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“I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s”

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Two things that often get muddled up in environmentalist, are realism and idealism. In an ideal world, we’d have enough food, enough land and a public that understand the value of Natural Capital and ecosystem services. Things would be pretty easy.

Difficult Choices

In reality, we have to choose between the things we want. For example, do we want…

  • Food crops or biofuels?
  • Cheap energy or investment in renewables?
  • Nuclear energy (instead of coal) or no nuclear (because of the risks)?
  • Do we want GMOs or organic food? Neither or both!

In most cases, we can’t have both. But of course, a lot of environmental organizations will tell you vehemently that one or the other is right. Practically speaking, it is rarely as clear cut as this – there are normally pros and cons to both sides. The scientific arguments for and against can be laid out, but eventually it comes down to public opinion.

Few issues have been more controversial or lacking in sensible debate than genetic modification.

How I Was Converted to G.M.O. Food

I read a fantastic article this week in the New York Times that really got me thinking about this, and I wanted to share it.

In many parts of the world, intensively cultivated crops are now severely threatened by pests. If you grow the same crops in the same places, year after year after year – then it gives pest populations of insects, bacteria and fungi the chance to grow to troubling proportions.

Obviously, we still need food. So we resort to extensive use of pesticides to protect crops. (The alternative I might add is organic methods, however this is a risky option. Fine in the developed world where we can buy food on demand, but would you risk your crop being wiped out if your life depended on it?)

What if there was a better option?

"Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.


In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all."

It sounds too good to be true. But this particular crop was created using GM technology.

"The new variety had been subjected to incendiary coverage in the local press, and campaign groups based in Dhaka were suing to have the pest-resistant eggplant banned. Activists had visited some of the fields and tried to pressure the farmers to uproot their crops.

 

Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere."

So why do so many environmental groups have this view? Environmentalists are good, passionate, nice people – and depriving the world of this technology means less food and often faster rates of deforestation and land conversion (here’s why). The only plausible explanation I can come up with is a lack of education on the topic.

And so this brings me to the sentence that really struck a chord with me on this in this article.

"I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s."

If you have a shadow of doubt over GM foods, then I urge you to read the article (with an open mind), it’s amongst the best I’ve read on the topic – and please share it.

Note: A few days after I wrote this article, news emerged that India eases stance on GM crop trials, keep your fingers crossed for sensible, measured progress.

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  1. Martin
    Martin05-18-2015

    As a great mind on these kinds of issues repeatedly states (though I’m not sure of his position on GMOs), it’s a bit more complicated than that :p

    But I will read the article you’ve linked to.

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell05-18-2015

      You’re right Martin. It’d be a long article, but in my book there’s a pretty great variety of GM technology – some of which I think we desperately need, and some which I don’t think is really necessary at all.

      The point I think is that just like the people they criticise, environmentalists have to have an open mind. Pesticides suck too! Some GM technology might mean we could drastically reduce pesticide use, it’s worth a look I think.

  2. Hen
    Hen05-18-2015

    Hi James,

    I don’t know any environmentalists that are so close minded they wouldn’t want a world where we didn’t use pesticides and global hunger was a distant memory. As Martin says, it’s more complicated than that. It’s also not just an environmental issue, it’s a cultural issue as well, with global markets driving it. Something that ultimately skews the ‘right and wrong’ aspect of this issue on an environmental level.

    Whilst I appreciate what you’re saying, I really don’t think it’s helpful to fall into the trap of thinking those against GMO are not ‘sensible’ or are only anti-GMO because they are lacking in education. I think that you are basing this assumption on the popular media.

    What opposing views have you researched and what aspects of those opposing views are not sensible or based on reality?

    Hen

    p.s. I haven’t yet read the article you link to yet, will hopefully get a chance later.

    • James_Borrell
      James_Borrell05-18-2015

      Thanks for the comment Hen, and great points – do read the article though, it’s much more eloquent than I could ever be!

      I agree there’s a whole cultural side to the issue as well as an environmental/scientific one. In fact, from that perspective, I’d rather we didn’t use them and didn’t need them – I’ve just reluctantly come to the conclusion that we probably do.

      I would have to disagree though on the point about education on what GMOs are, how they’re made, if they’re dangerous(!) and so on. I think there’s a vast lack of knowledge in that regard and an awful lot of myths. That makes it hard for the public to make a fair and even judgement on the debate.

      I’m not doubting that folks like organic farmers have a vast wealth of wisdom about our natural world and how it works, it’s just a different set of knowledge.

      Just to pick on one, I hear a lot that GMOs are dangerous to our health: Suggestions like that are a huge deal (as it should be)! So there’s been tons of research, by great academics, that can’t find any mechanism by which that could be so. On the other hand, you can get cowboys who bosh out a little bit of grey literature to the contrary and it’s portrayed as a debate!

      I’m all for continuing research, keep evaluating, keep testing, keep reviewing – but things like agricultural expansion and biodiversity loss are happening now, and if we have a tool that might slow them down – we need to use it, fast.

  3. Alexander Burrows
    Alexander Burrows05-18-2015

    Hi James, nice article that makes a good point!

    I recently had to study this issue at university for a third year ecology module titled “Global change biology: challenges and solutions”. What I took from the module is that global food security is the biggest issue currently faced by humankind (although of course no issue acts in isolation). As a global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, with a higher proportion of that population demanding a diet containing more red meat and cereals, we are tasked with producing more food using less land, water, energy and fertilisers, all while producing fewer emissions. Any single field of science or technology will not provide a sustainable solution to this problem, but GMOs could certainly be a very important piece in the overall puzzle.

