Maybe I’m just feeling grumpy today, but I ran across a YouTube clip of Neill de Grasse Tyson on GMO foods, and I have to call out Straw Man on his comments.
An ideal straw man argument is one where you stand up and utterly demolish a stupid argument that was made by no one, ever.
A more typical straw man argument is where you shift an actual argument from the real core of the discussion, to something that is deceptively similar, but unrelated and much easier to argue. I’m afraid Dr. Tyson did this very thing. Or perhaps he just doesn’t understand the real concern, because it’s been so poorly stated.
So let me frame, more precisely, the core of the discussion about GMO’s. I’ll phrase it as a question: Is the current trend toward targeted genetic modification of foods in the laboratory harmful to our food supply?
This is a more specific question than the ambiguous, “Are GMO’s harmful?” But it has a much broader scope. It implies questions about technological risk, large ecosystems, farming monoculture, profit motives, government oversight, and large-scale epidemiology.
Let’s focus even more specifically on just one tiny part of the question: Should we be eating Roundup-resistant strains of food?
No one cares about seedless watermelons, or whether they were produced by transgenics, gene-snipping, grafting, or black magic. No one cares about the “natural” progenitor of maize (corn-on-the-cob) — it’s inedible. Lord knows, no one cares about long-stem roses. Except florists.
People do care about Roundup-ready food plants. That’s what they usually mean when they carelessly say, “GMO’s.”
The first thing to note is that you don’t plant Roundup-ready plants unless you intend to spray Roundup on them. In fact, you don’t pay for Roundup-ready seeds unless you intend to spray enough Roundup to stunt or kill other (less expensive) strains of the same plant.
What is Roundup? Its primary active ingredient is glyphosate. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide — plant poison — that interferes with the plant’s ability to make certain proteins necessary for growth. It also affects certain microorganisms in a similar way, and other microorganisms (the ones that eat the stuff) in the opposite way.
The issue with “GMO foods” is not whether genetically-modified corn is inherently a Frankenfood that will cause us to sprout a third eye (useful) or a second anus (far too many of those around already), but whether its use is enabling and even promoting hazardous industrial agricultural practices that have adverse consequences for our food, our health, and our society.
No one will plant Roundup-ready GMO’s unless they intend to douse them in glyphosate. So the more correct question is, Should we eat food sprayed with killer doses of glyphosate? If the answer is, “No,” or even “maybe not,” then what is the point of a Roundup-ready GMO seed?
Let’s rephrase this more academically, and ask if the benefits of using glyphosate on food balance the risks.
What are the benefits?
Well, what is glyphosate intended to do? It kills weeds.
Why kill weeds? Weeds reduce food production under our current industrial farming processes, and it’s a substantial cost to eradicate them manually (that is, to pick the weeds) — that’s about it.
So without glyphosate, we would presumably produce somewhat less industrially-farmed food, or produce it less efficiently, which might raise prices. Of course, glyphosate isn’t free, nor are the Roundup-ready seeds, so that also raises prices. There’s some evidence that glyphosate damages certain essential microflora in the soil, rendering the soil less fertile over time, which means less food and higher prices, unless you pay for chemical fertilizer. Which, as I understand it, is wonderful weed-food, since “weeds” — especially the fast-growing kind — are specifically evolved to move into overly-fertile bare ground, like ashy forests after a fire.
We could call this the Monsanto Cycle: glyphosate -> fertilizer -> weeds -> glyphosate. With a side-business in Roundup-ready seeds so you can use the herbicidal war-zone to raise food.
This brings us to the real core issue underlying the whole discussion: should we trust Monsanto to keep us safe from harm through use of their products? The question isn’t whether GMO’s are safe, or whether glyphosate is safe, or even whether scientists, farmers, or the television psychics know the answer: the real question is whether Monsanto is safe.
There is a general perception that corporations cannot be trusted when their bottom-line is involved. It’s not an unfounded perception. The tobacco industry concealed evidence that smoking causes lung cancer for at least two generations. The oil industry has been burying data about global warming for decades. Goldman Sachs sold securitized sub-prime mortgages by the carload to
suckers investors, while simultaneously taking short positions against those same investments. In all cases, it’s a matter of Profits First.
Would Monsanto tell us that it’s perfectly safe to give our children a glass of Roundup with every meal? That would depend on whether they felt it would increase or decrease their market share. It would have nothing to do with sick or dead children: children are economic externalities. Unless they become a public-relations problem.
