Fourat Janabi is a photographer, blogger, and author of Random Rationality and S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism. He lives for the moment in Italy where, unfortunately, GMOs are not approved for sale, and travels around the world to explore its myriad possibilities and limitless beauty. He...
Random Thoughts on Biotech
If one takes the basic premise that nature makes stuff better than we do—arguably the root of those who eschew GMO produce—and follow it through to its logical conclusion, we find something interesting. Starting at the beginning: some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, there existed a single-celled replicator that was, most likely, the common ancestor of everything alive today. Now, if you are anti-GMO, harken back to the thought that recombinant DNA technology is unnatural. If that were indeed the case, then I can say, with some confidence, that we (humanity) would not be here. The reason why is that nothing could’ve evolved from that original replicator. It would just be replicators ad infinitum, one after the undifferentiated other. Nothing would, or even could, change because random changes and mutations would not occur. (Even the original replicator would not have evolved to exist in the first place so we wouldn’t have gotten that far.)
Food for thought: nature is the original engineer.
In order to go from that replicator to a 100-trillion celled human being, nature had to employ genomic engineering. The only difference between nature’s style and our own is that nature’s is directionless and purposeless-that is, there is no end goal in mind. Whatever happens, happens; good, bad, ugly, beautiful, painful, swift, agonizing, or any other of a hundred different combinations.
Yet, of all the species that ever existed, 99.9% are today extinct;(167) nature is not the benign process we think her to be, and though it is very easy to say that mother nature should be our guiding light (or spirit, or mother), in the twentieth century alone there are 1.7 billion people who died of natural infectious diseases who would not agree (if they could disagree, that is); neither, perhaps, would the 1.97 billion people who died of non-communicable diseases over the same time period. (168) Compared to humanity’s body count (all the wars, crime, subjugation, and intolerance) to nature’s, we’d find that she more than trebled our own count, which horrifically stands at 980 million deaths. To follow nature’s lead in sustaining our populace would not result in humane outcomes. Be that as it may: it follows that we are here because of the natural process of genomic modification and there is nothing inherently unnatural in the process. Mutations happen: either nature makes them happen with no thought to the outcome, or we create a handful to suit our purposes with genetic engineering, as we’ve done.
Consider again the basic premise that nature makes stuff best and tack on another popular premise: that manmade is unnatural. Picture, from that first replicator onwards, nature haphazardly selecting for organisms preferentially selecting for those with beneficial mutations (better success in passing on their genes), selecting against those with detrimental mutations (less success), and being ambivalent towards those with benign mutations until, eventually, in the Rift Valley some few million years ago, a handful of primates left the trees, walked upright, and began evolving a larger frontal lobe, along with the spectacularly lucky coincidence of an opposable thumb. These concurrent lucky outcomes allowed their descendants to manipulate their environment with an ever-increasing degree of control as natural selection selected for finer motor control and intelligence over thousands and millions of years. Given human intelligence and the manipulation of the surrounding environment are given to us by Mother Nature, it follows that its application to our own ends is natural. And, since every animal on this blue-green dot we call Earth uses to its advantage every trick and tool nature endowed it with—after all, those that don’t often do not pass on their genes. It follows then, that, everything we do is the best possible way. We are made by nature, therefore everything we do is natural and, therefore, everything we are doing now is the best possible solution because it is natural. As you can see, this line of reasoning (natural is better than human-made) is a slippery slope and is, plain and simply, ill defined. Everything we do is natural.
The distinction between nature, human culture, and technology is an arbitrary distinction. We do the things that we do now because of our naturally endowed capacity. But, another way to put it is that after 3.8 billion years, an animal (Homo sapien sapiens) evolved its own evolvability (technology) continuing the process of selection in the process superseding, in some small domains, natural selection. We are the first species that does not live entirely within the constraints of natural selection. That does not mean we don’t live in a selection process—just that we override nature’s and institute our own. In time, we rely less on natural selection and more on environments of our own choosing—but it is so because nature made it so. Ants make anthills, beavers make dams, birds make nests, and Homo sapien sapiens make technology; practical, virtual, bio, and it’s all natural. (Note: That is not to say we need to colonize the Earth and have everything submit to our rule. Only that within our domain, we have already done so to our own advantage, and there is nothing wrong with this—it is natural even.)
