It’s been on my list to write a post on genetically Modified Foods for quite some time, so when I watched the recent Intelligence Squared US Debate on the topic, I thought it was about time I put fingertips to keyboard.

If you’ve not yet seen the debate, it’s available on YouTube. It’s a little lengthy at just shy of two hours, but worth a watch:

Spoiler alert: The pro GM team win by a landslide – It’s notoriously difficult to change people’s opinions, but around 1/3 of the audience were undecided before the debate (with 1/3 for and 1/3 against). By the end there were more or less 2/3 for and still 1/3 against. Unlikely many people with an existing view switched sides, but the pro-arguments clearly did a good job of swaying the people who were on the fence.

My thoughts on the Intelligence Squared Debate

I think the best team won on the night.

The anti-GM arguments were:

  • What if there are unknown subtle risks?

This, to my knowledge, is the major argument against Genetic Modification: What if?

After 30+ years of testing and widespread consumption in the real world, there is no evidence of any harm, neither is there any plausible mechanism by which genetically modified foods might cause a risk.

It sounds scary though, so let’s not do it just in case…

  • Not every benefit initially promised to be brought about by GMO has yet been realised, so we should stop and look at other alternatives

While I was not swayed by the “What if?” argument, I can at least understand people’s concerns; the unknown is always a little scary.

This second argument was rather baffling, however.

Are we to put a time limit on all scientific research? If it doesn’t work within X years, scrap it and start something else?

Perhaps, if there had been zero beneficial results from attempts at genetic modification, one could perhaps justify this argument, but this is not the case.

GMO has brought us increased productivity, better resistance against pests and disease, with reduced pesticide use, and less land tilling (less soil erosion and CO2 production).

False Dichotomies and Straw Men

I addition to the above, the against team continually tried to frame the argument as if we were faced with a choice between genetically modifying crops OR using traditional breeding methods and looking at other sustainable farming methods such as polyculture etc.

They argued that GMO alone cannot solve all food production problems.

Again, this is a ridiculous argument. It’s akin to saying, “You can’t build a house using only a hammer. Therefore hammers are useless! Stop using hammers.”

While it is true that you can’t build a house using only a hammer, this doesn’t mean that a hammer is useless, on the contrary, it is a very useful tool in the tool box.

This was perhaps the most convincing argument of the pro GMO team. They didn’t claim that GMO was the holy grail, that it would solve all problems and should be the only avenue of research. Rather they argued that it was one area of promising research which has yielded good results so far, and we should continue to explore it further, alongside other more traditional techniques.

My final gripe with the arguments against GMO in the video were their claims that GMO had failed, as weeds and pests were becoming resistant to the herbicides and inbuilt pesticides which had initially made GMO crops so successful.

Agriculture has always been, and always will be, an arms race against weeds and pests. Whether we fight this war through genetically modifying crops, selectively breeding them “naturally”, spraying them with chemicals, or any other method, weeds and pests are going to evolve resistance.

So as far as the Intelligence Squared debate goes, I have to side with the PRO GMO argument. But what about my views on GMO in general?

Image taken from www.foodnavigator-usa.com

Scientific progress, capitalism, and food production

In my opinion, “GMOs, yes or no” is the wrong question to be asking.

How about instead we ask; “Is scientific progress and ever-increasing technologisation a good thing?”

Science is the process of understanding how things work, and finding solutions to problems. Technology makes our lives easier, safer and gives us ever-increasing ways to entertain ourselves and communicate.

Due to advances in science and technology, people live longer, more comfortable lives, can travel anywhere in the world quickly and easily, and do things previously unimaginable.

How could anyone argue that any of the above was anything but positive?

The answers to the great questions of life are never black and white, however.

A central tenet to this blog, is that life expectancy alone should not be used as the yard stick of success.

There are those who would argue that increased techologisation and progress, far from bringing increased well-being and happiness, can actually lead to dissatisfaction and even depression.

Labour saving devices can result in us becoming unfit and out of shape, often while polluting the atmosphere, destroying eco systems and creating waste.

technology may well be excellent at solving problems, but all too often, creates more problems in the process.

Let’s think about motor vehicles as an example.

Motor vehicles make it easy to transport people and objects over great distances quickly and easily. We can go places and do things never before possible. Ambulances can get people to hospitals who would previously have died, food and clothing can be taken to people in need who otherwise would have been left cold and hungry.

On the other hand, motor vehicles pollute the environment, and require fossil fuels to be extracted from the earth, often at great cost to the environment, wildlife, and human life. Millions of people sit stationary and stressed out in traffic jams every day, while their muscles atrophy and fat accumulates around their midriff. Over a million people a year are killed in traffic accidents, and motor vehicles are used to transport troops and weapons to war zones.

Would the world have been better off had the internal combustion engine never been invented?

Similar arguments can be made for pretty much every technological advancement ever made, from primitive agriculture, to mobile phones.

Is our constant striving for technological advancement and scientific progress a fool’s errand? Would we have been better off staying in the stone age?

What have the Romans ever done for us?

There is an argument that despite all of our “advances”, people living in modern civilised society, are actually often unhappier, and more dissatisfied with life, than people living in more primitive, pre-industrial societies – be they hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, or subsistence level agriculturists.

