Follow or Face My Wrath

Sunday, March 31, 2013

With Apologies to My Organic Friends

Genetically Modified Foods Pros and Cons

I remember a few years ago as a college student I enrolled in a post-graduate anthropology class just for fun.  I ended up dropping it 5 weeks or so into the semester; I hadn't taken any of the prerequisites and I would have flunked miserably. But during the time I was in the class, I got to watch a documentary about the looming spectre of genetically modified foods.
I don't remember most of the video, but there was one part that stuck with me. A farmer in some rural country in South America was telling the camera about how dry and acidic the soil was in his region, and how hard it was to irrigate effectively because of the geography. His crops came out so poisonous that he couldn't even use them for animal feed. The people in the region were starving and dying of disease from eating the horrible crops.
Then, one season, he got genetically modified corn that was resistant to the impurities in the soil. That harvest, he had a huge crop that enabled him to feed his family, his animals and improve the quality of life in his region. The next season, the government in his country (I really wish I could remember which one it was) banned the use of gmo foods, and his region went back to starving.
The reason stated in the video for banning the gmo crops was that not enough testing had been done on the long term effects of gmo foods on the human body.
What's wrong with this picture?
I've done a little research over the years, and so far, the picture has yet to change. The primary reason that so many people and cultures are against gmo foods is that we simply don't know enough about them.
Which is a valid concern, of course. But in my mind, the proven benefits far outweigh the hypothetical, conjectural concerns.  I'm sure there are a few kinks to be worked out in the lab, but does that really mean that we should avoid these foods altogether?
One of the "kinks" I've read about is that a diet high in gmo foods has been linked to a higher incidence of developing certain cancers.  But as gmo ingredients are often present in processed foods, I think that positing a causal relationship is flimsy.  Any study that purports to link gmo foods to cancer had better take a hard look at what else is in those processed foods, not to mention the other poor lifestyle choices made by people who eat predominately processed food.
Another concern is that gmo crops could lead to the development of super weeds and have other negative impacts on the environment. This I do not have a snappy rebuttal to, but I think we have to really carefully weigh the pros and cons here. Everything I've read about this possibility merely states that it could happen in theory.  My feeling is that with every solution comes a host of new problems.  Gmo foods could be a solution to inadequate food supply.  Newer, tougher pests could be a problem that comes along with that. So what? Is it an unsolvable problem? Probably not.
Basically, I think this issue comes down to a fear of progress. The science out there saying that gmo foods should be avoided is tenuous, and the positive impacts on quality of life are current and measurable.  Granted, some people eat a lot of these foods unknowingly as a part of a generally unhealthy diet. That's bad, but the onus is on the individual. I choose to understand what I'm eating, not out of fear of the unknown, but out of an affinity for control. I like making things from scratch, starting from basic ingredients that I understand.  If some of those have been genetically modified to have improved taste, higher nutritional content, resilience during growing, longer shelf-life and better appearance... well that's okay with me.


  1. The problem is biodiversity and the failure of the designers of GM food production to consider generations down the line. Considering the energy crunch, global hunger needs and a whole host of environmentally degradative situations there is reason to believe mapping a sustainable food system is necessary for the perpetuation of humanity. These farmers from the documentary you watched, it is likely that there was influence from the producers of the genetically modified varieties to utilize their product. To address global hunger we need to first address the current food system. The process begins not by switching out the weak variety for one that is "stronger", but by bringing food production into the lives of every person in one way or another. It seems very human of us to assume that we can leave the world's food needs to be filled by such a small (and disenfranchised) portion of the population (which brings into play the whole notion of food justice or lack thereof). We have so many responsibilities in this world and most of them are arguably not as important as keeping yourself healthy through proper nutrition.

    A real sustainable food system would utilize the countless aspects of production from the kitchen garden, to the regional mid level producer. The ecology of NO landscape can support the massive agriculture systems that have become the convention. There are millions of hungry people and solving that problem will require silver buck shot as opposed to a bullet.

    FInally I must ask, Is it "ok with you" that you don't know where or through what processes your food had to go through, not to mention the distance it had to travel to get to your plate? i ask not pejoratively but as a challenge of sorts. If you want the most out of your food then support your regional producers, and go out of your way to grow some food... it feels amazing.