The key point is that evolution happens regardless of whether we rework it to our advantage (biotech crops) or leave nature be (organic). The changes between the disparate crop-growing methods are in degree, not kind:
- Evolution is natural selection by random mutation
- Pre-Industrial (i.e., organic) agriculture is artificial selection by random mutation
- 20th century (conventional & organic) agriculture is artificial selection by accelerated
- random mutation (mutagenesis)
- GM agriculture is artificial selection by purposeful mutation
To label one unnatural is to label them all unnatural. Recall that, as Richard Dawkins said, “no agriculture is natural.” The natural way of life for a human being is the hunter-gather lifestyle. Human beings have been around for approximately 200,000 years, and agriculture has been practiced for only 10,000 years. It’s quite likely there were hunter-gathers who refused to switch to the then ‘new’ method of agriculture. Each of the above labels is evolution (that is, natural), continued. Something has to fulfill both the selection process and the mutation process in evolution. If we are happy to leave it at organic, then nature, which has neither direction nor purpose, and evidenced by her 3.67 billion person death toll in the 20th century alone (from just 2 categories, no less), has neither one’s health or longevity in mind; or we fulfill the selection process, which, paradoxically to those who hold nature in high esteem, it has given us the ability to so.
While the result of recombinant DNA technology may be labelled unnatural (because it doesn’t exist in nature, not because it can’t), the same cannot be said of the technology that produces such food. We are co-opting nature’s methods to make food, not playing God. You may dispute the fact that I said that it could exist in nature by saying that a fish gene could never wind up in a tomato, but you would be betraying a fundamental concept of evolution. Nature uses the same genes over and over again in all manner of disparate creatures. There are no such thing as fish genes, tomato genes, or human genes. There are only genes that perform specific functions and that operate according to the principles of natural selection. Take an example: your genome is the combined genome four times over of the amphioxus fish-like marine chordate. (169) The marine chordate’s genome, a 1-cm little fish, has in the course of Earth history, mistakenly copied over on itself twice and those 2 mistakes have resulted in every land animal today, and you. If nature can turn a little fish into you (and that fish’s genome is still inside you), then why is it so distasteful that we put disparate genes where we need them? Uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to mind, but nature had no idea what she was doing either. After all, 99.9% of all species died out for us to be here. So it’s not like she knew what she was doing. It’s just coincidence that we are here and lucky to be top of the food chain, no less.
Some may wonder what is the point? Well, today, there is a movement to demonize GM technology and conventional agriculture with a concomitant wish to return to a mythical agricultural past. Organic agriculture is fine, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but we can’t feed the world with it. Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb clearly stated in 1968 that in the 70s and 80s, mass famines would ensue as we wouldn’t be able to make enough food, and any efforts to avert such a disaster are a waste of time and should be scrapped. (Thomas Malthus said the same thing in 1798.) Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why didn’t the predictions of mass starvation and disaster come to pass? Well, they would have if we listened and did nothing. Luckily we didn’t. Instead, we developed the technologies that allowed us to increase yield to a stupendous degree to avert such a disaster. That is, we bid goodbye to organic agriculture; and yet, now that the population has more than doubled to seven billion, and another three billion folks yet to come by 2050, going back to organics is the key? It couldn’t feed us at three billion; what possible solution would it be to try again at seven and ten billion?
Since 1961, we’ve increased yield by 300%, and only had to increase our land use by 12% to do so. (170) How? We used technology to drastically increase yield and avert the predicted disaster of Ehrlich and many others. Said differently, if we kept farming organically, mass famine would have ensued. Without such yield increases thanks to plant science we would have had to use two Latin America’s of arable land to compensate. Or, more likely, the predicted mass starvation would have occurred.
