Frankentalk…

My latest article, Frankentalk has been featured on Outside The Hype:

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 crafted to invoke disgust into the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

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.

I will be posting it here in full in a few days, but for now, you can read the whole article at Outside The Hype.

Organic Farming: what is it good for?

Why im through with organic farming

Last week, my blogging buddy Allallt, wrote a post, GMOs: it’s our right to know. But what will you do with the information? I asked him to bring to bear his simplicity to the issue of GMOs, and I think he succeeded quite well. Today, he writes on organic farming. I can’t help but agree with–almost–everything he says. See if you do too, and if you have any questions Allallt will be responding to comments (though responses maybe delayed due to travel).


Organic Farming: what is it good for?

 

There are many shopping trends in the real world, and painfully some of them are fashionable instead of well-thought-out. But I find myself unable to criticise the people who shop locally because it is fashionable; of course I would rather they did it because it weakened corporations1 and supported local businesses, all of which are noble, but they are achieving that regardless of whether they know it.

But I do remember an MMA-training, body building, rice counting, all-round massive and scary guy at my university gym explaining his weekly shopping, coming in at a student loan-destroying £100 a week. I spent about that a month and I paid the lion share of a couple living together. £100 is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on one person. And he shopped at Asda (the WallMart of the UK). I understand that to be a 275 lb guy you need to eat a lot, but it’s still ridiculous. His justification of this spending was “I buy organic”.

Well, “I buy organic” didn’t cut it for me. I buy responsibly sourced and, where possible local (but there are no local pineapples or tuna). And I know why I do this. I wanted to put in some muscle, so I asked him why he bought organic in the hope that he would share some evidence that food farmed by inorganic methods2 some way impede muscle growth. And his answer, much to my disappointment, was that he didn’t know what might be on conventionally farmed food, nor their impact. That is an awful reason to spend as much as 70% extra on his shopping (assuming he could do the shopping for just under £60 otherwise).

Organic food is expensive for two very basic reasons, and one of them is fashion. Do you think Bob Geldof buys organic? Of course he does. But the other reason is that it is much more capital-intensive. You need more land and more man-hours (and these are the expensive things). What’s the point?

To a farmer there is an excellent point, money. To the consumer there may be peace of mind, but only if the mind was in turmoil about an imagined slight. And the peace is imagined too. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in farms which are organically certified, is not the tree-hugger of love and peace you might want it to be. It might as well be DDT. But organic chemistry is organic chemistry3, and organic certification allows rotenone onto the farms. But that needn’t worry you, you can wash it off. But if we’re washing stuff off, why not just go back to the cheap and wonderful conventionally farmed food?

We might as well be clear about this: organic food cannot be demonstrated to be healthier than conventionally farmed food. Organic food is a fictional answer to an imagined problem. And this false-security and peace of mind comes at a considerable cost: less yield per field means we need more fields to get the same amount of food. In a world where people are already starving and the demand for food is only going up, this is a massive issue.

Enter Thomas Malthus. Thomas Malthus described what has become known as a Malthusian crisis. This crisis will appear at the moment the Earth is producing the maximal amount of food and it will be able to support fewer people than exist. This is an easily imaginable process: my mum has an allotment, and it produces enough food for that house and about the same again for resale. If everyone on the street relied on my mum’s allotment for food the street would be well into a Malthusian Crisis; there simply wouldn’t be enough food. And you would want her to use fertilisers and pump the ground with pesticides if you lived on that street!

With farms dwindling to climate change and the pressures of urban sprawl, and the demand on farms increasing with every new mouth to feed, we are constantly teetering on the verge of a Malthusian crisis, inventing new technologies to squeeze a little more productivity out of the land. At the moment we have some leeway and can produce enough food. But knowing this problem is coming means we know organic is not the answer. Organic is a way to get less out of the land and preferentially sell it as a fashion accessory to the richer part of the world, starving the rest of it just a bit more. And it’s set only to get worse.

The End

1 – When you understand what Nestlé did with powdered baby milk or what Coca Cola did by drying up the water table, both in Africa, you will understand why it is important to weaken corporations. They are painfully and immorally bulletproof. Collapsing corporations may be an unachievable goal, but changing the nature of our economics so that the market is run by an ethical consumer would make all the headway we need. And we do that by making ethical decisions when we shop.

2 – Did you notice that roundabout way I had to describe food farmed by inorganic farming methods? That’s because “organic farming” is a stupid name; it’s a marketing ploy and not a technical name. “Organic” means carbon based, and all food is carbon based. There is no such thing as inorganic food, so linguistic pedants like me have to tiptoe around this nonsense. I point that out not as an aside, but because I went on using the term “conventional farming”, even though I am including organic farming (see my previous guest post) in the arsenal we should use.

3 – Petrol is organic, but I imagine you’d have a few choice words if it was on your carrots.

NB – My original draft included “lowering pollution” as a benefit of shopping locally. This only seems to be true in the more extreme of cases. For example, I used to live in Bristol, and I could buy a wide variety of food that was Bristol or Avon sourced—sometimes cycled from the farm to my local grocer—and that is the low-carbon option. But short of this extreme, international big-business farms have become so efficient in terms of yield and pollution and other costs that it would be better for the environment for me to get my salmon from a big Alaska-based company than it would a small, family-run Scottish farm. This is despite Scotland being considerably more ‘local’. But to continue along the idea of the “ethical market” force, sustainable food supplies are still worth hunting out; don’t think buying international is synonymous with buying unsustainable. Line caught tuna is still better that trawled tuna.

GMOs: it’s our right to know. But what will you do with the information?

GMO Rice

This is a guest post by Allallt.

He writes prolifically on science and atheism. I’ve always been amazed at the simplicity of his arguments. I once jokingly referred to him as the Steve Jobs of atheist arguments, but I well and truly meant it. He knows how to write about both science and atheism in such a way as to make you slap your head at the obviousness of his arguments in hindsight. He makes his arguments and polemics very simple, and that is the most powerful thing about them, so I challenged him to write a post about GMOs a little while ago in the hope he could likewise make a difficult subject simpler. He dutifully accepted. I’d like to say he succeeded. (There’s another article written by him on organic farming coming in the pipeline.)


