We all have those friends in our Facebook feeds: the ones that broadcast articles about all the facets of modern life that cause cancer, and all the homegrown remedies to treat it. And there are usually two pet hates: vaccination, and all things GMO.
But everything is GMO
Almost nothing that we eat today has been untouched by human engineering. We have been selecting and cross-breeding fruit, veg and livestock since the first Agricultural Revolution began back in 10,000BC. The classic example:
If we did that today, and genetically-spun a wild mustard plant into an entire grocery aisle of vegetables, you had best believe that the Facebook-crowd would be crying cancer.
But let’s assume that we need to distinguish between old-school genetic engineering done by farmers, and the new-age genetic engineering done by scientists in a lab.
Even then, this:
We need to be more efficient with food production
In the last 200 years, we’ve gone from a population of 1 billion people to a population of 7 billion. If we want to feed ourselves without destroying more of the natural world than we already have, then we need:
- high-yielding crops;
- that grow quickly; and
- are hardy.
This type of high-yield food is going to attract insect competition, so we can either:
- spray with pesticides; or
- develop the plant to have its own defense mechanisms.
And if you don’t want those kinds of characteristics to mutate across to other plant species, then you have to make those crops sterile.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of thing that gets people excited: plants that are genetically-modified, self-pesticiding, and sterile.
The economic reality is that there are only so many alternatives:
- Starve (not an actual option);
- Claim more arable land from the rainforests to grow more food with our current non-GMO methods; or
- Go GMO, asap.
At this point, there is no realistic option that allows humanity to live an organic and free-range life.
And is that really so important anyway? I’d much rather that we try and limit our environmental impact, and take on those GMO risks; than do it the other way, and destroy what’s left of our natural environment.
I also really like this youtube clip, which is totally worth your time:
*goes in search of a genetically-modified breakfast*
Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.
Jill April 12, 2017 at 11:37
Check out ‘Sustainable’ on Netflix, they would strongly disagree with this approach, and not because the whole ‘GMO’s are bad debate’ but the effects of this type of agriculture on existing farm land and soil content. The assumption that plants need to be genetically modified to propagate their immune systems is also challenged in the literature where more recent research is showing proper soil analysis is a more sustainable method to ensure plant immune systems are strong against threats.Reply
Jayson April 12, 2017 at 12:14
Thanks for your comment – but I don’t see how this contradicts the argument for the overall need for GMOs. Sure, there may be problems with the way that current GMO technology affects existing farm land and soil content – and there may be more sustainable methods in some cases, as you say (for disease immunity, but perhaps not for pest threats?). But that doesn’t lead you to the conclusion that, therefore, we simply don’t need GMO technology. It might just mean that we need better GMO technology than we have right now.
Let me give you an analogous argument. Here’s an assertion: “The existence of more people means that more people will get sick, and therefore, we’re going to need more doctors.”
If my counter-argument is: “You know – studies have shown that better hygiene leads to better health outcomes. And the prevalence of doctors generally leads to the over-subscribing of antibiotics, which can lead to the generation of super-bugs”, then all I’ve done is highlight the risks of having more doctors. Which is really just a criticism. It doesn’t deal with the downside of having too few doctors, or explain why the current status quo is better. And we can’t really move forward with that.
I’m not sure if that makes sense?Reply
Jill April 12, 2017 at 11:40
Additional comment- the argument that we need this to feed our (ridiculous) 7 billion people on earth is also flawed since the greatest threat to access to food is distribution and food wastage. We already make sufficient food to feed the world’s population, it just doesn’t work in everyone’s best interest to distribute it.Reply
Jayson April 12, 2017 at 12:17
And thanks for the additional comment! I agree with you – the optimal solution might well be better food distribution. But realistically, that’s unlikely to happen (in the same way that people should refuse antibiotics – see example above!). So do we instead leave those countries with insufficient food security to ramp up their farming activities instead?Reply
Jill April 12, 2017 at 19:55
Definitely not challenging the GMO argument (I agree we’ve been genetically modifying our foods for centuries), but just some of the grounds for why we should ‘allow’ or leave unchallenged certain types of modifications, especially with companies like Monsanto. Developing seeds dependent on fertilizers that destroy the soil and poison waters doesn’t seem like a sustainable plan to me.
