhi, are naive at best.

      Well I stumbled across your blog, because it was a refreshing change to the high technology religion touted in the media.

  2. I'm not familiar with Tank Riot or their whole position on this, but from your presentation of discussion to date, I doubt I'd agree with them on GMO opposition.

    I am strongly opposed to GMOs, but that stems more from the attempted corporate takeover of the entire food chain and the way they systematically undermine existing agricultural traditions around the world. GM food may or may not have health impacts, that is bit of a red herring for me. The imposing market power and lobbying power of the likes of Monsanto is far more of a threat than anything to do with the nature of GMOs per se.

    Also, given the likely energy-constrained future we face, the intensification of industrialised agriculture is a dead-end in the long run. I just fear the run may be long enough to drive most of the small, traditional farmers off the land before their skills, knowledge and heirloom seed varieties are needed to pick up the pieces. I'm sure the pro-GMO majors are behind much of the push to outlaw heirloom and open-pollinated crops. For this alone they need to be opposed, let alone the ecological consequences of ever-increasing pesticide and herbicide load, large-scale monocultures and all the rest.

    Once again, the core story is one of the oligarchs vs the 'little people' like us, who are only to be allowed to be their customers. To portray GMO opponents as a conspiracy is to do the oligarch's bidding. For all their rhetoric about 'only GMO can feed the world', the ag majors are purely driven by total market domination.

    'Planting a garden is a revolutionary act' - I'd encourage anyone who can to join that revolution, and use heirloom/heritage/open-pollinated varieties. All you'll ever get from GMOs is more industrialised pap and corn syrup goo.

    All that said, there are some within the anti-GMO cause who do us more harm than good. They are as scientifically-illiterate as the typical climate-denier, and, being so easily refuted on the science, undermine the wider argument against corporate domination of food and nature. It may have been that fringe who Tank Riot focused upon.

    Like Kunstler, I'm a bit allergic to conspiracy theories - often as not, I think, the theories are promulgated by the very people who have something to hide and seek to deflect attention through a reductio ad absurdum. It's disappointing to see so many people tied up in them to the exclusion of doing anything practical about other issues which do need to be addressed. There are other uses for tinfoil than making hats - radar chaff springs to mind, designed to prevent the successful detection of offensive facts.

    1. Well said. The destruction of traditional forms of agriculture, corporate control over the food supply, and the spread of a few industrial monocrops that can be recombined into processed food is a another issue that I didn’t raise for the sake of brevity, but it’s every bit as valid. I believe Ran Prieur pointed out that a problem with GMO crops is not so much that that they are unsafe or unsound, but that they are being used to reinforce the existing high-input, low labor, technologically sophisticated fossil fuel powered industrial monocrop/pesticide food system:

      “Our agriculture is based on genetically-modified monocultures, which are not really more productive, only better adapted to a stable climate and massive industrial inputs. As these conditions change, there will be food shortages and all the bad things that follow them. There will be deep shocks and partial recoveries, life will get rougher and more chaotic, and yet many of the existing domination systems will survive and become more brutal. At the same time, there will be more cracks, more room to try different things, and many innovations. Over hundreds of years, these will lead to a new civilization that we can't imagine.” Also see this:

      The problem is, if you just look at GMO crops in isolation, you miss the big picture about our food system, and I believe TR made this error. They simply dwelled on the safety of the crops for end-user consumption and the bought the industry claims that these crops are necessary to “feed the world” or avoid starvation or whatnot. Of course, they are not agronomy experts, and no one expects them to be, but then if you don’t have that kind of knowledge then you shouldn’t simply dismiss any and all concerns about these out of hand as conspiracies with no rational basis, which is pretty much what they did.

    "GM foods safe to eat" says Chinese agriculture minister. I feel so reassured.

    1. Of course you can trust the Chinese government. Isn't China where they had the exploding watermelons?

      That last paragraph was truly scary.

  4. Quoting from the above post "...and less likely to lead to dependency or unintended consequences..." This could have been worded "dependency or other unintended consequences," but of course dependency is an intended consequence. No conspiracy theory there. Vendor lock-in is certainly one of the more studied business models. It's not a mystery, or even a black box. Dependency as an unintended consequence requires a colossal amount of suspension of disbelief...


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