Every Thanksgiving meal entails at least one uncomfortable conversation. That seems given, given the company. Mine was a dispute over GMOs with my uncle, who was hosting. He's my mother's youngest brother, the college-educated one, who goes out of his way to distance himself from his uncouth, uncultured siblings back in Hawaii and the dark cave of Filipino-Catholic superstition from whence they all came. He frustrates his pious, ridiculously hardworking mother to the point of tears and virtually worships Richard Dawkins (case in point: his honeymoon was spent in the Galapagos on a tour led by Mr. God Delusion himself). Now he has his own gene sequencing start-up. I should have known what was in this can of worms, but for some reason the discussion caught me off guard.
For one thing, there are plenty of long-winded and ideological arguments out there that convincingly make the case against large-scale use of GMOs in food crops. Likewise there are plenty of straightforward facts and considerations that go into such arguments, but I don't know of anything or anyone that employs those facts in a way that is quotable, concise, and to-the-point. On the other hand, the big corporate players have their messaging down pat, and that message is repeated so often that it's accepted by the public as virtually self-evident.
I stumbled through the conversation on Thanksgiving. And then afterward I had to put my thoughts down in an email, since it bothered me deeply that someone so committed to the scientific process and the authority of scientific consensus would trumpet the tired and misguided notion that "we need GMOs to feed the world." This is what I told him, give or take...
The single greatest argument against large-scale implementation of GMOs is the existence of a landmark UN report that no one except sustainable ag activists has ever heard of. It's called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and it's essentially the result of a four-year intergovernmental process modeled after the IPCC. It was initially commissioned by the World Bank and co-sponsored by a bunch of impressive acronyms (UNEP, UNESCO, WHO, et al), and involved 900 experts and 110 countries. The goal was to assess the state of ag science and technology with respect to reducing global poverty and hunger, increasing public health, and facilitating sustainability. Particular attention was paid to the developing (read: hungry) world.
The IAASTD was ratified in April '08 in South Africa, but on this side of the pond it pretty much sank like a stone media-wise. This was at least in part because a number of developed nations (US, Canada, and Australia most notably) refused to ratify the final product due to its negative take on biotech as a real solution. Instead of relying on and investing heavily on biotechnology, the report calls for supporting small-scale organic farming techniques, improving physical infrastructure, providing low interest loans to farmers, and strengthening fair trade practices.
I don't have a problem with biotechnology as such. I could even foresee a time somewhere down the line when it could prove a vital piece of the sustainability puzzle. But I do have a problem with the current application of the technology within the agricultural sector and with the way the industry is structured -- which largely dictates that application.
The whole 'we need GMOs to feed the world argument' is frankly a bullshit PR line. It's based on a misstatement of the problem, namely: we don't have enough food to feed the world. We grow plenty of food. But most of it gets fed straight into an industrial system that rewards low-nutrient, high-input monoculture and drives the production of crops destined for cows and cars rather than people. The problem is already consolidation and homogenization, which in this case biotech only exacerbates. We need place-specific, bottom-up, distributed, and diverse solutions.
Biotech as it applies to food just isn't field-ready yet. GMOs haven't been adequately tested, and what has been done suggests that they may not be as environmentally benign as was previously supposed. That, coupled with the enormous power wielded by key industry players (you know who I mean) against efforts at building sustainable food systems, means that GMOs not only have very little chance of 'feeding the world' but also a very real capacity to cause serious harm.
There are lot of people out there making this argument well, if less succinctly. Here's an interesting article from more of a 'food sovereignty' perspective, primarily critiquing Gate's AGRA efforts. And another one discussing the withdrawal of Monsanto & Syngenta from the IAASTD process.