Knowledge, generally speaking, is a good thing (so long as it’s true). I’ve poked my head into the world of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) for the sake of food, and people are making the seemingly harmless demand to simply know if the food they’re buying is the result of genetic engineering or not. And, on the face of it, I’m happy with a little green sticker that says “GMO” in the bottom corner of my packaging. It’s about as important to me as the name of the person that sealed the box; whatever, who cares?

Normally the information on a packet helps me make certain decisions and answer certain questions: that’s too many calories; I can’t cook that for my cousin, he’s allergic to nuts; I feel ill if I eat that much salt; I’m trying to see if I feel more mentally focused if I cut aspartame out of my diet; I’m boycotting palm oil because there’s no distinction between orangutan friendly and unfriendly palm oil etc. What do you hope to know by seeing the “GMO” label, or not, on your food? That is the central question I want to discuss, and suggest that people will only be misinformed.

I spoke to a friend about GMOs and she is wildly against them, under the banner of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. She even had a reference for her issue: thalidomide. Now, there’s a word with a legacy. Thalidomide was an anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid, marketed at helping women with morning sickness. But it also induced birth defects in children and a high infant mortality rate. This, according to my friend, is what happens when we mess with nature and we don’t ’now what we’re doing. We have a good reason to fear new things.

My friend sees “GMO” as a thing she doesn’t understand and things she doesn’t understand as potentially being thalidomide. If there were truth in this, would we not know about it already? Thalidomide was on and off the market in the UK in 3 years. GMOs are not some idea that might be introduced and people are protesting. GMOs already happen, and they are widespread. I was learning about their application in terms of case studies when I was doing my GCSEs (when I was 16, 8 years ago). And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is a problem. Despite research.

I may need to digress momentarily to make a note about science, but as I’m guest-posting on Random Rationality I suspect I won’t need to say much. There is a big difference between there being no evidence and there being no evidence despite research. To be clear about the difference (and perhaps a little facetious) “there is no evidence that my sock is under my bed because I haven’t looked” is very different from “I have looked, and there is no evidence my sock is under my bed”. These mean “I haven’t looked” and “it’s not there” respectively. We have looked for health effects from GMOs and we haven’t found them.

“This box was packed by Steven; it will be identical to the boxes packed by Jill” is useless information. Trivia. “This food was produced via genetic engineering; it will be identical to foods not produced by genetic engineering” is an equally useless statement, and so any non-zero effort made to put a label on the box is a disproportionate amount of effort. But the issue is not just that the label is a disproportionate effort, but that it is misinformation.

You may wonder how correct facts can be misinformation. And that paradox is a fair question. So long as GMOs (wrongly) mean ill-health and disease and FrankenFood* and contaminated ingredients to people, the label “GMO” is simply misleading. GMOs are not these things, despite public perception and fear. To me, GMO means feeding the world, pest-resistance, better sustenance, more nutrition, bigger yields, longer shelf-lives. These are profoundly excellent things.

Imagine a child in sub-Saharan Africa who is both starving and malnourished. This means that she is immensely hungry, to the point the body is atrophying away, and what food she has eaten is so nutritionally imbalanced that she has life-threatening deficiencies of certain nutrients. She’s starving because farmers can’t grow enough food in the current drought, and pests and disease attack what is grown, and that which farmers can harvest doesn’t have the shelf-life to make it to her village. And she is malnourished because that is the nature of the food she can scavenge or does reach her village. There is hope, and it’s no mere glimmer. There’s no problem in this paragraph that cannot be eradicated by GMOs. GMOs would transform this poor girl’s life, and the thousands who live like her. They would be her saviour.

BandAid, in 1984, released “Do they know it’s Christmas (feed the world)”. And your one-off donation to buy a cheesy but delightful Christmas song made big differences in Ethiopia. But to feed the world, to have enough food successfully delivered to every remote corner of the planet, will take a lot more than your one-off donation. Feeding the world will take GMOs.

*Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great metaphor for GMOs. 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.

The Lowdown on The Lowdown on GMOs

Who wants an update on my latest project? *crickets…* I’ll give you one anyway. 

The Lowdown on GMOs

I’m sure a few of my readers recall my Lowdown on GMOs interview series. The first, with a scientist, then with a family farmer, and finally, with the CEO of a biotech firm that will soon release a biotech fruit: the Arctic Apple.

The response to these interviews were huge (at least for me). My interview with a scientist, Kevin Folta, got 1,000+ shares on Facebook alone. So, I decided to combine them over at Medium.com into the The Fact-Based Lowdown on GMOs (arguably not as catchy). But still, I wanted to do more with it, and I got this idea…

There are plenty of succinct, authoritative, and accessible articles on GMOs out there that make the science and benefits clear. And I was of the persuasion that, as Mark Lynas put it at his speech in Cornell University that this subject has been one of the greatest science communication failures of the last half-century. So I had an idea: why don’t I collect those articles, with permission of course, and jumble them in with my Q&As into a GMO eBook. I, humbly, set it up so that I would receive a majority of the proceeds from the book; in true capitalist fashion, 90% of the sale price of each book ($0.00) will go directly into my severely stomach-inflamed, statistically significant piggy bank.

Continue reading “The Lowdown on The Lowdown on GMOs”

Not All Scientific Statements Have Equal Weight

science

The title of this post: “Not all scientific statements have equal weight” was written by Carl Sagan in his brilliant book Broca’s Brain. It is a statement you should write on a post-it to keep by your monitor as you browse, if that is your cup of tea, the online intellectual fight on such nerve touching issues as the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO), evolution vs. creationism, climate change, and many other topics that are, at the end of the day, empirically verifiable. It should sound in your brain after each and every scientific claim you read on the Internet. (In Carl Sagan’s voice too.)

