This article originally appeared on Outside The Hype. I am posting it here in full with several updates and corrections I’ve made that total an additional 900 words, with a tribute at the end. Enjoy.
The term frankenfood was invented—in so much that you can invent a word—to influence the GM food fight, just like the term crocoduck is used by creationists to disparage evolution. It is used to invoke disgust into the hearts and minds of those who hear it. The natural human tendency to link disparate thoughts coupled with the amgydala-generated sheen negativity the human mind is overly fond of does the work of the activist for them. In short, the frankenterm is a fear-meme.
Frankenstein, frankenfood, frankencorn, frankensalmon etc., are all terms I’m sure most who follow this debate have heard before—possibly many times. And, being that much of the GM debate is mired in ignorance (not in the negative sense: ignorance simply means lacking in knowledge), I’d like to point out that the term itself (franken-whatever) is further proof of that ignorance.
In the namesake novel, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster, which had no name. The monster did not begin its short, miserable life as an evil thing. In fact, it was never evil. It looked like a beast, yes, but that was because of the rudimentary tools used by Victor Frankenstein. The creature, because of its appearance, was driven to despair and madness due to the crazed response from people it tried to interact with. Allallt, who wrote on a guest post here last month said it better than I ever could: “Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.” It wanted friends, to connect with others, and upon rejection from the community, and with no hope of friendship, love, or even understanding, it asked the Dr. for a companion, who reluctantly obliged. Dr. Frankenstein upon completing his companion, out of fear, then promptly killed the monstress and the monster’s one shot at a normal life evaporated in front of his eyes. At that point, Frankenstein’s monster went into a rage that eventually culminated in the death of his creator (which he felt sudden remorse for). On the inside, Frankenstein’s monster was distinctly human, beset by the many problems we ordinary folk are subject to. The novel Frankenstein is a tale of human ignorance, cruelty, and bigotry. The real monsters were the humans.
As Frankenstein’s monster was beset by ignorance on all sides in the novel, so to is the GM crop. While the similarities begin at their engineered nature and end at the outsized, irrational response, there is something awfully prescient about human nature to be compared here. There was a recent article—can’t remember by whom—that put the matter rather simply. What was scarier? The monster, or the crazed response and subsequent actions by the mob to the monster? (Not exact quote.)
Let’s compare the question to another subject, one not quite so fictional: witches. The thought of a witch is also scary, and must have been especially so to 16th century peasants (and some modern-day Africans), but what made the Inquisition truly terrifying? Was it the idea of a witch or the belligerent, angry mob and subsequent torture they subjected the hundreds of thousands of witches to? Clearly, the answer is the mob mentality. (Side note: I think everyone should read Carl Sagan’s section on the Spanish Inquisition in his book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It will rip your heart out.)
The monster created by Frankenstein ultimately paid the price in suffering and dignity lost because of the mob mentality of those who knew no better. Similar things are happening today, not for us in the West though, but a little more on this later.
The anti-GMO movement also hurts people. Just like Frankenstein’s monster was hurt in the book. Just like witches were hurt during the inquisition. The difference today being that we don’t see those who are hurt. We don’t see the Asian child deficient in vitamin-A succumbing slowly to a micro-nutrient deficiency. We don’t see the woman farmer in Africa losing half her staple banana crop to Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV), or how rising food prices are decreasing global food security affecting the poorest of the poor, not too mention the climate-change aspect and it’s potential outsized impact on food prices. (On the last point: rising food prices are not an effect of anti-GMO protests, but the fruits of biotechnology which would alleviate many of those issues by reducing inputs such as fertilizers, water, and increase reliability of yield, not too mention increase yield itself, most assuredly would give lawmakers and companies a greater flexibility in responding to the challenges of the 21st century. In this case, culpability can still be placed.) The anti-gmo activism, if I may adopt a comparison that may not be well-received, is merely the DeLacey family writ large.
