As stated in yesterday’s post, I was recently contacted via email by SP, a science-writer expatriate living in Ecuador. He had a friendly way and a unique perspective as someone living in a place people go to get away from GMOs and other such so-called hazards. Yesterday I posted our brief email exchange. Today I give you his essay.
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My Thoughts On GMOs
After doing considerable reading from a variety of sources on both sides of this issue, I have come to the conclusion that GMO food crops are just as safe to eat as conventional food crops. Food safety is not the only issue.
Safe to eat?
The following scientific organizations (and more) have issued public statements attesting to the safety and value of genetically engineered food crops. [See Sleuth4Health Post Is GM Food Safe? Experts Around the Globe Answer]
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Center for Science in the Public Interest
National Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of Medicine
World Health Organization
American Medical Association
American Council on Science and Health
American Society for Cell Biology
American Society for Microbiology
American Society of Plant Biologists
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology
Crop Science Society of America
French Academy of Science
Union of German Academics of Sciences and Humanities
International Council for Science
Society for In Vitro Biology
Society of Toxicology
It defies credulity to imagine that each of these organizations and the majority of their members are corrupt. I consider it a stretch of the imagination to believe that all of the organizations listed above are in bed with Monsanto.
In bed with Monsanto? This is the kind of accusation that gets thrown at anyone who offers a kind word about GMOs, especially if that person is a scientist of any stature.
Context is everything
I have observed that anti-GMO activists and their followers lack an understanding of common agricultural practices including accepted methods of plant breeding conducted for the past 40 years.
The myth seems to be that conventional plant breeding is “natural,” because it is nothing more than cross pollination between similar species. This is NOT correct. It’s a myth. Yes, Luther Burbank and others used cross pollination a hundred years ago to produce white blackberries and many other novel crops. Burbank achieved results like the white blackberry by crossed very distantly related plants.
But many other varieties of fruits and vegetables on the market today, even varieties grown by organic farmers, have been produced by artificial genetic modification or mutation. The technique is called chemical induced or radiation induced mutagenesis. Seeds or buds are exposed to high doses of nuclear radiation or treated with the chemical colchicine to induce changes in the plant’s genetic structure. The treatment creates random and uncontrolled changes in the DNA.
Typically, some of these seeds or buds do not survive the treatment. Some survive but develop deformed tissue. And some survive and grow into healthy looking viable plants. The healthy looking plants are screened for desirable traits. Individual plants carrying desirable traits are closely studied and reproduced for several generations.
Approximately 2,000 crop varieties and ornamental plants have been developed this way around the world. For a complete catalogue of these plants, do an internet search for “mutant variety database.” Let me name just a few.
The long list includes Rio Red grapefruit, virtually all varieties of wheat including herbicide resistant types, and multiple varieties of corn including Clearfield corn which is resistant to the herbicide Lightning. Other such foods include seedless watermelon, Triticale the grain, Golden Promise a popular barley, many varieties of rice including Calrose 76, and Icecube lettuce. Interestingly, Triticale is marketed as a “natural food” even though its means of development was far from natural.
Genetically modified foods like these began to hit the market over 40 years ago, around 1970. No regulatory process or mandatory safety testing applies to these products, because the means of development is considered “conventional.”
It is claimed that the techniques of genetic engineering to make GMOs offer a much more controlled and precise way to add desirable traits to plants. In any case, each and every country has its own approval process for GMOs which takes into account the potential impacts for consumers and for the biosphere. Typically, the approval process takes many years to complete.
The need for GMOs
Opinions vary on this point. I have observed that folks in the anti-GMO camp tend to be sincere idealists who favor a planet free of all toxicity and strife. They offer many potential solutions and novel ways of living as an alternative to today’s corporate driven “mainstream” existence. Others take a more pragmatic view, the attitude of the engineer which says, “if there’s a problem, let’s fix it.”
Do we have a problem with our food supply that needs fixing? That depends on who you talk to.
Personally, I accept the notion that climate change (global warming) is real and has already begun. If we are facing a significant rise in global temperature, this has serious implications for our food supply. We will need new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains that are resistant to both drought and flood. In fact, these are already in the GMO pipeline.
