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”

My Interview at GreenState TV

My recent interview with GreenState TV. I actually had a lot of fun talking with Emily and Rick (though you won’t hear or see them); it was more of a conversation about GMOs than an interview about them. A very fun one! I’d do it again anytime.

Source link: GreenState TV.

Guest Post: The Insanity of Biotech

biotechnology

In my fervor to have my science book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticismreviewed by scientists (so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself), I reached out to Paul Little, a biochemist by trade. In our ensuing exchange, he offered to write me a guest post: The Insanity of Biotech. Here it is verbatim, you’ll find it very illuminating.


The Insanity of Biotech

Paul Little of Little eBook Reviews

In 1990(ish) I saw a film in the career department of my school that was simply called “Pharmaceutical”. It was a true piece of propaganda that I could not possible see through at the time. Men (and some women) in white lab coats drew chemical structures on the board and ‘designed’ the next new great drug. “Let’s just try putting a phenyl group here…” This is the biggest single driving quotation that I recall. There was simplicity in those few words. It seemed so trivial; all I need to do was learn to draw chemical structures and make bold suggestions and the world will be mine! Of course, from one end to the other it is nonsense. Chemistry is not as easily tamed as a humble white board. The word “just” is so misplaced when one considers the implications on a molecular level. How is it possible to persuade 6.022 x 1017 molecules (we often work on the millimolar scale) to dance to one’s tune? You cannot is the answer, they are not thought driven and they do not have what it takes to be persuaded. They follow the energy and do what chaos dictates: you get a mess, is what I am saying.

It took another eight years of chemistry training to be fully cognizant of the fact that molecules are more like cats than like dogs. You cannot train them, but you can make it seem like they are doing what you want by making the conditions right so that what they want is what you want, or will accept!

So “just” putting a phenyl group there can be a very lengthy exercise and need not ever actually happen!

Let us describe now the pharmaceutical development process: imagine for a minute that you are a molecule and you are eaten by a human, what do you see and where do you go? Imagine that you are supposed to make your way to a single receptor that sits on a particular cell type in a specific organ and you are to do one job, get out, do not get caught. It all sounds very ‘Mission Impossible’ and somehow it is. The human body is a magnificently complex place and there are huge challenges for Doctor Molecule wherever he goes. The good Doctor can get stuck in fat, or never make it out of the stomach, be chewed up by the liver or rapidly sent out to the bladder. Of course the other side to the story is Mister Chemical. All drugs are chemicals, all life is organized chemistry, but for the sake of this metaphor Mister Chemical could attack the body, or disrupt it balance, do more harm than good and even kill the body if enough friends are present. The pharmaceutical development process is the long road from the lab bench to the bed side where hundreds of studies are undertaken to assess the good qualities of Doctor Molecule and the bad qualities of Mister Chemical. If the balance is right and there is separation between the good side and the darker impulses than clinical trials begin and the lucky few will get permission to be marketed.

This few, this lucky few, this pharmacopoeia is the result of a huge effort. It is estimated that 95-97 % of all projects will end in failure, 80% or more of all medicinal chemists (the cat herders) will never work on a project that leads to a marketed drug. Some time ago it was often quoted that 10000 compounds were synthesized for each drug that is marketed. That number had grown substantially since the development of new synthetic techniques. Try to imagine 10000 struggles to “just” put a phenyl group there. Try to consider the huge amount of data that is published each day that goes into the hundreds of scientific journals covering every aspect of this crazy world. All of the data combined is used to make the best possible guesses as to which phenyl group should go where and what disease should be treated in which way. It is a mind-boggling pit of insanity to dive into and expect that one will succeed.

So why do we do it? The answer is the same as the lottery: to win, because the rewards of success greatly outweigh the insanity of the small chance of attaining that success. For some of us it is also the “because it is there” drive to do something unusual and to potentially make a big difference in people’s lives.

The biotech industry is the modern answer to the problem of this insanity, insofar as biotech is meant to mean small, highly focused companies with a very small number of projects. The point being that the individual drive of the people to make the individual projects a success is supposed to develop them faster, give them a higher chance of success or to fail faster and be cheaper doing so.