  2. Thank you sincerely for the comments Mr. Casey.
    I abdicate to your superior familiarity with the issues, and were this a serious political/health blog I wouldn't have posted such a rant. But in the spirit of friendly debate, I offer you the following thoughts.
    I suppose that the only point I was trying to make is that I personally do not find the existence and widespread distribution of gmo foods to be an abomination against nature. In the opinion of this layman, artificial selection on the part of humans really isn't doing anything that nature wouldn't do on its own, we're just speeding up the process of mutation. With the climate continuing to grow worse on the planet (and the expectation that it will continue to do so despite our best efforts) I think this natural selection process is probably already ongoing, and it's not bad thing that we're getting ahead of the curve.
    In nature, most mutations are disadvantageous, true. But I would argue that that is only because of the slow, haphazard method by which nature drives evolution. To me the idea of humans taking deliberate control of that process isn't frightening. Quite the opposite, in fact, I find it exciting. I believe it is the true imperative of humanity to gain understanding and control of everything we can in the universe, including the very cells that make up our bodies and the food we nourish them with. That we may falter along this path is to be expected, and I don't fear it lest it lead to our ultimate demise. After all, this solar system is a ticking time bomb (admittedly with a very long fuse) and I have high hopes that our species will outlive it. Therefore I don't despair that we should try to squeeze every drop of juice we can out of this planet. I encourage it. After all, I try to get every mile I can out of my beat-up used cars. When my house gets old and run down, I move out of it and get a new one. If the old one is condemned, so be it. I wouldn't encourage anything that hastens Earth's demise, of course, as that would be the opposite of squeezing every drop of juice out of it.

  3. On a more local and personal note, I can agree that foresight is sorely lacking on the part of ALL our leaders in ALL our various human enterprises, and that therefore the responsibility should rest on the individual level. I wholeheartedly agree with you that we should bring food production to the individual level, but I acknowledge that that may not be practical for all persons at all times, and that this is not a process that should be activated from the top down (i.e. via government) but from the bottom up. My wife and I have recently moved into a paleolithic diet (no packaged foods, with a strong preference for minimally processed), and have been leaning that direction for some time. Last weekend we went to a local farm and picked our own produce, which we are still enjoying today. We plan to get more tomorrow. We live in a one bedroom apartment with two hungry, thieving dogs, so unfortunately growing our own food, whether indoors or out is not a practical investment at this time, though it is a goal of mine. I often argue with my wife, saying I would like to have a small farm in place of a backyard, even if we live in the suburbs. Plus, I hate mowing the lawn. So when you ask if it's okay with me that I don't know... I do know. And even when I do occasionally eat processed foods, I assume they are bad for me, and that they have been treated as badly as food can be treated. I accept it, knowing that it's bad for me, but it will probably not kill me, and as long as I'm good most of the time I'll probably be healthy in the long run. I have friends that won't drink diet soda, and will only eat organic food, and yet they smoke cigarettes and snort cocaine. I know people that eat healthy and exercise, but work themselves to death in high-stress jobs. Everybody does things that are bad for them. The trick is to know it, and not do it habitually.
    The point is that in every way possible, I am personally leaning in the same direction as you, and I actively encourage others to do the same. Our only difference is from whence our viewpoints spring. While many (and forgive me if I mistakenly include you in this) choose to have a closer relationship with their food out of antipathy for what the corporate food system provides, I choose to do the same purely because of my personal philosophy that I have a God-given right to be the master of my domain. Second, I do not consider the mere existence of gmo foods to be a fell omen. If I ever get my backyard farm, I will probably seek out gmo seeds to ensure a higher return on my investment. That is, unless someone makes me aware of rigorous, scientific evidence that states that the foods are in themselves bad for me, and that merely eating them will cause me and my family long or short term harm. I refuse to fear the unknown, otherwise I'd never leave my house for fear of lightning and muggers.
    Again, thank you for your comment (you're the first one to post on my blog! It's still a baby) and I hope you can take my comments in the spirit in which they are offered. If you've read thus far and do not personally hate me, you will be the best and most gracious debate opponent I have ever faced.