Continue reading “Not All Scientific Statements Have Equal Weight”

Guest Post: Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

Why im through with organic farming

Following on from my last guest post, The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, Mike Bendzela is the author of this guest post. These guest posts have been tangentially exploring similar subjects I have in my book, but in different directions; and this post explores organic farming. In S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I lightheartedly tackle the naturalistic fallacy and use some bad (and funny) statistics that purposefully confuse correlation with causation, intending to teach a lesson. As I was writing the book, Mike Bendzela reached out to me with his organic story that sprouts off from that Correlation chapter, and it is a supremely informative read. (A bit long, well worth it, and you’re used to long articles from me anyway.)


Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

by Mike Bendzela of Dow Farm Enterprise

It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you;

you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”

Jesus of Nazareth

For twenty-five years I was a self-styled organic gardener. I say “self-styled” because I didn’t need certification as I wasn’t marketing produce. And by “organic” I mean “too lazy and cheap to buy fertilizers and pesticides.” So I maintained a perennial compost heap and harvested the produce the insects didn’t eat. We ate the leftovers.

Then there was the cheating: The first year that I grew potatoes, I had zero Colorado potato beetles. The second year, I had a jar full. The third year, I had a continent’s worth and had to nuke them with Rotenone dust. I decided to stop growing potatoes for a while.

“But,” the organic people would say, “Rotenone is an organically-approved pesticide.” [Fourat: Fun fact, rotenone is just as toxic as DDT.]

Which leads directly to my point:

The older I get, the more I like food, the more I hate bullshit.

A season in hell

In July of 2010 four of us started Dow Farm, named after the ancestral owners of the land we farm. We would be a small market farm and CSA, the trendy “Community Supported Agriculture,” but we’d just call it a subscription club. Save the Syllables.

I was still working at an organic farm, learning the central pleasures and evils of farming at a scale larger than gardening. Helping to run Dow Farm would mean having to quit this summer job that I really liked and probably taking a significant hit in the wallet for a while.

Would we be certified or not? Certification is a three-year process, the materials are more expensive, and the methods are more labor-intensive. These stresses of organic certification come on top of a central fact of life for Maine farmers: The weather around here is just awful.

The crap we had to endure in 2011 just to get plants into the ground six weeks late meant that if we were going to limit our options to “organically-approved” ones, the reasons had better be good. I decided the best way to research the value of gaining certification was to go to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website, and read the “fact sheets” and the manual.

I found the philosophy of the organics movement to be a barrel raft covered in loose planks. In trying to justify their beliefs, they pile on the claims (planks), each of which rests on a different assumption (barrel). And when one claim is questioned, they simply jump to another plank on the raft and try to hold it all together. Sadly, for the investigator, dismantling a raft of claims requires a crew of rebuttals.

It took awhile for all those planks to be yanked away from me, one by one, and for the barrels to disperse and sink.

The origins of the “organic” vs. “chemical” false dichotomy

In the early 19th century, “Vitalism” reigned. This was the belief that certain materials could only be produced through a mysterious “vital force” in living organisms; hence, “organic” substances were those derived from organisms and their products. Then a German scientist, Fredrick Wöhler, synthesized urea, a component of urine, in a laboratory without having to pee in a bottle. Goodbye Vitalism.

These “mysterious” materials turned out to be the results not of a vital force but of the properties of good old carbon. So the term “organic” came to describe the chemicals based around the carbon atom.

The organic farmers parted ways with the organic chemists around the turn of the century, with “organic” gaining positive connotations and “chemical” negative ones. This commenced with the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his “Anthroposophic” movement, which includes “biodynamic” farming, a school that believes the farm should be seen as a “holistic” organism that needs to be balanced with various astrological forces. Some ways of achieving this “balance” include shunning “synthetic chemicals” and burying manure-stuffed cow’s horns to focus cosmic energy into the earth.

Today we have the government-sanctioned term “organic” to describe a veritable Leviticus of “Allowed” and “Prohibited” practices that are put into place to ensure that a farm is, well, organic. The term now conflicts with the scientific, chemical definition in just about every way.

For example: a chemically organic, naturally-occurring pesticide produced in Kenya, pyrethrum, is declared “organic” even though it decimates bees, but a likewise chemically organic pesticide native to the North America, nicotine sulfate, is not “organic.”

A synthetically produced, chemically organic fungicide, Captan, is declared not “organic,” but the synthetically produced, chemically inorganic fungicide copper sulfate is declared “organic.”

Go figure. Nowadays, if someone asks if our food is “organic,” I say, “Sure, it’s carbon-based.”

Mother Nature, Bad Parent

Not only are absurdities uttered with a straight face, contradictions are simply codified as “standards.” A central fault of organics is the Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that substances derived from nature are better than those created by humans. Well, sometimes, anyway. Maybe not.

The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the fallacy this way:

“As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK. One can only stand in wonder at how high the manure has been piled in this case, all the way up to the United States Department of Agriculture, in fact.

Allowed Synthetics” are rationalized this way:

(1) The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes

(2) The substance’s manufacture, use, and disposal do not have adverse effects on the environment and are done in a manner compatible with organic handling….

In other words: Mother Nature doesn’t always provide us the protection we need to farm successfully. In fact, She regularly supplies pestilence, disease and infection. If you’re an orchardist, the fungi are your mortal enemy and you have to spray fungicides or your orchard is doomed. So please just be careful with that copper sulfate, which can accumulate in the soil and cause organ damage if ingested.

How about if all farmers agree to use any substance, natural or synthetic, in a way that minimizes adverse effects on health and the environment? In other words, follow the doggone label.

Teh pesticides!”

Something I read on MOFGA’s website, a “Pesticides Quiz,” really bothered me:

“The EPA performs toxicity tests on pesticides prior to registration.

False: Toxicity tests are performed neither by the EPA nor by independent laboratories contracting with the EPA. Pesticide manufacturers provide the data that the EPA bases its judgments on. There is an inherent conflict of interest between EPA’s need for unbiased data and the manufacturers’ need for data that show their products are not hazardous.”

How does a lay person check out such a claim? I Googled “Pesticides” and “Maine” and got Maine Board of Pesticides Control as the top hit. I called the number there and got Dr. Lebelle Hicks, Toxicologist. Dr. Hicks seems delighted to have a real citizen asking her questions.