If the current trend in global population continues, we will have many more people to feed in the coming years. The majority of these people will live in high density urban environments where growing food is limited to roof-top gardens and window boxes. Since virtually all available farm land has already been claimed, the only option left is to increase yields. This is why modern agriculture is dedicated to increasing yields, in other words, more food per acre (or hectare).
Farmers understand the need to fight three different naturally occurring enemies of yield, insects, weeds, and disease. This is true for conventional farmers and organic farmers as well as large farmers, small farmers and gardeners.
Idealists say the world could be transformed through permaculture. Yes, for small garden plots, amazing results can be obtained using the art of “permaculture design.” In a well-made permaculture “food forest,” insects, weeds, and disease can be effectively controlled without the use of chemicals. Yields per acre can be surprisingly high. Yet, permaculture is very labor intensive and not suited to large scale farming. It is better suited to the lifestyle of individual families and small communities.
What about large scale organic farming? Some adherents of organic claim that average yields are at least as high if not higher than conventional. I seriously doubt this claim. But there is no question that operating costs for organic farmers exceed the costs for conventional farmers by a significant margin. Is cost important?
In the United States and other developed countries, nearly everyone can afford to purchase food at the supermarket, whether organic or conventional. For folks in the developed world, the price of food is not a matter of life and death. But in some developing countries, a sudden rise in food prices can mean starvation for the very poor.
Therefore, on a global scale, agricultural yields must continue to increase, farmers’ costs must be kept in check, and the quality of the food and the biosphere must be maintained. This is the promise of GMO agriculture according to the pro-GMO camp. I don’t see any compelling reason to scoff at this promise.
The business model
For perspective, I think it is important to understand the fundamentals of GMO business, at least in the US. Like all companies, the large seed producers must turn a profit in order to remain in business. The companies must understand who their customer is. And they can’t afford to piss off their customers, the farmers.
Farmers are free to purchase seed and chemical products from dozens of suppliers. All things being equal, farmers want a crop-growing system that offers financial reward with the least effort and risk, and produces the least damage to the biosphere. If and when the supplier’s promises don’t pan out, farmers will start looking around for a better way. Farmers talk to each other. No, it’s not the poor victim farmer against big bad Monsanto. Companies must please their customers or fail.
Imagine the case where a farmer raises GMO corn or soy for cattle feed. Image the blowback on the farmer if that GMO feed made cattle sick. Because GMO feed is so common, this would be an industry-wide problem that could not be kept hidden. Anti-GMO activists offer sketchy anecdotal cases of dying cows, cases that don’t hold up when examined more closely. Pro-GMO agriculture academics assert that millions of head of cattle have been given GMO feed for many many years without incident.
A perfect storm for GMO alarm
-Once released into the biosphere, we can’t reverse course
-Corrupting affect of big money and big corporations on “big agriculture”
-Poor performance by government regulators
-Complex science of biology, genetics, plant breeding, and toxicology poorly understood by the public
-Atmosphere of fear and conspiracy paranoia
-Global warming, mass extinctions, toxicity of land, sea, and air
It is difficult to keep a level head in these strange days when so many problems face us and the planet. I think that GMOs provide a convenient target, even a scapegoat, for problems that are actually systemic. The political power of the food production industry in the US is high. As an intertwined system, the medical industrial complex, the healthcare system, and government regulation actually encourage US citizens to eat unhealthy processed food. And sadly, the system has little incentive to correct itself.
In my view, genetically modified foods comprise only a small part of a much larger picture. The real issues of food safety include familiar hazards such as molds, micro-organisms, nutrition, spoilage, distribution and chemical toxicity. It appears to me that GMO foods do not represent a worrisome step backward in these areas.
Are GMOs the dangerous product of a single excessively large and greedy corporation with a poor track record for human welfare? Or are GMOs a normal and natural feature of modern commercial agriculture as it strives for higher yields and better stewardship of the biosphere? I’ll put my money on the latter.
What is the alternative for our planet? We’ll see how things play out in the coming years.
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Thank you to SP for sharing this well informed essay. Oh and, I should add that I happen to agree with it 100%.