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The science against GMOs

I debated whether this belongs on my main blog or over at the new agriculture blog. It's politics. And farming. And science. So I'm saying 2 out of 3 means it goes here. It comes with a healthy dose of "I don't care about Ted Cruz." He's a moron and has about as much chance of becoming President of the United States as me. I worry none about anything he thinks. But he did say something interesting yesterday.

His criticism in Iowa was of the anti-science label that gets thrown at Republicans despite the fact that--as Ted Cruz sees it--the left is questioning the science on climate change, food labeling, and biotechnology. This is the same Republican Party that has a significant block that doesn't believe in evolution. So we'll take his criticism with a grain of salt even if it brings up a good chance to talk about food science. 

Cruz argued yesterday, among other things, for "volunteer conservation" rather than EPA regulation. And he argued for the open market to solve the GMO and food labeling issue because...his argument...there is already a booming segment of the market dedicated to this issue without mandatory rules or compliance. I actually get this point a bit...I often debate in favor of what ultimately will do GMOs in as being consumer demand coupled with financial disincentives for farmers to grow them. But I also think there is the issue here of outlying operators who refuse to either follow the market trends or the flip side that some consumers will become so used to GMO-free food that it becomes a burden on them to sort out the few remaining foods that will eventually cling. Nobody is reported to want the new GMO apple that doesn't turn brown. Case in point. 

But none of this is really why I want to talk about GMO science. I'm more concerned with the legions of paid cronies for biotech posing as do-good fact checkers supposedly "correcting" the narrative (the dominant bad one) on biotechnology. It's like a message board of moms trying to tell us that high fructose corn syrup is actually good for us. Not that organic doesn't have it's own skin in the financial game and thus incentives to smear the other side. 

My concern with the "science says GMO is safe" mantra is that I don't think that's really what we're criticizing when we critique GM crops. Will I die if I eat modified corn? Of course not. But we've let the argument be framed as if I disagree with GM crops I'm questioning the safety science. No, I'm criticizing the numerous other pieces of science that go against GMO. And I'm not even talking about the What If question about possibly finding a food safety issue from longterm consumption in the future. I mean right now. And it covers the environment. It covers economics. 

What I think gets overlooked in the bickering back and forth about GM crops is 1) the culture in which they're grown 2) the side issues are really where the meat is for the topic. 

By "culture in which they're grown," I mean that those who are actively growing GM crops and the general agricultural philosophy using them. Not that there isn't a movement to "mix toolboxes" and combine the best inputs/outputs of GM farming with, say, organic methods. Why not use every available option in your farm system and do both in your fields? I understand the wanting to make a practical hybrid system. And this is nothing against those of you who choose this for yourself or are trying to argue those benefits. I'm strictly saying that if we are going to be reductionist then let's have that conversation. Because it doesn't look pretty for a non-mixed or non-organic philosophy. 

In the very "pro" GM crop corner, I feel like many people who argue in favor of it see it as a kind of magic bullet...which it is most definitely not. By a long shot. But I'd also bring up the point that these proponents often are working within a specific farming system of big inputs and environmental impact anyway. I don't necessarily mean large farms. I do, however, mean that there's a lot invested in this type of farming and a switch is complicated both by dollars and frame of mind. 

As someone taking a fresh set of eyes to the situation and trying to decide who I support there are a few things that leap out to me though...

To start, in multi-decade studies of different farm methods organic production can nearly match other yields. And, even better, organic production outpaces all other yields in drought years. Kinda seems like a salient point given what's going on in the West these days. Or in developing nations. But, even more, when you take away the premium we all pay for organic crops, farmers still come out better with organic in the end because of the soil enhancement. Lower inputs over many years mean that organic methods have greater income for the farmer (over the course of all years) due to a lack of having to constantly pay money to adjust the soil. There's also a penalty financially for growing GM crops due to the increased seed prices that doesn't pay for itself in the end. With declining yields from the early years, farmers aren't making that price gap up come harvest. Plus, there is the spraying problem of GM crops losing effectiveness and resulting in more applications to prevent insects and disease. 

And oh those superbugs. Genetically modified crops have also given birth to a new generation of resistant insects. And have contributed to the loss of important insects we DO want like monarch butterflies and honeybees. 

Farming with organic, regenerative methods has the added benefit of being able to put carbon back into the soil. Which makes it a possible solution for some climate worries. These methods (despite complaints that organic is allowed to use natural pesticides, too) often are put into practice from farmers unlikely to use large amounts of chemicals and more likely to use eco-friendly practices. Meaning non-GM farming is statistically more likely to be contributing to conservation, easing runoff, not contaminating streams and rivers, not contaminating drinking water, and more likely to, say, use humane and higher standards for livestock care...that last point I could write posts and posts and posts of how important rotational grazing can be for land management strategies. A flock of sheep or goats, especially, can serve environmental purposes of cutting back growth to create new wildflower meadows, stopping erosion, and fertilizing soil without chemical application for future use. 

It's not so much that the science shows GMO is "bad." It's that the science shows GMO makes little financial, environmental, sustainability, work, etc. sense. Why are we talking about GMOs still when they're the worst of all possible inputs/outputs in farming currently? (Which doesn't mean we can't make advancements in any method.) But, again, it's more complicated than that because of various social, demographic, and economic factors...GM farming hangs in there for a variety of reasons which all make good sense from some angle to someone. How do you convince those people?  

My larger point here is that it's going to take time and effort not even just for setting policy if you want to fight this battle on that higher level. But even just on the farmer-to-farmer level. And, after several discussions this week, we noted that there are few remaining sources for unbiased information. Short of maybe the university extension. Companies and some scientists are biased with a pro-biotech agenda. And the organic companies certainly have their own motivation to push an agenda. It has left consumers pushing for food changes against farmers who are now on the defensive. I don't blame them. It's tough to see such rapid (yes, Ted Cruz, largely market based) pushes on the system. Many farmers want to simply fight back rather than reform. But, if you ask me, that's not where the future is headed. The industrial, post-WWII agricultural system is losing (thank goodness!) the battle for local, sustainable, healthier alternatives that seek to build better bridges between farmer and consumer. Now, does that mean bridges aren't being burned where others are being built? There is certainly a segment of the farming population hostile to this populist shift. Does it mean organic owns the future? No, it doesn't...I say this as someone who would hesitate to certify organic myself. But the methods are key. 

My argument is that if your customer is trying to tell you there's a better way, you'd better listen. Maybe on that Ted Cruz and I could agree. But where we part ways is the idea that science somehow "backs" GMOs. It most definitely does not.