I believe Norman Borlaug said it best, though before I get to his quote, I might have to formally introduce the man, as his name is not as well-known as a Bono, or a Carter…unfortunately. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and unlike some recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates, he received it for more than being a symbol of superficial change. He won his Nobel Peace Prize by saving, by UN estimates, at least one-billion human lives from starvation. On top of that, as if that wasn’t enough, he almost single-handedly turned Mexico and India from food importers into food exporters, thereby raising the quality of life for billions more. What single individual in human history has had such an out-sized, positive influence on that many people? So, when he has something to say, it carries a lot of weight:
We owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement for raising global awareness of the importance of air and water quality, and of wildlife and wilderness preservation. It is ironic, therefore, that if the platform of anti-biotechnology extremists were to be adopted, it would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.
The scare-mongering about GMOs is nothing new in the grand scheme of things. For thousands of years, every new technology has been derided with apocalyptic talk of doom and gloom; the most famous such screeds being those of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich that, no matter how many times their predictions are not fulfilled, keep popping up again and again. (Though, they would be fulfilled if, as Borlaug said, we listened to the food monkeys.) It’s even said, though I’m not sure how reliable it is, that Socrates thought books would make our brains go mushy because we’d never need to remember anything ever again. The first computers were viewed with an intense suspicious that they would only be useful to large corporations—ha, look how that turned out—and as early as a century ago, people had to be convinced to use electricity. The opposition to biotechnology is therefore little different. All hype. No substance. But, a key problem is that anti-electriciticists didn’t write electrical policy. Anti-computists didn’t try to outlaw computers. But, the anti’s, somehow, have an out-sized influence on how the technology is used, legislated, and most importantly, perceived. Not only is that opposition devoid of evidence, logic, and pragmatism, it actually hurts people everywhere. From increasing the price of food, to propagating harmful farming practices, and denying food to those in poorer areas of the world. From Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth to GMWatch to a dozen others, there is a coordinated response to misinform, vilify, lie, and intimidate to support their ideology. It’s not enough that they don’t wish to partake in the GM party, they want to make sure no one else does either. If all they wanted to do was avoid eating GM foods themselves, then how can one argue against that, but when their activism revolves around denying everyone access to a key technology that could reduce our farming footprint, carbon emissions, nitrogen runoff into rivers, fix nutritional deficiencies, reduce the cost of food, then they have gone 12 steps too far.
The point that Borlaug makes best is that we in the developed world have no authority to deny the choice of using conventional agriculture to anyone, especially those in the developing world; most especially while the benefits and detriments of GM crops, using the best available data, have the practical benefits vastly outweighing the theoretical negatives by a vast margin, and especially when, if those who advocate against the technology, would never feel the consequences of that decision.
The following two quotes emphasize that quite well:
More than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.
I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called “organic” methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.
I think the last sentence of the 2nd quote rings true, but I’d take it further. If we define organic agriculture as a lack of biotechnology/pesticides/fertilizers etc., then what remains to the billion undernourished has already failed them. If, however, we define organics as the arbitrary set of rules that certain types of low-input agriculture follow in the west that originated from the myths and superstition of biodynamic farming back in the heyday of animism/vitalism (as Borlaug describes), then they can’t afford it. Either way, in the wise words of Jayne Cob from Firefly: they’re humped. They need a third option and activism is getting in the way—well, it is more accurate to say absolutism is getting in the way. GMOs are not—so said a GMO supporter for the billionth time—a panacea to the world’s ills; it is a tool in the toolbox that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and used where appropriate or when necessary. I’ve never once heard a scientist say that GMOs are the only way, only ever that they are a tool in a toolbox and we should use them where appropriate. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard activists say the contrary, as if organic farming was a solution to anyone but the 1% of the food world.
Eschewing GMOs can make sense if you’re a well-fed, risk-averse Westerner, and if that is the case for you, then more power to you. But, the pros and cons change entirely when you’ve no idea where or when your next meal will come from. The lack of understanding of a vastly different risk scenario of those who contend with hunger on a daily basis is, at Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying, solipsism at its finest. The luxury of avoiding GM foods is a first-world problem only.