Why do I do this insane job of biotech? The answer is because I can. Somehow the last dozen years in this industry have given me the skills to understand that working for five to ten years on a project that can fail tomorrow is OK  The uncertainty is substantial, but when it works the benefits are enormous. Biotech is a business, and the only business I know that has to invest so much money, for so long without any certainty at all of any form of success. Which success stories should I quote to end this piece, to show that biotech has a benefit through the madness: it could be many: insulin for diabetics, cancer therapies that increase life expectancy, treatments for HIV infection, a whole pharmacopoeia of remedies that I hope that you will never need but is designed to be there in case you do.


Very enlightening, and Little’s field shows just how flexible, malleable, and amiable scientists need to be to accommodate to the changing nature of chemical science. Without chemistry, we wouldn’t have vaccines, medicine, fuel, and many other necessary, sometimes life-saving, products that make our lives easier. Thanks Paul, for being a scientist, and being generous enough to read my book, review it, and guest posting to my site.

You can check out Paul’s website, Little Book Reviews, where he reviews books. Additionally, my book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism was just released on Kindle and you can buy it for $0.99. It’s sitting at #13 and #22 for the Nonfiction “Science Reference” and “Science and Math reference” sections. (Help me reach #1, pretty please.) And, don’t forget, if you buy it and email me your receipt, I’ll send you Random Rationality: Expanded free. (My email address can be found on my author website here.)

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]

Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs With A Biotech Firm

Arctic Apples

Greetings and salutations my fellow readers. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride publishing the last two posts on GMOs, so I thought to myself, where should I go next? Dive further into the rabbit hole (making myself ever more unpopular), or switch topics? I have an interview with a scientist, check! With a farmer, check! Biotech firm? Bingo! An opportunity thus presented itself, so down I went further down the rabbit hole.

So, to round out—and conclude—my trifecta (or triumvirate—a much cooler word that makes me sound smarter than I am) of posts about GMO, I have just finished up an email Q&A with the CEO and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), Neal Carter, whose company makes Arctic Apples (apples that don’t brown). In my two previous Q&As— with a scientist here and with a family farmer here—I had commentary and concluding thoughts; this time, I prefer to let their positions stand on its own two feet, as it is more than capable of.

Do note, however. I am not trying to convince anyone to not eat organic food, or to eat GMO food, so don’t get your knickers in a twist.


1) What prompted your company to create a GM nonbrowning apple? Why not, for example, try to do the same with hybridization?

Our motivation for developing biotech apples, and all our other projects under development, is to introduce value-added traits that will benefit the tree-fruit industry. We have chosen to focus specifically on nonbrowning Arctic® apples as our flagship project for a number of reasons. One of the chief ones is that apple consumption has been flat-to-declining for the past two decades and we are confident the nonbrowning apple trait can create a consumption trigger while also reducing food waste throughout the supply chain.Neal Carter

Another key motivation is ever-increasing demand for convenience. Arctic apples are ideally suited for the freshcut market, which is expensive to enter because of the browning issue. We often refer to the consumption trigger that convenient “baby” carrots created – they now make up 2/3rds of all U.S. carrot sales!

As for why we use biotechnology to achieve this, it’s because we knew we could make a comparatively minor change safely, relatively quickly, and precisely. We silence only four genes, specifically, the ones that produce polyphenol oxidase, which is the enzyme that drives the browning process. We do so primarily through the use of other apple genes, and no new proteins are created. If we were to attempt to breed this trait conventionally, we could easily spend decades trying with no guarantee of success.

2) What benefits will the Arctic apple bring to the food market? Are there quantitative studies that can predict how effective it could be?

In addition to addressing stagnant apple consumption and tapping into the underutilized freshcut and foodservice markets, Arctic apples offer plenty of other benefits throughout the supply chain.

For growers and packers, nonbrowning apples can help significantly reduce the huge number of apples that never make it to market because of minor superficial marks such as finger bruising and bin rubs. So much of the food produced today is wasted purely for cosmetic reasons. This extends to retail where the nonbrowning trait can have a big impact on shrinkage and making displays more attractive while also offering exciting new value-added apple products.

Consumers will also benefit from throwing away far less fruit at home – how many apples get bruised up on the way back from the grocery store or in kids’ lunchboxes? Our goal is helping consumers, especially kids, eat healthier and waste less food. Last year, one grade 2 teacher wrote about how excited she is for nonbrowning apples, explaining she sees countless perfectly good apples and apple slices thrown out by her students due to minor browning and bruising. Consumers will also enjoy other tangible benefits like new opportunities for cut apples in many cooking applications.

