The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

GMO Musings

I am absolutely indifferent towards the labeling of genetically modified plants sold as food or as an ingredient in food.  I have done a whole butt-load of reading, and I have come away with the conclusion that the claims that consuming these foods that is going to endanger my health are generally baseless, and that most of the worrisome health claims are no less biased or misleading than the worst of Monsanto's paid advertising.  And while I don't necessarily care for the business practices of the companies that produce these foods, neither do I particularly care for the business practices of the companies that produce "organic" foods, or non-genetically modified standard crops.  So, if these were labelled as genetically modified, it would do very little to my own buying habits.

And yet, despite my indifference to the concept, I get annoyed whenever I hear people shout about their desire to have these things labelled.  Why?

Well, as little as I care about whether or not these products are labelled, I loathe sloppy thinking and sloganeering, and the anti-GMO movement is rife with, in fact arguably based on, sloppy thinking and sloganeering.

Some of the claims made by GMO opponents, specifically those questioning the potential for unforeseen legal complications arising from the ability to patent a self-replicating organism, may have a good deal of merit.  Even here, many of the horror stories have been exaggerated, but there are nonetheless very real concerns regarding the ownership of genetic stock and the application of patent laws to organisms that could, conceivably, get free of their approved fields. 

Parallel to the legal issues, there are ethical concerns over the ability of a company to patent genetic material.  While I don't necessarily find many of the objections convincing myself, they are nonetheless present and are worthy of consideration.

And, of course, there are more mundane but nonetheless real market concerns regarding the production and ownership of seeds from GMO crops - does the presence of GMO crops that have particularly desirable traits have the potential to warp markets in such a way that more affordable (and likely necessary to avoid a monoculture) seeds will eventually become difficult to obtain, especially for farmers in marginal environments?  There are economists who will argue either way, but we won't really know until the market becomes saturated with these products, which is rapidly occuring.

But rather than focus on these types of issues, most of the active anti-GMO demonstrators go for shock value, exploiting the "ick factor", getting people to shout slogans and stop thinking, and appealing to emotions.  On Facebook recently, I saw two overblown emotional appeals regarding GMOs.  One was a link to a petition to call for the labeling of GMOs - again, a cause to which I am entirely indifferent and to which I really have no objection even if I have no particular desire for it either - where the link bore the photograph of a little girl holding a cardboard sign with the words "I am not a science experiment" emblazoned upon it.

No, kid, you are not a science experiment, and your parents should have been ashamed for making you hold that sign.  What you are is a human, and humans have to eat, and we have a wide variety of foods available to us.  That your parents want to feed you foods that have not been altered using recently developed technology (even if they demonstrate through their protest that the do not actually understand the technology in question) is their own business, and not a big deal as far as I am concerned.  That they decided to use their child as a billboard for a misleading statement regarding their misconceptions about the way that this technology is used in order to short-cut past peoples critical faculties is disgusting.

In the other case, someone I know stated that they would not buy from a particular store because that distributor carried some food and other products in which one of the ingredients was derived from crops that had been created by Monsanto, and they did not want to "give money to a company that is trying to poison us!" I, of course, responded, pointing out that while there are legitimate issues regarding the development of any new technology, including genetic engineering, the fact of the matter is that there is no reason to assume that Monsanto is poisoning anybody, and that, again, this sort of argument is an appeal to emotion, engineered to get us to repeat it without thinking about it. 

Likewise, much of the anti-GMO rhetoric exploits the "ick factor" - the desire to get people to not like something based not on it's actual traits, but based instead on deep-seated prejudices that all of us harbor.  The labeling of genetically-modified plants as "frankenfoods" and the focus on dubious claims regarding the placement of animal (and, I have even heard it claimed, human) genetic material in plants are both examples of this - the reason why the use of such genetic material (assuming the case that someone tells you of is even happening - most of the popular examples you are likely to hear turn out to be false if you do a little research) is bad is never really articulated, it's just icky...much like the comparison to a 19th century gothic horror novel makes little sense but pushes a lot of culturally-rooted buttons.  The appeal to the "ick factor" exploits the same traits that inform both legitimate avoidance of disease, but also inter-personal prejudices and bigotry, and is one that really never results in good when we use it in place of critical thinking.

