Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GMO Deception: the final word

It pains me to write this, because Sheldon Krimsky is a friend and mentor, and someone I really admire. But I have to tell it like it is.

As I said last time, all new technologies are likely to have unintended consequences. Furthermore, corporate patent owners aren't in business to save humanity, they are in business to make profit. It is indubitably wise to approach new technologies, and the promises of their purveyors, with skepticism. I believe that the following are entirely respectable arguments:

1) The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is a bad deal for farmers, for consumers, for the rural economy, and for all of us as inhabitants of the biosphere. It does not increase the food supply, it just substitutes capital for labor in agriculture. And that won't last long, as glyphosate resistant weeds proliferate. By the way, one more thing, glyphosate has been killing the milkweed that normally like to grow on the edges of farm fields, devastating the monarch butterflies that depend on it. Roundup is not harmless to animal life either, as Monsanto claims, especially because of its so-called "inert" ingredients which are actually toxic surfactants. There is a good case to be made for banning this system.

That said, this is not an indictment of GMO technology, but of a single implementation. Glyphosate resistance could have been achieved by conventional breeding, in principle. That wouldn't make any difference.

2) Crops that produce Bt are less problematic because farmers would use insecticides anyway. If anything, Bt crops mean less pesticide exposure for farmers and farmhands, and as insecticides go, Bt is among the least obnoxious. Although it is possible for relatively small scale farmers to use pest control practices that seldom require use of insecticides, it is not practical to feed the world without them as of now. But there's a good chance that your local insects will become resistant to Bt and you'll have to start spraying other stuff again in due course. So it's not a long term solution to anything.

3) It is true that GMO crops with useful properties other than chemical pest control have not been taken up on a large scale. They don't seem to work very well and aren't particularly appealing to farmers. Conventional breeding can apparently do about as good a job of improving drought resistance and salt tolerance, and achieving reduced nutrient requirements, and so far there haven't been any major breakthroughs in these areas from GM.

4) You can certainly argue that new technologies could have unpredictable effects and that we need to do more research to establish safety than we have been doing. Probably the regulatory regime is inadequate and we're certainly nuts to trust the manufacturers to do the research, decide what gets published, and assure us that it's all safe. I'm not as alarmed about the safety and nutritional properties of GMO crops as the editors and contributors to The GMO Deception seem to be, but it's not crazy to take precautions.

So yes, we ought to be having more of a public discussion about not only GMO, but agricultural practices, pesticide regulation, and the farm economy in general. There are extremely important issues, including fossil fuel inputs, nutrient runoff, the exploitation of farm labor, water shortage, hunger (which is not because there isn't enough food in the world, at least not yet), we could go on and on. Genetic engineering vs. conventional breeding is not really a meaningful category here, in my view. Every question must be considered on its own merits.

So that bring us to the book. The publicist's e-mail to me was headlined "Easily digestible look at the GMO debate." Alas, it is not easily digestible. On the one hand, the dozens of essays repeat the same information and arguments innumerable times; on the other hand, they leave perplexing gaps. As I said before, their chronological order is completely random. You'll read a set of dire predictions written in the 1980s and never learn if any of them came true. You'll read an alarmed critique of the regulatory regime in 1990 and you're on your own trying to figure out if the information is updated somewhere else in the volume. Slogging through this is nearly impossible.

At the same time, the depth of analysis and quality of evidence presented is often very thin. There is much argument by assertion, and generally a failure to seriously engage the arguments of those with opposing views. The reader does not get any sense of the debate, only an unrelenting polemic, some of which has already been debunked.

The world is crying out for a coherent, readable, intelligible and intellectually responsible discussion of these issues. Kudos to the editors for trying to bring attention and rebalance the debate, but this book isn't it.

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