Summarizing her reply to the scary MOFGA claim: It is true only as far as it goes. But it’s not the EPA’s job to test the compounds that manufacturers wish to market; that would mean taxpayers paying for the testing of products that the corporations will profit from. It is the EPA’s job to set the tolerances for residues and to review the data submitted by the manufacturers according to strict guidelines. Laboratories contracting with the manufacturers perform such tests.

This conversation came sometime after a discombobulating experience I had while working at the organic farm: I was required to attend a workshop upcountry to be certified . . . as a pesticides handler.

So a group of us drove up to MOFGA’s fairground, where the MBPC’s Gary Fish, Manager of Pesticide Programs, gave us a PowerPoint on how to read pesticide labels and how to follow what’s written on them. Calling this an instance of “cognitive dissonance” is putting it mildly. It’s true:Organic farmers use pesticides and they have to follow the same laws as non-organic farmers. No amount of special pleading (“But they’re natural!”) negates this fact.

At Dr. Hicks’ advice, I eventually studied for and received a private pesticides applicator license in Maine. This year, in spite of the weather, we have had the best apples, ever.

GMOs? OMG!”

From MOFGA’s manual:

Genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) is a synthetic process designed to control nature at the molecular level, with the potential for unforeseen consequences. As such, it is not compatible with the principles of organic agriculture (either production or handling). Genetically engineered/modified organisms (GEO/GMOs) and products produced by or through the use of genetic engineering are prohibited.

This prohibition is articulated by the NOP as well:

A variety of methods to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production.

Question: As one of the partners of Dow Farm daily injects himself with insulin that is produced through recombinant DNA technology, does this mean he can never consider himself an “organic” farmer? (Not that he cares at this point.)

The idea that “the principles of organic agriculture” do not “control nature at the molecular level” and do not have “the potential for unforeseen consequences” is a classic instance of the one who judges the gene splice in another’s eye while not seeing the cloned apple tree lodged in one’s own eye.

The anti-GMO crowd simply cannot separate their loathing for a specific corporation, Monsanto, from the science of recombinant DNA technology. Presumably, because “Monsatan” is Bad, the papaya farmers of Hawaii should cut down their groves of trees engineered to resist ring spot virus, beta-carotene-fortified Golden Rice should continue to be withheld from children who will go blind from Vitamin A deficiency, and GE vaccines should be flushed down the toilet.

Plant pathologist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer R. W. Adamchak, have done an admirable job in their book “Tomorrow’s Table” arguing that the aims of genetic engineering and organic farming are not necessary at odds. They believe the two can coexist.

However, such a prospect brings to mind the words “snowball” and “hell.”

If it quacks, it’s probably organic

In the Fall of 2000, I got to experience a weekend at the Common Ground Fair, MOFGA’s agricultural event, as a helper at some friends’ farmers market booth. People drive in from all over New England to eat organic spelt crepes, experience organic aromatherapy, and buy twenty-dollar-a-pound organic seed garlic.

MOFGA had just moved to their beautiful new digs in Unity, Maine, and it was enjoyable roaming the grounds between shifts to watch fields being plowed with teams of horses; to gawk at produce and price tags; and to hear lectures on how bio-dynamic beekeepers care for the “bee soul.” Hilariously, coffee vendors not permitted on the fairgrounds hang around outside the gates like ticket scalpers. They do a brisk business pre-caffeinating fair goers addicted to this 100% natural substance.

I caught sight of something called The Whole Life Tent. Entering, I was amazed to find myself surrounded by Reflexologists, Naturopathic Doctors, Homeopaths, Reiki practitioners, and other “modalities” by which one may become “moral, united, integrated, and balanced.” I was unsure what any of this had to do with agriculture.

To my dismay, I realized that what the panoply of fried dough, stuffed animals, and monster trucks is to Maine’s largest commercial fair, the Fryeburg Fair, the whole raft of alternative medical scams is to the Common Ground Fair—a necessary evil to get non-agricultural types to attend. Only much later, when I opened the manuals, did I discover that this disorder is not limited to the fair grounds.

Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:

“Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.”

So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.

OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.

However, you must not use Bag Balm for any reason whatsoever.

Go organic”: slander a farmer

At Maine’s Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January, we got to mingle with other farmers, big and small, and to attend workshops on combating pests and Internet marketing.

In the Exhibition Hall, I found myself standing behind two young women in wool grilling a commercial apple orchardist about his spraying practices. He was trying to explain to them that he kept both “organic” and “conventional” plots and that the “organic” trees actually needed to be sprayed more often because of the transitory nature of “organic” pesticides. This increased his costs in both chemicals and fuel, which was reflected in the price of his apples. The women then sidled off to another booth. I asked him if they “got it.” He issued a flat “No.”

I had just published an editorial on the remarkable irony that MOFGA, the group that itself defined the sharp divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers, was complaining about feeling excluded from an event at the show. This event, called “Convergence = Sustainability,”was billed as “bringing all farmers together to talk about common issues.” It was apparently not enough that an entire day of the show was called “MOFGA day.” They seemed to want “conversion,” not mere “convergence.”

In response to the Convergence = Sustainability flap, MOFGA published an editorial with the following contemptible passage:

Why would organic growers and consumers want to converge with conventional agriculture, as the title of a Maine Agricultural Trades Show session, held in January, suggested? Craving the Organophosphate-Arsenic-Laced Special for dinner?

There seems to be no limit to the calumnies organics advocates will heap on non-certified farmers. Maine’s organic guru Eliot Coleman derides non-organic farmers as “chemical farmers” who supposedly believe that “nature is inadequate.” He rehashes the 19th fallacy of “chemical” versus “biological,” dismissing the whole agricultural discipline of plant pathology as “plant-negative.”

Members of the Organic Consumers Association also employ the derisive term “chemical farmers” in their screeds. They even come right out and say that local foods not “organically-produced” are unsafe and that consumers should shun their local farmer who is not certified organic. Their modus operandi is to frighten people into buying organic.

Non-organic farmers and feedlot operators are literally poisoning us and our children…”

The belief armor of such ideologues is so strong that the concept of “dose” doesn’t penetrate. Organic devotees endow “pesticide residues” with seemingly supernatural powers of corruption while simply ignoring the fact that our diets are full of poisons. To them it doesn’t matter, as Bruce N. Ames and Lois S. Gold have shown, that “99.99% of the pesticides humans ingest are natural.”