Then there's the tendency for people to be far more critical of genetic engineering than of technologies that they favor.  For example, in the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (a man for whom I have less and less use every passing day) discusses potatoes as a crop.  He spends a good deal of time examining the claims made by Monsanto for one of their particular potato crops - and it should be said that his criticisms and questions are both reasonable and well-explained.  However, he then looks to one "organic" potato farmer and accepts every damn thing that this potato farmer says, what is quite literally the farmer's sales pitch, at face value without any meaningful critical examination, and when discussing crop yields he even "fails" (I suspect intentionally, based on the rest of the book) to ask such basic questions as whether or not the yields the farmer describes are seasonal or yearly yields - this point is, in fact, left very vague in the text.  So, while he is rightfully critical of one technology, he is fawningly obseqious to the user of another, even though there are many legitimate technical and ethical concerns with organic farming methods.  He concludes the chapter by describing how he planted some Monsanto potatoes, and then threw them away without eating them...but he never actually provides a coherent, well-articulated reason for not eating them, he just sort of implies that they are somehow evil and dangerous without explicitly saying so or providing any justification.

And, so, I find myself woefully unimpressed by the majority of anti-GMO claims.  There are legitimate issues with any technology, genetic engineering included, and these issue need to be discussed.  However, making false, misleading statements and relying on emotional appeal does nothing but muddy the waters and distract from real concerns.  If people stated that they wanted the labeling done because they are concerned about the potential legal issue, or ethical concerns, or even because they just don't like big corporations (in which case, why are they buying food from a place large enough to support labeling to begin with?), then I might actually support it rather than being indifferent to it.  But given that it is part of an on-going tendency towards sloppy thinking, frequent conspiracy-mongering, and constant dishonesty, I find that I can't support it - not because I find the notion of labeling unreasonable, but because I distrust the motivation behind it.

P.S.  I was at a party some years back, when a fairly typical 30-something white affluent urbanite from San Francisco (where the party was held) asked me if I had heard about Michael Pollan.  I explained that I had, and that when I actually went and researched many of the claims ubiquitous in his writing, I routinely found him to be misleading and dishonest, more a propagandist than an educator.  She then went on about how, while he might make mistakes (umm, lady, when it's consistent even after he has been corrected by legitimate authorities, it ain't mistakes, it's intentional lies and distortion), he was a net good.  She then went about trying to explain crop rotation to me - and given as how I am A) educated, B) know a fair bit about how humans dealt with sustenance in the past, and B) grew up and spent my formative years in an agricultural community and not (like her) San Francisco, I found myself having to routinely correct her.  While she accepted the corrections, she nonetheless condescendingly kept going on about how she understood so much more about agriculture than I did while simultaneously proving that she knew next to nothing about the subject.  I had to resist the urge to clobber her with the loaf of tofu that, no joke, was sitting on the counter next to my elbow.


Jack Heron said...

It's remarkable how many people object to GM crops on the basis of "don't exist in nature"/"Frankenstein hybrids" and the like given that pretty much all our staple crops are heavily altered from their wild ancestors (both deliberately and accidentally). Non-GM wheat can't really be called any more natural than GM wheat.

Anthroslug said...

This is a point that I have often tried ot make with people, as well. It's a curious thing, anything that is new is "unnatural", while anything that someone is accustomed to is "natural until proven otherwise"...and most folks, once they have decided what they favor, are remarkably closed-minded regarding what they will put into the "unnatural" camp. And, it should be noted, equally closed-minded regarding the merits of anything labelled "unnatural".

Evan Davis said...

Through selective breeding over thousands of years we have created animals and plants that do not exist in nature without the modern forms of genetic manipulation. I would argue that nearly all the food we eat (including the organic) is genetically modified and does not exist in nature.

If a truly organic farmer tried to use the actual wheat that exists in nature their fields would need to use 50 times the acreage to produce the same yield. Try to feed the world on 1/50 the food. Good luck with that.