It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.
Science is hard. That is why we need dedicated research to explore, discover and untangle the nature of reality and how the world works. When a scientific issue also becomes socially controversial with powerful forces trying to persuade us to hold positions that run counter to evidence and mainstream science, it can get very complicated. One such area is genetically modified crops and genetically modified foods. It is an area where many different issues, from details of molecular biology and field trials to patent law and corporations get mixed together in a confusing mess.
Debunking Denialism, among others, tries to boost the signal of science and reason against the noise of ideology and nonsense. Recently, a person by the name Julie wrote in and asked some sincere and important questions about GMOs and surrounding issues. Let us have a look at what Julie wrote about GMOs specifically.
I endorse scientific evidence
Julie starts her email by making statements about what she thinks is my position on genetically modified crops:
Having read your articles about GMOs, I couldn’t help but notice that you seem to endorse them heartily.
I endorse evidence. Full stop.
Before we go on, let us go over some essential background.
1. Humans have been taking wild plants and animals modified them for our needs and wants for over ten millennia. That is how we turned wolves into dogs, Teosinte into corn or the wild banana into the large, seedless bananas that we eat today. Many of our favorite fruits, vegetables and crops look very different today than they did in the wild. This was done using artificial selection. This is a crude, inefficient and slow method that shuffles thousands of genes every generation.
2. Today, you can modify plants in a large variety of ways. You can use the traditional farming techniques such as crossbreeding and hybridization, lab techniques such as embryo rescue or even put them in chemical mutagens or blast them with radiation. None of these methods are classified as “GMO” by regulatory agencies. They are completely unregulated and you can release the crops into nature the very moment you can create them. No testing required.
3. A crop only becomes a “GMO” if it is modified using a particular set molecular biology methods called recombinant DNA technology. For the “GMO” label, it does not matter what you modify or if the resulting crop is safe, only the method you used. If you use this specific method, regardless of what you did, you have to work your way through about a decade of toxicological and ecological safety studies. Even if you cause the exact same change with one classical method and GM technologies, only the latter will count as a GMO.
4. When talking about “GMOs” it is vital to distinguish the molecular biology method from GM applications. The method works. It produces changes that are much smaller, much more precise and much more well-known than any other classical method. It is the same method that was used to make the bacteria that produces e. g. insulin for children with type-I diabetes that previously got their medication from extracting insulin from cattle and other animals.
5. As for specific GM applications, they must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis just like any other product, such as medication or a toy. Most scientists want all products regulated, but that the regulation be based on what changes are done and not what method is used.
Thus, I am in favor of molecular biology methods and I am in favor of those GM applications (and only those GM applications) that have been found to be safe and effective. Why? The answer is because I accept evidence that those methods work effectively and because safe and effective GM applications have reached that status because the evidence supports it. Thus, I am pro-evidence. Full stop.
This is not he same as irrationally endorsing all possible applications that has ever been done with a given method. I endorse evidence. The only reason that “pro-GMO” is a term that is sometimes used is because it is not possible to explain all the above in casual conversation. The scientific position I outlined above is not the ideological opposite of “anti-GMO”. It is just conclusions based on scientific evidence. So when a pro-science advocate uses the phrase “GMOs are safe”, they mean that the methods used to make GM crops are safe and that the vast majority of GM applications that have risen to prominence are also safe.
GMOs are safe
Right away, Julie shows a good grasp of the science:
I do not deny that you make a very good case for them in terms of safety for humans as well as for the environment, at least when compared to conventional agriculture.
Great! That means that you have seen through almost all the pseudoscientific nonsense promoted by the anti-GMO movement. That is actually quite an accomplishment due to the widespread misinformation campaigns against biotechnology run by various anti-GMO groups.
It is also good that you understand the comparison with conventional agriculture. There are risks with GMOs because there are risks with all forms of modification, whether that is done by classical breeding, chemical mutagens or genetic modification using molecular biology techniques. The key question we must ask ourselves is this: are there any risks with GMOs that do not exist with classical methods? The answer to that question is probably no. All risks that you can come up with have comparable counterparts in conventional agriculture. Genetic modification, on the other hand, eliminates some risks that exists in conventional agriculture (more on that below).
That has actually nothing to do with GMOs…
Julie gets to the point:
You see, my fundamental problem with GMOs is the utter lack of ethics of the major companies producing them (which are the same producing most of the seeds of conventional agriculture), an issue that you mention very seldom in your articles.
Julie states that her core issue with GMOs is the ethical problems with corporations. This, however, is not an issue with GMOs, it is an issue with corporations and politics. As Julie points out, these problems (and virtually all problems raised by anti-GMO activists, such as patents, lawsuits and so on) exists in conventional agriculture as well. Saying that this is the core problem with GMOs is like saying that the core problem with water is companies that produce bottled water. That is decidedly not a problem with water itself. It is a problem with corporations.
It is vital to understand that issues that relate to corporations, patent law and so on have nothing to do with the lab techniques used to produce GM crops or the safety or efficacy data of specific GM applications. A GM application that produces too little of some beneficial substance is a failure regardless of how ethical or unethical a given corporation is.
What was the point with yield-increasing GMOs?
Next, Julie wonders:
Also, GMOs are mainly used for boosting the crops’ yield : is this necessary in a western world where thousands upon thousands of tons of food products already go to waste each year?