If in the 1960s, when the world population was less than 3 billion people, the propagation of organic farming as the sole agricultural method would have resulted in disaster, how could it possibly help us now when we are 7 billion people and on the way to 9-10 billion people? The majority of that increase in yield has come from plain conventional agriculture and plant breeding, but now our yields are coming up against a glass wall for that type of plant science, and GM foods are the next process to take us forward to surmount the coming set of problems (namely: a 70% increase in food production while also decreasing land requirements). There is only so far that a haphazard, manual selection process can go before it hits the point of decreasing returns.
While we still have a starving billion today, it is not because we can’t create the food, but we can’t get it to them. The solution to world hunger is for those most afflicted by it to be able to grow their own food, instead of relying on food aid and handouts as if band aids were being applied to a broken bone. Organic farming will not suffice for Sub-Saharan Africa; they need heat-tolerant and drought-resistant seeds strains. They already don’t have any biotechnology or conventional agriculture; ergo, organic farming, which is, technically, what remains, has failed them.
By 2050, we will need to almost double yield without an increase in land usage—in fact we’ll need to decrease land usage as agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. We will not accomplish this by going back to low-input agriculture—though it won’t go anywhere for those who still want it. I’ve made the case before that Vertical Farming (VF) could do the trick. VF certainly is capable. We could grow food in cities at a productive rate 5-10 times that of horizontal farming, use no pesticides, and with vastly reduced water requirements, but what if the mass migration from horizontal farming to vertical farming never takes place? The technology was invented in the 1950s by the US military and nobody has done much of anything with it since. What if that no-usage scenario repeats itself? We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope that everything will go according to plan. We need contingencies and redundancy instead of wishful thinking and vague plans. GM agriculture can significantly contribute on that count. We have been growing and eating GM food for almost 20 years; in that time, we’ve spared the environment 474 million kilograms of pesticide use. (171) (Don’t forget, organic farming uses pesticides too, and organic pesticides aren’t automatically better for the environment.) (172) In 2010, 23 billion kilograms (50 billion lb.) of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere because of GM technology (the equivalent of 10.2 million cars removed from the roads for a year). In 2011, 51% of the economic benefits of GM seeds ($19.8 billion) went directly to farmers in developing countries helping them rise up out of subsistence farming and poverty, and since 1996, about 50% of the $98.2 billion productivity surplus from GM crops have gone directly to farmers in both developed and developing countries. (173) On the health side, in America, the country that eats the most GM food, cancer mortality over the last twenty years are down 20%, (174) so the promised health apocalypse that many have warned about were coming have not materialized—moreover, those that have materialized have explanations, and those explanations are in no way related, directly or indirectly, to GM food (no new allergens have been identified, nor have any biological mechanisms of harm been identified by public scientists).
Recently, we passed peak farmland, which unlike peak oil or peak water actually has positive connotations for humanity, and especially for the environment. (175)
Since 1961, to get us the aforementioned 300% yield increase required to stave off worldwide famine, we spared the equivalent landmass of the USA, Canada, and China. Try to imagine the destruction of forestry that that would have entailed, if we had rioted then against plant science as we do now. (176) To be an environmentalist is, by definition, to support the conservation of nature. To support the conservation of nature should be, by definition, to support conventional agriculture as it uses less land to grow that food—going forward, this will entail supporting the cultivation of GMOs, there’s no two ways about it. PG Economics noted that if, in 2010, those biotech crops already available were removed from the market, to keep production steady farmers would have had to plant an additional 5.1 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn,
3 million ha of cotton, and 0.35 million ha of canola. Equivalent to an additional 8.6% of arable land in the US. (177) Yet, this is what activists would have us do, remove all GM crops, necessitating the further destruction of forestry and nature for human purposes, because we humans don’t like giving up our material comforts.