Now, if I was as misinformed on the subject as those yelling franken-whatever, I’d probably call the current debate (between activists and scientists) on GMOs frankentalk. Catchy, easy, memorable. But, because the monster was misunderstood instead of being evil, that would be inaccurate. Instead, the debate more closely reflects the inquisition with GMOs taking the role of the witches, and innocent bystanders getting caught up in the hullabaloo. There never was good, reliable, predictable evidence to show harm from witches then—though there was plenty of anecdote!—just as there isn’t any now to indicate harm from transgenic crops. The furore over exporting them is entirely illusory. From A to Z, every single reason is based upon a misunderstanding of evolution (both evolutionary biology and molecular biology), and hold to unscientific no-threshold scenarios of chemicals such as glyphosate, ECDs, and the like.
Take an example, 12-years ago a solution was finalized to help with Vitamin A deficiency which afflicts millions of people in poorer parts of the world. Two public researchers developed genetically modified rice, named Golden Rice, which could have alleviated, perhaps not all, but at least some of the problem the best way they knew how. They convinced Monsanto and Syngenta to un-patent certain mechanisms so it could be developed and given away free. In doing so, they weren’t stopping anyone else from helping by some other method (i.e., supplementation), food-aid, or money-aid. Their humanitarian development was, and still is, blocked by Greenpeace. No rhyme, no reason, nor any evidence for their position. (Don’t get me wrong, they had and still have plenty of non-sequitors and excuses for denying medicine to the needy.) Between eight and twenty-million children under 5 years of age have died since. (Read that sentence again: eight to twenty million.) How many of those deaths could have been prevented if we had given free, replant-able seeds to any farmer able and willing in any region where people suffered from the deficiency to plant, save seed, and pass it on? I don’t know the number, but I bet it’s sizable. What are the risks for doing so? Practically non-existent. So, who are Greenpeace to make that choice for those whom they’ve nothing in common with? Golden Rice would have been given to them, freely, not forced upon them at gunpoint. The moral thing to do would have been to allow them the choice as opposed to dictating it. But morality, reason, or evidence has entered this party nowhere and cost-benefit analyses, pragmatism, and hope weren’t invited.
How different is that anti-choice scenario from the incessant lobbying of the Catholic Church to keep abortions illegal in many parts of the world? It doesn’t actually stop abortion, of course. Anyone with even a wit of common-sense will know that, just like the War on Drugs doesn’t actually stop drugs. Rather it moves abortions underground making them unsafe. Now moved underground, unsafe abortions contribute 13% of maternal mortality deaths worldwide (approx. 70,000 women; and 5 million women will develop lifelong complications as a result also!). In the case of vitamin-A deficiency, a significant portion afflicted develop blindness, and 50% of those who develop blindness will die within a year. Anywhere from 250,000 to 700,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from a total of 1-2 million human beings a year. There’s no difference, moral or otherwise, between the two positions of the Catholic Church and Greenpeace. The Catholic Church from the inquisition of women to their parochial lobbying against abortion (even though scripture has nothing to say on the subject and in fact, may indicate the opposite) has blood on their hands; so does Greenpeace. (And they haven’t learnt their lesson either.) Now, it’s easy to say that the Catholic Church is merely informing, and lobbying, as is well within their right as stakeholders in a community, but they are still complicit. (Even more so because the evidence and arguments they use for their positions are not even based in this reality, but from some invented thereafter.) If Greenpeace really cared about those who suffered from Vitamin A deficiency, then they would use the multi-million dollar revenues they receive per year to upstage those pesky scientists and institutions devoted to bettering the lives of millions of the less fortunate (the nerve!), and, you know, in the process, actually try help those people. Instead they outright block life-saving medicine and think they are doing the moral thing.
The GMO debate is the quintessential example of hype: from the media providing imaginary balance, to politicians milking argumentum ad populum to extremes, to activists actively poisoning the well (if not outright lying). Why do we listen to folks who couldn’t tell you the difference between natural selection and random mutation? Why do we listen to people who believe there are imaginary well-defined lines between species? Why would we someone listen to a person who refers to a ‘fish gene’ or ‘tomato gene’? The question, therefore, is why on earth do we allow ignorance a front-and-centre position upon the knowledge stage? Ignorance has consequences. Hype and ignorance together have even bigger consequences.
