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Bad arguments for GMOs

This article popped up in my newsfeed this morning. It's from National Geographic and titled, "Can This Scientist Unite Genetic Engineers and Organic Farmers." We'll ignore, for a second, that the very title/idea itself is silly because organic farming--by definition--cannot include genetically modified anything. So it's hard to imagine some sort of middle ground. Not that there aren't voices in the food/ag debate trying. A full toolbox is not necessarily a bad thing, I'll allow. I think that's what the article is trying to get at is that modern farming is on a continuum where we shouldn't be at the fundamentalist extreme of either end. Fair enough. Neither technique has all the answers, true. Especially in organic circles these days the talk is about more holistic systems, soil regeneration, and being less loyal to "organic" and more loyal to the bigger picture of environmental health for sustainability.

But back on topic. The piece is full of some of the frequent and lame arguments in favor of GMOs that proponents throw out...that I find both weasely and politically manipulative. (Not that GMO opponents are not weasely and politically manipulative. They can be. I'm just trying to point out that some lines of argument are plainly out of bounds.) The entire topic of food and farming reform is political, first of all. You cannot enter the discussion without getting into a socio-economic argument about scale of production, monocrops, local systems, the amount of money to made in farming, etc.. So the simple act of trying to define the parameters of the debate is taking political sides. One cannot appeal to the safety of GMOs without a asking the larger question about "safety of what?" The attempt to define GMO safety as only related to short-term human ingestion of foods is, essentially, an attempt to limit the conversation on terms GMO proponents think they can win. If they're "safe," what can the possible argument be against them? Of course, if we're talking about longterm health concerns for not only humans but plants, animals, bees, longterm environmental impact, sustainability as it relates to, say, soil health over generations...that's an argument GMO proponents are much more likely to lose. They want to talk about nobody being ill from eating GM crops. I don't blame them, but it's a silly attempt at debate.

The other argument I see frequently that also appears in the article is the "we've been transforming plant genetics for thousands of years" line with the logical conclusion to be that lab manipulation of plants and animals is no different from other forms of genetic alteration. Selective breeding of livestock and meticulous record keeping of traits is equal to inserting genes directly? Again, an attempt to limit debate by focusing the whole topic on the idea that one method of human interference with nature is as good as another. By that rationale, however, injecting hormones or antibiotics into farm animals is not really all that different than feeding them hay, grain, or table scraps to your dog. Also, nevermind the problem of relying on laboratory genetic manipulation (by big agribusiness esp) as a first line of agriculture. The problem isn't just an ethical or philosophical stance against this kind of "artificial" tampering...though you could make that point. The problem is also that genetic engineering is no more effective than good old-fashioned careful breeding, testing, and selection based on field experiments. That comes into play especially when seed purchasing of GM crops is more expensive than conventional, but the genetically engineered traits end up failing as they've done with corn recently. The results have to live up to the promises for science. And one of the key problems for the bright, bright future of genetic engineering is that, for example, organic matches it in terms of crop yield and organic even outperforms all other methods in years of drought.

On those terms, the debate about GMOs is less about whether they are safe or fair or ethical and comes down to the need for science itself to validate them. GMOs don't get a free pass because they came about via technology. That doesn't ultimately make them "more scientific." Which is my personal pet peeve about the "anti-science" label getting thrown at GMO critics. Just because you have an iPhone doesn't mean it's the best way to have a conversation. If you put it on a horrible network and my call keeps getting dropped, I'm better off walking down the street to have a face to face chat with my neighbor. Such are the lessons of the market, too. The latest and greatest genetically engineered whatever is of little value if consumer preference is to allow farmers to meet their needs in the field first.

The problem isn't GMOs themselves. The problem is that we're not having the larger conversation of where they fit in our modern food system. In that, I can agree with the article that we need to talk more about what, if anything, GMOs can help us accomplish in the coming decades with regard to creating a sustainable agriculture model around the world. There, I think GMO proponents will be disappointed that not only are the impacts probably less than advertised...but we don't want them to anyway.