As for quantifiable evidence showing the value of these benefits, food waste has been a major issue over the past year with recent estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggesting around one-third of food produced is wasted. The numbers are even worse for fruit, where around half of what’s produced never ends up getting eaten.

As far as the potential to create a consumption trigger, the produce industry is full of examples of how making fruit more convenient, especially for the foodservice industry, results in huge consumption boosts. We mentioned how baby carrots now make up two-thirds of carrot sales and reports tracking major fruit and vegetable consumption trends frequently emphasize convenience. One example explains one of the most prominent, ongoing trends “is a consumer demand for foods of high and predictable quality that offer convenience and variety.” Arctic apples satisfy all these requirements.

For apples, specifically, there’s lots of attention given to how various chemical treatments can slow browning and plenty of attempts to conventionally breed low browning varieties (though this is quite different from being truly nonbrowning). For instance, a notable 2009 publication from the Journal of Food Engineering discusses how “the market for fresh-cut apples is projected to continue to grow as consumers demand fresh, convenient and nutritious snacks”. Yet it also explains that the “industry is still hampered by-product quality deterioration” because when “the cut surface turns brown; it reduces not only the visual quality but also results in undesirable changes in flavour and loss of nutrients, due to enzymatic browning.” Again, Arctic apples address these issues.

Finally, some of the most convincing evidence that the nonbrowning traits will provide substantial value – both apple producers and consumers have told us so! In 2006/07 we surveyed a number of apple industry executives, 76% of whom told us they were interested in Arctic apples. In focus groups, we have found that over 80% are positively interested in Arctic apples and 100% of participants wanted to try them. Even more encouraging, when we surveyed 1,000 self identified apple eaters in 2011, we found that their likelihood to buy Arctic apples continued to increase the more they learned about the science behind them!

3) How many, and how intensive, were the studies performed to show Arctic apples are as safe as other apples? Were the studies peer-reviewed? If so, by whom? (You may wish to discuss what was and/or wasn’t changed.)

Before getting into the specifics, it’s important to put things in perspective to show how rigorous the review truly is; particularly arduous for a small, resource-tight company like ours: (See timeline)

Arctic Apple Timeline

So Arctic apples, our very first project, still haven’t been commercialized 17 years after we were founded and over a decade after we proved the technology and planted them! That means we now have over ten years of real-world evidence that Arctic trees grow, respond to pest and disease pressure, flower, and fruit just as conventional trees do.

Over this time, our apples have likely become one of the most tested fruits in existence. This makes detailing all of the specific tests impossible here, but we encourage anyone interested to view our extensive, 163-page petition on the USDA’s website, which provides full details.

Quickly highlighting some of the key ones:

These tests were performed by a variety of reputable groups and individuals, some third-party, some in-house. Our field trials were monitored and data was collected by independent horticultural consultants and an Integrated Pest Management specialist.

Of particular importance is the fact that there are no proteins in Arctic fruit that aren’t in all apples. This shows there’s nothing “new” in our apples that will affect consumers. This is expected as we silence the genes that cause browning, rather than introduce new attributes. To give an idea of how sophisticated the tests used to prove this are, they would be able to detect a single penny amongst 100-250 ton coal-sized rail cars! We are confident Arctic apples are safe, and soon, we anticipate FDA’s confirmation of this.

So what has all of this extensive testing taught us? Exactly what we thought it would – Arctic trees and fruits are just the same as their conventional counterparts until you bite, slice or bruise the fruit!

4) Can you name a few of the misconceptions — if any — that people associate your company with, or accuse your company of, when they find out you’re a biotech company? If there are misconceptions, why are they wrong or miss the big picture?

Absolutely – just as there are countless misconceptions about biotech foods in general, there are also plenty of myths about our company and Arctic apples. In fact, one of our most popular blog posts ever is titled “Addressing common misconceptions of Arctic orchards and fruit”.

