As an advocate for genetically-modified food and other organisms, I find that my views often set off a firestorm. Friends, even conservative friends, have very settled opinions on this matter. I wish to state here why I am a proponent of GMOs and why I am critical of those who oppose them.
First, some stipulations will be in order.
My first stipulation is this: Up front I admit that I am no expert in genetics, nor in agriculture. Neither are most of the people who oppose my views. This is as it should be. Most of us are laymen and get our information as we can, but we are not scientists or academics. We have strong feelings on the matter of food and its relation to society and should express those ideas and should subject ourselves to the critique of others who see things differently.
This entire controversy would benefit immensely from a good measure of epistemic humility. This is, alas, often in short supply.
My second stipulation is this: The anti-GMO movement is driven primarily by partisans from the political Left. That does not mean that my conservative friends are of that camp in general. It only means that in this instance, on this matter, they have subscribed to doctrines and arguments that exist not for the purpose of improving the food supply for humankind, but for the purpose of undermining the political and economic order that has long been the norm in America.
It is entirely possible that there are authorities on genetically-modified foods who operate from other assumptions than those of the Left. I have not found them in my reading on this matter, but then again I am not a food researcher. Those whose views I do trust on these matters, who are themselves authorities in this field, have not found such disinterested anti-GMO sources either. Insofar as they take note of the arguments of the other side, my conservative sources have not referenced a specifically conservative anti-GMO body of thought. This makes me suspect that few such credible sources exist.
There are other reasons for this conclusion.
In nearly every controversy over GMOs in which I have participated, the name of Monsanto and its alleged “crimes” have surfaced right away. I am no spokesman for Monsanto, but the identification of the GMO discussion with the imputed greed and collusion that are routinely brought against Monsanto is an indicator of just how political the anti-GMO argument is. My interest in this subject has to do with the feeding of up to 9 billion people. That is not the focus of the anti-GMO party, which seems to have a number of other purposes, none of which concern the possibility of feeding a planet-wide population that is growing rapidly.
The central gravamen of the anti-GMO indictment against Monsanto et al. is that large corporations of this type are evil in intent as well as in effect and that they must be stopped from doing what they are doing, even if it means the destruction of the company and the industry involved. Once that motive is understood, all the other activities of the anti-GMO movement come into clearer focus.
My third stipulation is that “organic” farming will never be able to feed a world population projected to be 9 billion by the year 2030. Neither will traditional farming methods. Since organic farming is what the anti-GMO movement is advocating, it is crucial to understand its limitations. Indeed, organic farming is not capable even now of safely feeding those who can afford its high prices, as the recent Chipotle restaurant E.coli crisis has demonstrated.
On a broader basis, organic farming simply costs too much for most of the world’s people to afford, produces too little to lift large numbers of the hungry, and contributes so much of its own pollutants to soil and water that it is not viable as a large-scale food source. Furthermore, organic farming relies on wholesale tillage, which is bad for soil, and the use of “alternative” chemicals that are high in sulfur and copper, both poisonous to humans and animals.
Henry Miller, the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, writes that most fruits, vegetables and grains that proudly wear the label “organic” are themselves GMOs resulting from “wide-crossing” and other breeding techniques of the past that were scatter-shot and in some cases potentially dangerous. Golden Promise barley, so favored by organic micro-brewers, is itself a GMO, but one that was created using mutational breeding that consisted of chemical or radiological scrambling of genes. Miller notes an irony: organic farming is built on now-discredited genetically-modified practices of the past while making war on modern techniques that are targeted and extremely safe.
In short, according to Miller and others, “organic” farming is unsustainable as a model for feeding a world as populous as ours. As a personal choice, few of us have a problem with some people wanting the marginally better taste and textures that may be available through local organic farming. But one wonders why the political Left is unhappy with organic foods as one alternative among others. Certainly, they have to know that organic farming cannot keep up with population growth, and indeed would be unable even to supply the food necessary at present levels.
Before his death in 2009, Norman Borlaug, often called the “Father of the Green Revolution, “ lamented the fact that some European countries were withholding financial aid to African nations until those nations banned the importation of genetically-modified foods. He called this trend “tragic and grossly irresponsible.” Just recently, the Marxist leader of Zimbabwe, the poorest country in Africa and possibly the world, has banned GMOs for his desperate people, who are suffering a years-long drought. Greenpeace and other ecological groups have destroyed fields of genetically modified grain in the Philippines and have done all they can to terminate shipment of GMOs to nations that cannot feed themselves. Why?
The short, almost unthinkable answer is that many Leftist groups do not want a world of nine nine billion people, and may be unhappy with the current number of 7 to 8 billion. Perhaps the spirit of Margaret Sanger, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot lives on in the sophisticated salons of the anti-GMO political Left. None of these historical figures balked at cleansing the world of “undesirables.” Neither did Adolf Hitler.
In its more extreme precincts, is the anti-GMO movement nothing more than a cruel attempt at global population control dressed up in elite, progressive platitudes?
The facts surrounding GMOs are few and simple. But one has to be willing to believe them, or at least willing to suspend one’s disbelief for the period needed to become acquainted with them. Here are a few of the highlights.
GMOs have been part of the global diet for more than 25 years without a single reported case of injury or death directly attributable to them. The possibility of their future impact on humans is unknown, but surely by now some deleterious effects should have become evident. The Future is always the eminence gris of the radical Left. The historical present is to radical movements forever hostage to the apocalyptic future, as in both the GMO controversy and the climate change scenario.
As author and UK House of Lords member Matt Ridley writes: “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s.”
There is almost certainly more likely harm in the constant use of cellphones by millennials than in the ingestion of “Frankenfoods” such as the Arctic Apple that resists bruising and browning when it is sliced, or the Simplot “Innate” potato that takes less water to grow, resists bruising (less waste), and has eliminated much of the carcinogen asparagine.
GMOs have lifted millions of people in the “third world” from poverty into the middle class. With improved diets of Golden Rice, which helps prevent blindness, India was spared famine in the 1980s, according to genetic scientist Robert Zeigler. With longer life spans, better diets, and crops that are easier and more sustainable to grow, farmers in Asia and Africa do not need to hedge their bets by having so many children. The result is rising prosperity, natural population control, and increased human thriving.
Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor and a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, says that genetic advances go well beyond grains, vegetables and fruit. The AquAdvantage salmon carries a gene that helps it grow faster with less food, leading to less pressure on overfished stocks of wild salmon. She points to a genetic modification that will prevent the development of avian flu in chickens, and another that helps piglets fight off a viral respiratory disease. She calls these “farmaceuticals.” Think what such advances would mean to the world’s livestock production and the cost of meat, especially to the lower classes.
At the end of the day, GMO evangelists such as Michael Pollan, Urvashi Rangan, Wendell Berry, The Environmental Working Group, The Center for Food Safety, celebrity chefs such as Tom Colicchio, and movements such as Greenpeace and Earth First appear to be concerned only with disrupting these efforts and stopping them through litigation. They have turned large numbers of an entire generation into food police and nutrition scolds who constantly tell us what is wrong without proposing any realistic solutions.
Why can’t they just do their thing and let us do ours? Ah, grasshopper, to do that would be for them to abandon their very calling and identity.