It’s getting wild out there. There’s a lot going on in the Presidential race, from the Green Party’s post-Sanders bump, to the Democratic Party’s increasing right turn and its decision to aim its propaganda weapons at us, to many curious tales of, and from, the Trump campaign. I’ll probably be back on those beats next month, but this month I’m going to take a look at genetically modified organisms from my “Deep Green Perspective”
Back in June, I received several emails from a long-time friend, urging me to accept the evidence that genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, and thus there is no reason to oppose their rapid introduction into our food stream. I confess, I kind flamed my old friend with the vehemence of my initial “no way!” response. I decided that I owed it to him to read the articles he had sent me with as open a mind as I could muster, and consider the pro-genetic modification argument, instead of only reading the anti-genetic modification campaigners like Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists. I read the National Academy of Science’s report on the safety of genetically modified foods, as well. I’ll tell you up front: I did not change my opinion on the appropriateness of widespread use of genetically modified organisms. Here’s what I wrote my friend.
I think the best place to start is with this challenge from you:
It’s hard to make the case that we should trust science and act to stem global warming, while at the same time we are scoffing at the statements [PDF] of *snort* scientists on genetic modification.
We’re looking at two very different kinds of science here. The science of global warming is pretty cut and dried. It involves measuring temperatures and gas concentrations over time, making a graph of them, factoring in possible different levels of future fossil fuel use and other factors that are coming into play such as deforestation, melting permafrost, etc., and noticing that, in a “business as usual scenario,” we are going to be toast in short order.
It’s all very quantifiable, very basic chemistry and physics, and what that basic chemistry and physics tells us is that we have in all likelihood dangerously overshot the amount of carbon dioxide we can safely release into the atmosphere and we need to stop all fossil fuel use and commence extreme carbon sequestration and a carbon-neutral culture. Genetically modified crops, and the industrial/chemical agriculture system that they are part and parcel of, are a major source of the excess carbon in our atmosphere, and thus the answer to the science question is that the science of global warming trumps the science of factory farming, which includes pretty much all use of genetically modified organisms.
When we consider the historical evidence about whether we should put our faith in science, we find a very broad spectrum of results. Often, science’s solution to a “problem” only results in a different, more complicated problem. Atomic energy was going to be “too cheap to meter.” But gee, they never did figure out what to do with all the waste products, and now some nuclear plant operators are coming to the conclusion that, rather than being too cheap to meter, it’s too expensive to continue. Meanwhile, hundreds of nuclear power plants are situated by our rising oceans. Fukushima was the first to succumb to the power of the sea. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.
None of this seems to have been anticipated by governments and businesses when they instituted nuclear power.
The “Green Revolution” was supposed to end hunger in the third world. Instead, it introduced peasant farmers to fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds that they were ill-equipped to handle safely, or pay for, and contributed to the destruction of local cultures that had functioned for centuries. Failed farmers and their families have swollen the cities of the third world, landless, desperate for money, and losing their rural survival skills. This result was, one hopes, not anticipated by the scientists, governments, and business interests that launched “the green revolution.” Or perhaps they were looking ahead and saw it as a way to create potential factory workers with much-less-than-American lifestyle and wage expectations.
First, there’s the question of whether genetically modified organisms are, as I insist, inextricably tied to industrial agriculture.
One of the articles you sent me said this:
….there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case.
In other words, we should consider genetic engineering apart from the context in which it invariably appears-we should ignore “the big picture.” I disagree. Our agricultural paradigm is not working very well, and one reason for that is, I think, its inability to comprehend the “big picture”–or even such a subdivision of it as the overall social and ecological niche of agriculture. So, “the big picture” is, I think, a good place to start. Framing the appropriateness of genetically modified organisms as a question of “whether genetically manipulated foods are safe to eat” is like asking whether the candy and gingerbread of the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel was “safe to eat.”
In and of itself, it might be “safe to eat,” but the problem is the context–be it genetically modified organisms, or a house built to lure children to their death, is not a system that offers safety in the long term. It may well be the case that genetically modified organisms designed to be eaten are, for the most part, digestible.It’s possible that some mutations arrived at through genetic modification might even be beneficial. But, given their most common contexts, I don’t think their widespread use promotes a safe food system. The number of genetically modified organisms that have been created to aid agribusiness far outweighs the few that seem to have been created with more humanitarian motives. More on that later.
