Web author Saul of Hearts posted an article titled “A Liberal’s Defense of GMOs” that was one of the Editor’s Picks on Medium.com. It lined out how, as a self described ‘crazy fucking hippie’, he was “…just not that scared of [Genetically Modified Organisms]”. It was an interesting read, but not a very good one.
Proving there’s no enemy worse than a foolish ally, Saul says some very odd things to defend a point that’s valid, though not the way he makes it. For example, he never specifies what is a ‘hippie’. He say he regularly attended Burning Man and lives on a co-op. But the reader is left to assume he therefore cares about the soil and the trees and what happens to them. He never gives his education except to say he’s “fascinated by genetics” and reads about the topic. He also mentions having taken classes on the subject at the U of Penn. Though tellingly he never says which books, or if he graduated.
Permit me a momentary aside for an irksome trend I’ve noticed: I don’t follow the line of reasoning that he’s a hippie because of Burning Man. Burning Man is a gigantic festival every year in the Arizona desert. It involves campers and art installations and culminates in a gigantic bonfire. For many it can be an extremely powerful experience. But to say, ‘I’m an environmentalist, I go to Burning Man’, is to say, “I’m an environmentalist because I go out to the desert every year to burn several tons of harvested wood for completely selfish reasons.”
Burning Man is a social construct, not an environmentalist training facility. I don’t know how it has come to be shorthand for ‘I care more about Big Boobied Mamma Earth than you’, but it shouldn’t. I always think of a retired friend of mine whose fond of saying, “I was a real hippie, I couldn’t afford to go to Woodstock.”
Burning Man as proof of ethical superiority is a sentiment that should not go unchallenged.
But even if one accepts that hippie and environmentalist naturally follow from Larry Harvey’s Ten Principles, Saul follows his assertion with wildly inaccurate claims. He asserts animal DNA has never been spliced into a plant. That’s demonstrably false. Osamu Shimomura isolated what makes the firefly jellyfish glow and won the Nobel Prize for it. That chemistry was later incorporated into several tobacco plants and featured in National Geographic. Why say it never happened? It doesn’t even connect with anything else he argues.
Saul also says he supports nutrient enhanced crops for malnourished regions. But he never qualifies malnutrition. A primary grain manufactured to be high in vitamin A is great for the immune system and eyes, if one ignores the fact that overdosing on vitamin A causes renal failure. Liver is high in vitamin A which is why in 1913 Antarctic explorers Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz died from overdose of A when their rations ran low and they ate the liver of their dogs. Vitamin A is so good at killing things it’s used as a topical treatment for acne. And yet, a vitamin A enriched cereal grain is precisely the focus of the “Golden Rice Project” which Saul links to as proof of a good program. So the operation was a success, too bad the patient died.
Quite frankly, the Golden Rice Project defeats several of Saul’s stated interests. He says “I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops [can] lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.” But Golden Rice was developed by Syngenta, a direct competitor to Monsanto, both of whom hold patents on seeds.
More importantly, vitamin A requires fat to fully metabolize, putting it in a grain makes it practically useless. And it has to be shipped! It is the embodiment of corporate monopolization. Golden Rice is precisely the sort of greed masquerading as charity that Vanda Shiva warns of in her book “Stolen Harvest” and that Saul seems to describe as “evil”. Shiva’s book, incidentally, was published 13 years ago. Meaning Saul’s good intentions have actually caused him to advocate for the very thing he says he disdains. If anything it proves how insidious the emotional manipulation of this topic has become.
And ultimately this discussion deserves more than a cursory glance. I’m bothered that Saul’s argument could be seen as a good distillation of the support of GMOs from the Millennial Left. Why combat propaganda with misdirection? I think this issue deserves better advocacy. And so I write:
An Educated Liberal’s Defense of Genetically Modified Organisms
I am not a Crazy Fucking Hippie. I have never been to Burning Man. I couldn’t afford it if I wanted. I am so completely unable to go to Burning Man that until roughly 9 months ago the only way I could have attended would be if I biked there because I did not own a car. I am a tribal socialist, I recycle nearly everything that comes into my house. I read the entire label, on everything I buy. When I was a kid I listened to BBC World Service on short-wave because I already knew US news was crap.