If we continue on our current path of increasing yields using science and biotechnology, the authors of the Peak Farmland study conservatively estimate that we could return 146 million hectares to nature by 2060, with high estimates at 400 million hectares (roughly double the area of the USA, east of the Mississippi). The coming generation of biotech crops, many of which will have significantly reduced pesticide use (some using no pesticides at all), fix their own nitrogen (reducing river pollution), increased nutrition along with many other benefits reducing malnutrition and disease will only further facilitate the return of land to nature. In other words, the potential to alleviate many of the environmental ills associated with conventional farming. However, many such seeds are locked away due to the intense furore to GMO use, allowing only those few seeds through that the giants can afford to push through the regulatory burden and which will return a profit to make it to market. So, as we move forward into the future, we’ll give back hundreds of millions of hectares of farmland to nature, and if we move forward with biotechnology, we’ll give back even more.
How can any environmentalist or environmentalist organization think that a bad thing?
Are there problems, real problems, with biotechnology that have been covered or up concealed? With the technology, we find no problems that aren’t present in other forms of agriculture. As the National Academy of Science, and many prestigious scientific organizations, concluded, the process itself is no more inherently risky than any other method; it is simply a refinement of previous methods, far more precise and quicker. (178) Biotech crops usually have between 1 and 3 genes altered, but every new generation of organic and conventional crops that reproduces sexually will have a few different genes in there too (this is why farmers buy seed, and that seedpurchasing predates Monsanto: because it is more reliable). Copying errors are inevitable: a DNA glitch, a passing cosmic ray etc., will, and do, induce genetic mutations. To say there is
uncertainty in GMOs is likewise to admitting that there is uncertainty in any new generation of plant or animal. The average human offspring carries about 100-200 mutations, but they are still people. (179) Food with 1-3 added genes is still food.
On the business side is where we find many that many folks have a priori problems. But these problems are indicative of, and suggest the need for, business reform, patent reform, and increased competition. Not the outright banning of the technology (which is just not possible, anyway). These a priori (business) problems have somehow co-mutated into advocacy against GMOs in general instead of where it should actually be directed, mainly the lack of competition. But that lack of competition is due, at least in part, to the overbearing regulatory burden on GM crops. The problem was, is, and will be for some time, that the lack of competition has been institutionalized due to the initial, fierce, and hysterical advocacy by the anti-GMO activists; and round and round the circle we go, as the increased advocacy only exacerbates the problems activists think they are trying to stop. If I was Monsanto, I’d be funding the antis for the monopoly it brings. The intense backlash against biotechnology has only cemented the power of those few who first began exploring the field, as only they have been able to afford it—thus far, at least, and we are only now starting to see smaller seed companies move into the space. Even then, the scale of abuse, often leveled at Monsanto, rivals the misinformation that the Catholic Church spouts against condom use on the continent most ravaged by aids, likening condom use to be a greater danger than the ravages of aids.
We need to stop pretending that only Big Ag and Monsanto lobbies. The organic movement as a whole spends $2.5 billion a year on advocacy and lobbying. (180) (Big Organic?) We need to stop thinking that Monsanto is after world domination: the global GM seed market in 2012 was $14 billion (181) (world domination with only 0.0002% of global purchasing power? If they can pull that off, they deserve it), while organic food sales were $60 billion (and climbing) worldwide. (182) (The total value of those GM crops when harvested was around $65 billion at that time.) We need to know that all farms strive to use the least amount of pesticides required, as it is their biggest expense, and that synthetic chemicals are not a priori worse than organic chemicals—in fact, quite often, it’s the opposite. (183) In other words, we need to get real, and deal with the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.
For whatever problems we have today, the solution is never to ban it, nor proffer simpleton solutions, but to weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act appropriately. One can only do that with evidence, i.e., science. The solution is to study, to research, and to have reasoned debates among experts on the pros and cons; but above all, keeping in mind the effects on people far and wide around the world. Food security and a heavy disease burden (usually going together) undermine society at every level of functioning. To fix them is to advance significantly in all other matters of societal dysfunction. Who knows how many Newtons, Einsteins, and Curies we are losing to lack of food, clean water, and education every year while we bicker over functionally equivalent types of food. The consequences of this debate have far-reaching consequences worldwide. If people don’t want to eat GM food, they don’t have to, but to stop others from making their own choice is to deny them a choice. The liberal movement in America and Europe is pro-choice when it comes to matters of female reproduction—and rightfully so! Yet, move the topic to food, and they swiftly change to being anti-choice, even though the ramifications for billions of poor people around the world are far worse than for a women in a forced pro-life environment. The common refrain is we have a right to know, where are the labels? But, there is no need for a label, the opposite label— “Certified Organic”—already means GM-free. It is evidently clear, therefore, that the innocent refrain that we have a right to know actually means “we want to scare everybody else away from it.”