Perhaps there is an element of truth in this theory – but equally, perhaps there are tendencies to romanticise cultures that we don’t really understand?

Happiness, emotional wellbeing and contentment, are all very important – possibly the most important things in life.

They are also, however, very hard to quantify and measure.

If we look at more tangible measures of “quality of life”, scientific and technological advancements have brought about many measurable improvements.

  • Very low infant mortality rates
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Many diseases erradicated
  • Low risk of suffering violent attack or murder
  • Surgery and prosthetics for previously incapacitating injuries
  • Access to clean, safe drinking water
  • Safety and shelter from the elements and predators
  • Consistent food supply

The list could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Of course, living in Western society, with all its modern conveniences and comforts, is no guarantee of happiness.

On the flip side, however, dying young, contracting small pox, getting maimed, drinking stagnant water and shivering from cold and hunger aren’t great recipes for happiness either.

GMOs don’t kill people, people kill people…

Let me start out by clarifying that I am most certainly not a supporter of the NRA, and that having large numbers of handguns circulating around the general population, is in my humble opinion, not a very smart idea.

I think it is true, however, that scientific and technological advancement aren’t inherently good or bad. It all depends upon the motivations behind them.

In 2001: A Space Oddesy, we see the first ape to pick up a bone and begin to use it as a tool. The first use of technology. The first step towards becoming human. It doesn’t take long, however, until this tool becomes a weapon used for murder.

The point being, that pretty much every technology can be used wisely, for good purposes which benefit the user and society as a whole, or they can be abused – benefiting the users at great cost to others, or perhaps even at the detriment to the users themselves.

Now, before I completely go off on a tangent, and start rambling about whether the development of guns and WMDs has been good, bad or indifferent, let me try to draw the topic back to GMOs.

Food should be produced to Feed People

Should food be labeled as GMO? Perhaps. If we’re going to have food labels, they should probably accurately attempt to represent the contents.

Perhaps more useful labels to help us make decisions as to what to eat or not may be along the lines of:

WARNING: This food has been produced by a large corporation that has no interest in your health or wellbeing, the welfare of its workers, the animals used in its products, or the environment.

Again, however, I’m going off tangent. Topic of another post!

Personally, I want to eat food which is:

  • Tasty
  • Nutritious
  • Free from potentially harmful ingredients
  • Produced sustainably and ethically

Whether or not a food is GMO or not, has little bearing on any of the above.

A food might be GMO free, and organic, yet still be packed full of sugar, devoid of any real nutrients, farmed on deforested rainforest land, and flown thousands of miles by plane before finally reaching my local store by national network of refrigerated trucks.

Personally I’d rather eat a GMO food which has been engineered to produce a more nutrient dense version of its unmodified brethren, which can be grown more efficiently in my local area, with less input of non-renewable resources.

The real problem at hand, which does pose a significant threat to both the health of the human population, and the planet, is the food industry, and its primary focus of making profit, rather than feeding people nutritious food in a sustainable manner.

In the hands of giant multinational conglomerates, I must admit, GMO technology does make me a little nervous.

It makes me nervous in a similar way a chainsaw would were I to see it in the hands of a psychopath.

I’m not anti-chainsaw. I don’t think the use of chainsaws should be banned, or that we should seek out furniture and buildings that were constructed “without the use of chainsaws”.

I do however think there needs to be some kind of control and regulation of chainsaws. You can’t just have anyone running around the streets waiving one around as they wish.

The anti-GMO movement is very alarmist. Their fears appear to be that GMO is somehow going to kill us all in a catastrophic unforseen consequence of meddling with things we don’t understand.

This is a little like fearing that all the chainsaws are going to fall into the hands of raving psychopaths, and we’ll all be hacked to death in a bloody massacre. Probably unlikely.

Chainsaws are however currently wielded indirectly by psychopathic CEOs of multinational conglomerates, and used to clear great swathes of rainforest, causing the extinction of entire species, contributing to climate change, and destroying the homes and lives of indigenous people.

This is clearly not a good thing. It is not the fault of the chainsaws, however, which could form a very useful role in a sustainable ethical food system, making the lives of workers safer and easier.

This deforestation is not caused by the chainsaws, but from the fact that the main objective of the food industry is to make profit, not to feed people.

In the Intelligence Squared debate, the question of food security, and feeding the world is raised. Will GMO feed the world?

No, it won’t. But this isn’t due to an inherent problem or deficiency in the technology, but rather due to the fact that people are not going hungry throughout the world due to shortfalls of food production, but due to inequality.

Columnist for the New York Times, Mark Bittman, makes this case rather eloquently in his talk at the “Food For Tomorrow” conference:

How to Change the Food System – Mark Bittman

GMO technology is not going to magically stop inequality, nor make hunger a thing of the past.

Equally, however, human beings are more than capable of destroying the planet, and causing suffering in others, without the aid of GMO.

Looking forwards, we need to start moving towards producing food locally, and sustainably, with the intention of feeding people wholesome and nutritious foods that they can afford.

With these intentions in mind, it is my opinion that we should explore all potential methodologies, from traditional plant breeding and polyculture, through to GMO and beyond.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

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