Wednesday, July 22, 2015


And how would you pronounce that? 
I just finished reading a long Slate article, published July 15, called "Unhealthy Fixation." It's an interesting treatment of what's wrong with the anti-GMO campaign.
People are always surprised when they find out that while I have many reservations about GMOs - primarily from the perspectives of ecosystem health and justice for the world's poor - I am not categorically opposed to them. I've never been a purist about anything, so they must not know me well. And I tend when I am emphatic to take pro- rather than anti- stances. Pro diversity in crop germplasm and on farms, pro affordable inputs for small scale agriculture, pro thoughtful use of technology, etc. 
The article, by William Saletan, while pretty much pro-GMO, does say right up front that "there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents." But it points out that these concerns are not limited to GMOs. GMO use is a subset of these destructive and unjust practices.
In the section "Organics are not safer" Saletan points out that Bt (a bacterium which is toxic to insects) may have some of its genes engineered into seeds, or may be applied to crops in much higher concentrations. The latter is permissible in organic agriculture.  So, if you buy the unsubstantiated claims that Bt is a health hazard for humans, you may be getting more in GMO free food stuffs than in the engineered variety. Hmmm. The Bt used in organic agriculture is produced and sold by the same companies GMO opponents love to hate - Monsanto, etc.
It  becomes obvious to me reading this critique that the opponents of GMOs may be victims of the same kind of thinking that those who cheerlead unreservedly for any new technology suffer from - that is reductionist thinking. Systems thinking is really necessary to know what the best choices in agriculture are, and to understand the dynamics of any food system issue. Not simple, not black and white.
The opponents of GMOs also extend their arguments beyond anything reasonable by playing on people's fears - which for middle class North Americans (and Europeans, one assumes) have to do most with fears for their own health and mortality. No peer reviewed scientific papers can address this, because as the author points out "fear of GMOs is not falsifiable." 
The article does wrap up by addressing one issue apart from health fears. "While bug-resistant GMOs have led to lower use of insecticides, herbicide-tolerant GMOs have led to higher use of weedkillers."  In doing so, the writer returns to one of the three larger issues mentioned at the beginning of the article, monocultures. It's not just about switching herbicides as weeds evolve, it's about varying and diversifying what's planted. 
You can read the full article here. I do hope it contributes to a real conversation, and isn't just billed as the voice of one of the perfect enemies in the current debate.

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