We invite readers to visit that post and explore our site in general for more details, but the two most common misconceptions about Arctic apples are:

  1. Arctic apples will cross-pollinate with other orchards, causing organic orchards to lose organic certification: No organic crop has ever been decertified from inadvertent pollen gene flow. Even if pollen from an Arctic flower did pollinate an organic or conventional fruit, the resulting fruit is the same as the mother flower….not that of the pollen donor. Additionally, we are implementing numerous stewardship standards to ensure cross-pollination won’t occur, including buffer rows, bee-hive placement, and restricting distance from other orchards.
  2. Because Arctic apples don’t brown, they will disguise old/damaged fruit: The opposite is true! Arctic apples won’t experience enzymatic browning (which occurs when even slightly damaged cells are exposed to air), but the decomposition that comes from fungi, bacteria and/or rotting will be just the same as conventional apples. This means that you will not see superficial damage, but you will see a change in appearance when the true quality is impacted.

Other accusations we hear somewhat frequently from a vocal minority who oppose all biotech foods are “we don’t know what the effects will be down the road” or that we’re “messing with God/Mother Nature”. Regarding the first claim, the science tools we now have are truly amazing and we have an unprecedented level of precision, control and analysis when developing biotech crops. They must be meticulously reviewed before approval and around three trillion meals with biotech ingredients have now been consumed without incident. As to the messing with God/nature charges, biotech-enhanced crops are really just one more advancement in a long history of human-driven food improvements – and even the Amish and the Vatican support these advances!

5) As an insider, you are privy to the goings-on and workings of the biotech industry, what do you envision the future of biotech to be? What new seeds are coming down the line and what potential advantages or disadvantages might they bring?

We foresee biotech continuing to be the most rapidly adopted crop technology ever, as it has been for the past 17 years. We also anticipate already realized benefits from biotech crops to continue, such as those highlighted by a fifteen year study including increased net earnings of $78.4 billion for farmers (mostly from developing nations), a reduction of 438 million kg of pesticide spraying and the equivalent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as removing 8.6 million cars from the road for a year. Two major categories in particular where we’ll see further advancements are in environmental sustainability (reduced pesticide use, carbon emissions, food waste) and higher crop yields under adverse conditions (from pest resistance, drought-tolerance, etc.).

Another major trend you’ll see is the increased presence of biotech foods with direct consumer benefits, particularly nutrition. We will see many new projects following in the footsteps of crops like Golden Rice, which is fortified with beta-carotene; a precursor to Vitamin A. The World Health Organization has identified that around 250 million children under the age of 5 are affected by Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death. Biotech crops like Golden rice can potentially save millions of lives by helping address this, and efforts are already underway to produce other Vitamin A enhanced crops including bananas and cassava.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as there are many other exciting developments on the way including many other nutrient-enhancements for cassava, numerous drought-resistant crops, blight-resistant potatoes and many more. I actually highlighted some of these crops in a TEDx talk I gave in October 2012 on the value of agricultural biotechnology, which is available to watch online.

6) As a biotech company, do you bear the brunt of the anti-GMO backlash nominally directed at Monsanto and DuPont? If so, how has this affected you? Please be specific.

All companies who develop biotech crops have to deal with a certain level of backlash from the vocal, emotional minority who oppose biotechnology.

We are quite unique because when consumers discuss biotech companies, names like Monsanto and DuPont, as you mention, are the first ones that come to mind, rarely small companies like ours. Using Monsanto as an example, they have approximately 22,000 employees – we have 7. Because most organizations in this industry are pretty massive, they do get the lion’s share of attention. That being said, if we were to create a ratio of media attention to company size; ours would be through the roof!

One key reason we likely get more than our fair share of attention is that we’re dealing with apples. When we’re talking about something as popular and iconic as the apple (e.g., “an apple a day”, “American as apple pie”), it’s going to get people emotionally charged. Genetically, our enhancement is relatively minor compared to the majority of crops out there; yet even so, when our petition was available for public comment along with 9 other biotech crops in the U.S., we received around three times as many comments as all 9 of the other petitions combined!

In terms of how all this attention affects us, we can dictate that to some extent. On one hand, we could simply choose to ignore it. The review process is evidence-based (and rightfully so!), meaning we could keep our heads down and let the science speak for itself and not worry about what people are saying. That’s not how we operate, however, as we believe in the benefits and safety far too much to keep quiet. We want to do our best to make sure accurate, evidence-based information is out there to counter-balance all the myths and misinformation. This may mean that we spend more time and resources on education than others might, but it’s too important of an issue not to.

