Wednesday, March 30, 2016

genetically modified organisms

OK, Here is my take on GMOs, so I'm getting into the opinion side of things, as opposed to farm updates. (The blog name "Virid views" can be taken two ways. It is both things I see along the journey, as well as my views on what I see.)

I oppose the use of genetically engineered organisms.

Before I list my concerns, this is where I am coming from. My opinion is partly science based, and partly value based. Regarding the science, I will give researchers the benefit of the doubt as I would with any other area of public concern, that they are conducting the best science they can, and that their initial assessments are the best information we have to go on. 

That  said, I do have a concern with the science. While they have not found any health risks to date, it seems like everyone thinks that if it doesn't cause cancer or obvious first order observable effects, it is ok. This in spite of the fact that many other technologies and medical "advances" have ended up causing problems we were not able to anticipate or observe initially. Human hubris seems to be hard wired into the race, not to speak of the powerful drive for profits.

Ok, my concerns:
1. The science on GMOs is preponderately about human health, but not nearly enough about introduction of unique organisms into the biosphere that have not been the result of millions of years of interactive evolution with the rest of the biome. Hubris once again, but in this case, making the assumption that we understand enough about how the ecosystem works that we are comfortable tweaking a variable that could never have happened through normal evolutionary pressure. When we consider the two relatively new areas of research such as epigenetics and the human gut biome, we need to realize that there is a LOT we still don't know when considering the impact of new biotechnology.

2. Industrial agriculture is also centrally controlled agriculture. At one time, a small holding farmer was the epitome of autonomy and self reliance, but ask today's large commodity farmer about their livelihood, and many will say that they feel trapped and don't like how things are trending, but see no way out. They work their butts off like any permaculturist or organic farmer, but in many seasons are just a step ahead of the bank in paying off yearly production loans.  Seed saving is becoming illegal, options for seed become less every year, and profit making is a central motive for much of agriculture research. This is one more area of the economy that has been allowed to become an oligopoly.

The endless treadmill- We already see reports of herbicide resistant weeds, pesticide resistant bugs, and ag tech companies coming up with "stacked" genes, enabling them to kill weeds by drenching them with TWO herbicides that the food crop has been modified to resist. Where does this end?  

4. Competition through collaboration- Long term agriculture practice, to be truly sustainable, needs to work with nature, rather than against it. That does not mean that we return to hunter gatherers, or use no technology, but rather be smart about choosing methods, and have a bias towards initially observing rather than dominating. GMOs are an attempt to dominate and create monocultures suitable only for mans needs, not the overall ecosystem health. If nothing else, enlightened self interest would have us collaborate with, and share a bit bit more with our fellow organisms, rather than risk some tipping point we aren't yet aware of. It's time to move from r- selected behavior to K- selected behavior, and become the keystone species we were meant to be.

5. No turning back, or invoking the precautionary principle- GMOs are a unique technology in that once released in to the world, we can't stuff it back in Pandora's box. Natural powers of replication will take over, and a new stable state of the ecosystem might not be one we like. Just look at the disasters we have already caused by transporting organisms all over the globe (intentionally and unintentionally) into new biomes they were not a part of, and wreaking havoc. GE organisms would potentially result in even worse unbalancing events.

6. Resilience and brittle technology- The more we depend on fewer and fewer food crop genetics, the more at risk we are for a black swan event or single point failure that we have no back up plan for. There is a reason that nature expresses such a wild abundance of genetic variation- IT WORKS. It has stood the test of time, and overall biome health results because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. GMOs help make the food foundations of our society more narrow and unstable.

Some personal history- I was raised on a farm.  Back in 1970, Southern Corn leaf blight decimated the U.S. corn crop.

We had our losses, but not as bad as some. What had happened, was a natural genetic variation that eliminated expensive hand detasseling seed corn fields had been incorporated into nearly all seed corn in the U.S. It turned out that this variation was also especially susceptible to the blight. One dampish year, and disaster struck. By my sophomore year in high school, us rural kids all had summer jobs detasseling again. Seed companies all doing the same thing to save money was brittle or "unresilient" technology in action.

Unfortunately, we have already opened the pandora's box, and we are unlikely to turn back, and in some cases, where GE organisms have already "escaped" or cross bred, we can't turn back. 

In the mean time, some of us plant many varieties of heirloom veggies, slowly figure out how to get a good crop without chemicals, and try to regain resilience.


  1. Hi, Steve!

    What a fantastic post; very concise and pithy. I appreciate you putting all of this information - and reflections - in one place. I am completely with you on this. This phrase particularly caught my eye: "GMOs are an attempt to dominate and create monocultures suitable only for mans needs, not the overall ecosystem health. If nothing else, enlightened self interest would have us collaborate with, and share a bit bit more with our fellow organisms, rather than risk some tipping point we aren't yet aware of." My family thinks that we have covered almost every point where we might be ingesting GMOs, and eliminated those points, but you never know. The other day my son pointed out that by buying gasoline with ethanol in it (10% ethanol mandated here) we are supporting Monsanto and the like. Luckily, there is one easily-accessible gas station that sells ethanol-free gas (crucial for some engines) so we are going there now. There was the French rat study done which showed that GMOs caused tumors in rats, but the publisher - though not the authors - has since retracted it. Sounds a little fishy.


    1. Hi Pam

      My wife and I are continually shifting our food to more and more local and organic, but are not all the way there yet. Here in the Midwest, it can be hard to get away from gas with ethanol in it, unless you buy the expensive high octane stuff. Aside from the GMO aspect, corn ethanol as a transportation fuel is an ecological and energy return disaster, so I hope the ethanol producer tax credit/subsidy gets phased out sooner rather than later.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Hi Steve,

    I'm with you in this matter. People conflate the concepts of efficiency and resilience and they are contradictory outcomes and just don't seem to be possible to pursue at the same time. I mean your blight example was an excellent example of that process in action.

    My gut feeling is that any benefits come with costs - whether we are aware of (or even acknowledge) those costs or not.

    I sort of see GMO's as a rear guard action in an attempt to shore up declining yields. I mean plant breeding can produce pretty good results too at a much lower cost...



    1. Hey Chris, I don't know if you follow Albert Bates' blog "The Great Change",( I recommend it) but coincidentally, he just posted about the problems with tech evolution, and also brings in the issues of brittleness, appropriate scale, and the frustrating inability to opt out of "progress".