It doesn’t matter that fungicides protect us from one of the most potent carcinogens known, aflatoxins produced by molds; what matters are the hypothetical effects of micro-grams of fungicides found on apples, as promulgated by such organizations as the execrable Environmental Working Group.

It doesn’t matter that another potent carcinogen, benzo(a)pyrene, is ubiquitous in cooked foods. Instead of considering, by twisted “organic” logic, that this morning’s hot coffee and toast is a cancer cocktail crossing her placental barrier, a pregnant mother propagandized into being afraid of non-organic food will strap her babies into car seats and drive miles to avoid “chemical” farmers and their products.

Surviving the end of oil, organically

The last plank of the organic barrel raft to be removed unceremoniously from my grasp was the “sustainability” claim. In spite of what I knew were absurdities in the organic movement, I still believed that organic farming would be the only option left to us in a “post peak oil world.” Oil-based farming was clearly unsustainable; as oil becomes rarer and more expensive, we will have to find more sustainable ways to farm, and organic is waiting in the wings to save the day.

I accepted that peak oil was imminent, if not here already, and that this would mean the disappearance of “industrial,” “petroleum-based” agriculture, along with the wholesale decline in the accoutrements of contemporary civilization (i. e. well-stocked supermarkets). But having followed the alleged End of Oil for almost a decade now, I’ve amended my position to “maybe,” even “I don’t know.”

The peak oil “collapse,” always just around the corner, never seems to happen. This doesn’t mean “peak oil is a myth”; rather, it means the catastrophic effects have been over-sold, sort of like the media-hyped “comet of the century” Kohoutek in the 1970s, which fizzled out.

Besides, it doesn’t follow from the decline of oil that organic farming will rise. Organic foods have always been more expensive to produce, even in a regime of low oil prices, than supposedly “oil-based” foods. Organic farmers have fuel bills, too, and they are virtually addicted to plastics, so in the predicted expensive oil future, organic prices will continue to outpace conventional prices.

It doesn’t even follow that organic methods are more “sustainable” than “conventional” ones. My deconversion from this last plank of belief has been preserved for posterity in an exchange with Robert Carroll of the Skeptics Dictionary, under his entry on “organic (food and farming).” He says:

“…the problems we will face will probably be exacerbated if we went totally organic. Think of how much more land we would have to use to feed the world’s population. Where is this land going to come from? Clear-cutting rainforests?

…organic farming could feed the world if population stopped or receded, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Conventional farming of genetically modified crops may be the only hope for feeding the billions more that are likely to be added to world population within the next 50 years.”

The alleged “sustainability” of organics for a “post oil future” is an instance of an ideologically-based movement co-opting a genuine issue (“peak oil”) and casting it in apocalyptic terms in order to make salvationist claims for itself.

The end of the matter

In the end, there is nothing particularly wrong with the methods sanctified as “organic”—the food produced is as good as any other food—but it turns out that just about every other utterance that issues from the organic movement and its acolytes is an absurdity, a contradiction, a misrepresentation, a slander, or a fib.

I phrase the Jesus quote at the beginning this way:

“It’s not what goes into your pie holes that’s the problem. It’s what comes out of your pie holes that’s the problem.”

So if you currently buy your fresh produce from your local organic farmer and you really like it, continue to do so. Just tell them to cut the crap, along with their prices.


All in all, a fantastically, informative read. Just as we should be wary of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Government when they assert, by fiat, that so-so equals bladdy-blah, so should it be of Big Organic when they assert their methods use no pesticides, less-intensive pesticides, is automatically better because it’s au naturale (wild almonds anyone? They contain cyanide), or, any other contradictory occurrences. I believe Rob Hart has said it best: “The world has changed. We don’t live anything like our ancestors. We don’t work like them, talk like them, think like them, travel like them, or fight like them. Why on earth would we want to eat like them.”

Thanks for the guest post Mike. And don’t forget, if you buy S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded free (which cost 3 times as much). Just email me your receipt (you’ll find my email at my author website). Thanks for reading.

GMOs are Unnatural? And Other Thoughts on Biotech

GMO

My last three posts have been about GMOs. I took a bit of flak for it—I even got some thank you’s and well done’s, mainly from scientists and farmers. In copping the negative flak however, the consensus seemed to be that genetically engineered foods and GMO technology are unnatural, therefore bad, and this is usually wrapped up in the guise of the naturalistic fallacy (anything natural is better than anything manmade). I find this naturalistic argument rather short-sighted, and a non-sequitur (conclusion does not follow from the logic). (I’m not saying that its wrong to eat organic foods, merely that the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the way it is presented. If you want to take what nature offers, then have at it without need of rationalizing it.) I also find that the stated goals of many an activist organization would, almost without question, lead to outcomes in-conducive to the stated environmentalism that those who hold the argument adhere to. Let me detail why I think so, as well as get into a dissection of biotechnology, nature, evolution, and a few others subjects (I got a bit carried away and before I knew it, this post was almost 5,000 words).

GM in Nature

Let’s take the basic premise: nature makes stuff better than we do—arguably the root of the organic movement. Starting at the beginning: some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, there existed a single-celled replicator that is the common ancestor of everything alive today. Harken back to the thought that recombinant rDNA technology is unnatural, which would mean that nature doesn’t do it. For, if genomic modification was unnatural, then we could confidently say that we wouldn’t be here. Since nothing could have evolved from that original replicator. It would just be replicators ad infinitum, one after the undifferentiated other. Nothing would change, because random changes and mutations would not occur. Even the original replicator would not have evolved so we wouldn’t have gotten that far. Nature is the original Engineer. (If you’re wondering why I capitalized engineer, then you haven’t watched Prometheus. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.) In order to go from that replicator to a 100-trillion celled human being, nature had to employ genomic engineering, albeit by accident. The only difference between nature’s style and our own is that nature’s is directionless and purposeless—there is no end goal in mind; whatever happens, happens. For every animal that exists, for every animal that was born, for every animal that lived out its short life, there were billions that met untimely, and quite likely, painful ends. Of all the species that ever existed, 99.9% are today extinct. Nature is not the benign process we think her to be, and though it is very easy to say that mother nature should be our guiding light (or spirit, or mother), but I submit to you that the 1.7 billion people who died of natural infectious diseases in the 20th century alone would not agree (if they could disagree, that is), or the 1.97 billion people who died of non-communicable diseases. If we were to compare our own body count: all the wars, crime, subjugation, and intolerance of mankind, to natures, we’d find that she more than trebled our own count, which stands at some 980 million people. Surely, nature does put us to shame with her 3.67 billion death tolls. Be that as it may: it follows that we are here because of the natural process of genomic modification and there is nothing inherently unnatural in the process. Mutations happen: either nature makes them happen with no thought to the outcome, or we control for them with genetic engineering.