There are signs the debate on GMOs is evolving: Grist being one prominent example, and a delightful article on saving the Orange in Florida being another. Even the biotech industry is getting involved in providing surprisingly nuanced answers, and science writers, scientists, and farmers really do seem to be getting out there and not shying away from upsetting the public, so there is reason to be hopeful.
As plant pathologist Steve Savage has lamented, round one of biotechnology hasn’t gone so well, but now round two is upon us. From crops that use zero pesticides, to crops that increase nutrition (Golden Rice, BioCassava), to crops that use less water (agriculture accounts for 70% of world water use so any reduction increases water security, and therefore peace), to crops that dramatically increase yield so that less of nature needs to be used to meet our food needs (importing C4 photosynthesis to grains would double yields), and these are only a few. If we utilize the full theoretical potential of photosynthesis, Ramez Naam has noted in his book The Infinite Resource that we could grow one-hundred times more food than we do today using 99% less than we do today! Who wouldn’t want to give back all that land back to nature? We have a lot to gain practically, and very little to give up in terms of risk. As Naam went onto conclude in his brilliant book: conventional farming is the best thing that ever happened to nature! But…we’ll never get there if we lose round two to callous, short-term oriented, backward-looking, irresponsible, ideologically-biased, and a technologically-averse segment of the population, and if they did have their way, would have, as Borlaug wrote “grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.” The irony is nothing less than astounding, especially given that the majority of those who advocate against biotechnology supposedly list environmental and human health as their main concerns and their primary suppositions.
So, if you’re tired of the frankentalk, who should you listen to when it comes to GMOs if you don’t want to be suckered in by it? I’ll give you a shortcut. From just this post, I’ve mentioned Norman Borlaug and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so perhaps a simpler way to put it is this: Who would you rather listen to? Norman Borlaug, who saved—at minimum—a billion lives from starvation and improved the very real living conditions of billions? Or Greenpeace, who lobby incessantly against biotechnology using lies, misinformation and intimidation, which has most assuredly lead to a decrease in health in many parts of the world?
The scientific consensus is clear: there is no harm from biotech crops, and after 1-3 trillion meals containing GM food served, we’d know if there were. We’ve looked, researched, studied, experimented, and eaten them. Nothing. Thalidomide was licensed for use in the British market in 1958, and in 1961 in Australia, evidence that showed how disastrous the drug was presented and thalidomide was pulled that same year. No internet, barely an inkling of what DNA was, before computers, and it was on and off the market in 3 years flat. And so today, after growing and consuming biotech-enhanced foods for 20 years, you’d think there’d be at least some evidence. So…where is it?
The problem is not that some folks have an aversion to GMOs. That is a personal choice. It’s that, without generalizing, some of those folks feel compelled to make that choice for others, and that is fundamentally wrong. As Borlaug wrote: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” And that goes regardless of where that food comes from. Our foremost imperative is to give people access to healthy, affordable food.
Norman Borlaug, if he were still alive, would be 99 years old today. And I bet he’d still be calling activists “the salt of the Earth.” Instead of being pragmatic, using evidence, and doing the best with what little is available, while above all, keeping the betterment of the human race as the ideal to strive for, we get antagonism, misinformation campaigns, destruction of property, and the elongation of human suffering. That is, we get frankentalk. We need more good folks like Norman: pragmatic, resourceful, persistent, compassionate, and above all, optimistic.
Happy Birthday Norman! You are sorely missed. Though I think the deification of another human being is always a mistake, If there ever was to be an exception made, my vote would be on you. Rest in peace… And, hopefully sometime in the near future, the rest of us may eat in peace too.
[UPDATE: Ramez Naam’s book mentions yields one-hundred times higher than today are theoretically possible. Not one-thousand. The post has been updated to correct this.]