Archive | November 2014

OMG, GMOs! What the labeling controversy is actually about

CornVoters in Oregon will decide on Tuesday whether their state will require labeling of products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), when they vote on the Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative, aka Measure 92. As usual with initiatives on controversial topics, there’s been a ton of hype about this, and both sides have spent so much money (especially on advertising) that this has become the most expensive ballot measure in the state’s history. Unsurprisingly, given the potential repercussions, the top five contributors both to the Yes on 92 and to the NO on 92 coalition are ALL based outside the state of Oregon. According to Ballotpedia, the top five contributors to the pro-labeling group are Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Health Resources LLC, the Organic Consumer’s Fund, and Tom Hormel (grandson of the meat-packing tycoon, whose namesake company has taken the exact opposite position on Measure 92), and the group has spent about $9 million all together. The NO coalition has spent more than twice as much ($20 million+ last time I checked); in fact, they’ve spent (by themselves) far more than was spent in total on the previous record-holding ballot measure in 2007. Again unsurprisingly, the biggest contributors to the don’t-label-GMOs campaign are DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Kraft. I get why, yet I still find it kind of hilarious that they’re putting so much money in there, since the resulting coverage is similar to pasting a big sign on all your merchandise saying “WE USE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS.” Of course, once the public knows how much of their food is genetically modified, they might well get used to the idea, so this could be a good move in the end.

I’ve refrained from watching any of the ads either of these groups are putting out, because I don’t enjoy feeling nauseous. I really should do that if I want to write an informed blog post, but I know that if I do, I’ll be too dispirited to write anything. So I’m just going to assume, given the summary blurbs on Ballotpedia and the considerable spam in my inbox, that the positions of the two groups are something like this:

Pro-labeling viewpoint

  • People have a Right to Know whether they’re eating “Frankenfood”.
  • GMO food could damage your health.
  • GM organisms are TAKING OVER THE WORLD.
  • GMO organisms are damaging/competing with existing species and organic farms.
  • GMO labeling is good for the economy/nature/jobs.
  • Anti-labeling groups are spreading misinformation and lies to promote their own profits and political agendas.

Anti-labeling viewpoint

  • “Frankenfood” is perfectly safe and normal and well-tested and harmless and therefore it doesn’t matter if you know whether you’re eating it or not, sheesh!
  • GMO food will NOT damage your health.
  • GM organisms are NOT taking over the world.
  • Shut up.
  • GMO labeling is bad for the economy/jobs and GMO organisms don’t harm the environment. GM crops are helping us feed the world.
  • Pro-labeling groups are spreading misinformation and lies to promote their own profits and political agendas.

Thoughtful and valid points (LOL), but as far as I can tell, most of these arguments, on both sides, are — to a greater or lesser extent — bullshit. That’s not to say none of it is accurate, but it’s mostly just playing Street Fighter with strawmen, i.e., politics as usual.

The pro-labeling movement has been portrayed by many outlets — typified by this article in The Atlantic — as one of those green vegan hippie self-righteous ideas that is kind of quaint and deluded and anti-science and has gotten out of control. This is because, in part, it is. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated in its recent policy brief on the topic:

These [GMO labeling] efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow “unnatural” and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm. Another misconception used as a rationale for labeling is that GM crops are untested.

Now, the AAAS cannot afford NOT to oppose GMO labeling, lest it give traction to “anti-science”-type people. Of course, they also don’t admit that there might be anything wrong with genetically modified crops, because they have to be in favor of “science.” Insofar as it goes, their argument is correct. Most of the messages used by pro-labeling groups are based on populist hype. Some of them have a grain of semi-truth, but most of are based either on misinformation or on the fact that we don’t have information, so the accusations of fearmongering are totally accurate. I disagree with the AAAS’s idea that we can “know” something is safe, since not proving that something is bad for you isn’t the same as proving that something is not bad for you — but there’s nothing unusual about this approach to consumer products. If your argument is that we shouldn’t do anything until we’re 1,000 percent positive nothing bad will happen, good luck getting anything done. Like, ever. We can’t “know” things are safe, beyond a reasonable doubt, and we have to deal with that to an extent. We do the best we can.

