So I got a message from the splendiferous Ms. Lara earlier today:
Hey, Tracy! Someone on FB is arguing that GM crops are categorically horrible and bad and whatnot. Can you send me some informative links to help educate her (and myself!)? (I seem to recall you linked to an article about the death of an agriculturalist who saved millions of lives with his crops, so of course I thought of you…)
Many thanks to my favorite foodie!!
Well. How could I resist the chance to go all run-on sentence on that?
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The agriculturalist you’re thinking of is Norman Borlaug (I linked to his New York Times obituary back in September), but his work was in conventional agricultural methods like breeding grains that could be planted more intensively/often and produce higher yields, especially in combination with synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for said accomplishments, not just because they were nifty but because at the time he was working smart people everywhere were kinda freaking out that world population growth would drive demand for food past the limits of agricultural production and cause widespread famine and maybe worseâ€”but, luckily for all of us, that didn’t happen. The wide adoption of Borlaug-style high-yield farming methods (especially synthetic fertilizers and, to a lesser extent, pesticides) are often referred to as “the Green Revolution” in ag/food circles, and their long-term effects are hotly debated, to put it mildly, but I’m pretty sure it’s nigh-on impossible to prove speculative woulda-coulda stuff like lives saved by famines prevented. Still, to paraphrase what I wrote back in September, if you believe the solution to world hunger is to produce more food, Borlaug is Mr. Guy. (Unfortunately, we already grow more than enough to provide everyone on earth with sufficient calories to prevent starvation; whether those calories are nutritionally adequate is another problem, as is the fact that we just don’t seem to be very good at delivering those calories to the folks who need them most. But I digress.)
There’s a pretty good review of these issues in Food’s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution, which I read for my sustainable agriculture class at the University of Oregon (some three years ago now, sheesh) and as the subtitle of that book suggests, there’s big hopes for new biotechnology, especially genetic modification (GM) through recombinant DNA techniques, the results of which I’ll refer to as transgenic to distinguish them from genetic modification through selective breeding or whatever. The goals are basically the same as always: higher-than-ever yields (perhaps through the farming of previously-unsuitable lands) of more-nutritious-than-ever foods, although on top of that it would be awesome to develop crops that result in less soil degradation/compaction or require fewer chemical inputs to produce and/or protect from pests and diseases, thus preventing gnarly side effects like fertilizer runoff or the so-called “pesticide treadmill” (when farmers are forced to ratchet up their use of the chemicals to beat back increasingly resistant forms of diseases/pests). However, as Manning and many other writers have noted, so far that’s still mostly just a hope, and in fact (kind of like the first Green Revolution) the new (bio)tech’s main effects seem to be increased concentration of power in the ag/food system, which, like pretty much any other industry I can think of, is dominated by a small handful of big, rich corporations, which worries me far more than any freaking out about health and/or environmental effects of the new crops, about which we are still, quite frankly, collecting data. In the meantime, it’s unfortunate that the previously-discussed ag/food oligopoly/oligarchy hasn’t/haven’t been smarter in its/their PR efforts, because dude, cross-pollination happens, and maneuvering against the labeling of transgenic ingredients (thus making it difficult for consumers to opt out of the “effects of eating transgenic foods?” experimentâ€”dude, where’s my control group?) really makes it look like they have something to hide, which of course only fuels hippie paranoia and conspiracy theories and suchforth, good times (more on that in a bit). Manning doesn’t get into those politics so much, but his book provides a pretty awesome survey of what were the cutting-edge agricultural research efforts to prevent famine ten years ago.
Let’s see, what else? I am so not even going to try to address the intellectual property law implications of patenting life/genes and all the tragedy of the commons-type issues that ensue, except to say that hot diggety do I ever think that all that stuff should be made a lot more free as in open source only more so. The technology required to actually do anything with that information is still expensive enough that the big guys actually doing stuff shouldn’t feel threatened by other people knowing more about the theories behind it, since the vast majority of us can’t afford to play along in practice, sheesh. But speaking of costs, neither new-school biotech nor Green Revolution methods are particularly cheap. Ironically (and back to the PR problem issue again) although advertisements for bioengineering companies often cite the goal of improving lives in developing countries, the people who would purportedly benefit are often too poor to afford the new technologies. And even in countries where farmers can afford the state of the art (or get loans with which to invest in it), agriculture is a low-profit-margin industry that’s all about increased production whenever possible even if that drives prices down so you have to increase yields again, maybe going into debt to do so, and as long as your crop doesn’t fail you might even come out ahead. And again there’s woulda-coulda speculation games to play (maybe the farmers could have done fine without going into debt to increase their yields, or maybe they would’ve been driven out of business when prices dropped because everybody else increased yields thanks to the new hotness, etc. etc. etc.)
Oh, and recombinant DNA techniques contribute to antibiotic resistance, which I think is way scarier than the (again, so far pretty poorly understood) health effects of transgenic foods. (Seriously. To make it easier to test whether a splice-and-dice was successful, it’s common practice to include a gene for antibiotic resistance along with the other new bits of DNA. I wish I were making this up.) Aside from that, however, my objections to transgenic foods really are primarily political, and that makes me kind of an anomaly. Most people who oppose transgenics do so on moral/ethical grounds, often including health concerns. If you’re looking at this stuff from a purely scientific standpoint and noticing that there isn’t a lot of data to support its awesomeness or awfulness, the aforementioned hippie paranoia moral panic just seems like a lot of freaking out about nothing (unless maybe you’re really into the precautionary principle). I will now point you to my professor Marion Nestle’s book Safe Food as what I’m going to call the definitive read on the science-based vs. ethics-based response to GM food (also she uses certain GM-food-related incidents to illustrate the brokenness of the U.S. food safety system, which would be a hilarious comedy of errors except for how so many people get sick and even die as a result of its failures).
Now I have rambled on for quite some time here, but that was kind of the point of making this a blog post instead of trying to condense all these ideas into the Facebook message character limit. In case you’ve somehow not yet had enough of reading me, here’s what I wrote about biotech for the aforementioned sustainable agriculture class three years ago (that one’s actually kinda chock-full of references, which might be more useful than just me blathering). And here’s Dr. Nestle again on a recent Deutsche Bank/University of Wisconsin report whose analysis which concluded that we’re going to need both biotech and organic agriculture to feed the world in the future, which sounds about right to me. (Full disclosure: I so haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I’m super-glad I was able to download it from the link on Dr. Nestle’s blog since the original seems to have gone to the big circular file in the sky.)
Anyway, I hope some of this helped. Thank you for your question; it really got me writing, which is always good (maximum verbosity is a refreshing change from “nah, shouldn’t write that” or “ooh, what’s that over there?”)