On your second response- simply making more food does not solve the issue either (doesn’t this also fit into your example above with the doctors). The distribution of food will always be our greatest challenge, and one I agree we aren’t going to fix any time soon- but it also isn’t a justification for the need for more genetically modified foods that continue to perpetuate unsustainable practices with soil and water.
Oh the fun of food politics!Reply
Timothy Van Blerck April 12, 2017 at 21:33
I’m fascinated at the emotional response that new or badly understood technology present. GMO’s are one of the clearest examples of over reaction given there have been 0 deaths attributable to GMOs compared to around 200 deaths a year in the US alone due to peanut allergies. Yet the debate on GMOs has spawned a cottage industry of websites on Facebook that link back to vitamin sales platforms e.g. Dr Oz, Natural News Network, Dr Mercola
hedda inderthal April 13, 2017 at 08:38
THANK YOU for writing this article about GMOs! Maybe when economists tell people about the numbers, stats and feasibility of certain things, they will finally get it. I am a PhD candidate in biological/molecular engineering and have about as many social skills as an echidna. My first suggestion regarding trying to save the planet and live sustainably is giving free food and education to people who let themselves be sterilized in return but that doesn’t usually go down well.Reply
I have given up trying to explain why then we need GMO and lab-grown meat because it’s just too exhausting. It’s like trying to argue about religion. And then I get told I am biased because I am making money from it (trust me, as an academic, you DON’T make money!).
People forget that scientists are using GM technology to make crops more productive on LESS fertilizer, pesticides, water and space and overall to be able to cope better with whatever the changing climate is going to throw at our poor farmers. We can use plant breeding, but why would you work your fields with a toothpick if you have a combine harvester? Or to use a more appropriate analogy in terms of urgency here, give a heart-failure patient an aspirin if you have a transplant available?
We don’t have the luxury anymore to consider organic living for everyone, it’s generally just too late.
Unfortunately we are at a stage in our civilization where we have no choice but to fight fire with fire…
Lupa April 13, 2017 at 22:33
I think the whole organic thing is an emotional affectation for the wealthy. Which is fine, spend your money how you like, but I get upset when the anti-GMO crowd start wanting to legislate against GMO. Which is basically the rich telling the poor that they can starve in order to protect the rich people’s world view.
The science is pretty clear that GMO foods are safe, and that we need them to feed this enormous global population.
Many of the problems highlighted in the “Sustainable” documentary are related to American farming practices more than GMO seeds per se. Particularly the federal subsidies that make farming vast quantities of soy and corn so attractive to farmers. Many of these types of documentaries completely gloss over the use of pesticides and other environmentally harmful practices inherent in organic farming. Likewise the locally grown movement is largely more harmful than helpful, local food is only environmentally friendly if you eat what is suited to grow in your local climate. Locally grown oranges in England are going to be pretty environmentally costly.
Two things that amuse me in all this: smokers who prattle on and on about how GMO foods will give you cancer (talk about being unable to interpret risk accurately).Reply
Eco-warrior types who carry on about environmental sustainability but who have vast numbers of children. The exponential growth of the human population is the biggest threat to the environment, so if you’ve made this choice I think you lose the right to lecture others about their choices.
Anonymous December 23, 2017 at 00:15
Just a note on land use. Beef farming, for example, uses much more land per unit of food than crop farming. We have plenty of space to go organic, provided we also go vegetarian into the bargain. I don’t have figures off the top of my head but I think it’s well worth some research.
Another scary point is the rate of soil loss resulting from modern farming practices. One of these days our consumption is going to bite us hard, GMO or not.Reply