Would Monsanto go so far as to lie about research results, and pay professional doubters to cast a shadow on any “unfounded rumors” that their products might be harmful? Given that other industries seem to have had no problem with doing exactly that, I think it’s supremely naive to think Monsanto would be any different.
So I would say, no, they can’t be trusted. Their products might be harmless — but they could be very nasty, indeed. And once the product has become a steady and successful seller, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it high on the charts.
This has taken us a long way from the science of genetically-modified organisms, hasn’t it?
In fact, we are now so far from the science that I’m going to propose a little thought-experiment, just to clarify the whole thing.
Let’s ban glyphosate because it begins with the letter ‘g’. We spun the Big Ugly Gratuitous Government Economic Restructuring Wheel of Fortune (BUGGER WoF), the letter ‘g’ came up, and we picked ‘glyphosate’ out of a dictionary. With a dart. We’ve just banned it forever and ever: a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Possession Is Death.
Apart from the screams of doom and despair from Monsanto (which we can easily solve with, “Here’s a billion dollars, kid, now shut up and go away”) — so what? What exactly is the great boon to humankind we’ve just thrown out?
We’re all gonna starve? That’s ridiculous. We’re talking about weeds, not the Apocalypse, and they were pulling them up by hand in 1969, before Roundup was invented. And in 1869, and in 1069, and in 8969 BCE for that matter. Agribusiness will just hire more itinerant labor from Mexico and put them to work weeding in addition to picking and packing. They’ll of course cry salty tears about lost profits (and demand a billion dollars, too, it’s only fair), then they’ll raise prices and reduce some benefits and raid a pension fund (if there are any left), and that will be that.
I’m not sure I see any benefit to Roundup that doesn’t come down to a few more dollars in the pockets of big agribusiness. And from what I understand, it’s mostly big agribusiness: the small farmers are moving toward organic farming, because “organic” commands higher prices1
The risks? Oh. My. God.
Granted, they are all low-probability. Like the Fukishima reactor failure.
We have large-scale epidemiological risks based on an entire population consuming glyphosate in small quantities through pregnancy and an entire lifetime. A small uptick in autoimmune sensitivities in ten percent of the population would be impossible to detect in the laboratory, and almost impossible to detect in the population. Yet it represents huge medical costs and unnecessary human suffering. At the opposite extreme, we discover that after a generation or two, chronic glyphosate ingestion causes widespread male feminization and sterility; our population crashes in a single generation, and our civilization becomes one of those Ancient Mysteries on thirty-first century late night television — The Americans: Why Did They Vanish? Was It Alien Astronauts?
We have similar possibilities from the GMO food itself. A plant is a complex system. Put it under chemical stress (dump Roundup on it), and its biochemistry changes. Reduce or enhance its ability to respond to that stress (gene modification), and its biochemistry changes. Any of those changes could trigger epidemics of low-level dietary intolerance in humans, or even increased instances of truly dangerous allergic reactions.
We have potentially huge ecosystem changes from glyphosate-contaminated runoff from farms. Kill the tadpoles in the swamps, perhaps? Followed by mosquito plagues, which transmit everything from malaria to zikka. All kinds of species could die back or die out entirely throughout large geographic regions, radically changing the ecoscape. We can go back to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or the more recent story about the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone, for dramatic examples of how small changes have huge effects. Some of those changes could desertify large agricultural regions.
Then we have the nightmare of hybridization in the wild, especially with some of the more reckless genetic modifications they’ve turned loose. The threat is not man-eating killer tomatoes. The threat is corn that won’t tassel, creating a spreading blight that could recurrently wipe out the entire corn monoculture of the American midwest. The threat is hybrid species that are toxic to pollinators, like bees. The threat is the unexpected and the unforeseen and the potentially catastrophic.
Low-probability risks, perhaps, but with very big consequences.
Doing genetic research on all this stuff is one thing.
Turning it loose on the world through an utterly amoral corporate capitalist system dedicated to short-term profits above every other consideration, is nothing short of irresponsible.
Especially when the only real benefit is an uptick in corporate profits. For certain corporations.
I think there’s a legitimate concern, here.
Since I have called out Dr. Tyson by name, I would welcome a rebuttal. Though I rather doubt he will see this. It’s a very large Internet, after all, and I am only one small writer within it.
 From what I hear around here from people actually doing the organic farming, it’s also cheaper.