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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

SPEE GMO Avoider

Jefe posted the following comment, in response to a response I had made to Dave's comment on my previous post:

"Please tell me you haven't jumped onto the anti-GMO train...I will grant that financially what some companies do with GMO's in terms of driving out local seeds/farmers isn't laudable, but that's as far as I'll go. It's just another type of business-for-profit. Which isn't to condone it, but if you want to be vehemently anti-GMO for that reason, you need to be vehemently anti-IBM, anti-Wall Street, anti-phone companies, anti-etc. Which is fine. But crazy and rather idiotic thinking.

To speak of GM crops as something "repulsive" is overboard. There's nothing inherently repulsive about modifying a plant to suit your needs. Are medicines and vaccines repulsive? Should we all just eat herbs instead, and hope our kids don't develop polio?

Shades of a larger argument here...which we can have if you want..."

I started writing a response in comment form, but it was kind of long, so I figured I might as well post it here. Please note that I have read neither deeply nor widely about this stuff. Most of what I know, I know from watching "Food, Inc." That said, I think some wariness re: GM food is justified. Because...


I haven't devoted a lot of thought to the GMO thing, but I'm pretty sure I'm against it. One reason, which you mention, is that companies copyright seeds and use money and the threat of litigation to force small farmers into submission, which decreases the variety of food on the market (bad for consumers) and may violate the freedom of the farmers to grow and sell what they want (bad for the farmers). I do also deplore it when Wal-mart, IBM, and other corporations use financial leverage as a tactic to undermine other companies and competitors. (The alternative is simply to provide a better service and let consumers and the market do the rest). You're right to point out that many businesses employ such methods and that that doesn't legitimize the act at all - to me, rather, it shows how powerful corporations have become and how willing we are to accept their often heinous behavior. I can see why opposing this kind of corporate behavior and dominance could be called idealistic, but it's certainly not "idiotic."

(Interlude: I don't actually understand what you mean by saying "It's just another type of business-for-profit." Prima facie, this looks like it's meant to legitimize the practice, but you immediately point out that the search for profits doesn't legitimize anything.)

I think this alone is grounds enough to avoid GM food, given that there is plenty of other stuff to eat. But I'll mention a few other possible qualms.

Genetics is hard, so nobody really knows how healthy GM food products are. Their safety is vouched for by the companies that create them, but few truly independent bodies exist to verify the claims. Not to mention that it may take years for results to show up. On the other hand, non-GM crops have co-evolved with humans (and other animals) over thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years, over which time our bodies have evolved to make use of the plants and the plants have evolved to make use of our bodies (see Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" for more on this). So we have a pretty good idea of what in the "natural world"' is good for us and what isn't.

Of course, people should be free to accept the risk and eat GM food if they want. But the companies that produce GM food often fight governmental requests and laws making it mandatory to label the food as modified, on the grounds that maybe people will think it's dangerous (which may indeed be the case). If you don't like the thought of having unannounced and untested chemicals in your drinking water, then you should also be opposed to GM foods being masqueraded as natural ones.

There is no argument from necessity, either. We don't need GM food to save us from disease or starvation. As Michael Pollan says in In Defense of Food, "Eat Food. Not So Much. Mostly Plants." In other words, a whole-food diet with lots of plants matter and low in meat, dairy, sugar, and refined and processed food, will keep you healthy. As a bonus, it will leave enough food left over for the other 6 billion people on the planet. Nice, eh?

This is not even getting into the international politics of GM food and the effects it's having and going to have on third world countries, where I'm under the impression that it's portrayed as some sort of miracle cure, which it certainly isn't. Even if it is safe, increased food yields themselves often drive up birth rates, so that families are bigger, meaning that the number of calories per capita doesn't increase. So the GM food, under the guise of being a solution, may actually postpone more useful demographic and societal changes which could improve the lot of 3rd worlders more quickly. (Admission: this paragraph is pure speculation on my part.)

Another question is that of the motivations of the companies making GM products. As far as I know, many of them [the products] are not designed to make better crops for people, but rather to increase yield per acre on crops like corn and soy in order to increase the amount/lower the price of feed available for cattle and pigs in CAFOs. In addition to the health uncertainties, and the negative effects that high-yield monocoltural agriculture has on our topsoil, as a SPEEVegan, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my opposition to technologies that serve to push down the price of meat, thereby encouraging its consumption and perpetuating lots of needless animal suffering and contributing to other E n E problems.

None of these amount to an in-principle "it's wrong to modify nature" statement. But I don't think this sort of absolutist critique is really necessary. Judging from your comment, it seems to me (and correct me if I'm wrong) that your attitude is "if there's no metaphysical reason not to do it, we should go ahead and do it." But my feeling is more like, "when there's no need, and some danger, why bother?"

Again, because I am getting the impression that you think I am some sort of Nazi who wants to ban everything he doesn't think is good enough, I will make it clear that if someone wants, he should be free to continue the research [as long as it doesn't hurt animals!], and he can go ahead and market the product, disclosing all the relevant info, once independent, not-for-profit organizations verify that it's safe. (Just like the official, if underenforced, policy for other food additives and for medicines would have it.) But don't force it on people and don't trick them into consuming it.