In one of our exchanges, you dismissed “transitioning to a local food supply,” saying ” But that is in the really long run.”It’s much more urgent than that. Our food supply is a rickety, sprawling, global network with myriad weak points. The collapse of any one of them could bring the whole thing crashing down, resulting in malnutrition, starvation, and chaos for millions, if not billions, of people. We are already on track for complete disruption of the global food system due to planetary overheating and sea level rise. By the time the effects of those things are strong enough to fully disrupt the economy (flooded ports, agricultural regions that no longer produce, unavailability of fossil-fuel based inputs) it will be too late to transition gracefully. Clinging to this agricultural model is kind of like not quitting smoking because cigarettes are available cheap at the corner store, or the notion that fracking is OK because natural gas is a “bridge fuel” that will buy us time to go solar. Sorry, our carbon budget is all used up. Have some cold turkey! Well, actually, Turkey’s probably going to get unbearably hot, along with the rest of the peri-equatorial part of the planet.
We need to get off our centralized chemical ag jag and get back to a local diet and food supply with the same speed and concentration of attention that we need to apply to compassionately reducing the human population of the planet, getting off fossil fuels, and sequestering carbon. In fact, all four of these go hand in hand and could save us, if only we’d undertake them. Unfortunately, we are not reducing our population. We are not localizing our food networks nearly fast enough. Our fossil fuel use is growing. Genuine carbon sequestration is, so far, a fringe movement. At the rate we’re going–rate, shmate, given the direction we’re heading as a society, we’re not going to keep our asses from roasting. It makes me glad I’m an old man who will almost certainly be dead before thirty years are out, but I’m worried for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We are leaving them a possibly insoluble mess.
Genetically modified organisms exist primarily in the context of industrial-scale agriculture, highly mechanized and chemicalized, heavily dependent on fossilized energy to run its machinery, from tractors to grain dryers to manure handling systems, and create its sprays and fertilizers. It takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food energy. What form does that ten calories take? There’s the energy it takes to manufacture farming equipment, the fuel it takes to run farm equipment, there’s chemical fertilizer, and there’s the chemicals that are sprayed on, and around, the plants. One such chemical is glyphasate. According to a paper published by Harvard University, 383 million more pounds of glyphosate herbicide have been sold than if GMO crops had not been introduced. That’s a billion dollars worth of herbicide, which some scientists say is safe, and others say is not. (see comments in the “safe” link for a rebuttal of the article, and notice how the rebutter is treated!) This issue–contradictory research, is a recurring theme in the GMO debate and elsewhere. More on that shortly.
Considering the way drug companies cherry pick their studies to make it look as if marginally effective or unsafe medications are worth approving and selling, and how many FDA-approved drugs have been taken off the market for safety issues, after having been on the market, in some cases, for as long as 30 years, I have to take all the “genetically modified organisms are safe” promotion with a certain amount of skepticism. Monsanto, which controls the vast majority of the genetically modified seed business, earns around ten billion dollars a year from GM seeds, plus another 4.75 billion from herbicide sales. Lately their sales, and revenues, have been slipping, though, and management and shareholders are getting nervous. There’s a lot of money at stake here on the part of those who are in favor of GMOs, but none at stake for those who oppose GMOs. Frequently, the outsiders are dismissed as “anti-science,” or “activists with an agenda.” Ask yourself, Cui bono? Who benefits?
The notion that the crucial question is whether GMOs are safe to eat promotes way too narrow a focus, and ignores the fact that, so far, most GMO crops are not eaten directly by people. Corn is the most common GMO crop. 40% of our corn crop goes to ethanol, 36% to animal feed, and most of the rest of it is exported, mostly for animal feed. Most of the corn consumed by people in the US is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which nutritionists generally agree we would much healthier without. Likewise, almost all the US soybean crop is turned into animal feed. The next most common GMO crop is cotton. You might not think anybody eats cotton, but cottonseed oil is an important ingredient in what Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances,”common in commercial fried foods. Cottonseed oil is not your friend.
