Why GMOs Matter

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 25, 2014 3:10 AM


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Several weeks ago, Nathanael Johnson at Gristreflected on what he had learned after spending half a year dissecting all the major claims and counter-claims that dominated the GMO debate. It was a very thoughtful post with a jarring headline:

What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

Many smart people nodded along, which blew my mind, but also made me realize just how narrowly this discussion has been framed. (More on that in in a minute.) In his piece--as he did in his six-month series--Johnson waxed Solomonic about the pros and cons of crop biotechnology, ultimately concluding:

The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

This struck me as astonishing, especially coming from someone who had just spent six months deeply immersed in biotech research and application. My own foray into this world has led me to the opposite conclusion. (The same goes for Amy Harmon.) As I was doodling with a response to Johnson's "none of it matters" hand wave, several notable rebuttals poured forth. The first was from University of Wyoming's Andrew Kniss, who made this excellent point:

While activist groups, scientists, and journalists yell past each other in this debate, the people who are actually using and benefiting from the technology are largely ignored. So too are the potential beneficiaries of the future.

Next followed Berkley's Michael Eisen, who felt that Johnson let GMO opponents off the hook:

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it.

This matters because the anti-GMO movement shapes the public discourse. It is their ideology, worldview and claims that set the terms of the debate. The scientists merely play defense, batting back a torrent of misinformation and never-ending urban myths (terminators! Indian farmer suicides!), much in the way that climate scientists are forever rebutting cherry-picked stats and pseudoscience from climate skeptics. What's truly disconcerting about the GMO debate is that influential thought leaders and public figures have legitimized the anti-empirical voices instead of disavowing them. (This mostly doesn't happen in public dialogues involving climate change or vaccine safety--where the evidence-defiant fringe are marginalized). Such mainstreaming--how it plays out-- is illustrated in my recent piece in Issues in Science and Technology, which is about how a popular GMO myth has been credulously accepted, amplified, and disseminated. To a much larger degree, the endorsement and propagation of misleading information and outright falsehoods by influential thought leaders is the elephant in the room that Johnson, Grist and many progressives dance around. They need to own it, not ignore it, because there are consequences when influentials play footsies with the fringe, just as there are consequences when popular talk show hosts give a forum to anecdotal anti-vaccine arguments and phony experts falsely claiming health dangers from GMOs. Eisen speaks to why the behavior of GMO opponents matters (my emphasis):

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

Another noteworthy rebuttal to Johnson was penned by Ramez Naam, who argues that GMOs matter very much for the developing world. Indeed, this is an aspect of the debate that is largely ignored. I was thrilled to see Naam use the example of India's Bt cotton farmers, which really does illustrate the value of biotechnology for smallholders. (This is something I get into in my Issues in Science and Technology piece.) So why does cotton engineered with the pest-resistant Bt trait matter in the developing world? After all, people don't eat cotton! And as smart GMO skeptics like to point out, most biotech crops, like soybean, corn, and cotton, are commodity cash crops. They don't feed people. Here's Naam:

There are 7 million cotton farmers in India. Several peer reviewed studies have found that, because Bt cotton increases the amount of crop they have to sell, it raises their farm profits by as much as 50 percent, helps lift them out of poverty and reduces their risk of falling into hunger. By reducing the amount of insecticide used (which, in India, is mostly sprayed by hand) Bt cotton has also massively reduced insecticide poisoning to farm workers there — to the tune of 2.4 million cases per year.

So here we have an example where GMOs help people rise out of poverty. The Indian farmers make more money with genetically modified cotton, which means they have more money to purchase food and clothes and everyday items that anti-GMO westerners take for granted. That's not a hypothetical benefit of GMOs. It's real. And it matters. Now there are some, like the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone, who take issue with what he derides as the "triumphalist narrative" of Bt cotton in India. And there are those who, in response, throw up their hands in exasperation. I'll get into this quicksand in my next post. (Look for it Monday.) I should also point out that Johnson has just written a follow-up to his "none of it matters" post, where he concedes to overgeneralizing. In his latest, Johnson concludes that

the symbol of GMOs has eclipsed the causes it symbolizes. Our urgent needs are to alleviate poverty, improve the environment, and face the fact that many of us no longer trust the people who bring us our food. Right now, our political capital is misspent if we’re only addressing GMOs narrowly without touching those larger issues.

I entirely agree.

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