To recap: pros of GM food include possibly being able to feed more people, and possibly being able to feed them healthier food. As I've already mentioned, though, I think there are easier and safer and more certain ways to achieve both of these goals, as well as several costs and additional problems that give me pause.

Note 1) Phrase parsing: the adjective "repulsive" was being applied to several things. Admittedly, GM stuff isn't viscerally repulsive the way shit-brooding and chick-grinding are (to me). But just because one part of the process is somewhat clean doesn't mean the process as a whole can't be disgusting.

Note 2) Ad-homey attack: I don't see why it's ok to denigrate any anti-status-quo position by calling it a "train," as if its (supposed/imagined) popularity is supposed to mean it's wrong. Because the GMO stuff is not terribly close to my heart, I don't take it personally, but if you were to say that about my veganism or my love of travel or something, I'd be quite insulted and upset.

Note 3) Aside: And just a quick nod to what you wrote about medicines - I do actually think that many of them are misguided, though not repulsive, attempts at regaining health. Fair enough, polio might require some serious scientific intervention (note that I am conceding the straw man argument that you stuck in my proverbial mouth, one which was based around a conclusion that could not have been drawn from anything I wrote). But far more deaths and far more physical and psychological misery are/is due to easily avoidable or modifiable behavior, like dietary habits, drinking, smoking, speeding, and working too much. It seems to me that most of our medicine (again, I mean stuff at the supermarket and in the pharmacy, not at the hospital) is like the cortizone injections that football players get- intended to make us feel like things are alright, without addressing the causes of the problems. Which makes enough sense if all you need is to play through the 4th quarter, but certainly doesn't seem like a path to a healthy life.


Dave said...

If the companies are spending millions of dollars lobbying congress to keep GMO stickers off their products, there's clearly something amiss. What's wrong with letting people know exactly what they're eating? And smaller profits for Kraft, et al isn't a valid excuse.

I happened to watch "Food, Inc." yesterday, and the portion on soy beans was what stood out to me the most. That, and how fucked up lawyers and our legal/political system is (the "piling money on one side of the scales of justice" analogy was perfect). It also seems like politicians try to make it into congress to "make a difference", but they take such huge contributions getting there that their hands are tied to make the changes they actually care about. In other words, our entire political system seems like one big effed up catch-22.

chief said...

Okay, let's see. First off, that's probably some of the best argumentative writing I've read of yours in a while. Among anti-GMO arguments in general, I bet it would rank quite highly as well.

Second: dammit! It's my stupid fault, but I've drawn you into an argument that I sorta wanted to have anyway, but now am going to have to actually do some thinking and writing about it. It's also frustrating because I agree with several of your points but want to argue with them anyway (for the sake of defending my repulsive lifestyle).

Third: hopefully I'll get some time to do the above.

chiefy chief said...

One thought before I go to bed, however: yes, one reason companies fight to keep GMO stickers off food is because they're afraid people will think they're dangerous. But that's because people have been conditioned to be afraid of the label, even though I have yet to see an intelligent study that says they ARE dangerous. Your argument that "Well, if they're not dangerous, why fight the label?" is sort of like the "beat your wife" argument, in that it places an inherent negative assumption into the argument.

Dah, I'm too sleepy to continue. To be continued...

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

First off, I'll admit that I haven't seen firsthand or even secondhand any studies related to GMO stuff, so I really don't know how dangerous the stuff is.

That said, it's not at all rare for us humans to design some nice fancy way around a problem only to find out later that the solution has brought about a whole nother set of problems. I read a quotation recently that states it a little better, though I'm reciting from rough memory: "Most of today's problems were yesterday's solutions." Just think about fertilizer, pesticides, CFCs, margarine, aspertane, antibiotics in meat, crushed up cow in cow feed, and whatever other examples you want. We started using them before there were any good studies showing their effects, and by the time we got stuff figured out, damage had already been done. It now looks like even birth control pills are having some side effects - namely, the estrogen gets flushed out in women's urine, enters our water sources, turnes fish into hermaphrodites, and is causing undescended or late-descending testicles in many would-be male children.

This of course doesn't guarantee that GMO will be the same, but I don't see why we should start from the assumption that it will be fine, when so many of our endeavors don't turn out that way. The burden of proof lies with the people who want to bring the product to market (as it does with other foods, cosmetics, medicines, etc), not with the people who expect agrobusiness to continue the trend. I see skeptecism as entirely justified.

I don't know what the general population's take on GM stuff is, but in any case, I think our duty to protect consumers from possible (even if we haven't established that it's probable) harm, even if they are being a bit overzealous, far outweighs our obligation to allow companies to put new food products onto the market. Especially when there's so little to gain.

Get some sleep and then get back.

And yes, Politics is F'd. With a capital F. Vote Nader.

One more thing, chief, just to incense you a little more - I found a book in a bookshop in Bangalore called "corporations gonna get your mama." I bought it and read it. It was fantastic.

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