Nature Does It Best

Let’s again take the basic premise that nature makes stuff best. From that first replicator, and then every step along the way, nature haphazardly selected for organisms preferentially selecting for those with beneficial mutations (allowing them better success in passing on their genes), selecting against those with detrimental mutations, and being ambivalent towards those with benign mutations until, eventually, in the Rift Valley some few million years ago, primates began evolving intelligence along with the spectacularly lucky coincidence of an opposable thumb. These two lucky outcomes allowed their descendants to manipulate their environment with an ever-increasing degree of control using said, gifted intelligence. (One theory is that intelligence evolved as a courtship device; watch this video by Jason Silva for a 90-second primer.) Therefore, our intelligence and the manipulation of our environment are thus given to us by Mother Nature…arguably to have it used. Every animal on this blue-green dot we call Earth uses to its advantage every trick and tool nature endowed it with. (After all, those that don’t often do not pass on their genes.) To categorically state that nature makes stuff better than we do so that we should bow down to her wisdom is to willingly ignore that nature made us the way we are to do what it is we do, which is the propagation our genes using our selective advantage (intelligence and environmental manipulation). It follows then, that, everything we do is, concordantly, natural. (Unless of course, you believe you have free will, which you don’t.) We are made by nature, therefore everything we do is natural and, therefore, everything we are doing now is the best possible solution because it is natural. As you can see, this line of reasoning (natural > human-made) is a slippery slope and is, plain and simply, ill defined. The distinction between nature, human culture and technology is an arbitrary distinction. We do the things that we do now because of our naturally endowed capacity. But, another way to put it is that after 3.8 billion years, an animal (Homo sapiens) evolved its own evolvability (technology) thus continuing the process of selection in the process superseding natural selection becoming the dominant selection process. We are the first species that does not live entirely within the constraints of natural selection, but that does not mean we don’t live in a selection process, just that we override natures and institute our own. In time, we rely less and less on natural selection and more on environments of our own choosing—but it is so because nature made it so. Ants make anthills, beavers make dams, birds make nests, and Homo sapiens make technology, and it’s all natural. (Note: I’m not saying we need to colonize the Earth and have everything submit to our mighty republic. Yes, I just finished watching Spartacus.) Only that within our domain, we have already done so to our own advantage, and there is nothing wrong with this—it is natural even.

Selection

Remember that evolution happens regardless of whether we rework it to our advantage—biotech crops—or leave nature be.

  • Evolution is natural selection by random mutation
  • Pre-Industrial (i.e., organic) agriculture is artificial selection by random mutation
  • Conventional agriculture is artificial selection by accelerated random mutation
  • GM agriculture is artificial selection by purposeful mutation

The changes are changes in degree, not in kind. To label one unnatural is to label them all unnatural. It is evolution, continued. Something has to fulfil both the selection process and the mutation process in evolution. It’s either nature, which has neither direction nor purpose, and evidenced by her 3.67 billion person death toll in the 20th century from just 2 categories, has neither your health or longevity in mind; or we fulfil the selection process, which nature gives us the ability to so.

While the result of recombinant rDNA technology may be labelled unnatural (merely because it doesn’t exist in nature, not because it can’t). The same cannot be said of the technology that produces such food. We are co-opting nature’s methods to make food, not playing God. (You may dispute the fact that I said that it could exist in nature by saying that a fish gene could never wind up in a tomato, but you’d be wrong. Your genome is the combined genome four times over of the amphioxus fish-like marine chordate. A 1cm little fish’s genome mistakenly copied twice over on itself has resulted in every land animal today, and you. If nature can turn a little fish into you, then why is it so distasteful that we put cross-species genes where we need them? Uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to your mind, but nature had no idea what she was doing either.)

The Point

There is a movement to demonize GM technology and even conventional agriculture, with the wish to return to the agricultural past. Organic agriculture is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t feed the world with it. Remember Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb? It stated in 1968 that in the 70s and 80s, mass famines would ensue as we wouldn’t be able to make enough food, and any efforts to avert such a disaster are a waste of time and should be scrapped. (Thomas Malthus said much the same thing in 1798.) Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why didn’t the predictions of mass starvation and disaster come to pass? Well, they would have if we listened to him and did nothing. Instead we developed the technologies that allowed us to increase yield to a stupendous degree.

Context

Since 1961, we’ve increased yield by 300% using only 12% more land. How? We used technology to make drastically increase yield and avert the predicted disaster of Ehrlich and many others. Said differently, if we kept farming organically, mass famine would have ensued. Without such yield increases thanks to plant science, we would have had to use two Latin America’s of arable land to compensate, or, more likely, the predicted mass starvation would have occurred. If in the 1960s when the world population was less than 3 billion people, the propagation of organic farming as the sole agricultural method would have resulted in disaster, how it will help us now when we are 7 billion people and on the way to 9-10 billion people? The majority of that increase in yield has come from plain ol’ conventional agriculture, but now our yields are coming up against a glass wall for that type of plant science, and GE foods are the next process to take us forward to surmount the coming set of problems. And, while we still have a starving billion today, it is not because we can’t create the food, but we can’t get it to them. The solution to world hunger is for those most afflicted by it to be able to grow their own food, instead of relying on food aid and handouts as band aids applied to a broken bone. Organic farming will not suffice for Sub-Saharan Africa; they need heat-tolerant and drought-resistant strains. (They already don’t have any biotechnology or conventional agriculture, ergo, organic farming, which is what remains, has failed them.)