Two of the largest GM applications in the world are herbicide-resistance and insect-resistance. The former allow you to get a handle on weeds and the latter on a very specific group of insect pests. Most research done on large-scale effects of GMOs show an increased yield, less pesticide use and higher farmer profits. In other words, yield is not the trait that is specifically being improved. It is an indirect effect of having less crop loss due to insects and weeds. The meta-analysis cited above is not perfect, but generally shows a larger benefit in less developed countries.
So why is yield important when it comes to genetic modification in the western world? Are we not producing enough food and throwing a ton of it away? Yes, but that is only true right now. In the next couple of decades, the world population will increase with a few billions, we continually lose arable land on which to grow food and face an increasing problem from climate change. Soon, we are going to be forced to produce more food on less land with a stronger backlash from nature. How will we tackle those problems? Genetic modification is not the only answer, but at this point it will probably have to play a partial, yet vital, role. So we really cannot afford to be so short-sighted.
It may be, for now, the only viable solution in third world countries where traditional agriculture cannot keep up with population increase and climactic catastrophies occurring more and more often, and some GMOs are indeed recognized as of public utility (golden rice, virus resistant papaya, to quote your examples), but those who profit from GM seeds trade generally aren’t the ones who’d need them most.
Corporations profit from GMOs. That is correct. But so do farmers. According to the meta-analysis cited above, farmer profits increased by close to 70% from growing GMOs. This is likely because of the fact that less of their crops are being eaten by pests or competed by pests. In particular, adopting GMOs have led to increased profits for women who work on farms by 55%. With herbicide-resistant crops, they do not have to go around pulling weed mechanically form the ground with their bare hands. It is correct that farmers who grow GMOs spend a lot of money of seeds, but that is to a large degree compensated by reduced spending on pesticides and yield increases.
Comparisons with conventional agriculture
Lastly, you said in comments that, as GMOs aren’t more nocive than conventional intensive agriculture, nobody should have a problem with both of them.
Not quite. The argument was that if one does not have a problem with conventional agriculture, one cannot logically have a problem with GM crops. There is probably no dangers with GMOs that do not exist with conventional farming (or even organic farming for that matter). This argument only works for people who accept conventional farming.
Yet, what if one also dislikes the way food is produced in “normal” farms?
Because conventional agriculture IS harmful both to people and nature : be it the amount of dangerous pesticides released into the air we breathe or sipping through the ground into groundwaters (when it doesn’t directly flow over the overworked soil directly into rivers or seas), or the intensive cattle farming releasing tons of methane in the atmosphere, or the cutting and burning of whole, ancient ecosystems, modern agriculture is straining our planet and contributes largely to the dramatic climate changes we are already experiencing.
Then one can escape the specific argument outlined above (and it was not meant for the position held by Julie), but quickly face an even worse argument: then how do you feed people? Organic farming cannot do the job because it has ~34% lower yield than conventional when organic and convention farming are comparable. This is not something we want when we face population growth, loss of arable land and climate change.
Are there problems with conventional agriculture? Absolutely! It is too reliant on inorganic fertilizers, artificial watering and pesticides that have been used inappropriately in many cases. But that was the cost we paid for getting the Green Revolution that doubled to tripled food production and saved maybe 1 billion people from starvation. So how do we fix these problems? One partial solution is to use genetic modification to make crops become more efficient at taking up plant nutrients, resist drought better and have an improved defense against pathogens and pests. So far, we have the insect-resistant crops and the virus-resistant papaya as two key examples (and herbicide-resistant crops allows farmers to stop using the most dangerous herbicides and rely on less harmful ones instead), but progress is slower on the other issues.
Thus, the problems that Julie and others see with conventional agriculture can to some degree me mitigated by genetic modification. That would be the answer to those who hold positions immune to the comparison with conventional farming.
Science and politics
Julie contrasts scientific issues with political ones:
I guess my comment is pretty irrelevant, seeing as your blog deals with scientific facts and the travesty thereof, and not political ideas and the necessity for a new world mentality, but considering the major issues posed by modern agriculture, be it genetically modified or not, I can’t condone an apparent endorsement of it.
Unfortunately, I do not think that we can view science and politics as two isolated areas anymore. Anti-science politicians and activists attack science and we need sensible political policy to solve many of the large-scale problems that we are currently facing.
Since I would support efforts to mitigate the problems of conventional agriculture with safe and effective GM applications, I would not say that I condone it. However, we must also realize that as long as the anti-GMO movement stays as powerful as it is today, we are stuck with conventional agriculture for most of the world and organic agriculture for the excessively rich to suppress their guilt over the situation.
In short, and to conclude, while I think you are right to condemn fearmongering and the spreading of false or biased facts, the will to defend GMOs in a scientific point of view may have led you, on this particular subject, to a form of coldness, or even shortsightedness, on the real problem.
On the contrary, using genetic modification to improve plant yield, resistance and resource efficiency to handle the challenges of population growth, loss of arable land and climate change is the very opposite of coldness and shortsightedness.
In shorter, I agree with you that GM crops aren’t more dangerous than conventional crops, but does it really matter since both are awful anyway?
It is not always helpful to request perfect solutions. What if we try to find solutions that work and have less impact than current ones?