May 11 2015

Missing the Point and Wasting Resources

I sometimes think of scientific skepticism as a method of waste reduction and improved efficiency. As an individual, a family, a society, a government, and indeed a civilization, we are best served if our time and energy were spent in an efficient manner pursuing appropriate goals. It pains me, for example, to think of researchers who spend an entire career pursuing a fiction. When you think about how much time and money is wasted because of ideology, stubbornness, or simple ignorance it can be depressing.

Part of the problem is that the choices we face are increasingly complex, and we really don’t have the infrastructure necessary to collectively make good decisions. Politics is overwhelmed with ideology and perverse incentives, people are overwhelmed with misinformation and advertising, the public is largely scientifically illiterate, the media generally does not do a good job of informing the public, and the default mode is to make decisions for emotional and ideological rather than rational reasons.

There are many examples just from the pages of this blog – billions wasted on useless supplements, disease outbreaks caused by antivaxxers, companies dedicated to producing free-energy devices, and ideological opposition to anything “unnatural,” to name just a few. The latter is interesting because it demonstrates how passionate people who mean well can be easily diverted by sloppy thinking. A recent article by Beth Skwarecki points this out nicely. While I don’t agree with everything she writes, the essence of her article is spot on.

She writes about the fact that people who are opposed to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are fighting against the wrong thing. Their reasons for opposing GMOs don’t really have anything to do with GMOs, which have become an easy proxy for these other concerns. To summarize and amplify her points – she begins with the idea that GMOs mean more pesticides (the term “pesticides” refers collectively to herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and anything else used to kill crop “pests”).

Limiting the use of pesticides in our massive agriculture industry is a very legitimate concern, for various reasons. While they are probably safe for humans in the amounts that end up in our food, it is always a good idea to limit exposures in order to have a comfortable safety margin of dose. Pesticides also get into the environment and can have unintended consequences, such as insecticides killing off beneficial insect species. Further, improper use can lead to resistance, with a decrease in effectiveness leading to crop loss and requiring further pesticide use.

It is therefore in our interest to have effective, efficient, and thoughtful pest control. The currently accepted method to optimize pest control is called integrated pest management. Opposing GMOs will gain us nothing in improving pesticide use. GMOs are one tool among many that may help IPM. Equating GMOs with pesticide use is simply wrong, and leads to the wrong solution to a very serious problem. It actually hurts efforts to optimize pesticide use.

The second issue she raises is opposition to GMOs because they are unnatural. This, again, is sloppy thinking. All of our crops are very different than how they evolved prior to human intervention. The style of human intervention is really not the primary issue – it’s the end result. If we produce a crop through cultivation, hybridization, mutation farming, or genetic manipulation it does not ultimately matter. All that matters are the properties of the final product.

The notion that GMOs are “unnatural” is simply meaningless. It is also often based on a false premise – that there is no way for genes from a bacteria, for example, to get into a vegetable in nature. While irrelevant, it is also not true. Scientists, for example, recently found genes from soil bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties, a natural gene insertion that occurred about 8,000 years ago.

The only legitimate concern would be if there were something inherently risks about GMO technology itself, and critics have not been able to make that case. They are left with simply saying, “it ain’t natural.”

The final issue is corporate control of our farming and food chain. In my experience, this is where anti-GMO activists go when all of their scientific arguments have been shot down with evidence. But here, too, GMOs are the wrong target.

First, I am not compelled by conspiracy theories about mega-corporations controlling our food supply. That is just raw anti-corporate paranoia.

Even more important, however, is that the entire framing of the debate is wrong. This is not about grassroots people vs the power of large corrupt corporations. This is about the marketing of some large corporations against the marketing of other large corporations. For example, Monsanto’s 2014 revenue was 14.8 billion. Whole Foods was 12.9 billion. The organic food industry sales for 2014 was 51.8 billion. The organic food industry has demonized GMOs in order to promote their own brand over a competitor’s.

What about patents? Should companies be able to “patent life?” I will put aside the deeper issue of patents, except to say that if patents are your concern, GMOs are again the wrong target. Seed patents predated GMOs.¬† Large seed corporations did change the practice of farming. It became cost effective and work effective to simply buy new seeds each year than to save seeds to replant. In fact, you cannot save the seeds from hybrid plants because the hybrid traits will not breed true to the next generation. GMO traits do.

So if you really care that farmers should be able to save their own seeds (even though farmers don’t seem to care about this) then you should really be opposed to hybrid seeds. I have never heard an anti-GMO activist complain about the fact that hybrid seeds cannot be reused. That’s because hybrid seeds are organic, and opposing them does nothing to further the organic corporate agenda (at least that is a plausible if cynical interpretation).

What has happened is that GMOs have become an emotional touchstone. They have come to represent disgust at the unnatural (so-called “frankenfoods”), corporate power, and chemical farming. The arguments against GMOs were all then backfilled to justify this position. People aren’t really against GMOs because the seeds can’t be saved, that is merely a justification they have latched onto. The lines then blur as the anti-GMO movement feeds on itself and takes on a life of its own. Now we have an echochamber of reasons to oppose GMOs, but none of them really have to do with GMOs.

Conclusion

Opposition to GMO is an excellent example of massive inefficiency caused by scientific illiteracy and misinformation. Well-meaning people who care about the environment, as I do, and are concerned about sustainability, as I am, are now expending their energy in the precisely wrong direction. If they achieve their goal of banning GMOs they will have actually hurt their own cause. They will deprive us of a powerful and important tool that has the potential to improve the efficiency of farming, resulting in a smaller environmental footprint.

Those concerned about patents and corporate power are also tilting at the wrong windmill. If they succeed in opposing GMOs (through banning or forced labeling) they will have accomplished nothing but supporting one set of corporate interests over another. They are unwitting shills in a corporate battle, all the while decrying corporate shills and corporate power. Monsanto and Syngenta will continue to sell patented hybrid seeds, or perhaps expand mutation farming to replace a superior technology.

If you want more healthful food, then opposing GMOs will accomplish literally nothing. Worse, it will hurt nutrition globally by depriving those who need it most of one entire category of potential solutions. Golden rice, for example, could be providing vitamin A to deficient children, except for mindless opposition to GMOs.  There are GMO potatoes that produce less acrylamide when fried, a potentially carcinogenic compound. The GMO potato is literally more healthful then the non-GMO varieties.

Those who oppose GMO as a technology, to whatever extent they succeed in their opposition, will achieve the exact opposite of their true goals.

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