    As for reducing pesticide use, cotton and maize crops genetically modified to produce Bt toxin have reduced global pesticide use, as well as increased yields and profitability of these crops (I’d cite my sources but I can’t be bothered to look through my notes from the module!). In India I believe, adoption of Bt cotton increased household earnings for rich, poor, and vulnerable farmers, as well as for non-landowners. Lumping all GMOs together is not useful, and each one must be compared to whatever it seeks to replace, but here Bt crops seek to replace broadscale application of insecticides and have been very successful, even increasing biological pest control by natural enemies in some instances.

    GM foods currently in production are not harmful to human health. Of course GM technology could be used to produce a cultivar of wheat that synthesises deadly doses of cyanide, but that doesn’t mean that GM technology as a technology should be labeled as harmful (and why would anyone make that wheat anyway?). It’s like saying humanity shouldn’t use drugs because misuse of some can kill you, despite the essential role of drugs in modern medicine.

    The other major concern often held by the public is escape of GMOs into the wild and hybridisation giving rise to super-weeds. Again this all comes down to how the technology is used, but if used correctly then GM technology will not lead to super-weeds, there is empirical evidence for this as well as conceptual. The conceptual evidence is straightforward evolution theory. Unfortunately it isn’t always used correctly, for example Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ (glyphosate tolerant) range of crops, which could lead to super-weeds, although not for the reasons that much of the public often thinks. Again this is simple evolution: repeated use of a potent herbicide like glyphosate will create a strong selective pressure that will favor any individual (including weeds, hybrids or otherwise) able to survive glyphosate application. Just like overuse of antibiotics giving rise to super-bugs. To avoid this, herbicide application should be varied in time and space, but this often isn’t what happens. Many of the Bt crops produced by Monsanto are also Roundup Ready, and you can only grow them if you also buy Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. This is part of the cultural issue highlighted by Hen; GM technology is an industry driven by economic principles rather than what’s best for farmers and for global food production. Another example of this is ‘suicide genes’ in GMOs which prevent farmers from storing grain to be planted again next season, meaning they have to keep coming back to Monsanto to buy new seeds.

    The cultural issue of the business and politics behind GM technology is complicated and is the only significant issue (and it’s certainly a big issue). But the potential of GM is huge. I think that a lot of the negative assumptions made about GMOs aren’t educated opinions and are made based on the popular media. I wholeheartedly agree that when looking at GMOs from a scientific perspective one has to come to the conclusion that they are a potentially very valuable tool for solving global food security.

  4. Bernie Thornton
    Bernie Thornton06-24-2015

    The point that Alexander has made about GM technology being developed by an industry driven by economic principles is, for me, a very big issue. Whilst these companies do need to make money it seems to me that this is all that they want to do, pursued ruthlessly and God help anyone who gets in their way. Monsanto is suing Vermont over GMO labelling, for example.

    If these companies will not even provide truthful and informative labelling for consumers, are they going to produce sound scientic studies about potential health and environment problems that their products can cause? Will they cover up bad results, like the tobacco industry did over cigarettes causing cancer?

    How can we be so sure that no health or environment problems will occur further down the line? Biosystems are complicated and I don’t think we know as much about them as we like to think we do. Short term economic pressures are likely to drive implementation of GMO technology on a very wide scale, potentially causing irreversible harm.

    We also need to concentrate our efforts on reducing food waste and ensuring better mechanisms for delivering food to everybody.

  5. Alex
    Alex06-26-2015

    I would like to caution against extremes on the two sides of the argument. Yes, there are useful GMOs and if the technology was more oriented towards the poor farmers, that might help them.
    But given the commercial interests of the usual corporations, farmers in practice, might end up in debt. The choice between intensive use of pesticides or GMOs inidcates an already compromised contexts where agro-ecology, is hardly possible or contemplated. Still, better GMOs than pesticides ..or is it? Recently the key ingredient of round-up, glyphosate, has been classed ‘probably cancerogenic’ in humans by the IARC http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/21/roundup-cancer-who-glyphosate-.This means that there are millions of tons of a ‘probably cancerogenic’ substance introduced in the environment each year. Not worse than some conventional pesticides, but not better either..so who benefits from its GMO-related adoption? I think many scientists are not skeptical enough or they are so in private. Partly because the industry has been clever. They have generated a massive conflict of interests by pooring funds into agricultural institutions. Also, they finance research that they can reserve to suppress if they don’t like the results (so you only can know about the ‘no problem’ results). Finally, they aggressively go after scientists that publish anything detrimental to their profits, making sure they exploit any real or perceived weakness in a study to ruin their reputation.And they also pull all the strings to get papers rejected by journals whose editors are biotechnologists, and therefore have direct or indirect links to the industry, whose funds they need in their ‘day job’.
    In this way scientists, their colleagues and their institutions will think twice before planning a study about e.g. the toxicity of a particular GM product. Are they ready to take on the relevant industry if they find something ‘wrong’? So I would be cautious about proclaiming htere are no problems about GM food or crops. It is hard to tell how good or detrimental GMOs are.

    The case of climate change is the opposite but also has analogies. Unlike in the biotechnology case, the fossil fuel industry does not fund many CC studies, and entire uni. departments do not depend on private funds for their career. In the case of CC, publicly funded scientists are battling the (fossil fuel this time) industry, who are trying to discredit them. But climatology departments do not need to please the industry when hiring.

    In conclusion, it is likely that in many cases GMs are absolutely fine in terms of their toxicity. But we cannot look at the GM technology potential ‘in abstract’ but in the concrete context in which it is deployed.

  6. Mark
    Mark06-28-2015

    This article explains why the concerns should not be ignored. One can, of course, disagree with some of the premises. Then their claim would be that they *know* there is negligible uncertainty. How, is the question.
    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8nhAlfIk3QIbGFzOXF5UUN3N2c/edit?pli=1

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