|About the danger of GMOs, it boils down to one phrase: "You can't put the genie back in the bottle." We need to be DARN SURE that a GMO is safe before we allow it. And think about this: the entire world takes the risk, but only the biotech company reaps the profit. In other words, they are in a position to be much less risk-averse than they ought to be about their own products.
Why We "Need" GMOs
One thing I realized while I was at BIO was that GMOs are created to fix a lot of problems that don't require fixing - or to fix them in ways that have cheaper, safer, existing fixes already out there.
>> Solving World Hunger
Gee, wouldn't it be cool if we could genetically modify up some crops that produce like crazy and resist pests and drought? Then we'd have so much food we can solve world hunger!
The faulty logic here is that world hunger comes from a lack of food. It doesn't. Not one bit. Want proof? We have enough food in America to feed every single person (including babies) something like 3900 calories PER DAY. We have so much corn that we put it in our cars! We have so many potatoes we make plastic out of them! And yet, we still have hunger.
11.1% of Americans were food insecure in 2007 and 1/3 of that group were hungry. The problem wasn't growing too little food. The same is true if you look at global numbers. Yet all of the pretty marketing materials for the biotech industry refer to 800 million hungry people worldwide. We have enough food in the world - we'd just rather throw it away than give it to people who can't pay for it.
>>Reducing Pesticide Use
This is also a noble goal, but it's one that can't be best accomplished by GMOs. To an extent it can, but that would be like saying an SUV is a great way of saving gas compared to a Hummer while ignoring the Prius in the next parking space over. In Rodale Institute's farm systems trials that they've done for over 20 years, they found the best yield came from organics (compared to conventional & GMO crops) in most years. So the food grown with zero pesticides was more successful than the food grown with GMOs and pesticides.
Also consider the amount of extra herbicide used on Roundup Ready GMO crops. These are crops that are made to resist Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Roundup kills everything green, so normally you wouldn't be able to douse your entire field with it. When you plant Roundup Ready seeds, you CAN spray it all over the field and it kills everything except for the GMOs. So while some GMOs allow for less pesticide use than normal in a conventional system, other GMOs increase pesticide use. And even with the GMOs using decreased amounts of pesticides, they still do not equal the decrease that is accomplished by going organic.
It's a nice idea, right? But there's not much of a market for it. Farmers who grow commodity crops get paid for yield, not nutrient content. Monsanto and the other biotech companies know this. The farmers aren't going to pay extra for GMO seeds that have the same yield but more nutrition than cheaper, non-GMO seeds. Maybe the farmers are wonderful, altruistic people, but they are already barely squeaking by financially. Paying extra for seeds that net you no extra profit is just dumb.
What about Golden Rice though? It's the rice that looks golden because they modified it to produce beta-carotene to help people in developing nations get their vitamin A. Well, first off, they did it as a PR stunt... notice that since golden rice came out there haven't been any other "extra nutritious" GMOs. These crops take millions in R&D and they need to make money!
But there's something else you should know about Golden Rice. Because you might be saying to yourself "Well maybe it was a PR stunt but if it helps malnourished people get vitamin A then it's still a good thing." And that is correct... if that's what were going on. As it turns out, you would have to eat 12 times more rice than normal to get all of your vitamin A from it. In other words, it's a total sham.
Why I Oppose GMOs
The biotech industry likes to say "science is on our side" and "anyone who oppose GMOs is anti-science." That could not be further from the truth in my own case. Yes, maybe there are people out there who are spooked by the idea of "eating DNA" even though every single plant and animal cell you ever eat has DNA in it. And sure, that's a ridiculous fear. But that's not my complaint against GMOs.
Our plants and animals grow and live in a ridiculously complex ecosystem. Think of all of the tiny little microbes in the soil that we probably haven't even discovered yet. They are all there, doing their jobs. Now that we do have pretty good microbiologists, we know some of what they do, too. They protect plants from disease and pests and they bring nutrients to plants. And sure, there are some bad ones out there too that prey on our crops or our livestock, but in a healthy ecosystem those harmful ones are in check.
The food web starts with these tiny microbes, and with all of the worms and bugs hanging out in the soil or in the air. They eat each other, sometimes they live harmoniously with one another, but they are all there. Usually we pay no attention to them. When there's biodiversity among them, the system stays pretty well in balance. No one species' population can grow unchecked, nor will any one species all die off instantaneously.
These microbes and other tiny critters are also responsible for making sure the soil can absorb and hold water, and for cycling nutrients from decaying organisms into the soil. Plants are pretty clever at manipulating the microbes, believe it or not, because they actually get the soil microbes to bring them the nutrients they need. In other words, a healthy, diverse soil ecosystem means more nutritious food.