As I pointed out, the bulk of GMO crops grown in the United States are fed to animals, used for ethanol, or heavily processed. Let’s look at the energy efficiency of the system they prop up. There’s an acronym, EROEI, which stands for “energy returned on energy invested.” It’s a ratio. The EROEI for Saudi Arabian oil is about 70:1. The EROEI of ethanol is about one to one, essentially the transformation of fossil fuel energy directly into alcohol energy, with no net gain whatsoever. It only continues because so many people are making so much money off this sham that it’s hard to get them to quit. The EROEI for biodiesel, which is the fate of some soybean oil, is even lower. The “animal feed” portion of our corn and soybean crop props up an overly meat-heavy diet that is sickening the people who eat it as it poisons the planet in the short term with manure from the high-density factory farms that raise most of our meat animals, and poisoning the planet in the long term with the amount of carbon it emits in the process of growing, moving, and processing what it grows. And, oh yeah, there’s all those antibiotics they use to keep the densely-packed animals sort of healthy.
Most of our country’s exported corn and soybeans go to China for animal feed. Again we are seeing the results of an accounting system that externalizes important costs, such as the carbon cost from the ships that carry them. This is the system for which the vast majority of genetic modifications are made.
GMO salmon are trembling on the brink of being sold to the public. The FDA has determined that they are “safe to eat,” while opponents disputed that and worried about the wild salmon gene pool getting transgenic additions, but the focus on both sides is far too narrow. I see it in these terms: the modified salmon are being raised in Panama and Canada, so far, though the corporation with the patent wants to open operations in the US. The fish are kept in tanks on dry land, rather than netted-in areas in the ocean common to factory fish farms. On top of that, the GMO salmon are mostly sterile females, so interbreeding is not considered to be a likely consequence. (I’m not clear whether this extreme segregation was in the original plan, or insisted on by regulators.) Fresh fish, produced at an industrial scale, depend on refrigeration and air freight for fast and widespread delivery to “the global market.” If the externalized costs of this far-flung, energy and capital-intensive enterprise had to be included in the retail price, this fish, even more than farmed fish in general, would be affordable only to the wealthy few.
Genetically modified eucalyptus trees will certainly never be eaten by people, or much of anything else. All they’re good for is making paper–and firewood. Apparently, the trees are so resinous that they readily burn when they are green and growing. That must smell wonderful! To be fair, flammability is a property of all eucalyptus trees, not just genetically modified ones. The genetic modification is supposed to enable them to withstand colder winter temperatures. Paper companies are attempting to introduce them to the southeastern US. They can spread aggressively, poisoning native plants, and are also notorious for sucking up vast amounts of water. Animals and insects outside of Australia have not evolved to eat eucalyptus trees, so they create an environment that is hostile to native forest animals. The trees can grow so thickly that they also crowd out native forest understory plants that they don’t poison. Hopefully, the USDA learned its lesson from kudzu and Johnson grass, and these superweed trees will not be widely planted in the US. Test plots at Auburn University have had disappointing results–the trees are neither as cold-hardy, or as vigorous, as their originators promised. Meanwhile, a more cold-resistant eucalyptus tree has been achieved by regular breeding, if we really want that sort of thing.
And “golden rice” hasn’t made it to the marketplace yet, fifteen years after its creation, not because of Greenpeace, but because it doesn’t yield as well as other rice strains. There are no studies showing that it works to combat vitamin A deficiency in a typical peasant diet, and, meanwhile, vitamin A deficiency is shrinking as a problem as people become educated about the need to eat a more varied diet, and as supplement-providing programs spread. It’s a very inexpensive supplement. The money spent on fifteen years of trying to develop a rice strain with high vitamin A levels would likely have been more than enough to pay for supplementation for the last fifteen years, and quite a few years to come.