Future Problems

In the next 40 years, we need to double yield without an increase in land usage—in fact we’ll need to decrease land usage (agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change). We will not accomplish this by going back to low-input agriculture—though it won’t go anywhere for those who still want it. I make the case in my book that Vertical Farming (VF) will do the trick. VF certainly is capable, but what if the mass migration from horizontal farming to vertical farming never takes place? The technology was invented in the 50s by the US military and then nobody did anything with it for 60 years. What if that no-usage scenario repeats itself? We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope that everything will go according to plan. We need contingencies and redundancy. One of those is GM agriculture. We have been eating GM food for 20 years: in that time, we’ve spared the environment 438 million kilograms of pesticide use. (Don’t forget, organic farming uses pesticides too, and organic pesticides aren’t automatically better for the environment. Some are thousands of times more toxic.) In 2010, 19.4 billion kgs of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere because of GM technology (the equivalent of 8.6 million cars removed from the roads for a year). Over half of the economic benefits of GM seeds have gone directly to farmers in developing countries helping them rise up out of subsistence farming and poverty. In America, the country that eats the most GM food, cancers over the last 20 years have gone down 20% so the promised health apocalypse that many have warned about were coming have not materialized.

If we want to solve the problem of population growth, we have to realize that living in poverty is what propels the world’s poor to have more children, and food insecurity is a major factor. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Abundance, poor families living in subsistence need at least 3 kids, and they aim for male children. Why three? Well, as distasteful as it sounds; one may die, one will tend to the farm and look after the parents as they age; and the other is sent to get an education to break the cycle and make money enough to hopefully lift them out of poverty. The best solution to breaking out of a life of subsistence is food security. People in Sub-Saharan Africa can’t use organic farming (which, as mentioned earlier, if defined only by lack of conventional tools and biotechnology, then they are already organic, and food insecure).

Potential Benefits

Recently, we passed peak farmland, which unlike peak oil or peak water actually has positive connotations for us, but especially, the environment.

See the blue section in the above graph? That is the actual farmland used since 1961 to get us the aforementioned 300% yield increase. See the upward sloping green section? That’s how much land we would have used if we didn’t use conventional agriculture to create todays food. It is the equivalent landmass of the USA, Canada, and China, and try to imagine the destruction of forestry that that would have entailed. To be an environmentalist is, by definition, to support the conservation of nature. To support the conservation of nature should be, by definition, to support conventional agriculture as it uses less land to grow that food—going forward, this will entail supporting, or at least supporting the possibility of using, GMOs.

If we continue on our current path of increasing yields using science and biotechnology, the authors of the Peak Farmland study conservatively estimate that we could return 146 million hectares to nature by 2060, with high estimates that 256 million hectares could be restored (roughly double the area of the USA, east of the Mississipi). None of this even takes into account the potential land and resource reduction benefits of IV meat (which I detail here), or the coming generation of biotech crops, many of which will have: significantly reduced pesticide use (some using no pesticides at all), reduced nitrogen use (reducing river pollution), increased nutrition along with many other benefits. But, many such seeds are locked away due to the intense furore to GMO use, allowing only those few that the seed giants can afford to push through the regulatory burden. PG Economics noted that if, in 2010, those biotech crops already available were removed from the market, farmers would have had to plant an additional 5.1 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton, and 0.35 million ha of canola to keep production steady, equivalent to an additional 8.6% of arable land in the US. Yet, this is what activists would have us do, remove all GM crops, necessitating the further destruction of forestry and nature for human purposes.

So, if we move forward into the future, we’ll give back hundreds of millions of hectares of farmland to nature, and if we move forward with biotechnology, we’ll do likewise.

Big Ag

But, are there problems, real problems, with biotechnology that have been covered or up concealed? With the technology, we find no problems that aren’t present in other forms of agriculture. As the National Academy of Science, and many prestigious scientific organizations concluded, the process itself is no more inherently risky than any other method. Biotech crops usually have between 1 and 3 genes altered, but every new generation of organic and conventional crops will have a few different genes in there too. (They are inevitable: a DNA copying error, a passing cosmic ray etc., will, and do, induce genetic mutations. To say there is uncertainty in GMOs is likewise to admitting that there is uncertainty in any new generation of plant or animal. The average human offspring carries about 100-200 mutations, but they are still people. Food with 1-3 added genes is still food.)

On the business side is where we find many that many folks have a priori problems. But these problems are indicative, and suggest the need of, business reform, patent reform and competition, and not the outright banning of the technology (which is just not possible, anyway). This business problem ended up co-mutating into advocacy against GMOs in general instead of where it should actually be directed, lack of competition due to the overbearing regulatory burden on GM crops which was instituted due to the initial advocacy, and round and round the circle we go, as the increased advocacy only exacerbates the problems activists think they are trying to stop. The intense backlash against biotechnology has only cemented the power of those few who first began exploring the field. Even then, the scale of abuse, often levelled at Monsanto, rivals the misinformation that the Catholic Church spouts against condom use on the continent most ravaged by aids, likening condom use to be a greater danger than the ravages of aids. (A sensible approach to Monsanto was detailed by activist Ellen of One Hundred Meals.)

We need to stop pretending that only Big Ag and Monsanto lobbies, undercuts, and undermines democracy; the organic movement spends $2.5 billion a year on advocacy. We need to stop thinking that Monsanto is after world domination: the global GM seed market in 2012 was $14 billion ( that is world domination with 0.0002% of global purchasing power), while organic food sales are $60 billion worldwide. (The total value of those GM crops when harvested is around $65 billion.) We need to know that all farms strive to use the least amount of pesticides required, as it is their biggest expense, and that synthetic chemicals are not a priori worse than organic chemicals, in fact, quite the opposite. In other words, we need to get real, and deal with the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

For whatever problems we have today, the solution is not to ban it, it is to weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act appropriately. It is to study and to research, and to have reasoned debates among experts on the pros and cons; but above all, keeping in mind the effects on people far and wide around the world. Food security and a heavy disease burden (usually going together) undermine society at every level of its functioning. To fix them is to advance significantly in all other matters of societal dysfunction. Who knows how many Newtons, Einsteins, and Curies we are losing to lack of food, clean water, and education every year while we bicker over functionally equivalent types of food. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t, but don’t stop others from making their own choice. The liberal movement in America and Europe is pro-choice when it comes to matters of female reproduction—and rightfully so! —Yet, move the topic to food, swiftly change to being anti-choice, even though the ramifications for billions of poor people around the world are far worse than for a women in a forced pro-life environment.

