So reviewing another group of pro-environmental yet anti-environmental-group centrist-type computer nerds’ comments on Cracked.com, I felt the need to comment on genetically modified food. It’s been awhile since I’ve written about this issue. It’s an issue that anyone with an opinion on seems to be set in. Per usual, I have a different opinion than a lot of the left and 99% of anyone right of Dennis Kucinich. (On a side note: Applause to Dennis for JUST NOW getting out of the race. Fight the good fight, man.)
Let’s get the bombshell out of the way:
I don’t have a problem with the idea of genetically modified food.
Yes, despite being anarchist, leftist, pareconist, feminist and polyculturalist, I don’t have a problem per se with genetically modifying organisms, or with nuclear power, or with a lot of other things I think the Left is dogmatic on for no especially good reason.
Well, because I agree to some extent with Bookchin’s notion of humankind as intelligent guide for evolution and nature. I note that we have already engaged in massive genetic modification for the entirety of human history: It’s called breeding, animal husbandry, crops, etc. Any vegetarian environmentalist type who decries Frankenfood then eats lettuce, or corn, or spinach, or tofu has to feel just a BIT hypocritical when bearing in mind those crops’ conscious engineering for superior traits for millenia, right? After all, what the Native Americans originally cailed maize looked NOTHING like what we call corn. It was scraggly grass. The brilliant genetic engineering and scientific work of Central and South American tribes turned it into the juicy yellow beauty we have today. The same can be said for a lot of New World crops.
Using genetic modification in line with safety standards and a fully holistic ecological sensitivity could allow us to potentially clean up our environmental catastrophes, produce more food per hectare and therefore allow more room for crop cycling or reduce the amount we irrigate, etc. Smart application of technology should be part of our toolkit for a sustainable human race.
So what’s the problem?
There’s a lot of them.
1) Safety and food regulatory issues. The difference between the type of breeding our ancestors did and what currently goes on in Monsanto’s lab is obvious: It’s qualitatively different. There are attempts to splice spider silk into goats to mass produce said silk for industrial applications. There are ideas to take genes from plants and put them in animals, fungi and put them into plants, and all sorts of swapping from between kingdoms, phyla, and every other taxonomy one can imagine.
A few thousand years of effective product testing is a pretty good way of insuring that what you produce is safe. If a particular breed is obviously toxic or massively destructive, one will be much more likely to pick up on it. But the way that GMOs are being produced now, one is lucky to have two decades between theoretical development and appearing on shelves. This has caused innumerable debacles which forms a large part of the anti-GMO material.
One can argue that patent and regulatory agencies should take care of that. The problem with that reasoning? I wouldn’t trust the FDA to regulate my Corn Flakes. That ties into our second problem…
2) Capitalism. These developments are occurring in for-profit labs whose job is to provide wealth for the shareholders, period. Companies like Monsanto are profit-seeking corporations, and that causes a number of problems.
a) Years and years of fomenting by radical business groups have eroded at the effective enforcement of a number of regulatory agencies. They simply don’t have the time, energy, funding or people on the ground to do an effective job.
b) It gets worse. In principle, many of the free trade agreements and organizations like GATT, the WTO, NAFTA, etc. make it so that if a panel of corporate lawyers and scientists determine a product to be safe, a government CANNOT ban it from their shores. This has been a major sticking point for Europeans in particular, where the backlash has been especially strong. So even if the FDA DID its job, it’s entirely possible that a private unaccountable body would overturn their decision.
c) The way that these foods are being produced violates the “holistic ecology” criterion I mentioned above. Some of them, for example, have powerful toxins growing in the plants that are deadly to bugs. Even when it can be proven they are always and invariably harmless to humans, no matter the mutation, these plants are often quite destructive to the soil and to the bugs themselves who do after all form part of the ecosystem. Some of these plants are quite aggressive indeed, functioning as invasive species and devastating local ecologies. The vast majority of these products occur in a Green Revolution-type environment which uses conventional massive irrigation, massive capital investments particularly of fossil fuels, no crop cycling, etc. etc. So the potential of the technology is subverted for profit. This is no big surprise, of course.
d) The patent problem. Companies like Monsanto patent their “inventions”. This prevents innovation, like most patents do, wherein farmers take their neighbors’ strand and experiment, making something even better. But it gets worse. Farmers have been tried when Monsanto seeds that were on their neighbors’ property took over their fields and they gave up and simply grew the Monsanto seed as part of their crop.
e) In line with the patent problem, companies like Monsanto include things like “terminator seeds”. A standard model of agriculture, particularly among peasants the world over, is to grow a lot during harvest then save some for reseeding the next year. The problem is that Monsanto’s seeds die. You have to buy new ones from Monsanto. They genetically engineer dependance on the company. That ends up producing monoculture as well as poverty and destruction… but we’ll get to monoculture at point #4.
