Frankentalk?

by

The term frankenfood was invented—in so much that you can invent a word—to influence the GM food fight, just like the term crocoduck is used by creationists to disparage evolution. It is crafted to invoke disgust into the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

Frankenstein, frankenfood, frankencorn, frankensalmon etc., are all terms I’m sure most who follow this debate have heard before—possibly many times. And, being that much of the GM debate is mired in ignorance (not in the negative sense: ignorance simply means lacking in knowledge), I’d like to point out that the term itself (franken-whatever) is further proof of that ignorance.

In the namesake novel, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. The monster had no name. But, the monster did not begin its short, miserable life as an evil thing. In fact, it was never evil. It looked like a beast yes, but that was because of the supposed rudimentary tools used by Victor Frankenstein. The creature was driven to despair and madness because of the crazed response from people it tried to interact with. As a blogging buddy, Allallt wrote on a guest post on my site last month: “Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.” It wanted friends, to connect with others, and upon rejection and with no hope for friendship, love, or even understanding, it asked the Dr. for a companion who, reluctantly, obliged. Frankenstein upon completing his companion, then promptly killed his one shot at a normal in front of his eyes. At that point, our monster went into a rage that eventually culminated in the death of his creator, at which he felt sudden remorse for his act. On the inside, Frankenstein’s monster was distinctly human, beset by the many problems we ordinary folk are subject to.

As Frankenstein’s monster was beset by ignorance on all sides in the novel, so too is the GM crop. While the similarities begin at their engineered nature and end at the outsized, irrational response, there is something awfully prescient about human nature to be compared here. There was a recent article—can’t remember by whom—that put the matter quite simply. What was scarier in the book: the monster or the crazed response by the mob to the monster? (Not exact quote.) Let’s comparing the question to another subject: witches. The thought of a witch is also scary, but what made the Inquisition truly terrifying? Was it the idea of a witch or the belligerent, angry mob and the subsequent torture they subjected the hundreds of thousands of witches to? Clearly, the answer is the mob mentality, then, as it is now. (Side note: I think everyone should read Carl Sagan’s section on the Spanish Inquisition in his book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It will rip your heart out.)

The monster created by Frankenstein ultimately paid the price in suffering and dignity lost because of the mob mentality of those who knew no better. Similar things are happening today, not for us in the West though (a little more on this later).

The anti-GMO movement hurts people. Just like Frankenstein’s monster was hurt in the book, just like witches were hurt during the inquisition. The difference being, we don’t see those who are hurt.

I believe Norman Borlaug said it best, though before I get to his quote, I might have to formally introduce him, as his name is not as well-known as a Bono, or a Carter. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and unlike some recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates, he received it for more than being a symbol of superficial change. He won his Nobel Peace Prize by saving, according to UN estimates, at least one billion human lives from starvation. On top of that, he almost single-handedly turned Mexico and India from food importers into food exporters thereby raising the quality of life for billions more. What single individual in human history has had such an outsized positive influence on that many people? So, when he has something to say, it really does carry a lot of weight.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement for raising global awareness of the importance of air and water quality, and of wildlife and wilderness preservation. It is ironic, therefore, that if the platform of anti-biotechnology extremists were to be adopted, it would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.

The scare-mongering about GMOs is nothing new in the grand scheme of things. For thousands of years, every new technology has been derided with apocalyptic talk of doom and gloom; the most famous such screeds being those of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich that, no matter how many times their predictions are not fulfilled, keep popping up again and again. It’s even said, though I’m not sure how reliable it is, that Socrates thought books would make our brains go mushy because we’d never need to remember anything ever again. The first computers were viewed with an intense suspicious that they would only be useful to large corporations—ha, look how that turned out—and as early as a century ago, people had to be convinced to use electricity. The opposition to biotechnology is little different. All hype and no substance. But, a key problem is that the anti’s have an out-sized influence on how the technology is used, and not only is that opposition devoid of evidence, logic, and pragmatism, it hurts people everywhere, from increasing the price of food, to propagating harmful farming practices, and denying food to those in poorer areas of the world. From Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth to GMWatch to a dozen others, there is a coordinate response to misinform, vilify, lie, intimidate to support their ideology. If all they wanted to do was avoid eating GM foods themselves, then how can one argue against that, but when their activism revolves around denying everyone access to a key technology that would reduce our farming footprint, carbon emissions, nitrogen runoff, nutritional deficiencies, cost of food, then they have gone 12 steps too far.

The point that Borlaug makes best is that we in the developed world have no authority to deny the choice of using conventional agriculture to anyone, especially those in the developing world; most especially while the benefits and detriments of GM food using the best available data have the practical benefits vastly outweighing the theoretical negatives by a vast margin. The following two quotes emphasize that quite well:

More than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.

I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called “organic” methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.

I think the last sentence of the 2nd quote rings true, but I’d take it further. If we define organic agriculture as a lack of biotechnology/pesticides/fertilizers etc., then what remains to the billion undernourished has already failed them. If, on the other hand, we define organics as the arbitrary set of rules that certain types of low-input agriculture follow in the west (as Borlaug describes), then they can’t afford it. Either way, in the wise words of Jayne Cob from Firefly: they’re humped. They need a third option and the absolutist mindset of activists is hurting them. I’ve never once heard a scientist say that GMOs are the only way, only ever that they are a tool in a toolbox and we should use them where appropriate. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard activists say the contrary.