I do not live in a co-op. I am so much not an early adopter that I own a grand total of 9 electronic devices, one of which is a coffee maker with a timer, and another is a 30 year old fridge. I do not eat veg or vegan exclusively but I eat weekly at one of the two vegan restaurants in town. I also support local free-range cattle ranches as I live on the high plains and if god had not intended me to eat cows and buffalo and deer he would not have made them from meat.
I am fascinated by human genetics, diet, history, and culture. I read as many books as I can on those subjects as they have been required for both of my degrees. I passed several classes at University and obtained a piece of paper with absurdly dramatic lettering on it that says I have a pretty solid understanding of Anthropology.
And I am only mildly concerned with GMOs.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand where some of my more apprehensive friends are coming from. I share their desire for a verifiable safe and sustainable food supply. There is a great deal that frustrates me about food production, distribution, and consumption in the US diet.
I think that corporate greed is always a factor in industry, and should be curtailed before innovation leads to exclusion and disenfranchisement like the “Monsanto Protection Act”.
I think misleading farmers into purchasing genetically programmed crops, or trapping them in a cycle of corporate dependency, leads to irresponsible overuse of pesticides like the endocrine-disruptor Atrazine developed by Syngenta.
I think allowing multi-national conglomerates to purchase mega-hectares of land which are then mono-cropped is disastrous to the environment, and can eventually lead to cross-contamination with non-GMO plants which result in something as mundane as the lawsuit Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, or something as catastrophic as the Irish Potato Famine.
But I also know that anti-corporate sentiment or philosophy should not be the single basis for excluding a promising area of modern research. It is a valuable tool that can be utilized in many ways to contribute to a safe and sustained food supply.
I want to address four main points that are frequently involved in anti-GMO discussions that are either directly disprovable, or more nuanced than they might seem:
1) GMOs create mutations that are ‘unnatural’ in a way that simple cross-breeding would not.
This is a simple misunderstanding of ‘unnatural’. The implication is that nature filters out its screw-ups in a way that GMOs don’t. In fact, selective breeding has many notable cases where the end result was a perfectly viable lifeform that was terrible. The rabbage or cabbish is one that stands out. The intention was to produce a plant that was completely edible, with the roots of a radish and the head of a cabbage. Soviet agronomist Georgi Karpechenko managed a plant that produced hundreds of seeds. Unfortunately it had the inedible roots of a cabbage, and the thin chewy leaves of a raddish.
If there is a danger to GMOs it’s in the perception of its precision, people are scared of a corn plant with a rabbit’s tail. Sterility of offspring, so the argument goes, is not an issue if we can simply clone the parent plant indefinitely. Meaning we skip the part where nature would have prevented the abomination from reproducing.
But cloning has been done ‘naturally’. All yellow bananas at the grocery store are the Cavendish variety, which are genetically identical to the original. It’s fairly certain that every banana you’ve ever eaten, was every other banana’s twin sister. And this was developed long before we’d mapped the genome of anything.
We like to play with nature. Mendel discovered inheritable traits by experimenting with dwarf peas. Corn, as far as anyone can tell, was originally a type of tropical grass from the Yucatan. It’s what the GMO is intended for that matters, not simply that it is a GMO.
Dwarf wheat is a fantastic example of a success story. Wanna feed India? Use a grass that evolved in Asia anyway and modify it so that the seed grows at the end of a short stalk instead of a long one. More seed on the head because it has less chance of breaking off and killing itself. Bang, mostly native plant, GMOed to suit a specific need in-region. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for it. Does that mean we ONLY feed India wheat? No. Does it mean that starvation is never due to government corruption? Hell no. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
2) GMOs contain animal DNA that has been “spliced” into plants!