We’ve made a concerted effort so transparency is the core of our identity. We know we have a safe, beneficial product and we’re happy to explain the truth around previously mentioned misconceptions. We make it a priority, no matter how busy things get, to keep active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, maintain a weekly blog, make timely site updates, respond to every single sincere email we get and invest in delivering presentation such as last year’s TEDx talk. (Embedded below.)

We believe everyone in the science and agricultural industries have a responsibility to help educate the public on the facts of biotechnology. Sometimes that results in more backlash, but it’s worth it.

7) Some scientists state that the anti-GMO backlash has cemented Monsanto’s grip upon the market because only they can afford the regulatory burden, do you find this to be true in your experience? And how does this affect the greater biotechnology field?

Well, we’ve touched on how rigorous the review process is and how much smaller we are than the big industry players, so yes, it is tough for smaller companies to bring a biotech crop to market. It’s challenging to raise funds, produce needed data, spend the resources providing education, and it’s just a much bigger overall risk.

While the regulatory burden is heavier for small biotech companies, I think we’re an example that it’s still possible for the little guys to make it through, but it’s not easy. Not only do you have to successfully develop a fantastic product, but you must be focused, persistent and very patient. There is no rushing the review process, but here we are a decade after first planting Arctic trees and we expect to achieve deregulation in the U.S. later this year.

Even though we’re helping demonstrate it’s possible for small companies to commercialize a biotech crop, the high regulatory burden certainly does affect the industry as a whole. With such an intimidating outlook in terms of high investment, both in time and resources, there will obviously be far less small, entrepreneurial companies than would be ideal. In a field in which innovation should be embraced as much as possible, we are missing out on many potential innovative companies and value-added products because the barriers are so high.

Really, what it comes down to is the regulatory process is (and should be) extremely rigorous, but it is indeed possible for companies that aren’t multinationals to accomplish commercialization. Ideally, once biotech crops add further to their exemplary track record of safety and benefits and the scientific tools continue to improve; these barriers will gradually be lessened.

8) Lastly, what is your relationship to the government and governmental agencies. It has been alleged that agencies like the FDA are in the pocket of big biotech organizations and are willing to look the other way. Do you find any truth in those statements? If not, why not?

If we had to select one word to describe the multiple regulatory bodies we’ve dealt with over the past few years (USDA, APHIS, FDA, CFIA) it would be “thorough”. There’s certainly no looking the other way and nothing casual about the review process. If these government agencies were in the pocket of biotech companies, we wouldn’t still be awaiting deregulation more than ten years after we first developed Arctic apples!

Some people will see that some of the agencies have former members of biotech companies and immediately distrust the whole system; this misses the point. Of course they will have some former industry employees. These companies have thousands and thousands of employees and plenty of them are well-credentialed with first-hand experience in multiple facets of agriculture. In most fields, movement between private and public spheres is common, and most working aged citizens will have at least 10 different jobs before they turn 50. Some overlap is inevitable.

The truth is, you will hear a very wide range of arguments from those who don’t like biotech crops and this is just another one on that list. Luckily, there is more than enough evidence to show that biotech crops are indeed safe and beneficial, including over 600 peer-reviewed studies, around one-third of which are independently funded. The best advice we can give to consumers is to do their own research, but always with a close eye on the credentials and reputability of the sources!

For more information on OSF or Arctic apples, please visit www.arcticapples.com


Neal Carter is the CEO and founder of OSF. Thank you for your time Neal. I am, well, me; a curious fellow trying to make sense of the world (and I just released the 2nd edition of Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World for Kindle). It’s working out so far, and quite fun too.

So, would you eat an Arctic Apple?

Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs With A Family Farmer

thefarmerslife.com
In reading about GMOs in the last several years, I also read lots of reports about how farmers are disadvantaged, slaves to Monsanto, and for the most part, I blindly accepted them. But I had never heard from a farmer before. It was time to change that. It occurred to me recently that we live in the (mostly) free-market. The Big Ag BioTech companies can’t force people to buy their products, they have to convince them; with results, with cost-savings, or whatever else that a farmer needs that I know nothing about. The 95% of GM acreage in America isn’t a Monsanto empire, the farms bought into it not because they were forced to, but because they saw a benefit in it, and they keep buying the seeds not because they are obligated to, but because they still see benefits. On my last post when I interviewed a molecular biologist, Brian Scott (his photo is the featured image), a fourth generation family farmer, was kind enough to let me ask questions about how he farms and why he uses biotech seeds, and what specifically was his relationship to Monsanto from whom he buys some of his seed types. I wanted to know what really happens between a farmer and the evil company everybody talks about, and not hear about it from activists who’ve probably never set foot on a farm. While this is only one story from one farmer, it is enlightening. Also, do check out his blog, The Farmers Life, where he blogs about running his farm.

Fourat (Me) – Why do you use GMOs?

Brian –  I like to call GMO a tool in my toolbox. Biotech isn’t a silver bullet for every problem, but it’s still a powerful tool. We use traits like Bt and Roundup Ready (RR) on many of

thefarmerslife.comour acres, but not all of them.  All our soybeans are generally RR, while only some of our corn carries that trait. Popcorn and wheat, our other crops, are not available in GMO varieties. Some of our corn acres are dedicated to waxy corn production, and we generally don’t buy them as RR.  Built in insect resistance in Bt corn along with seed treatments mean it’s a very rare event that we have to treat a crop in season for pests.  That means we prevent soil compaction by keeping another piece of equipment out of the field. It also means a sprayer doesn’t need to filled with water, fuel, and pesticide which is good for the earth and the wallet.

Me – What incentives are there for using GMOs?

Brian – There can be incentives such as buying traited crops and certain chemistry (herbicide, etc) as a bundle to receive price discounts. Some crop insurance plans also offer a biotechnology discount. I think that says a lot about the effectiveness of GMO. If an insurance company is willing to give you a discount, they must believe those crops lead to less crop insurance claims.

Me – As many activists allege, are you a slave to Monsanto once you sign their contract?

Brian – I’m certainly not beholden to any seed company. I can plant what I want and manage it how I see fit. Do I sign an agreement that stipulates certain things when I buy patented seeds? Yes. Do patents only apply to biotechnology? No. These agreements are not nearly as binding as people would lead you to believe. The most viewed post I’ve put online is an outline of my 2011 Monsanto Technology Use Agreement. In the post I break down the line items in my own words, but I also provide the reader with a scanned copy of the agreement pulled straight from my filing cabinet. This allows anyone to read the agreement for themselves. In short, if I buy seed from Monsanto, Pioneer, etc nothing binds me into buying seed from them the following season. Nothing says I have to use their brand of herbicides or insecticides. Believe what you will about farmers being slaves to seed companies, but you’ve got to talk to a farmer before your mind is set in stone. My post can be found here. (Fourat: Definitely a worthwhile read.)

Me – Do you think you should be able to reuse the seeds you purchase from Monsanto? If not, why not?

Brian – That’s a tough question. For my purposes, if I wanted to save seed it would be soybean seed. All of our corn is hybrid corn. Hybrids don’t necessarily produce seed identical to the parent plant. Therefore, planting that seed the next season would give you an unknown result.  Soybeans self-pollinate so they remain true to themselves genetically. If I saved seed I would need to take a little extra care and expense to clean and possibly apply seed treatments to protect young seedlings. Right now my view is that of a division of labor. Farmers are great at producing high quality and high quantities of crops. The seed companies have the know how and resources to breed great plants. I think that’s a great combination for success. I’m not saying farmers couldn’t develop their own seed. Successful farmers are some of the smartest people I know, and can do anything if they choose to. [Fourat: I’d never thought about it this way. Farmers can save time and money by not having to clean and protect the next crops seeds. Funny how simple things evade the mind to those of us not actually involved in the industry.]

I also believe since it takes several years and millions if not billions of dollars to bring an innovative new variety to market, that any breeder large or small should be entitled to benefit financially from said variety for some period of time via a patent system.

Me – What is the most glaring factual error, if any, made by activists when discussing GMO seeds?

Brian – I often ask people what they think about crops that produce their own chemical defenses naturally, and I find a good number of people aren’t aware that some crops do this.  For example cereal rye has an ability to suppress weeds. This quality is called allelopathy. Many plants are naturally resistant to herbicides. Think about your lawn. Spraying 2,4D on your grass to kill dandelions and other weeds won’t harm your lawn. Grasses, which include corn and wheat, have a natural tolerance to that chemistry. Biotech may be allowing plants to do new things, but we are really just mimicking something nature has already shown us is possible.

