My view on genetically-modified crops

I had been writing about food for about a year when I sort of fell into the subject of GMOs; I didn’t expect to, but there is something about the process of writing that leads to discovery and ferment. It was then, and remains now, a politically-charged topic that I was driven to make sense of.

I didn’t have any expertise to add; but I did come to the subject with a unique perspective. I had two long-standing interests, though merely as a layperson—bio-diverse food, and biology (especially genetics) and have read on these subjects obsessively. Professionally, I am a software engineer, so I bring that perspective—one that is not afraid of technology, is aware of its power, but also, that knows (from the inside) how fallible it is; how infinitely perfectible it is. Over the last couple years I have written much and plan to write more; so it is probably time for a statement of what I believe.

I found that the popular debate around biotechnology betrays many misconceptions and shows no awareness of how either genetics or modern farming work (or why).

The first is a category error: genetically-modified crops are treated as a type of food, rather than a description of the process scientists used to create it. Thus, rather than each engineered trait being judged on its own merits, judgments seem to smear across all ‘GMOs’ equally.

Here is what I mean: any downsides of a particular product—it appears that RoundupReady crops have indeed contributed glyophosate-resistant weeds, for instance—is not only treated as a final argument against that particular product, but it is also made to stand-in for the entire technology. I am sure this is familiar to most readers: articles making claims about ‘genetically engineered crops’—here is one example—that then turn out to be about, say, herbicide-resistant crops specifically.

They are also judged with the yardstick of perfection. So any harm that comes to any genetically-modified crop anywhere is treated as a final nail in the biotech coffin, whether or not the trait had anything to do with it. A recent whitefly epidemic in Punjab that destroyed Bt cotton fields, for instance, was touted by critics as an argument against the use of Bt cotton. This is a bit like faulting vaccines for a bicycle accident a child got into on the way home from getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, any benefits that go towards raising yield, reducing chemical pesticides, or making farming more scalable or safe are treated as illegitimate, even as the poorest among us benefit from the lowered cost of food.

Why is this? I believe that some false narratives have taken over the public imagination; and these make it difficult for facts to break through.

False narratives

One is that most people think of farming as continuous with nature, while biotech as a form of human engineering. And they would prefer that engineers not tinker with nature at all.

In my opinion, this view is based on ignorance. Farming has seen plenty of tinkerers, engineers, and nature-meddlers over the millennia; it is just that when a form of engineering becomes widespread, and gets a couple of generations under its belt, it is seen through sepia-toned glasses as part of tradition. This is exactly what happened to another farming technology that one could more properly consider a Frankenfood; it initially raised fears and caused great discomfort among the cognoscenti, but as it took hold, those fears gradually disappeared.

The fact that people do not expect farming to be subject to engineering causes its own blinkered views. When it comes to human engineering, a certain seeking, spiraling improvement is to be expected; early flaws are to be expected. But nature on the other hand is seen as always perfect and any tinkering with it is seen as a fall from that state of original glassy wholeness. This is why, as I pointed out above, people judge biotechnology with the yardstick of perfection.

At heart too is a public mythologizing of the word ‘natural’ that promotes a false dichotomy: that foods either lie on one side of that divide as entirely untouched by human artifice, or on the other, the side of corruption, with industrial ingredients, impenetrable packaging, and refined to the point of pallor and death.

‘GMOs’ in the popular imagination have ended up on the corrupted side of that divide, and hence their many political problems. But what I found, instead, is that biotechnology can produce benefits that environmentalists ought to favor if they look at it dispassionately.

For instance, genetically-modified cotton, used in India since 2002, has allowed farmers to greatly reduce the amount of spraying that they needed before, increased their yield and their incomes. But Western opinion about GMOs in India has become the victim of a third narrative—that of corporate imperialists devastating an ‘old’ country, leading farmers to suicide.

Narratives are stubborn things, specially when they tweak first-world guilt. Neither studies nor data have budged this essentially false narrative.

Looking at the data is one thing; but I had the great privilege of talking in depth with three farmers who shared their stories with me. All three made earnest requests to earnest first-worlders—who they mostly do not have access to—to ditch their false narrative. It isn’t that they do not have problems: but their problems spring from a two-century-long technological upheaval; and while their use of biotechnology cannot solve their deep-seated problems, it can certainly help.

It hasn’t helped that biotech first sprang into public consciousness with their conglomeration of ‘cides’: herbicide-resistant crops, and those that produce their own larvicide, have made up the vast majority of commercially available GMOs. Any word that ends in ‘cide’ of course raises red alerts in people’s minds. In our fear-based society, what most people aren’t aware of is that what can be called ‘poisonous’ is much dependent on how it is used; for instance, both salt and household vinegar are toxic to mammals at lower doses upon ingestion than glyphosate, which is the active chemical in RoundUp. As for the larvicide produced by the Bt crops used by farmers in India, it is a directed poison, only toxic to larva of moths and butterflies upon ingestion, and is safe for other life.

A related narrative is the widespread distrust of corporations. Of course, it is smart to be on guard and never take corporations at their word: they do not have our interests at heart, and their incentives above all are towards making profits. But not everything is a zero-sum game, and this is why it is intellectually lazy to assume that just because a corporation is pushing for a certain outcome, it must therefore be against our interest.

Monsatan

In fact, from what I can tell, distrust of Monsanto in particular has risen to pathological levels, so much that any mention of it can create a reality-distortion field. I have had smart and serious people tell me that somehow Monsanto’s nefarious abilities are so great that it can reach and entirely corrupt people in every corner of the world in every public office, in a completely secret way, and so elaborately that nothing else in their life changes (they don’t start buying yachts for instance) but they start parroting Monsanto’s lines.

Look, this is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from the fallacy that humans are actually not that good at keeping secrets.

This particular conspiracy requires public officials, farmers, scientists, regulators, etc. to be in on it, in a devilish collusion across the globe. Monsanto is a medium-sized company that hires its lobbyists and attempts to muscle its way like all the rest. But I know it hasn’t invented mind-control techniques that turn humans into programmed robots.

This is not to knock the milder form of this distrust, which even I subscribe to: you have to consider financial incentives before you take people at their word. And it isn’t just financial incentives: a scientist whose life’s work is in a certain field is not likely to be objective about the value of that work. But this is why it is important to include people of all stripes in the conversation, including non-expert food bloggers like yours truly.

Removing trust from the usual arbiters leads to radical uncertainty. One has to keep in mind that the value of watchdogs like regulatory agencies, science journals, news reporters, and the like, aside from the expertise that they offer, is not that they are incorruptible, but that they also watch each other. Their incentives lie in the direction of uncovering corruption in each other.

The danger of radical uncertainty is that it makes people susceptible to charlatans, who are usually skilled at flaunting the right symbols and claiming to be the sole purveyor of truth while spouting utter nonsense. Do I have someone in mind? Yes, indeed, I do.

The future

Proponents of biotechnology have often touted its potential to deal with some of our food system’s pressing problems: world hunger; drought; soil salinity. In return, critics have often pooh-poohed these claims, saying that so far, biotech has done nothing but create herbicide-resistant crops and crops that protect themselves from larval damage. Why should we trust that it can do more?

This critique so much misses the point that it boggles the mind. Biotech is a few decades old. Judging it now is akin to judging the silicon revolution in the 1960s, when the norm was lumbering mainframes that filled entire air-conditioned rooms that one spoke to with carefully-spaced holes on punched cards. We can as little imagine today what biotech might lead to as we could imagine smart phones tucked into pockets in the 1960s.

(My archive of writings on this subject can be found through this link in the header.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. What concerns you about genetically-modified food? What would you like to see me write about?

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