Instead of focusing on legitimate problems with the business, competitive, and legal environment, red herrings are thrown this way and that: that organic food is nutritionally superior; a meta-analysis covering 162 studies over a 50-year period says their not, and any nutritional differences are unlikely to have a significant outcome on health, anyway. (184) Facts are thrown out stating that organic is environmentally superior to all other forms of farming, despite the fact the answer is far more nuanced, (185) and errs more to the side of no. (186) We are told that farmers are using GMOs to lather their fields in Roundup, yet the National Academy of Science wrote, “When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides.” (187) (A report from the National Research Council even gave an impressive list of GM benefits including: improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use, but everyone focused instead on the little nuggets of bad news instead of the truckload of good news.) (188) In using GMOs we use less toxic pesticides, and the result is a net environmental benefit. (189) Instead of learning about real yields on GMO, we get the ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’ telling us that ‘intrinsic yields’ haven’t increased since the inception of GMO, even though intrinsic yield tells you nothing, but total yield really has increased, significantly. (190) But the most destructive effect of this headline-grabbing debate fiasco is as Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California wrote, “As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.” (191)
Red herrings are red for a reason, they are meant to distract, instead of inform, you. We need some green herrings. Science has provided them, almost everyone has ignored them, and those who tout them are labeled “shills”. We need to stop seeing the world with ideological filters.
Those of us with the ability to read this book have the luxury of choice when it comes to choosing between organic and conventional / GM agriculture. But more than 900 million people who go to bed hungry every night (16 million people of whom will die of hunger this year) will not have that luxury. Half the planet’s population remains malnourished, (192) then there are the one to two million people (670,000 of whom are under five years of age) who’ll die from Vitamin A deficiency this year. These folks, and more, need more nutrient dense food to not only survive, but prosper. The 1-2 million folks who die of Vitamin A deficient will not, in point of fact, be thankful to Greenpeace for their 13-year blockade of GM Golden Rice that could’ve saved them, they’ll die slow, painful deaths instead, only to be replaced by more kids, many of whom will die too. To fix that problem—which is not only a moral necessity—also reduces the burden of population growth. Yet, the amount of times I’ve heard the response to both of those claims—starvation and vitamin A deficiency deaths—that we shouldn’t be feeding them unhealthy food instead boggles the senses. Those saying this have clearly never gone without food for longer than a few hours, let alone the few weeks it takes to die of starvation, or the years over which blindness sets in from vitamin A deficiency, which then goes on to kill half those afflicted. And, of course, it assumes that GM food really is less healthy or less nutritious, which it isn’t. Let’s assume, however, for the purpose of this exercise, that it isn’t. What option would YOU take? Certain death or potential cancer/inflammation/allergies twenty years down the road?
I’d know which I’d pick.
It’s time we got out of our First World bubble. There are many difficult decisions out there that we will need to make in the future. The issue of GM food should not be one of them. There is, fortunately and despite the hysteria, a scientific consensus on the safety and risk profile of GM technology. Almost every scientific organization, from the US National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society, has evaluated the evidence and come to the same conclusion. There are over 650 peer-reviewed studies to back up the claim; one-third of which are independently funded. (193) Aside from a few deniers, we trust our scientists on climate change, don’t we? They are shouting from the rooftops about the dangers of climate change and how little time we have left to reverse course. You’d think if there were a comparable danger from biotech, you’d have more than a handful of scientists speaking up. So, why don’t we trust them on biotech?
Ingo Potrykus, inventor of the Golden Rice that was to be given freely (and patent-free) to the developing world had something quite damning to say of the food movement that is demonizing GMOs: “If our society will not be able to ‘de-demonize’ transgenic technology soon, history will hold it responsible for [the] death and suffering of millions: people in the poor world, not in overfed and privileged Europe, the home of the anti-GMO hysteria.”
