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Sunday, 03/31/2013 - 10:23 am EST

Let's Talk GMOs.

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DISCLAIMER:  I'm not a scientist.  I'm not a farmer.  I'm not an expert on pesticides or genetically modified crops.

What I am is a regular chick who's been hearing a lot about the "Monsanto Protection Act" and genetically modified crops and how eeeeeeevil those things are.  So I've been looking into it a bit to see what all the fuss is about.

Now, I suppose as a second disclaimer I should say that I vaccinate my kids, and I don't buy organic food, and I think that the banning of DDT in the early 70's was one of the dumbest, hysterical over-reactions to anything EVER.

And you know what?  I'm inclined to think that the reaction to GMOs today is a lot like the reaction to DDT in the 60s and 70s - and that a few decades from now, when there is a food supply shortage and regulations have strangled the farming industry to near-suffocating levels, people are going to wake up and realize, "Holy shiznit.  We really screwed up here."

Quick background:  DDT was developed in the late 30's as an insecticide, and in the early 40's it was used extensively such that by the late 50's, malaria was all but eliminated in the US and Europe. By the early 60's, deaths from malaria in India had dropped from about 800,000 ANNUALLY to zero, thanks to DDT. 

In 1970, the National Academy of Sciences announced that "to only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT.  In little more than two decades DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths due to malaria that would have otherwise been inevitable."

But then, the environmentalist hysteria began.  A chick by the name of Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring, in which she railed against DDT and claimed it caused cancer in children by drawing the conclusion that an increase in cancer incidents in kids HAD to be related to DDT.  She didn't bother to mention that DDT saved MILLIONS of children from dying of malaria. She didn't bother to recognize that the REASON there was an increase in the percentage of kids dying from cancer is because fewer kids were dying of other infectious diseases.

Whoops.

But the damage was done. The public outcry was huge.  The EPA banned DDT in 1972, and it wasn't until 2006 that the World Health Organization announced that it would once again back the use of DDT to control malaria outbreaks.

By the way, Al Gore is one of Rachel Carson's biggest fans, saying about her book, "Silent Spring had a profound impact ... Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues ... [she] has had as much or more effect on me than any, and perhaps than all of them together."  So there you go. Generally, if Al Gore is on the side of something, I know the safest place to be is comfortably on the other side. wink

And the latest environmentalist cause, taken on by liberals and conservatives alike, seems to be GMOs.  The funny  thing about this latest craze is that ALL the plants we eat - regardless of whether or not they are "genetically modified"- are chock full of bacteria, viruses, and other creepy crawly microscopic stuff, along with their DNA.  The reason to genetically modify foods, of course, is to get the most "bang for our buck" - in other words, to develop the highest quality, highest volume of crops that are able to grow with the least amount of effort.  And that's exactly what GMOs have enabled farmers to do.

The organic food-buying public has convinced themselves that "organic" means "pesticide-free" when that's actually not the case at all.

But again, food and farm science?  Not my area of expertise by a long shot.  You can find links and sources which will argue the case for and against GMOs, but there was one that a clever and competent reader sent to me that really stood out.

Mark Lynas is an environmentalist who helped start the anti-GMO movement in the 90's.  And very recently, he has apologized for doing so.  You can watch the presentation he gave to Oxford in which he makes this apology in addition to providing his rationale for it.  Much of the text of that speech is provided at this link as well.  Some of Mark's key realizations about GMOs include these:

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

 

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

 

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

 

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

 

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

Now, I don't agree with Mark Lynas on everything, but he's right when he says, "we are going to have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully much less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly-changing climate."

And you know how we WON'T do that?  By adding more regulations, more restrictions, and more strangleholds on biotechnology.  Organic farms have nearly a 50% lower yield than conventional farms. We need a way of feeding an ever-increasing population, you guys.

And what's more, as Lynas points out, we've SAVED untold amounts of land and wildlife BECAUSE of biotechnology in agriculture.  He says, "So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields. Nor would there be any tigers in India or orang utans in Indonesia. That is why I don’t know why so many of those opposing the use of technology in agriculture call themselves environmentalists."

And further, he says, "I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM."

But there was one line from Lynas' speech that struck me more than any other:

The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.  I can't think of a clearer example.

The most recent legislation signed into law by Obama, that many are shrieking is the "Monsanto Protection Act" was a rider in an appropriations bill to keep the government funded. According to this, "What this particular measure does is allow the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary deregulation status for a crop in the event that the crop is under litigation against the USDA’s approval of deregulation status, for the time period that the case is working through the courts. This means that attempts to damage a competitor, by filing suit against their crop, will not happen. Anybody can file a lawsuit in the United States. It would be incredibly easy for a competing firm to file a lawsuit against such a status for a crop grown by their competition, to effectively freeze that competition out of the market for the years needed for a case to work its way through the courts. This measure simply ensures that will not happen."

I don't know, you guys, but it seems like folks are freaking out when perhaps there isn't a need to freak out.

Discuss.

 

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