Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why I'm ok with GMOs

Since I didn't give much evidence in my prior post, but attracted some nastiness from a brave commenter who left contact details, I figured I'd be consistent with my principles of rationality and lay out my reasons why I like GMOs more than I fear them.

  1. Super useful in medical research. Want to cure cancer? HIV? Alzheimer's? Parkinson's? Having transgenic mice, pigs, rats and others that have human immune systems/ parts/ susceptibility to certain diseases is critical. They speed up science. So you can avoid GMOs, if you want. Just don't use any insulin generated from the transgenic cows that made it.

  2. Super useful in agriculture. Hate pesticides? Me too! Option 1: Breed selectively for many generations, hoping for a mutation that offers pest resistance. Maybe you'll get something in 30 years. Good luck. Option 2: Build in pest resistance at the genetic level and have something far better than random process and selection could get you in ten years or less. Which do you choose?

    The fact is that humans have been manipulating genes for thousands of years (our cultivated strawberries have up to 8 copies of their chromosomes per cell, instead of their "natural" two, thanks to human oversight. Frankenberry, anyone? Delicious!). Most of our domesticated animals and plants are maladapted for life in the wild, but well adapted to do what we like (Toy poodle, anyone? Miniature horse, perhaps?). The only difference is that we now have better tools for manipulating genes, and can do so directly.

    Yes, to be fair, transgenics is a bit different from selective breeding, and we don't really know all the potential long term consequences of what could happen with some of these genes and how they might interact with wild populations. But we never know the future of anything with perfect accuracy. We try to take a good guess at how things will work out. But we don't know. Maybe vaccinating against polio will cause harm in some way? Should we try it? What about Pasteurizing our milk? How about irradiating our food so it doesn't spoil? If there is strong evidence of benefits and little to no evidence of problems, we probably should. The only viable anti-GMO argument lies here, but they have to argue that the odds or the scale of the negative consequences of GMOs is so high that all the obvious benefits (higher yields, no pesticides, lower irrigation requirements: All those things that save humans from starvation and the planet) aren't worth it. And they have to argue that the rigorous ecological testing that happens before and after these new technologies are released are inadequate or wrong. And while it's possible that the Earth is 6000 years old and dinosaur bones are God's way of testing our faith, I believe the science (carbon dating is our friend). And when scientists tell us that GMOs are better than using insecticides, I believe them. In case you don't want to click:
    "The authors of the meta-study draw the conclusion that the Bt toxins of transgenic plants affect non-target organisms. However, such effects are significantly lower than those caused by the application of insecticides."
    Some people fear science. I don't. Please irradiate my food and serve me pest resistant corn.
What irks me about the anti GMO crowd is that they generally come from a place of fearing science (generally through ignorance, though not always) and often one of economic privilege. If you can afford to pay $5 per pound for low-yield, small batch organically farmed apples, go for it. (Not that this is a real example, but the economics of lower yield per acre and higher fixed costs is a higher cost product. Organic is nearly always a more expensive way of agriculture, barring GMOs from the process). But at time when we're trying to get poor folks in the US and abroad to eat fewer crappy, cheap calories from Mc Donalds and consume more high quality, expensive calories, like vegetables, practices which raise the costs of these foods only make the situation worse. I want poor people to be able to afford to eat right. I want to see cheap, mass produced high quality agricultural products with minimal toxicity. I think GMOs are part of the answer, and I'll continue to vote against banning them until I see clear evidence that they'll cause more harm than good.