The argument that genetic engineering is the same as the rest of the agricultural things we’ve been doing for the past 10,000 years is both true and not-true. It’s a whole level above, in the sense that the ability of most organisms to, say, exchange genes with members of completely different families was kinda limited before. Gene flow does occur between species sometimes, especially in plants and all the time in prokaryotes, but there didn’t used to be a way to just grab a gene out of a jellyfish and use it to make mice glow green, or select a particular bacterial gene and stick it in a potato so the potato can kill beetles. What we can do now is much more targeted, and can occur much faster, than what we used to do. I.e., it is much more efficient and much more commercial — as evidenced by the fact that since 2001, you have been able to patent seeds. We also don’t really know all the epigenetics involved yet, but the companies are trying to weed out (har) any defects that may cause problems, and are quite vigorous about doing so.

Anyway, the big issue here is that people are arguing about the wrong things. This, I believe, is largely because environmentalists don’t think people will support them as much if they talk about the main problem with many genetically modified crops. Maybe they’re right, but I’m not in favor of using scare tactics to mislead the public. It’s dumb to claim that you’re labeling GMOs for health reasons, because (a) see above and (b) knowing that something is genetically modified tells you nothing whatsoever about any potential health risks.

Impoverished soil after intensive farming

Here, finally, is my point: The problem with GMOs is not really what they are. It’s what they are used for.

Specifically, the issue is one of the main agricultural-industrial uses of genetically modified crops. To blatantly oversimplify (see below), some very prevalent GM crops are created by chemical companies to encourage monoculture farming, a form of agriculture in which basically nobody wins except the chemical companies. Industrial-scale farming relies on planting dense stands of the same species (a monoculture) to maximize efficiency and profit. This way of farming tends to make vast tracts of land uninhabitable for most species, and to harm the soil by (a) never giving it any rest or variety, (b) letting all the nutrients run off into rivers and (c) dumping huge amounts of pesticides on it. Soil is fertile because it contains bugs and bacteria and fungi and all kinds of weird things that work as a community, recycling waste and providing plants with the nutrients they need to grow. There are also animals that eat plants, animals that eat animals that eat plants, animals that eat those animals, etc. In a healthy ecosystem, all these organisms keep each other from getting out of hand, and a plant supported by a healthy soil community is usually less likely to be wiped out by disease or pests. In conventional farming, you kill everything that doesn’t belong to this one species you’re growing, because it’s more efficient that way, but then you find yourself needing to spend more and more on fertilizer to make up for declining soil fertility, and on pesticides to protect your ever-more-vulnerable crops.

Conventional farming is more efficient but also far, far more fragile compared with a more classical organic farm. Because of this, the few farmers who haven’t already been driven out of business by the farm-industrial complex are dependent on the chemical companies to provide them with temporary fix after temporary fix, trying to stay ahead of crop failure and the resulting mountain of debt. Your cornfields are being taken over by pigweed? No problem! Big Chemical Company will engineer the corn to be able to resist pesticides, so you can nuke the shit out of your fields and the corn will still come up while everything else is dead (you’ll want to buy some fertilizers and stuff from us as well, in that case). The pigweed has become resistant now, too? No problem! Here’s another pesticide we’ve just made, and a new corn variety that’s resistant to it! Of course, the pesticide-resistant pigweed is now spreading all over the world, forcing everyone *else* to use Big Chemical Co.’s newer, special-er pesticide or watch their fields be swallowed up by pigweed. And the pesticides and fertilizers are poisoning the water supply and food chain. Woohoo! Did I mention that manufacturing pesticides and fertilizers has a huge greenhouse-gas and natural-resource impact?

Unless they’re independently wealthy, farmers can’t go back to the way things were in the olden days (when people used complex planning and planting techniques to avoid pest outbreaks, and didn’t stake their entire business on one or two crops), because they need the profits of industrial agriculture to stay ahead of their creditors, and because it takes years and much effort to get your soil community balanced again, figure out better ways to deal with pests, work out a more appropriate crop rotation system, and deal with the inevitable repercussions of transitioning a simplified system back into a complex management framework. You are NOT profitable during this time, and it’s hard, and most farmers simply cannot afford to do this. They are stuck.

