GMO’s and “Science”

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It seems that many who stand in support of  GMO’s have staked the claim that those who oppose GMO’s and other aspects of modern food production technology are “anti-science.” While that may be true of some or perhaps even many people who oppose GMO’s, it is an ad hominem argument that holds no water against the most pertinent anti-GMO arguments, which, are not anti-science in the least. The intelligent anti-GMO stance actually utilizes an approach that is a bedrock of good science and that is skepticism. Those who promote GMO’s make many claims as to how they will “feed the world” and that without GMO’s and other corporate scientific advances, millions, if not billions, will go hungry. I will admit that that scenario is theoretically possible, but so are many other scenarios including ones in which unintended consequences of adopting GMO’s create the very same results that they are supposed to prevent. I, for one, am skeptical of claims by companies like Monsanto and others that GMO’s will save the world, though I have no doubt that the shareholders and principals of those companies will become personally enriched.

Science is no longer what it used to be nor what it is supposed to be, the unfettered and unbiased approach towards learning about the natural world. There was a time when most scientific discoveries were freely shared amongst scientists, most of whom were affiliated with Universities doing work with relatively little financial motivation or bias. Today’s science, even when done in University settings, is now controlled largely by corporations and governments with vested interests in specific results and control of the purse strings. Science is now big business. It is not unheard of for disagreeable results to be buried. It is also a well-known axiom that results can be manipulated and interpreted in any number of ways. Those who have become “anti-science” are not necessarily anti-science at all. They may simply be wary of the conditions under which much of what falls under the rubrik of  “science” today is practiced and promulgated. There is simply too much bias and conflict of interest.

The biggest conflict of interest comes from the facts that a lot of money is riding on the adoption of GMO’s and other food production technologies. Companies like Monsanto stand to dominate food production at present and even more in the future with widespread adoption of their technologies. Monsanto happens to be a company that is based in the United States. The United States has so far been the one of the few major countries in the world diving headlong into using the technology. It is enlightening to consider the number of former Monsanto executives now entrenched in regulatory positions in the United States government, not to mention connections to the United States Supreme Court. These connections, interestingly enough, are one of the few things that have been the result of bipartisan efforts as they have grown from both Republican and Democratic administrations. No potential conflict of interest there!

Perhaps, the people in support of GMO’s are correct and all the myriad of concerns raised about nature coming up with its own counter-offensives, as it always has, and that biodiversity is the necessary ingredient for protecting the world from total devastation (not to mention actual pleasure) are wrong. But what if they are not? There have always been unintended consequences. When antibiotics and vaccinations were introduced, it was felt that that would mean the end of disease. Unfortunately, while that had theoretical promise, it hasn’t led to a disease free world. The rise of antibiotic resistance, due in large part to abuses by corporate agriculture (also in the name of feeding the world), has led to a world of infectious disease that is becoming progressively more difficult to combat as once we get a handle on one thing, something else seems to come along to replace it as the scourge du jour. It is easy to don rose colored glasses and assume the optimistic predictions of prosperity based upon technology will come true, but the potential repercussions are too great to assume that that will be the case. GMO technology tends to be monoclonal, which leads to a decrease in biodiversity. While certain contemporary crop maladies may be taken care of by genetic modification, the world will be that much more vulnerable when a new one comes along as it eventually will. We are already beginning to see possible stagnation and even collapses in global crop production including parts of the United States where GMO based agriculture is king. With the advent of GMO’s we, as a society, are in the position of “putting all of our eggs in a single basket.” There is a reason that phrase has become an axiom. It isn’t wise. Neither is putting control of the world’s food resources in the hands of one or even several dominant commercial or national interests.

I am not anti-science. I depend upon science and the results of science to do my job. I adopt and use technology both professionally and personally and I enjoy Modernist cuisine as well as more traditional cooking. Science is about asking questions. It is about examining the world and making incremental advances based upon what appears to work better. It is generally a two-steps forward, one step backward or sometimes three steps backward process. The world has become more sophisticated and in many respects a better place thanks to the responsible use of science. However, appreciating and respecting science doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept what some scientists say has hypothetical benefit or because the new technology is “sexy”, especially when there are such conflicts of interest and such obvious concerns. GMO tachnology may yet be shown to have some benefits, but the potential hazards should be fully analyzed before the adoption is widespread. Any adoption of this technology should be done incrementally and slowly so that the effects can be analyzed and the potential negative ramifications minimized. Perhaps most importantly, the process should not be under the control of one or even several companies and interactions between those companies and governmental interests should be eliminated to reduce potentially debilitating conflicts of interest. Any adoption of these technologies should, in fact, be instituted systemically and yes, scientifically and should they be shown to not be the panacea that many claim them to be, they should be rejected before they have become too entrenched and before we have lost too much of our natural biodiversity .


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3 Responses to GMO’s and “Science”

  1. suzanne says:

    John this is one of the best pieces of writing I have read on this subject. Thank you for taking out the emotional sides of the argument and handing us real things to think about. Could not agree more with what you have written. Thank you.

  2. Gerry Dawes says:

    Great, John. Good job.

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