It does no good to deal in hypotheticals such as: if we wasted less food, there’d be enough for everyone (you wouldn’t be able to ship it to them); if more people were charitable, everyone would be ok; if we switched to organic agriculture, we could feed everyone (wrong), along with many others. Despite the fact that many of them are wrong or idealistic, they presume people being rational, informed, and having access to and accepting unadulterated and uncensored good, reliable information in context. Is that likely to happen anytime soon? The cries of the antivaccatinists are still putting kids (and society at large) in danger; the chant of the climate-deniers only delays needed progress; but on issues of food security, arguably the most important of all, everyone will see reason? Statements like this expose a profound ignorance on the part of those who utter them, as harsh as that sounds.
Perhaps an easier way to put it is this: is it easier to change the hearts and minds of billions of people with all their complexities and interrelationships, or invent new technologies that solve the issues for those affected without bothering or relying on strangers in the West who have their own problems? The climate movement has struggled to change the hearts and minds of people and politicians for over twenty years and we’ve got very little to show for it. Let’s not continue making the same mistake with food. Changing the consumption habits of one billion westerners —if that is even possible—will take a long time with no certainty of success. Meanwhile, half the planet’s population suffers from malnutrition, and 1/7 from hunger in food insecure areas.
They really need us to stop bickering over non-existent fears. The technologies to feed them using less land, cheaper inputs, and more nutrients are here and now. They are safe, capable, and predictable, regardless of how shrill the opposition to them is from well-fed oppositionists who’ve never felt the sensation of hunger. It’s time to deal with the facts, but above all, it is time to value human lives above ideology. The intentions and hearts of the bored, guilted sensibilities of Western activists who grumble at a skipped lunch is in the right place; their proposed solutions and flawed reasoning are not only wrong, but are having precisely the opposite effects to their poorly articulated intentions.
There are plenty of problems in agriculture. The vehement backlash against biotechnology is distracting from discussing, debating, resolving, and funding those problems. Biotechnology won’t solve every problem, but they will help substantially. In fact, the co-use of biotech crops alongside organic crops—in what is called a refuge zone—significantly curtail pest resistance allowing us to get the most of our crops. (194) It may be that the bright agricultural future within our grasp uses both systems side by side, as argued earlier by Ramez Naam.
We need to realize that feeding 7 billion, let alone 9 to 10 billion people in the near future, isn’t going to be easy. If the solution fits on a Facebook photo as a caption, you can rest assured it will solve nothing. This chapter is 5,000 words long and is barely scratching the surface. This book is 35,000 words and barely strays beyond the tip of the iceberg. Some silly shared photo on Facebook demonizing Monsanto, chemical use, glyphosate, or showing a tomato with a hypodermic needle in it not only shows you things out of context, they detract from the conversations we should be having, if it isn’t an outright lie to begin with (hypodermic needles are not used in the genetic modification of…well…anything).
No one, least of all the scientists and farmers contributing to food security, is pretending that the current state of agriculture is perfect. But it is far and away more advanced than the ancient and recent past, and any and all solutions to today’s problems will only come from the application of more research, science, evidence, and technology. A regression to the past will only results in a regression to the past’s problems, albeit with today’s population.
With that, I duly hope that you’ve picked up something from this book, and I especially hope that that something includes peace of mind. The amount of fear, paranoia, and hysteria one finds on the Internet is as disconnected empirically from reality as astrology is to astronomy and alchemy is to chemistry. Carl Sagan, in his usual candor, said it best: “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility in every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken, our preferences don’t count, we do not live in a privileged reference frame.”
Whatever your impression of genetically modified organisms may be, if we do not ground the discussion in the strictest of facts, we stand to lose very much. GMOs might not solve everything, but to not use every means at our disposal to combat climate change, food-security (and by extension, poverty), water use, and shelf-life for ideological reasons is inviting fragility and vulnerability to an increasingly complicated, inter-connected world.