12 January 2012

The Great GMO Scam

I am assuming that we all understand roughly the same thing when I speak in abbreviated fashion about Genetically Modified Organisms -- particularly GMO food plants. Some people are tempted to sidetrack the conversation into irrelevancies with arguments like, "All our food crops are genetically modified, anyway, because we've been selectively breeding them for thousands of years." While true, it is either foolish misdirection, or deliberate obfuscation of the crucial differences between conventional genetic evolution (whether consciously directed by ourselves, or whether the result of natural evolutionary pressures) and the deliberate introduction, removal or rearrangement of isolated snippets of genetic material into otherwise-unrelated gene sequences using advanced cellular "surgery". Those who deliberately obfuscate this point clearly have an agenda.

I am no techno-luddite. I am not opposed to improving the yields, flavours, nutrition or agronomic properties of the 5 Fs1 that constitute our reasons for farming. Quite the opposite.

Hell, we've been doing this stuff for thousands of years, as witness the amazing variety of delicious and nutritious heirloom varieties we still have access to3. I am actively engaged in various small projects to try and cultivate new veg varieties using traditional methods. So its not progress per se that worries me, but I am deeply bothered by the whole pro-GMO lobby and its bought politicians.

In short, I think that the whole GMO programme is (at best) stupid. (At worst it is an out and out con job conceived and executed by greedy, lying bandits.)

Parts of the GMO Proposition might even be dangerous, as some GMO opponents argue. Certainly the effects of introducing essentially alien genetic material into our life-support systems largely untested seems a bit foolish and short-sighted, at best. But frankly I am spectacularly uninterested in whether we humans do actually endanger ourselves by introducing weird genetic combinations into our food-supply. We will reap as we sow.

I am equally pretty unworried by the possibility that a Tomato might harbour Cow genes to the detriment of my (vegetarian) karma. I do understand those arguments. They may have substantial merit. But they interest me not. They are Other Peoples' Problems.

I am concerned by the PR schmaltz spread by the pro-GM lobby. At best it is yet another manifestation of nothing more nor less than the usual corporate self-serving, soul-sucking greed, greed and more greed. At worst it fuels a smokescreen that blinds people to the true dangers of this technology, that suffocates the honest debate, thoughtful challenges and many very serious questions we should be asking about GMO crops under a blanket of misdirection, deceit, ad hominem denunciation, pseudo-answers and frequently, outright lies.

The Central Problem Of GMO is this: Evolution.

Life on this planet evolves4. As the energy flows impacting any ecosystem change – be they changes in rainfall, solar-energy infall, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, trace elements or key nutrients,... just anything, in fact – so the ecosystem changes, adapts to the new reality. And that means that the organisms within ecosystems are in a constant and ongoing state of flux, genes ever dancing and gyring to adapt to changes. Life has been doing this for something like 3.5 billion years – basically ever since the Earth got cool enough for any life forms to exist.

We're really very, very good at evolving. All of us Earthicans! We're all evolution Badasses of the highest capability.

To put it another way, the Central Problem Of GMO is this: It Cannot Possibly Work.

Let's take a quick look at some of the things we're told that "genetically-modified" crops are going to really great for:

  • Pest- and disease-resistance. This has really been the main song sung by the pro-GM lobby so far. We're told that by growing these "genetically enhanced" crops we won't have to use as much toxic pesticide, fungicide, herbicide as we5 currently do, "So really, choosing GMO crops are a very Green thing to do!"
  • Resistance to agrichemicals design to kill off pests, competitors or diseases that prey on our crops.
  • We can add Antibiotics/Vitamins/Trace elements to our food supply, thereby enhancing peoples' health and wellbeing at a very tiny cost. Good! I have no objection to that, as long as people have a clear and informed choice in the matter. That means Food Labelling. However, I think there's likely to be some unexpected fallout...
  • And the latest in a desperate gambit to keep those GMO profits rolling in... GMO crops can be engineered6 to be drought resistant, so that we don't have to worry so much about rapid global climate change.

The first two are pretty closely related. In both cases the germplasm of a crop-plant is modified to impart a resistance to environmental pressures. In both cases the outcome is very highly predictable... evolution happens.

In the first case the pests and diseases that the genetically-modified variety is supposed to resist evolve their way past the newly-injected defences, bringing the whole affair back to its starting point: a crop plant that no longer has resistances to those pests and diseases.

In the second case it is extremely likely that the pests/diseases that we're spraying against will out-evolve the agrichemicals involved. Just as before, we're soon back to square one.

The last two arguments might have some merit, except that we are perfectly able to introduce the necessary nutrients and breed drought-resistance into our crops by a combination of conventional breeding practice and sound soil-management. (Read: Organic cultivation.) At no cost at all. I am working on drought -resistant Tomatoes and Potatoes right now.

I don't wish to delve too deeply into the issues around the transfer of modified genetic material into the wild. It happens. That is well documented. And unscrupulous, greedy corporate blood-suckers want (and, so far, too frequently succeed) at gouging money from unsuspecting farmers who have been the unwilling recipients of this alien germplasm. Suffice to point out that Roundup-Ready weeds are well documented as wild plants. So the Genetically Modified genes have escaped into the wild, with no telling what the consequences might be. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Now I don't believe that microbiologists are stupid people. Quite the contrary. It is my experience that they are highly intelligent, thoughtful people. So I greatly doubt that they are unaware of this Fact Of Evolution. I'm pretty sure they know that the rest of the ecosystem is going to evolve around the manipulated organisms introduced into it. There is no other possibility. In part I believe that scientists don't really have a very good idea, yet, of just how quickly evolution happens. We are just beginning to find out. It seems that resistances show up in as short a time as 3 or 4 growing seasons! Much faster than anyone expected.

Interestingly, the pro-GMO lobby somehow altogether fails to mention that their products are certain to be out-evolved in short order. In other words, the useful lifespan of such a product – the timespan for which it is likely to be effective for the purpose claimed by its makers – is really quite short. After which we'll need to do something else to "combat" the "hostile" predators, pests and diseases that seek to enjoy their portion of our crops. I'm pretty sure I know what the agri-industrialists are likely to propose... More and newer GMO crops, allowing us to use new and stronger chemical cocktails in the "War on Bugs".

And so another Arms Race chases its own tail...

In short, I don't believe that the GMO industry is telling the full story. And why would they, since the full story doesn't paint a picture that leads inexorably to Perpetual Profit. I would guess that the Techies (the scientists involved) are simply not allowed a voice by their corporate overlords, since the truth is so much more complex and nuanced than the Marketing Department would like. So much more ambiguous and uncertain.

In even shorter, the GMO producers are misleading everybody. They're lying.

They're prepared to risk unpredictable (possibly lethal) consequences on the ecosystems we depend upon for life, all in the name of This Quarter's Profits.

[1] Food, fodder, fibre2, fuel, pharma(ceuticals).

[2] And by "fibre" I also mean "framework" material that we use for building... OK, so maybe I should make it "The 6 Fs". You tell me.

[3] ...despite the best recent efforts of the monopolistic seed kakistopoly.

[4] Sorry, creationists/intelligent-design proponents, you'll have to seek elsewhere than this blog for a sympathetic hearing or equal consideration.

[5] For some value of "we". Reality is that the bulk of humanity is fed by modern factory farming methods. We pro-organic growers are still a splinter minority.

[6] And that really is "engineered" as opposed to "bred"...

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