3) The right of people to not accept or buy products they don’t want or trust. Whether or not the GMO corn is the best, tastiest, most efficiently grown corn in the world, if I find it disturbing for whatever reason that octopus DNA was part of it, I have a right not to purchase that product. And I have the right to be informed of what I’m purchasing when I buy it. And I have the right to demand that companies be legally obligated to tell me what I’m buying.
The problem is that the aforementioned free trade laws are being used to undermine this right. Europeans are asking for the right to informed consent: If they don’t want to eat something, they shouldn’t have to, no matter their reasons. But because a GMO label is a major damper on products, companies are resisting even being required to label their foods. If by some arbitrary standard the end product is identical, totalitarian unaccountable organizations have decided that you should have no problem with where your food comes from.
This was part of an extraordinary explosion of racist indignation. African countries have refused to accept aid of GMO corn for their people, expressing safety concerns. Western commentators lambasted them as dictatorships and idiotic for doing so.
So let me get this straight. Their estimation of their own safety is stupid, whereas our own insistence on giving them food they don’t want instead of just agreeing not to subsidize our GMO corn and simply send over the regular stuff instead is prudent?
How racist is that?
4) Monocultural agriculture. The problem with any GMO crop, no matter how awesome, is that it’s frequently used as the one crop that a farmer grows. Monocultural agriculture is well known to exhaust soils, require massive capital input (fertilizer, oil, machinery, etc.), and so on and so forth.
5) Dubious advantages. As R.C. Lewontin has documented extensively, many of the crops in question actually do worse, and most of the rest have only marginal benefits. While I think there is potential in the technology, it has yet to unambiguously show itself.
6) In line with #5: The propaganda that this is how to solve the starvation crisis in the world. Monsanto and the rest of the rogue’s gallery behind “Frankenfood” frequently like to run a guilt trip argument. How dare these environmentalists resist feeding the world! Don’t they know that if we could just produce 20 more units of corn per acre, there would be no more starvation in Africa!
It’d be a good argument if it weren’t blatantly false. It’d be an argument that didn’t curdle the stomach and enrage the heart if it weren’t the VERY SAME COMPANIES who are some of the principal roadblocks against feeding the globe.
There is enough food to feed the planet. In fact, as Kofi Annan points out in his Facts, it wouldn’t take that much money. We produce so much food that we actually subsidize farmers to destroy some of it. The problem of starvation has always been a problem of access, not of availability.
The problem? Monsanto and food companies in general are those who keep the food away from the poor.
This is the debate that goes into the GMO discussion.
Now, I imagine that some of you have heard some of these points, but very few have heard all of them as a unified case. Why is this the case? Well, sometimes environmentalists make it an issue of dogma and don’t present the points back to back to make their argument compelling.
But the much more serious phenomenon? Reasonable commentators on all side are being shunted aside by powerful media institutions to make the debate one-sided and repetitive. We don’t want to acknowledge that there’s enough food out there, so go Monsanto spokesperson! Castigate leftists for starving Africans! Never mind that this is wholly out of character for them to do so!
Whatever people’s opinion on genetically modified food, it behooves humanity to have a reasonable discussion about it, with evidence and without propagandistic distortions. And the same thing that makes genetically modified food insures that that conversation must occur despite effort to stop it: The destructive organs of state capitalism.
June 7, 2014 Edit: I stand by this discussion and have in the intervening years done a lot of research on agricultural policy that has only reinforced for me the dangers of thinking in a way that altering the fabric of life is a solution to our problems. For example: The idea of genetically modified “super-trees” to deal with global warming is an interesting one, but has serious risks not only of creating monoculture but also of conceptually allowing us to cut down old-growth forests because we can just grow new ones.
However, my work in the intervening period has begun to emphasize the role of empathy and greater consciousness. And I think that it’s important that we also think about the way that we are imagining ourselves when we alter other lifeforms. We are putting ourselves into a position of great power. Humanity has historically had a very mixed record with that kind of power.
I will go more into these issues with a post on transhumanism, but I think that it’s important that we have a better awareness today of what we want for tomorrow. We have to have the awareness to understand that people are starving not because of technical issues but because of social ones. We have to have a belief as to what matters about people. We need to start talking about how gene technology could make us kinder, more solidaritous, more empathic.