Monday, June 25, 2012

GMO Myths And Truths

Here's a respectable collection of arguments against the use of genetic engineering for the food supply, all in one report:
GMO Myths And Truths, An Evidence-Based Examination Of The Claims Made For The Safety And Efficacy Of Genetically Modified Crops, Earth Open Source, June 2012

And a summary:
GMO Myths and Truths, Earth Open Source, June 2012

The authors began by saying "a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that these claims [e.g. GMOs increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, are strictly regulated for safety] are not true." They proceeded to cite that evidence. Boy did they. There are literally hundreds of citations in this report.

This video accompanied the summary. It describes the conditions farmers face dealing with GMOs ... having to spray more (at more cost) to defeat weeds (or be told you have to weed mechanically!), having to pay for new seed every season instead of keeping some from a previous crop, being sued if some GMO seed accidentally contaminates your field. How do small farms keep up under the GM/Monsanto pressure?



Ben P. DaSalt said...

The paper doesn’t feel neutral.

• The organization that sponsored the report doesn’t feel particularly neutral (very pro organic, very anti-GMO. It’s in their mission statement).

• The authors who wrote the report aren’t particularly neutral (quick Google search seems like they are pro organic). The study could have at least balanced out the authors (i.e. one pro-organic, one pro-GMO, one fence-sitter.)

• The wording of even the way the myths and truths aren’t neutral or are stating strawmen arguments to debunk.

Thanks for the paper though, I’m not trying to dismiss it, but on the onset it just doesn’t come across as unbiased. Lot’s of references don’t necessarily impress me. I would need to track down a few of the references to see how they are using them. Also, context matters.

I already heard of most of these criticisms of GMO, nothing all that new. Yes, GMO isn’t perfect, but I’m looking for more comparative assessments. Everything is going to have some negatives we can pick at, but we need to keep that in context against other methods and agricultural pressures.

Organic uses some toxic pesticides too. Organic can run into problems of using too much pesticides, less potency means more applications which can lead to runoff. Sourcing certain organic pesticide can be costly for farmers. Etc.

I suppose my main skepticism of organic is that if it is obviously the best, most productive, method, why wouldn’t it be the market leader on such merits alone? It seems like I need to buy into a corporate conspiracy theories or how scientists are wrong and while they could be true, there seems to be a simpler answer that fits the data.

Organic, for whatever reason doesn’t seem to scale up well and perhaps conventional exists for legitimate reasons. I’m not trying to disparage organic, I’m a consumer of organic and I don’t think it is without merits, but I’m certainly on the fence about what sort of agricultural technologies we should pursue. However, these sorts of laundry lists of how GMO or organic is evil don’t go very far in shifting my thinking without more nuanced comparison.

I hope I don’t sound to close-minded, it’s just that this particular paper doesn’t pass my sniff test. When I get a chance, I’ll try to read it through a bit more thoroughly though.

Keep the GMO/Organic posts coming.

Bix said...

Nooo, I didn't mean to imply it was neutral; it's not. I guess I should have been more explanatory. Well, you took care of it.

And, yes, even their wording was biased-sounding and a little off-putting to me. I just posted it so I had a place to get it in the future.

Bix said...

While I'm here ... I also think the video is biased. But there were things in it I didn't know.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Bix said,
“I didn't mean to imply it was neutral;”

Oh, okay. The repetition of the word evidence threw me. Yeah, it’s evidence, but there was no cross examination, so to speak.

I finally got around to watching the video.

It’s interesting that the dichotomy wasn’t even between GMO versus organic but GMO versus conventional. It painted conventional in a really good light; the better way.

From what I understand, pesticides use is an arms race to come up with new products as resistance increases. There’s really nothing that can be done about this phenomenon, that’s just adaptation selection at work. When it’s pointed out that RoundUp is becoming less effective, well, no duh. No one expects it to work at 100% effectiveness forever. That’s why agribusiness charges money for their products, so they can pay their scientists to come up with the next herbicide and pesticide technologies.

My assumption as to why older conventional technology has been abandoned may be precisely this reason. The same way, at some point we’ll abandon our current cell phones and computer, they just become obsolete and can’t do the more demanding tasks required of them. Support can dry up as well, maybe your Windows 95 laptop serves your needs just fine, but no one expects Microsoft to continue research and development on that discontinued software on legacy hardware.

It’s interesting that the farmers interviewed wanted continued research and development on conventional pesticides to keep up with the arms race in that respect, but are indignant over agribusiness marketing and charging for their technologies. Agricultural technology research, no matter what it is, needs to be paid for somehow, and that’s why Monsanto is aggressive (probably to a fault though) in squeezing out profits.

It seems like it’s not profitable for further development of conventional pesticides so that’s why agribusiness has pulled out. Maybe that technology has hit a dead end, there’s only so many concoctions of chemical that can be mixed, perhaps that’s why the focus has turned to engineering the plants to perform in conjunction with the chemicals.

Or maybe conventional ain’t broke. Perhaps the rest of the world outside of the United States is managing with continued conventional methods just fine. Maybe GMO is just a big scam. I suppose I can be persuaded to believe this. It’s just that most of the anti-GMO rhetoric comes from organic advocates, not conventional advocates.

A legitimate critique is that there is something to be said about at least trying to diversify monoculture agriculture at least a little bit, but I can understand the pressure for everyone to gravitate towards what’s new and “best.” Once that shift happens, by nature, the effectiveness of the new and “best” solution is going to wear off until the next new and “best” comes out.

I’m not trying to give GMO and Monsanto a free pass, but arguments like, “RoundUp isn’t as effective as it used to be,” or “agricultural technology costs money” is propping up strawmen to slay.

I’m not thrilled with the workings of Monsanto either, but what’s the solution exactly? If it’s not a private company doing most of the R&D and seeking to make a profit from doing so, than it would be the government, which would offer a different set of concerns and still be criticized of being too burdensome and controlling.