Eschewing GMOs can make sense if you’re a well-fed, risk-averse Westerner. The pros and cons change entirely when you’ve no idea where or when your next meal will come from. The lack of understanding of a vastly different risk scenario of those who content with hunger on a daily basis is, at Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying, solipsism at its finest.

Now, if I was as misinformed on the subject as those yelling franken-whatever, I’d probably call the current debate (between activists and scientists) on GMOs frankentalk. Catchy, easy, memorable. But, because the monster was misunderstood instead of being evil, that would be inaccurate. Instead, the debate more closely reflects the inquisition with GMOs taking the role of the witches, and innocent bystanders get caught up in the hullabaloo. There never was good, reliable, predictable evidence to show harm from witches then—though there was plenty of anecdote!—just as there isn’t any now to indicate harm from transgenic crops. And, if there is no harm from GMOs then why the furor over exporting them or preventing others to make their own choice? Why do activist organizations feel the need to stall, block, intimidate, and harass when it comes to the issue of biotechnology utilization? Why can’t farmers and consumers in other nations make their own choice? (Free of the propaganda as well.)

Take an example, 12-years ago a solution was finalized to help with Vitamin A deficiency which afflicts millions of people in poorer parts of the world. Two public researchers developed genetically modified rice, named Golden Rice, which could have alleviated at least some of the problem the best way they knew how. They convinced Monsanto and Syngenta to un-patent certain mechanisms so it could be developed and given away free. In doing so, they weren’t stopping anyone else from helping by some other method (i.e., supplementation) or aid. Their humanitarian development was subsequently blocked by Greenpeace. No rhyme, no reason, nor evidence for their position. (Don’t get me wrong, they had plenty of non-sequitors and excuses for doing so.) Between eight and twenty-million children under 5 years of age have died since. (Read that sentence again: eight to twenty million.) How many of those deaths could have been prevented if we had given free, replant-able seeds to any farmer able and willing in any region where people suffered from the deficiency? I don’t know the number, but I bet it’s sizable. Better yet, who are Greenpeace to make that choice for them? Golden Rice would have been given to them, freely, not forced upon them at gunpoint. The moral thing to do would have been to allow them the choice as opposed to dictating it. But neither morality, reason, or evidence has entered this picture nowhere.

How different is that anti-choice scenario from the incessant lobbying of the Catholic Church to keep abortions illegal in many parts of the world? It doesn’t actually stop abortion, of course. Anyone with even a wit of common-sense will know that. Rather it moves them underground making them unsafe and contributing to 13% of maternal mortality deaths worldwide (approx. 70,000 women; and 5 million women will develop lifelong complications as a result also!). In the case of vitamin-A deficiency, a significant portion afflicted develop blindness, and 50% of those who develop blindness die within a year. Anywhere from 250,000 to 700,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from a total of 1-2 million human beings a year. There’s no difference, moral or otherwise, between the two positions of the Catholic Church and Greenpeace. The Catholic Church from the inquisition of women to their parochial lobbying against abortion (even though scripture has nothing to say on the subject: in fact, may even indicate the opposite) has blood on their hands; so does Greenpeace. (And they haven’t learnt their lesson either.) If Greenpeace really cared about those who suffered from Vitamin A deficiency, then they would use the multi-million dollar revenues they receive per year to upstage those pesky scientists trying to help people (the nerve!) and the institutions devoted to bettering the lives of millions of the less fortunate, instead of outright blocking their life-saving medicine. They don’t. Instead, they deny medicine to the needy. (Yes, golden rice is medicine.)

The GMO debate is the quintessential example of hype: from the media, to politicians, to activists, and many others who couldn’t tell you the difference between natural selection and random mutation. Why on earth do we allow ignorance a front-and-centre position upon the knowledge stage? Ignorance has consequences. Hype and ignorance together have even bigger consequences.

There are signs the debate on GMOs is evolving: Grist being one prominent example, and a delightful article on saving the Orange in Florida being another. Even the biotech industry is getting involved in providing surprisingly nuanced answers, so I’m hopeful. As plant pathologist Steve Savage lamented, round one of biotechnology hasn’t gone so well, but now round two is upon us. From crops that use zero pesticides, to crops that increase nutrition (Golden Rice, BioCassava among others), to crops that use less water (agriculture accounts for 70% of world water use so any reduction increases water security), to crops that dramatically increase yield so that less of nature needs to be used to meet our food needs (importing C4 photosynthesis to grains would double yields), and these are only a few. We have a lot to gain practically, and very little to give up in terms of risk. To lose round two to callous, short-term oriented, backward-looking, irresponsible, ideologically-based, and a technologically-averse segment of the population would have, as Borlaug wrote “grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.” The irony is nothing less than astounding, especially given that the majority of those who advocate against biotechnology supposedly list the environment and human health among their key suppositions that compelled them to speak out.

So, who should you listen to when it comes to GMOs if you don’t want to be suckered in by frankentalk? I’ll give you a shortcut. From just this post, I’ve mentioned Norman Borlaug and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so perhaps a simpler way to put it is this: Who would you rather listen to? Norman Borlaug, who saved—at minimum—a billion lives from starvation and improved the very real living conditions of billions? Or Greenpeace, who lobby incessantly against biotechnology using lies, misinformation and intimidation? The scientific consensus is clear: there is no harm from GMO crops, and after 1-3 trillion meals containing GM food served, we’d know if there were problems.

The problem is not that some folks have an aversion to GMOs. That is a personal choice. It’s that, without generalizing, some of those folks feel compelled to make that choice for others, and that is fundamentally wrong.

There is too much hype surrounding GMOs. It’s time to ground the discussion in reality for the first time.