Monsanto et al. use the claim that what they do is necessary because they are Feeding the World. I have several problems with this:

  1. The world is not being fed. The U.S. and other countries produce huge surpluses of food, but there are still plenty of malnourished people all over the place, because the food doesn’t go where it’s needed. It’s about economics and war and weather and all sorts of things. Meanwhile, we waste huge amounts of perfectly good food by leaving it in the back of the refrigerator until it comes back to life as zombie-food. A third of all the food produced in the world is wasted. Food access is a complex problem, but in general it has little to do with the ability of giant factory farms, on completely different continents from where the hungriest people are, to produce corn out the wazoo. Using (well-tested) GMOs to help farmers in poverty is another topic, although one could argue that without the profitable U.S. enterprise, nobody would be trying to use GMOs elsewhere in the world.
  2. Monsanto and Dow and all the rest are discouraging other ways of farming, both at home and abroad–partly through lobbying efforts that get the government to direct farm subsidies their way (or to farmers who do things their way). These companies are in effect creating a world that can’t feed itself without them, because all the alternatives are gone.
  3. If properly cared for, an organic farm can produce similar yields to a conventional farm; maybe slightly less, but a lot more sustainably and without relying so much on expensive inputs. Of course, there are scale and efficiency issues here, but in the end it’s better for global ecosystems if we rely on many more, smaller farms that produce food using good planning and knowledge of the environment than on just a few huge, efficient farms producing food unsustainably. However, that would require a lot more people to be farmers, which may or may not be possible.
  4. Even if this giant industrial farming operation were necessary to feed the world, then what? I have a hard time believing we’re going to stop trying to eat ourselves out of house and home anytime soon, so it’s a vicious cycle. All we’re doing with GM technology (and a lot of other technology) is temporarily avoiding dealing with the consequences of our actions. *Temporarily.* I doubt it’s possible to fundamentally change human nature, but I think we DO have the capacity to be smarter about our actions, and one important change we have to make is to stop enabling stupid, unsustainable behavior with temporary fixes.

I do want to mention here that there are applications of genetic modification in agriculture that can be good for the environment. No-till agriculture, responsible for saving a lot of soil in recent decades, depends largely on the pesticide-heavy approach–the soil conservation benefits must be weighed against the issues with pesticides. Engineering plant strains to use resources more efficiently means less need for heavy fertilizer use, which is a general win. Other applications help with human health (such as getting rice to produce vitamin A). I tend to think that such uses are addressing symptoms and thereby allowing us to ignore the larger underlying problems–but until we can deal with those problems, we may as well use less fertilizer and get more vitamins. Again, the issue is whether increased efficiency will actually lead to a slowdown in resource use, or if we will just use that wiggle room to plant more areas in monoculture or populate places that can’t actually support us in the long run.

Changing our behavior is the only real long-term answer to our environmental issues, but it is also way harder to achieve than technological fixes. GMOs are a pragmatic solution that may end up discouraging us from making the long-term changes necessary to be proper stewards of our planet and resources. But again–maybe we can’t make those changes anyway. It’s all up in the air. I’d like to be optimistic about our ability to change our behavior, but historically this has not occurred. In the end, it’s likely that a mix of technology and behavior change is our real solution. After all, farmers still have to be able to make a living, and we don’t want to sacrifice more intact ecosystems to make way for agriculture–which may well mean we need to farm intensively.

In summary, the GMO issue is not really about the safety of genetically modified food (it’s as safe for human health as anything else). It’s about trying to fight a pernicious system of input-heavy monoculture farming propped up by ethically questionable companies; a system that destroys pretty much everything in its path that isn’t corn or soybeans. However, the tactics being used by many environmental groups right now are also, at least in part, unethical, alarmist, and, yes, selectively anti-science. Good luck figuring this out, America. And don’t forget to vote!