|I think that comparing food and ag to medicine in this context is honestly batshit crazy. Medicine has been advancing consistently throughout time, it's true. But, before we talk about agriculture, let's consider something we non-farmers are more familiar with. How much has a healthy diet changed in the past millennium or two? Not a whole lot. A mostly plant-based diet of whole foods was good for you, and it's still good for you. No amount of 20th century fiddling and fidgeting with food has managed to give us the combination of health, taste, cost, and convenience that we are looking for. Yes, we know a lot more about nutrition than we used to. Yes, we know a lot more about chemistry and food science than we used to. And no, we still haven't a freaking clue how to improve upon nature to manufacture healthier foods.
Now, that isn't to say that we haven't improved upon the diets of past eras. The same foods that existed then are certainly made better by technological advances like refrigerators and trucks. It's nice to augment a diet of local food with treats from far away like coffee, spices, and cocoa, and it's unimaginable to live in a world without refrigeration. Furthermore, while our advances in nutrition knowledge do not give us the ability to manufacture food healthier than naturally occurring foods, the nutritional knowledge gained in the past century absolutely helps us improve our diets to prevent malnutrition!
Now let's talk about how medicine improves our health. If you've never had a disease worse than a bacterial infection, then it's hard to imagine a scenario other than going to the doctor, getting a diagnosis, and going home with a prescription that makes it all better. And I think that's pretty similar to what GMO proponents think GMOs provide for agriculture. Problem + Technology = Solution. That's not always the case in medicine. Not at all. Let me tell you a bit about my health history.
For the first 14 or so years of my life, I had no health problems beyond the occasional ear infection, strep throat, or cold. Around age 14, the headaches started. No amount of Tylenol or Ibuprofen would make these headaches go away. And my head hurt every single day. I started falling asleep in school because it was the only way to ease the pain.
This continued for about 10 years before a doctor finally referred me to a neurologist. In the meantime, I got glasses to correct for nearsightedness, and I began to recognize headache triggers - looking at CRT computer monitors, CFL lightbulbs, TVs, and projectors.
When I graduated college and got my first job, the shit really hit the fan. You can sleep in class if you can still write papers and pass tests. You can't sleep in meetings or at your desk at work. In late 2004, my employer asked me to get medical documentation for the problem, and my doctor wrote a letter telling them it was all in my head. I found an ophthalmologist in Chicago who I saw. Ultimately, that doctor recommended I see a neurologist, and I did in early 2006.
The neurologist still could not diagnose me, but began giving meds a try. Imitrex didn't work. Lamictal didn't work. Topamax had unbearable side effects. She referred me to a nationally recognized headache clinic in Michigan. The doctor in Michigan finally gave me a diagnosis - migraines! Then my insurance refused to pay for the care he prescribed, and I went home with a diagnosis but no relief.
My neurologist tried again with the drugs. Zonisamide? No effect. Celexa? That was literally poison. It made me nauseated and depressed. Nortriptyline? The side effects there are too strange to even describe. My entire body felt strange, and I slept 18 hours a day. But when I stopped taking it I noticed something. It had worked - a little - on my headaches! So the neurologist tried again with a similar med, one called vivactil. And it worked! A little! With side effects, that is, but bearable ones. Increased heart rate, dry mouth, and constipation. A second neurologist then took over my care and he put me on another med, Effexor XR, which made me yawn a lot and gave me vivid dreams. But at least it helped my headaches a little.
To this day, I still have headaches frequently. Several times a week, at least. But they are better than they would be without the meds, and the side effects have subsided. I've tried several other meds not listed here, and I've got percocets handy in case a really bad headache comes on. For all of our wondrous technology, we still do not fully understand migraines (a problem that plagues 20% of the population), nor can we consistently cure, prevent, or even alleviate them. And when we do find meds that manage the headaches, they come with side effects.
The other tools I use on my headaches include healthy diet, stress management, massage, exercise, and a good night's sleep. They are far more powerful on my headaches than the meds, and they come without side effects. Would you consider that "19th century" medicine? Many diseases can be entirely prevented or even cured with such old fashioned "medicine" (and in many cases, these lifestyle changes are more effective than medicine).
Going back to the topic of agriculture, GMOs are blunt tools, like the meds used on my headaches. So are pesticides and fertilizers. You apply a chemical to the problem and you might get a bit of a solution, but not without creating new problems. Is that worth it? Maybe. In the case of my headaches, yes. I'll gladly deal with vivid dreams and a rapid heartrate in return for a little bit of pain relief. But I think we need to realize that we are not all the way there yet - we don't understand complex biological systems well enough yet to control them in the ways we would like.
So tying this back up with the nutrition analogy, while we don't yet completely understand how each specific food and nutrient affects our bodies, we do understand the basics of a healthy diet, consisting of whole ("19th century") food. In agriculture, we also understand the basics of sustainable agriculture, which are largely the same as they were in the 19th century. BUT, we have added technological advances over and above those 19th century practices! Today, you can have the microbiology of your soil analyzed. Today, we don't use arsenic-based pesticides like we did 100 years ago (thank goodness!). Today, we have tractors and combines instead of horses. We might not understand the role of every single bacteria or nematode in the soil, but we've got a pretty good idea of what we're doing, and our knowledge has come a long way since the 19th century.
We need to be judicious about whether to use the blunt tools with side effects (GMOs, pesticides, fertilizers) or modern-day sustainable agriculture to grow our food. And we must remember that there's something different between my headache meds and GMOs. My headache meds are very well within my control, whereas once GMOs get out into the environment, they are out there. You can't put that genie back into the bottle. So given that we do NOT understand nature well enough yet to know the full extent of the GMO's "side effects," we need to be very cautious about the decision to use them or not.
As for the argument people like Federoff make about our need for GMOs in order to feed the world, that seems similar to my decision to use meds for my headaches. My meds are imperfect, but life would be impossible without them. Federoff and others say that people will starve without increased yields because the world won't have enough to eat. So, in that case, GMOs may be imperfect but our other choice is starvation. But that argument is totally bogus. It's pure propaganda from companies that want to sell us their products. It's well documented that the world has more than enough food to feed itself and that our true problem is distribution. We simply have no interest in feeding people who can't afford food. We'd rather grow corn to make ethanol for our cars than to feed the world's hungry.
We need to have honest discussions about GMOs, without being held hostage with threats of starvation and charges that we are arguing for technological regression. And, at the same time, let's have an honest discussion about how to feed the hungry by calling into question our commodity and trade policies and our contributions to global warming, all of which lead to hunger on the scale it exists in the world today.