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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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]