For several months now, I’ve wanted to put together a post talking about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and particularly in the context of food. I’ve had several debates with my friends – I tend toward the pro-GMO camp and several of my friends are anti-GMO. I maintained that if they simply looked at the science, reviewed the research, and avoided sources with an agenda that often post incorrect information that they would come around to my way of thinking.
Big-time environmental advocate Mark Lynas has fought GMOs for nearly two decades. He helped to coin the “Franken-whatever” phrase, and has generally contributed to public hysteria and governmental regulation of GMOs, particularly across Europe. On Thursday, at the Oxford Farmer’s Conference, Lynas recanted. Anyone interested in GMOs should watch the entirety of his speech, but I’ll highlight a few important bits after the video.
“[W]hat happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”
This follows my general argument that when people look at the hard data, they understand that most fears about GMOs are unfounded. That someone so ardently opposed to GMOs could revise his opinion, publically no less, is extremely rare and worthy of praise.
“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”
Often, when I ask why people dislike GMOs, their reaction comes down to a dislike of Monsanto. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto either, though I find they’re sometimes demonized more than they ought to be. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case about some of their practices during the upcoming term.
But creating hysteria about GMOs because one of the major companies that makes them is distasteful is like creating a hysteria about computers because one doesn’t like Microsoft. The technology is separate from the people that implement it. If someone wants to argue that the business model of Monsanto is unethical or harmful that’s an argument I can get behind (or at least entertain.) But to suggest that the technology itself is bad, even if Monsanto is a sort of corporate demon, is ludicrous.
“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs. I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened. I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Lynas moved away from the propaganda, did some research, and came to conclusions backed by evidence instead of fear.
Lynas goes on at some length about how GMOs can help mitigate climate change, help feed billions of people, and generally make life a little better for all of us (and a lot better for some of us.)
“There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”
Ironic is exactly the right word to use here. The trouble with GMOs is that it can be a dangerous technology. Part of me hopes that so many of these regulations will be loosened and GMO technology can become essentially open source. So much of my distaste for Monsanto comes down to the patent system and approval process. But because there are strong dissenters to the technology who require stringent regulations the R&D and approval processes are very costly. That means that only large corporations can afford to research the technology. And that, in turn, means that Monsanto remains the biggest game in town because smaller, perhaps more ethical, businesses can’t afford to play.
“In the EU the system is at a standstill, and many GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic politics of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria. Around the whole world the regulatory delay has increased to more than 5 and a half years now, from 3.7 years back in 2002. The bureaucratic burden is getting worse.”
Take, for example, a GMO salmon that, after 17 years in the approval process and millions upon millions of dollars spent to get it approved, has finally been approved after the FDA conceded that it “posed no major health or environmental risks” and that “ [the FDA] could not find any valid scientific reasons to ban the production of GM Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species.”
Lynas says, “If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you. For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”
Indeed we do.
Just a few examples of the potential benefits of GMO technology (in food alone – I will post a separate article about GMOs in other contexts another time):
Lab grown meat that could provide nutrition to millions of people, without the detrimental impact to the Earth caused by traditional cattle and chicken farms and without the ethical problems of killing animals for food.
Modified tomatoes that can help prevent heart disease.
Modified corn that could help treat a rare disease.
Lynas speaks about several other current uses of GMO food to help feed people or cure disease, and again, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you listen to the entire speech. GMO food, time and again, has proven safe, effective, and offers benefits far beyond what traditional farming techniques offer. The best part: We’re just getting started.
As an aside: There is a separate debate about whether GM food ought to be labeled. For the record, I think that it should. People certainly have a right to know what sort of food they’re purchasing and consuming. Perhaps equally importantly, people ought to be able to see how many of the foods they already eat are genetically modified. This, I think, will dissipate some of the fear about GM food. It would, as a side benefit, allow me to knowingly support foods that are genetically modified.