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.

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”

The Freebies Hundredth…And The New ‘Lowdown’

1-0-0….This is my 100th post! So to celebrate, I’m giving away Random Rationality: Expanded and S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism free for the next three days. Get’em while you can


The below links will take you to the Kindle store where you can get them free until the 22nd June:

Get Random Rationality: Expanded for free – [The UK edition is here]

What people thought of it:

Author Catherine Tosko wrote of Random Rationality: “This book is as good as (the oft-quoted by Janabi) Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.”

Writer Ryan Culpeper wrote: “It’s very informative, witty and well written. The author took a risk by committing to such a hefty scope, but he pulls it off quite eloquently.”

Get S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism for free – [The UK edition is here]

Continue reading “The Freebies Hundredth…And The New ‘Lowdown’”

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 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.]