So that’s bad then?
As near as I can figure, this objection is Linnaeus’ fault. Bless his long dead soul. Carolus Linnaeus developed a system for classification of living organisms several centuries ago and though it’s almost completely useless in its original form we’ve never really let go. What’s at issue is that Linnaeus treated all life like a flow chart, everything going forward into the future.
His scheme starts with living things that make their own food, or Flora (Plants), and those that eat food, Fauna (animals). Those are the two “Kingdoms”, and never the two shall meet. Many people learned his system in school: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Because Flora and Fauna are separate groups, they can’t intermingle. It would be like a horse trying to breed with a house cat, they’re on two completely separate branches.
Except Linneaus was wrong, one of the newer classification hierarchies that’s popular was developed by Carl Woese in the 1960s and puts animals and plants into the same group. Even the Linnean system has been so tweaked he wouldn’t recognize it. Current US text books have six kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea, and Bacteria.
To prove the point, human cells have mitochondria, which are basically self-contained organisms with their own DNA. You, right now, barring any abnormalities, have carried two contradictory strands of DNA since before you were born. Best guess is that mitochondria were a proto-bacteria that formed a symbiotic relationship with some long distant ancestor cell and just never left. Mitochondria are frequently called the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell because they generate ATP which is essential in muscle growth and movement.
Meaning, mitochondria produce food. According to Linneaus, that makes them plants. Nature was putting plant DNA into animal DNA long before we tried. Think of GMOs as us returning the favor. Again the question should not be ‘what are they doing’ it should be ‘why are they doing it’. If we’re incorporating animal DNA so a plant glows in the dark that’s a little strange sure, but if we’re incorporating animal DNA that allows rudimentary solar sensitivity to release UV protecting chemicals to prevent plants burning to death as a form of drought tolerance, that might be useful.
While genes are nothing like computer code that can be spliced into or out of an existing framework as independent informational chunks, they can give valuable insight into how to modify a given organism in a particular direction. And there is no way to learn from that information without eventually applying it to a living thing.
Ears grown on the back of a mouse for humans seems the height of vanity and hubris, but what about the naked mole rat’s possible role in cancer research as discussed in a June 2013 article in Nature Magazine? Even the VP at PETA, Mary Beth Sweetland, gets her insulin from animals, what if we could develop a plant from the Costus Igneus or “India Insulin Plant” that produced it as a nectar? Which would give a nice circularity to ‘nectar’ as the origin of the word was the drink that kept the Greek gods alive.
3) GMOs are -Insert hyperbolic catchprase (cancer causing, bad for the environment, cause zombies, whatever)- so you should sign my petition against DuPont!
Here’s the thing, scientific investigation is fascinating, even life-changing, and frequently boring as shit. And I mean that literally. Science is boring in the way only ungodly hours of documenting turds can be.
Coprolites found in the US have yielded amazing information on pre-Clovis (read: Native American) diets and possible nutritional needs. Know what coprolites are? Fossilized shit. Think about that, we know what we know about what humans thousands of years ago ate because some poor grad student sifted through several pounds of human crap so old it had turned into a rock.
If you read online tomorrow that coffee causes cancer, I guarantee you’ll read by next week that it has anti-oxidants and whitens your teeth. Science makes terrible news because it moves at a snail’s pace. A perfect example is that Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, he then had to wait four years for an eclipse to confirm he was even on the right track.
How often would you visit Huffpost or TMZ if they only updated every four months? But scientific journals that publish anything more than yearly are considered ‘cutting edge’. Now imagine that 90% of everything you read is either wrong, or ends with the phrase “in 40 years we’ll have more information”? Speaking of Einstein, the final confirming tests of General Relativity were not possible until the 1970s, meaning by the time he was right, he was dead.
Something as multi-faceted as cancer research takes decades. Sifting through thousands of case studies, then filtering for possible genetic conditions, then filtering again for environment, then filtering again for personal habits. Saying “GMOs cause cancer” is like saying “Carrots cause death”. Prove me wrong, because everyone who has ever eaten a carrot either has died or will soon enough.
