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Posts Tagged ‘genetically modified organisms’

When GMO ≠ GMO

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can raise my hackles. But only sometimes. Other times, I’m delighted by the creativity, ingenuity, and smarts of the technology and its scientists.

What scares me most, I’ve discovered while working on a related project, is idle blurring of the various issues involved with “Genetic Modification.” When we speak as if it’s all the same, and worse, when our leaders polarize the issue, then society is the worse for it. We need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily the process, but rather the implementation that is at issue.

On the one hand, you can have stupid GMO, as we have seen with Monsanto’s proprietary “roundup ready” crop seeds — corn, soybeans, and a few other crops they’ve developed, which can withstand Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup™.

They raise my hackles because they’re stupidly produced, stupidly implemented, and with a business model that is stupid for the planet, if clever for Monsanto.

a) Monsanto requires, and vigorously enforces, the provision that farmers sign away their right to replant seed grown on their own farms. Instead, they’re required to buy new seed from Monsanto, every season.

b) The early GMO seed — the Monsanto stuff in particular — was produced in a frighteningly primitive way: essentially blasting desired DNA (and a whole lot of other DNA) into another set of DNA, and seeing what happened. If the resulting plant showed promise, and didn’t fail to thrive (that is, no mutation was causing obvious troubles), then it would be propogated.

That is, they were aiming at a target — getting RoundUpReady™ seed — and then using a shotgun to fire at the target. And by golly, one of the pellets hit a bulls-eye!

But we haven’t done thorough studies of where the other pellets went — and what damage they might have done outside the target. Instead, Monsanto is making astounding profits testing the system “in the field.” Which leads me to:

c) Humankind is allowing Monsanto (and other GM crop producers) to use the world as a petrie dish. This is fundamentally stupid: few if any human-health, genetic-drift, ecosystem-health, or other tests have been done on these crops, yet we’re planting millions of acres of Monsanto seed, resulting in plenty of spillover (GM canola has been found growing as a weed in Japan, which nationally prohibits GMO importation).

It may be mere coincidence that bee colonies are suffering colony collapse disorder, but we don’t know — because the pollen of RoundUpReady soybeans was never tested on pollen-collectors. We haven’t tested to see what degree of digestive problems might be the result of an allergy to, say, GM corn-produced corn syrup. We haven’t tested whether the worms in the soil get have their reproductive systems screwed up because they end up eating the Roundup-killed weeds in those cornfields, or the decaying roots of the previous year’s corn.

a) is insulting, b) is primitive, and c) is idiotic. That’s three strikes.

But that doesn’t mean I’m fully anti-GMO. There are some amazing projects out there, which are smart, and are also controlled. That is, they are systems that use genetically modified bacteria to turn cellulose — the chaff, the corn husks, the sawdust — into ethanol, thereby taking straw and turning it into gold.

Elsewhere scientists are modifying bacteria to fix nitrogen while producing sugars to make burnable gas, grown in transparent vats, using sunlight to grow.

What’s different is that these are a closed systems. These smart GMO projects and others are being tested, and refined, within a laboratory. They’re tested, they’re checked, they’re limited even if scaled up.

Among the many reasons these distinctions matters is that knee-jerk anti-GMO reactions are as easy to dismiss as knee-jerk creationist reactions: who but a zealot would refuse to acknowledge that bacterial infections have evolved to defeat a sequence of antibiotics? The scientists working in the exciting GM field can easily dismiss societal concerns — justifiable concerns — by painting them with the brush of zealotry.

We, and our political and scientific leaders, need to take a multivalent view of GMOs — it’s not binary, not just “bad” or “good.” It’s not the “genetically modifed” part that is so wrong (and many a biologist will tell you “we’ve been doing genetic modification via hybrids for thousands of years”) — it’s the stupid implementation of promoting uncontrolled organisms that might have profound effects on our food, our health, and our biome.

We should ensure that all GM work is done smartly, not stupidly. And we need to be sure that profit is not used as an excuse for irresponsibility.