Dec 18 2023

The Conversation Gets it Wrong on GMOs

Even high quality media outlets will get it wrong from time to time. I notice this tends to happen when there is a mature and sophisticated propaganda campaign that has had enough time and reach to essentially gaslight a major portion of the public, and further where a particular expertise is required to understand why the propaganda is false. This is true, for example, for acupuncture, where even medical experts don’t have sufficient topic expertise to know why the claims being made are largely pseudoscience.

Where there is arguably the biggest gap between the scientific evidence and public opinion is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There has been a well-funded and unfortunately successful campaign to unfairly and unscientifically demonize GMO technology, largely funded by the organic lobby but also environmental groups. Scientific pushback has ameliorated this somewhat. Further, the more time that goes by without the predicted “GMO apocalypse” the less urgent the fearmongering seems. Plus, genetic engineering works and is safe and is producing results, and people may be just getting more comfortable with it over time.

But it seems to me that there are still some people who are stuck in the anti-GMO narrative, and they are making increasingly poor and unconvincing arguments to sustain their negative attitude. An example is a recent article in The Conversation – Genetically modified crops aren’t a solution to climate change, despite what the biotech industry says. The article is by Barbara Van Dyck, who is a long time anti-GMO activist, even participating in disruptions of field trials. Let’s dive into her recent article.

Her premise is that the biotech industry is overpromising on the ability for GMOs to adapt to and mitigate climate change, but to make this point she sets up a strawman. She writes:

“They argue that by enhancing crops’ resistance to drought or improving their ability to capture carbon, climate change may no longer seem such a daunting challenge.”

and later:

“But, perhaps most importantly, genetically modified plants aren’t the solution to the climate crisis.”

They argue nothing of the sort  (read it for yourself), but she puts it in sufficiently flowery prose that it may seem to be a bit of hyperbole or just poetic license. But she is clearly setting up a weak argument to knock down, that GMOs are a “solution to climate change”. No where in the paper do the authors argue this is a significant solution to climate change or will render it “less daunting”. They simply lay out the ways in which genetic engineering can be used to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and they make solid arguments, so she has to exaggerate their claims in order to make it seem as if they are overpromising. You could do the same thing for any of the hundreds of approaches that moderately contribute to mitigating climate change. None of them, by themselves, are “the solution” or make climate change “less daunting”.

Another type of argument she makes is essentially self-referential – justifying the anti-GMO movement because of the attitudes that the anti-GMO movement helped create. She also seems upset that the biotech industry is fighting back against the propaganda:

“The first step was to rebrand the techniques they are using, aiming to distance themselves from the bad reputation of genetic modification. Biotech firms started to use more innocent terms like gene editing and precision breeding instead.”

But she and other anti-GMO activists created the “bad reputation” – it’s not based on science or reality, and in fact is highly disconnected from the opinion of scientists. So she is upset that the biotech industry is moving away from the terms that she and others worked so hard to unfairly demonize. These terms are not inherently more “innocent”, they just haven’t been targeted for the last 20 years by the anti-GMO movement. But she tries to make it seem like there is some deception at work by the biotech industry by using terms like “gene editing”. How is “gene editing” not a completely technically accurate description of the technology?

With regard to “precision breeding”, I looked up the technical definition. It is gene editing, but, “These changes must be equivalent to those that could have been made using traditional plant or animal breeding methods.”  Yet her criticism is based on the notion that “Studies have shown that new genetic techniques can alter the traits of a species “to an extent that would be impossible, or at least very unlikely, using conventional breeding”.” Well then it’s not precision breeding, it’s gene editing. She appears to be the one playing loose with the terms here.

Her main argument against GMOs as a technology that can help adapt to and mitigate climate change is:

“These crops are designed for an agricultural model centred on the large-scale cultivation of single crop varieties destined for the global market.

This agricultural model relies on staggering amounts of fuel for distribution and places farmers in a state of dependence on heavy machinery and farm inputs (like artificial fertilisers and pesticides) derived from fossil fuels.”

This is a form of bait and switch. This problem has nothing directly to do with GMOs or genetic engineering, but with agricultural systems. This is the same logical problem as with people who argue against GMOs because they don’t like the fact that they are patented. But genetic engineering technology is largely agnostic toward agricultural systems. The former is a tool, the latter is an application. If she wants to argue for a decentralized food production system that relies less on monocropping, go ahead. I also happen to think this is folly, and cannot feed the world, or will rely on a dramatic increase in land usage. There is a reason why we make most of our calories through monocropping. But I am open to making adjustments to make agriculture more sustainable.

None of this has anything to do with GMOs or GE technology. She argues:

Typical examples include patents for soybeans with increased protein content, waxy corn, or rice that is tolerant to herbicides. These crops are designed for an agricultural model centred on the large-scale cultivation of single crop varieties destined for the global market.

Really? How does increasing the protein content of soybeans specifically apply to monocropping for a global market? How would it be incompatible with another approach to agriculture? Even herbicide tolerance, the favorite boogeyman of the anti-GMO crowd, could be used with integrated pest management or any sustainable system you wish to favor. It may not be compatible with organic farming, which I think is the real point for many, but “organic” farming is pure marketing (with a lot of pseudoscience) and should not be confused with sustainable farming.

Finally, she appeals to the precautionary principle, which is the governing philosophy for the EU, and which I think is not appropriate and is over-applied. In the US we take a more risk vs benefit model, which I think is more practical. But sure, there is a conversation to be had about how best to balance the needs of ensuring a safe food supply without unnecessarily hindering an industry. Right now I think GMO regulations are unnecessarily onerous, and based largely on fearmongering. So far there has been a grand total of zero humans harmed by GMOs. The totality of the scientific research shows that the technology is largely safe. But sure, having some safety net for each individual new crop introduced to the food system is a good idea, as long as it is proportional to the risk.

But we also have to put this into context, and this is what anti-GMO activists fail to do consistently. One big problem with the GMO term is that it is arbitrary and unfair. Why should certain types of genetic engineering be subject to far more scrutiny and regulation than, say, mutation farming or forced hybridization? In fact, GMO technology is sometimes safer, because we can predict the outcomes better. Mutation farming literally uses radiation or chemicals to mutate crops, and then selects the lucky improvement out of a large bunch. Talk about unintended changes. But apparently mutation farming is fine, while turning off one specific gene is inherently risky.

That is a main problem with the anti-GMO rhetoric. Non GMO plants can be patented, and have the same risks of introducing new food into the ecosystem. There really is no reason to think that GE technology is inherently riskier, and in fact there have been instances of unsafe non-GMO foods being introduced. So far, GMOs have a better track record. The alleged problems that activists point to are not unique to GMOs, nor are they inherent or universal to GMOs. But “GMO” is the term they spent billions demonizing, and they don’t want to give up all that marketing.

Meanwhile, here are the traits that they talk about in the paper Van Dyck linked to:

Abiotic stress – making crops more heat and drought resistant

Resistant to pests and pathogens (absolutely necessary for agriculture, no matter what system you use)

Increased carbon fixation

Improved efficiency of photosynthesis

De novo domestication – to increase the biodiversity of our food system.

Making crops more sustainable through seed bioengineering – allowing more kinds of crops to meet our nutritional needs.

Sounds like a horror story, right? How dare they? She can’t really make an argument against any proposed GE technology, so she has to attack strawmen and false targets. This was a total fail for The Conversation, because they printed an article from an activist at one end of the ideological spectrum, not someone who could provide a neutral expert perspective.


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