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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The fuss over GMOs

Recently, the US government approved the planting of Monsanto patented genetically modified alfalfa, and this has ignited a furor about alleged collusion between big biotech and government bodies approving the crop. Concern over pollen contamination with producers of "organic" products, and a number of issues become conflated together, when memes are spreading indicting genetically modified organisms as simply being bad.

Calm down. Almost all agriculture involves genetic modification. Alex Berezow, editor of RealClearScience, has written a very good concise summary outlining the invalidity of the arguments against genetically modified organisms. True, there may be problems with regards to ethics of how the technology itself is carried out, but objections to the supposed problems behind the technology are a distraction from the real problems.

In simplistic terms, agriculture evolved to address the problems of uncertainty in a hunter-gatherer set up. The main goal is to be able to provide consistency and reliability to the food supply, to free up our time to pursue other goals as a society. To attain that, agriculture narrowed the definition of what species makes up food (subject to cultural acceptance), and developed the means of exploiting the genetic potential to increase the efficiency of producing what is desired from that species. Modern corn, for example, looks nothing like the ancestral teosinte, being both aggressively efficient at producing grain from a small plot of land, and absolutely reliant on human intervention to propagate. Thus, just about anything grown for modern agricultural consumption, fruit, grain, animal, is genetically modified. Recombinant DNA and transgenics are simply more refined tools to what we did before in transferring desired traits and selecting them. It's the difference between carefully picking out songs for a mix CD versus mashing everything together and randomly choosing out chunks in hopes of finding something that sounds good. The former is more efficient at attaining a designed goal, the latter has the potential of discovering something unexpected (if you're VERY lucky).

But, I hear, what people object to is the lack of labeling, that GMOs should be labeled allow consumers a choice. That's a straw man argument, and an impractical solution to an undefined problem. Labeling items as non-GMO (whatever that means) imbues a certain emotional cachet, and returns the burden of the task to those who demand it the most.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up and it got me thinking a little bit more about GMO's. It's easy to blindly argue against GMO's as it is supporting it and it's nice to hear somebody who's thinking both sides of it.

    We may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater with GMO's here. At the same time, I think a lot of the fear comes from what it could be.

    To quote Michael Ruhlman, one of my favorite food writers, “America has a way of taking a good idea, mass-producing it to the point of profound mediocrity, then losing our sense of where the idea comes from.”

    Take factory farmed chickens for example. I do know that output in a factory farm is higher compared to that of a traditional farm, 6 weeks of maturity compared to ~ 3 months. Yet, it's hard to deny the quality of taste of a well farmed bird. And in being the most obese country in the world, should high output be our end game? Surely something is broken somewhere.