“Industry” is the operative word here. Commercial papayas are monocropped, i.e., grown in large fields where nothing is allowed to grow except papayas, using tractors, fuel, and agrichemicals that all have to be transported to a small island way out in the Pacific Ocean, and then they are sent via expensive refrigerated air freight back across the ocean to be sold to the public. This is only affordable because the full ecological consequences of all that travel, and of that monocropping, are treated as externalities. If they were included in the price of the papayas, very few of us could afford them. In a world in which we know that we are using too much fossil fuel, “the Hawaiian papaya industry” is one of the first things we ought to shut down if we want to keep the planet livable. Yankee,you might just have to give up your freaking papayas! Moreover, it’s the monocropping of papayas that led to the disease outbreak. As I understand it, organic papaya growers, who keep their papayas in a more natural setting, mixed with other fruit trees and food crops, don’t have the disease problem the monocroppers have had. Oh…it also turns out that the gene that gives resistance to the virus that was plaguing papayas creates greater susceptibility to a fungus that the industrial growers now have to spray more to suppress.
Someplace in the pro-GMO literature I’ve read, there’s the statement that millions of pounds of GMOs have been fed to animals without any apparent harm, proving that genetically modified organisms are generally safe to eat. I would like to humbly submit that, since those animals are routinely killed and eaten at a young age, (which hopefully will not become the fate of any humans!) that’s no guarantee that there aren’t long-term effects. We are being asked to be guinea pigs for an experiment, the results of which, should they prove unfavorable, will be difficult or impossible to ameliorate.
There’s the biodiversity issue. Planting large acreages in patented, genetically modified crops–or regular hybrids, for that matter–pushes out traditional, locally adapted strains, at the same time as the new varieties may mix genetically with those local strains where they are still grown, watering down their locally-adaptive characteristics. At a time when climate change is altering the parameters of farming, it is vitally important to preserve as much biodiversity in our food crops as possible. The strain grown five valleys south of here now is the strain that will work here, soon, and those southerners need to find a variety from still further south, etc. Could genetic engineering actually help this process, you might ask? Given its high price tag, long lead time, and uncertain results, I think it’s too big and unwieldy a tool to use for the many local adaptations that, if we have a future, will be part of the future of our agriculture.
That leads into one of my other objections to GMO technology. It presumes a monetized farming economy. We tend to take monetization for granted here in America, but increasing the demand for money is one of the ways the corporatocracy assaults peasant communities and stable ways of life. Monetizing peasant cultures leads to the need for banks and credit, which leads to interest payments, which lead to the extraction of money and energy from local economies, not their enrichment. Could GMOs exist without being part of this economy? Maybe, but would they be necessary?
Lastly, I want to clarify that, while I have severely criticized “science” in this essay, I have nothing against science per se. I think knowledge of the details and whole systems of the material world is a thoroughly worthwhile pursuit. I think our current scientific paradigm, however, is somewhat impaired ethically, for letting big business frame the questions, direct the research, and cash in on the answers in ways that benefit the business rather than the common good, and that is what has created a great portion of the mess we find ourselves in these days. We need to be much more cautious about applying new technologies that have not been fully tested or even thought through.
So I hope this helps you understand why I don’t think GMOs are a good idea.
Here’s what it comes down to: What genetically modified organisms are primarily used for, at this point, is to prop up our overly carnivorous, convenience-food oriented diet and our overly mechanized agriculture–two features of our culture that actually work against our long-term survival. I think the ability to manipulate genes is an extraordinary achievement, but I see that achievement as a curiosity, something enabled by the incredibly lavish culture we have generated by using up so much of the Earth’s energy all at once. We can’t go on like this.
I am also concerned because so many of science’s promises have gone awry, and, under current circumstances, science’s promise of plenty of good food through industrial agriculture using genetically modified plants is already creating more problems than it’s solving. I think genetic modification is rich with the possibility of accidental–or intentional–seriously negative consequences. I also have to admit that, as with so many controversial technologies, from the manufacture of atomic weapons to the manufacture of psychedelic chemicals, genetic engineering has been unleashed and will be with us for some time to come, for better or for worse. When genetic manipulation is outlawed, only outlaws will manipulate genes.
Over the course of the next decades and centuries, we will find out just what kind of world we are capable of creating. I think that world will have a significantly lower population of humans, living much more simply, and co-operatively, in smaller, more self-sufficent groups. I don’t think we will shed most of our knowledge, or all of our technology. It would be great if, in that world to come, we are still capable of doing the complex science of genetic manipulation, and have become wise enough to determine whether there are, in fact, good uses for it, and what they might be.
Meanwhile, let’s be careful.
Music: Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, “Snake“