But instead of focusing on legitimate problems with the business, competitive, and legal environment, red herrings are thrown this way and that: that organic food is nutritionally superior; a meta-analysis covering 162 studies over a 50-year period says their not, and any nutritional differences are unlikely to have a significant outcome on health. Facts are thrown out stating that organic is environmentally superior to all other forms of farming, despite the fact the answer is far more nuanced. We are told that farmers are using GMOs to lather their fields in Roundup, yet the National Academy of Science wrote, “When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides.” (A report from the National Research Council even gave an impressive list of GM benefits including: improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use, but everyone focused instead on the little nuggets of bad news instead of the load of good news.) In using GMOs we use less toxic pesticides, and the result is a net environmental benefit, as glyphosate usually replaces atrazine (a pesticide 200 times more toxic). Instead of learning about real yields on GMO, we get the Union of Concerned Scientists telling us that ‘intrinsic yields’ haven’t increased since the inception of GMO, even though intrinsic yield tells you nothing, but total yield really has increased. But the most destructive effect of this headline-grabbing debate fiasco is as Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California wrote, “as it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

Red herrings are red for a reason, they are meant to distract you, not inform you. We need some green herrings.

Choice

Those of us with the ability to read this post have the luxury of choice when it comes to choosing between organic, conventional, and GM agriculture. (‘Certified Organic’ also means GMO-free, so, we don’t need to go through the hoops of requiring even more labels.) But more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night (16 million people of whom will die of hunger this year) will not have that luxury. Half the planet’s population remains malnourished, then the one to two million people (670,000 are under five years of age) who will die from Vitamin A deficiency this year who, in point of fact, will not be thankful to Greenpeace for their 16-year blockade of GM Golden Rice that could save them—they’ll die slow, painful deaths instead, only to be replaced by more kids to replace them, many of whom will die too. To fix that problem—which is not only a moral necessity—reduces the burden of increased population growth. (The response to both of those claims—starvation and vitamin A deficiency deaths—is that we shouldn’t be feeding them unhealthy food instead. Those saying this have clearly never gone without food for longer than a few hours, let alone the few weeks it takes to die of starvation, or the years over which blindness sets in from vitamin A deficiency, which then goes on to kill half those afflicted. And, of course, it assumes that GM food really is less healthy or less nutritious, which it isn’t.) It’s time we got out of our First World bubble.

There is, despite the hysteria, a scientific consensus on the safety and risk profile of GM technology. Almost every scientific organization, from the National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society thinks it so and 600 peer-reviewed studies back up the claim. Aside from a few deniers, we trust our scientists on climate change, don’t we? They are shouting from the rooftops about the dangers of climate change, and how little time we have left to reverse course. You’d think if there were a comparable danger from biotech, you’d have more than a handful of scientists speaking up. So, why don’t we trust them on biotech?

Norman Borlaug—father of the Green Revolution, who saved one billion lives using plant science—had this to say about the food fight we in the West are squabbling over: “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.

While we endlessly bicker and sensationalize, people are dying of starvation. It does no good to deal in hypotheticals such as: if we wasted less food, there’d be enough for everyone (you wouldn’t be able to ship it to them); if more people were charitable, everyone would be ok; if we switched to organic agriculture, we could feed everyone (wrong), along with many others. Despite the fact that many of them are wrong or idealistic, they presume people being rational, informed, and having access to and accepting unadulterated and uncensored good, reliable information. Is that likely to happen anytime soon? The cries of the anti-vaxxers are still putting kids (and society at large) in danger; the chant of the climate-deniers only delays needed progress; but on issues of food security, arguably the most important of all, we’ll all see reason?

Changing People or Inventing Technology—Which is Easier?

Is it easier to change the hearts and minds of billions of people with all their complexities and interrelationships or is it easier to invent new technologies that solve the issues for those affected? The climate movement has struggled to change the hearts and minds of people and politicians for over twenty years and we’ve got very little to show for it. Let’s not continue making the same mistake with food. Changing the consumption habits of one billion westerners—if that is even possible—will take a long time with no certainty of success. Meanwhile, the people dying of starvation will keep dying. The technologies to feed them using less land and cheaper inputs are here and now, they are safe, they are capable, and they are predictable, regardless of how shrill the opposition to them is from well-fed oppositionists who’ve never felt the sensation of hunger. It’s time to deal with the facts, but above all, it is time to value human lives consistent with the evidence and facts we have. The intentions and hearts of the bored, guilted sensibilities of Western activists who grumble at a skipped lunch is in the right place; their proposed solutions and flawed reasoning are not.

They are plenty of problems we face in agriculture. The vehement backlash against biotechnology is distracting from those issues. Biotechnology won’t solve every problem, but they will help substantially. In fact, the co-use of biotech crops alongside organic crops—in what is called a refuge zone—significantly curtail pest resistance. It may be that the bright agricultural future within our grasp uses both systems side by side.

The next generation of GMOs could boost nutrition, reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, and boost yield, letting us feed the world without chopping down its remaining forest. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine ‘bio-organic’ farms that don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, but that do use these genetically enhanced seeds.” ~ Keith Kloor (Science Writer)

Whatever is the case, we need to realize that feeding 7 billion, let alone 9 to 10 billion people in the near future, isn’t going to be easy. If it fits on a Facebook photo as a caption, you can rest assured it will solve nothing. This post is 4,600 words long and is barely scratching the surface. Some silly shared photo on Facebook demonizing Monsanto or chemical use not only shows you things out of context, they detract from the conversations we should be having.

[Updated to remove superfluous text]