Because of the healthy soil, plants can survive better in heat, cold, drought, and floods. And with all of the populations keeping the other ones in check, there's less chance for a huge pest outbreak. But that is in an organic system only. Add pesticides or commercial fertilizer and you throw that ecosystem out of balance. Because the ecosystem is so complex, human meddling almost always has unforeseen consequences. And GMOs are most definitely considered human meddling.
Each new gene or adaptation had unforeseen consequences as well. Sometimes they were probably major consequences. But the changes occurred over millions of years and over time the ecosystem reached some sort of equilibrium. Nature ran its own R&D very, very slowly, and it worked out all the kinks. Now we have its latest and most up to date models of each species, and we can be sure we'll continue to get new upgrades each time a gene mutates or an animal or plant mates and then the organisms with the best DNA have advantages over less successful organisms and perpetuate their genes to the next generation.
So what about GMOs? Well, we tinker with a gene or two, and then we put it out in nature for a test run. Over time, nature will work it out. Nature always does. But it does it on nature's schedule... the resulting chaos in the ecosystem could even take thousands of years to be resolved. Nature and humans work on very different timelines. In other words, we can really screw ourselves with GMOs in the short run, even if nature successfully incorporates our GMOs into the ecosystem in the long run.
The difference between GMOs and pesticides is that GMOs are forever. Some pesticides stay in the environment for a long time. Others can break down in the environment rather quickly. But what's a long time for a pesticide? A century? That's the blink of an eye in the evolutionary process. The amount of risk involved in putting GMOs into the environment WILL NEVER equal the benefit, particularly considering the non-risky options we have at our fingertips for accomplishing the same goals.
Another point I realized when I was at the BIO conference was that GMOs are generally designed to do one thing. For example, a drought-resistant seed is made to resist drought... ONLY. So that does not mean that that particular variety is the most resistant to any one pest or disease, or is the most high-yielding.
When you plant the seed designed for drought resistance (and pay a premium for it) you're essentially making a bet that you'll have a drought that year. Maybe you do, and you grow more than your neighbor who bought the high-yielding non-drought resistant hybrid seeds. Or maybe you get a decent amount of rain and your neighbor's high yielding seeds grew much more than your average yielding drought-resistant ones.
When you focus on the soil instead of manipulating the genes for one trait, you can maximize EVERYTHING at once. You can go for most nutrients, drought resistance, heat resistance, flood resistance, cold resistance, pest resistance, etc. Living soil will provide ALL of those things to the plant. After all, nature's been perfecting its system for millions of years. So remind me again, why are we taking a huge risk to maximize ONE trait when we can take NO risk and get everything we want instead?
Also, consider the role of biodiversity within each species of plant or animal. Blogger Land of Enchantment gives a great example with her own orchard. She plants many different varieties of each fruit tree. She lives in an area that could get a late frost and she figures that no matter when the last frost comes during the spring, there will be at least one of her trees that can still produce fruit. If she had an entire orchard of identical trees, then one late frost could mean no fruit at all that year.
The biotech company's response to questions about the need for biodiversity is something like "Well, we'll buy up and patent all of the seeds and then if we ever need one, we'll have it hanging around in a vault somewhere." Thanks but no thanks. We need biodiversity NOW. Land of Enchantment's orchard would get very little help from diverse seeds that were sitting in a Monsanto seed vault while Monsanto only sells one type of seed on the market.
Biodiversity and GMOs do not mix and there is a simple reason why. When you're a company maximizing your profit, you want bang for your buck. Each GMO product requires years of R&D and millions of dollars. You want to develop seeds that you can sell to as wide a market as possible. You don't want to develop 4000 varieties of GMO corn. You want one. Maybe two. You want a few really, really successful varieties that you can sell to every single corn farmer on the planet. That's gonna get you the most profit.
She Swallowed the Spider to Catch the Fly
Remember the old lady who swallowed a fly? Then she kept swallowing progressively more absurd things in order to mitigate the problem caused by swallowing the fly. Each successive "solution" was worse than each successive problem. THAT is what biotech ultimately is, in practice - even if in theory it could be some noble scientific thing.
First we swallowed the fly by adopting monoculture crops and pesticides and by assuming we could fertilize them with N,P, and K alone (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium). We throw the ecosystem out of balance, creating MORE fluctuation in populations of each individual species, and leave our crops more open to pest problems. Then we pour on the fertilizer and let half of it leach out of the soil into the waterways, creating dead zones in our oceans.
GMOs are just swallowing the spider to catch the fly. Sure, we might use less pesticide here and there, or we might get a higher yield or less loss to pests one year. But we aren't solving the overall problem. We're just further entrenching it while making new problems.
So THAT is why I oppose GMOs. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Tom Vilsack!