GMO Safety – The Wrong Argument

Genetically Modified Organisms are Safe.  Science says so, and (less abstractly) Bill Nye says so.  There’s no reason to think ingesting them is any worse than any other organism.  With lower incidence of pests and paraistes, they might even be safer.  They increase crop productivity, thus helping keep people fed all over the world.

And yet, the public is not convinced.  The GMO Labeling movement is alive and well, and food companies are paying vast sums to defeat such measures.  (The David & Goliath motif probably does not help their cause.)  The Labeling movement says they just want to inform consumers, but it’s clear that they are driven by a deep distrust.  An unscientific distrust, because we’re told Science says it’s Safe.

What I would like to suggest here is that the GMO debate is not about safety.  It may not even be about ‘people playing God’, as such.  It’s about ill-defined, ill-formed, and shadowy fears that the population has without, perhaps, recognizing the actual issues.  These un-stated fears are also valid in ways the safety concerns are probably not.

The name of the game is Moral Hazard – the idea that GMOs are not bad as such, but for reasons involving their nature or their implementation will lead to negative side effects.

First: Environmental.  One of the most popular kinds of GMOs so far are those that are designed as immune to certain pesticides, so that sufficient quantities of pesticide can be used to destroy weeds and parasites without harming the food crop.  The obvious side-effect of this is an incentive to increase pesticide use.  While most pesticides are not nearly so broadly deadly as DDT famously was, they are by definition bad for at least some living things, and can have a number of unpleasant effects on people.  Increasing the environmental concentrations of such chemicals is less than palatable to a lot of people, even though it has essentially nothing to do with genetic modification as such.  Also, the enhanced yield of GMO crops might further encourage single-crop planting and overly-intensive agriculture dependent on dwindling water resources, fertilizer, and depleting top-soil.  To be fair here, the Bill Nye article from the first paragraph states that Nye’s concerns were environmental in nature, and that his concerns in this regard have been allayed.  However, even if environmental concerns are baseless (and new GMOs will almost certainly re-raise the question in part or whole) it is a concern that is not often responded to among the noise about Safety.

Second: Epidemiological.  Without the wild intermingling and mutations of natural evolution, GMO crops are often clones or near clones.  These monocultures are far more at risk of disease – if one plant can succumb, they likely all will because they all have the same immune system flaws.  You may notice Bananas have no seeds – they are reproduced by human farmers by cuttings, and so every single banana you’re likely to see in a supermarket is genetically identical.  The current Cavendish banana is actually a replacement of the pre-1950s Gros Michel banana, that was almost totally extinct by a single disease.  GMOs are often made to resist diseases, it is true, but in the same way that antibiotic resistant human diseases have become a medical nightmare, the possibility of resistant crop diseases is an agricultural one.  The corporations can then give the next batch a new immunity, but so far humans seem to invent new antibiotics slower than bacteria evolve resistances.  A low-probability, high-impact event like this may not be worth losing sleep over, but should also not be ignored.

Third: Corporate Control.  People don’t really trust large corporations, and the food industry has some very, very large companies – a popular chart illustrates how ten corporations own pretty much everything you see in a grocery store.  The actual growing of crops involves other large corporations with generally less recognition but worse public relations – Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto.  The detailed histories behind why these companies seem to have a particularly bad reputation is in many ways beyond the scope of this article, but Monsanto has famously been accused of a) variously suing, threatening to sue, or refusing to rule out suing those who refuse to pay Monsanto after their non-Monsanto crops were contaminated by pollen from neighboring fields and b) upending millennia of farming practice by insisting that farmers can not save seeds they grew to plant the next year without paying Monsanto again.  The merits and meaning of the various cases is hotly debated, and DNA patenting in particular is a vast subject that is, again, beyond the scope of this article.  That being said, if GMOs end up evolving multiple-pesticide resistant diseases like antibiotics have, then farmers might no longer have an option to buy non-GMO crops for as long as the disease remains in the environment – the ultimate seller’s market.  This is the kind of thing consumers fear of multinational chemicals companies.  (It was also brought to the small screen as an episode of the popular TV show Leverage.)

I define these three categories in the hope they name the unnamed fears.  Genetic modification holds great promise, not merely for agriculture.  Yet, like all powerful tools, the opportunity for abuse is as great as the benefit.  The public debate remains blindly focused on Safety and is primarily being fought between (apparently) unscientific fear-mongers and (almost definitely) short-term-profit motivated corporations.  What I’d like to see is more consideration of these more subtle risks.  Until then it’s safest to take GMO cases individually, and when finding an example of GMOs done wrong to also consider what legal and social structure would be right.


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