Again it’s how that GMO is used. Yeah, a fly with an extra leg is creepy, and that’s what grabs headlines. But I don’t know anyone who thinks avocados are freakish abominations. And the avocado you’ve seen in the grocery store is, at best, a massively grafted distant step-daughter to the plant that was first discovered in Mexico all those centuries ago.
4) We should label all GMO products and let consumers decide.
Alright. And to a certain extent I agree. But where do we begin? Is it GMO to graft two plants together? They are disparate genetic structures being artificially combined. Is it GMO if any of the genome has been affected? Because simple x-rays for pathogens will do that. Is it GMO after a certain percentage of its DNA has been changed? If so, what percentage? Some sections of your DNA are completely unused, other sections cause diabetes, do we only worry about the ‘active’ bits? How much do you know about your own genetic code, let alone that of a guava, or farm raised catfish? Do you think you could decipher a label that stated “AAA59179.1 resequenced 22.3% for color and flavor”?
And really, what is artificial modification? While the visual might be fun, it is extremely difficult to physically cut a DNA strand, insert a foreign section, and glue everything back together. Most genetic modification is done by combining seeds or eggs from one generation with cells from another, as it was in the case of Dolly the ‘cloned’ sheep. Technically Dolly had three mothers, one of which was herself. Is a clone therefore genetically modified?
How long and detailed do we want this label to be? It took several acts of Congress just to settle the question of what qualifies as a ‘standard’ serving size for the purpose of telling you how much fat is in your peanutbutter. Try to imagine the absurd debates that will take place over whether something qualifies as a ‘clone’ and is or is not therefore GMO, or if it’s a zygotic twin and therefore is or is not a GMO.
And we’re eating GMOs every day, I’ve already mentioned avocados and wheat, try to find a product without corn, or cattle that wasn’t fed alfalfa. If we’re going to start labeling things, first we’ll have to decide what qualifies as “modified” in the first place. Is it a GMO if it was fed a GMO?
Personally, I think GMO has become a catch-all term for several interrelated issues regarding industrialization, corporatization, and food sustainability.
–Factory farming and intensive mono-cropping is simply unsustainable. It is dangerous to animals (see: Mad Cow Disease, Antibiotic Resistance in Livestock) and to plants in that it over-uses the land with a single plant that takes a specific set of nutrients from the soil and never puts them back. Which in turn causes the need for massive industrial fertilization which can poison ground water and toxify the land. Babylon is a great classic example, they over cultivated their fields and used a watering method that slowly salinated the soil. Where there once was the ‘cradle of civilization’ there is now a desert.
–Dependence on single-crop diets causes rampant obesity and health problems because no single plant or animal can serve as a population’s nutrition base. Even the Inuit, who have one of the most limited diets on the planet, do not have a singular food source. The human body simple isn’t designed to live on nothing but wheat, hamburger, and fried potatoes.
If we really want to do something about public health we should be focusing on localized food production, on the de-monopolization of agribusiness, on developing GMOs and non-GMOs that are adapted to suit their environment, not that require hectares of “shadow acres” for extra farm equipment and storage facilities for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We should be talking about removing subsidies for crops we don’t need or want that make it more profitable for a farmer to grow a crop that we then have to find a use for, rather than a crop his local township would love to put on their shelves. Returning to Golden Rice, what in the name of Darwin are we doing making one grain into a multi-vitamin? Have we learned nothing from the US corn subsidy boondoggle?
I don’t know about you, but these sound like pretty Leftie objectives to me. By all means, lets march and buy in favor of independent farmers and against corporate greed. But lets also not forget Borlaug and that coprolite grad student, slowly working toward the goal of bettering our abilities and our understanding of ourselves and our needs in a genuine hope of helping humanity. If a GMO exists to exclude its environment, that is definitely a problem. But simply that it is a GMO should not discredit it.