I see many people say that seeds are soaked in glyphosate which is the active ingredient in Roundup. I’m not really sure where that idea comes from, but seeds are not somehow filled with herbicide. I think it’s possible people are confusing herbicides and insecticides thinking Bt and Roundup are the same thing. Bt traits protect crops like corn and cotton from pests like European corn borer.

Another fallacy is that GMO crops failed in the drought of 2012.  As if somehow during the worst drought since 1988 or maybe even the Dust Bowl era nature was supposed to give us a normal yield because our crops are able to protect themselves from pests and be resistant to certain herbicides. Drought tolerant varieties of corn were not widely available to growers in 2012. I’ve grown Pioneer’s version of drought tolerant corn in a test plot. It beat everything else in the plot hands down. Wide availability of drought tolerant corn varieties will spread in the next year or two. Drought tolerance and water use efficiency could be game changers for water use in the highly irrigated areas of the Great Plains. It should also be noted that all the corn being marketed as drought tolerant was brought to fruition by conventional breeding techniques except for Monsanto’s. Theirs will be the one genetically modified version.

Farmers make plans on how to plant and manage their crops several months before actual fieldwork begins.  In the end we all understand that weather will be the ultimate factor in determining the success of those plans. In agriculture there are countless variables in play when managing a crop, and the one thing you have no control over is the weather. It can rain too much or not enough. Temperatures may be great for crop growth, or they may be too hot or too cold. Farmers must do all they can to realize the potential of a seed, but nature will always dictate a large portion of yield.


So, do you still think Monsanto is an evil empire out for world domination? Why don’t we just leave it at a company like any other, trying to make money. Some people call this greedy, but the rest of us also spend most of our lives making money. So if you dislike (or hate) Monsanto, then maybe it’s time to encourage other bio-tech innovations to make seeds better, cheaper, or both, to offer to Brian and other farmers like him a better deal. (As Dr. Kevin Folta told me in my interview with a scientist, there are many seeds paid for with tax dollars sitting on shelves around the country that are better in several respects than what Monsanto has provided us. As long as they are shielded from competing against these seeds, farmers do have limited choices. You can read my interview with him here.) Competition and a dynamic marketplace is what gives consumers the most choice and power, and now, Monsanto pretty much stands alone having cornered a majority of the market. Much of their practices are rooted in this power and laws (not in the science and seeds), so let’s go about encouraging innovation and competition.

And if you are against the consumption of GMO foods, there is no need for it. There is already a label that tells you the exact same thing, ‘Certified Organic’ is another way to say “GMO free.” GMO food is in 80% of your supermarket, so it’s a safe bet that anything you see in the supermarket has a GM ingredient in it. There is no need to create ever more regulatory hoops to label GMO food, when the opposite label means the same thing. As for me, though I live for the moment in Europe where I can’t get GMO food, even if I wanted to, I’ll not shy away from it in my travels, it is my opinion that they are the future of food. (Note: I am not saying I think organic production is going away, or that everyone should eat GMO food because I said so; as long as there is a market, there will be self-interested people looking to make money by providing that product.)

Biotech seeds have been the fastest adopted agricultural technology in history. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no closing it, only managing it, so let us manage it better, and that will only occur if farmers are convinced. So if you have issues, have them not with the science or technology, but the handful of controlling companies who are only responding to the incentives the market has provided them. Competition is needed, not an outright ban, which is probably impossible anyway. But, it is heartening to me, that family farmers are not disadvantaged by using what is available now. (I know that Monsanto has disadvantaged other family farmers, or just farmers, but this is not a bias against GM seeds, it is against the company, and it doesn’t mean they are out to screw everybody else as well. They act in their own interest as does any other company.) And as for the subject of chemicals that always comes up, let us put them in the proper context:

Every compound you can name, no matter how scary has a safe level; and every compound, no matter how natural, has a toxic level.” ~ Brian Dunning (Author)

Thanks Brian, for making food for the rest of us. We, or at the very least I, are grateful, and I trust that you know what you’re doing.

[UPDATE: Part 3 in the series: Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be read here.]