While we all agree that research and science are important and that innovation shouldn’t be blocked, here’s a little devil-in-the-details sharing about GM (genetically modified) foods technology.
The present GM varieties being marketed, those being in focus, are defective models that a company shouldn’t be pushing to market. Kind of like releasing a car model whose braking system the company’s management internally knows tends to get defective after the first 10,000kms, so they decided to test the car only for 1000 kms. Results were positive so it went into production and is now being aggressively marketed. The industry regulator believes that there is no further independent testing of the car needed since they already know that it is safe, from the 1000km test. The top boss of the regulatory commission happens to be the car company’s former high-level employee. Oh, and IPR (intellectual property rights) laws ban any third party from conducting any kind of tests on the car, they’re quite strict about that. If you as an independent consumer try to conduct any test or research on this car model, you’re likely to get sued and loose everything you have in lifelong litigation, and your research results likely cannot be accepted as evidence. Hence, the car company isn’t doing the tests needed and isn’t letting anyone else do them either.
The car is now released for open trials, which isn’t actually a test for safety; it’s one for studying financial potential and performance metrics. But people are led to falsely believe it’s a safety test and the car company likes it that way. This test isn’t being conducted in separate off-limits proving grounds or Top Gear style retired airport runways where the car being tested wouldn’t interact with normal civilian traffic.. several units of the car are actually being driven actively all throughout the country, including on the streets you cross everyday, highways, expressways, AutoBahns etc, by regular people and with children in the back seat. The law of the land has exempted the company from any liability or any obligation for call-back or money-back should anything unfortunate happen, since the regulatory agency has already declared it to be safe. No one wants to talk about what will start to happen when the users of this car cross the 10,000km mark. Right now there are very few first-buyers who have, and the company is quick to respond to any complaints with the standard “it’s the driver’s fault, we are not liable” reply.
As per our current wisdom which is brought to us by our academia, government and media, all the people who are protesting against the release of this car model or its open testing are hereby decreed to be against technology and anti-progress, anti-science, and should not be listened to. Otherwise society will end up going backwards and we will all die for lack of cars, as if there isn’t any other company on the planet capable of manufacturing the requisite number of cars (scroll down to find out that there actually is).
Coming back to the GMOs.. two main technologies:
BT : they produce a toxin that supposedly only harms one specific insect (in the patent they’re classified as pesticide and not as food), but it turns out that humans and that insect are not from different planets after all and share certain physiology. Hence, that toxin is turning out to be harmful to living organisms other than that particular insect, surprise surprise. Plus, it turns out that insect is already evolving to beat the BT-toxin, and there’s other pests coming in too, resulting in farmers having to resume spraying pesticides on their crops. That ruins the single most important USP of BT technology : that pesticides would no longer be required. The technology was basically betting that biological evolution doesn’t happen. (and that’s Intelligent Design for you). It also turns out horizontal gene transfer does exist as a phenomena.. the technology was betting on the assumption that it didn’t. Which means that the BT-toxin-producing tendency is capable of “installing” itself into other plants as well as the human body’s gut bacteria : that itself was a very grey area and treated as non-existent until quite recently.
HT or “Roundup-ready” herbicide tolerant : glyphosate tolerant.. the recent Mexico court ruling was mainly about glyphosate. It’s a toxin right up there next to DDT and friends, and its devastating effect on pollinators like bees (without whom you can’t have most plant reproduction) as well as on humans is only now being brought out. If you remove the glyphosate herbicide, that GM crop is useless.. the whole technology was betting on the assumption that glyphosate only kills every single other plant in the whole field (making multicropping impossible btw) but is perfectly safe for humans and other non-plants (despite Monsanto in their own fields mandating their employees wear fully enclosed protective suits and not get in contact with any particles in the field).
Some other technologies being explored:
Golden Rice : It is being compared only with rice, and so is claimed to provide more necessary nutrients. The assumption here again is that people only eat rice and nothing else. Foods like drumsticks (Moringa) have more of those nutrients than the Golden Rice can ever hope to achieve, and it’s far cheaper to increase their consumption in the target population. (this thing and others like it literally grow on trees) But the assumption is that people prefer eating only and only rice in their meals and will never ever touch anything like drumsticks, so one must try squeezing all the required stuff into the rice only while forgetting that there are other items in people’s meals and the rice was supposed to be for the carbs.
Also, it turns out that plants are not predominantly left-brained like the people who designed the GM seeds. So DNA is quite messy and integrative, whereas the gene theory upon which the entire GM technology is based, says that DNA is linear and reductive. It assumes that there is an exact input-to-output relation between gene and characteristic. So they thought that precisely X gene sequence controls Y characteristic, and its placement or removal will then control only and only that characteristic of the plant and have absolutely no side effect whatsoever on the rest of the living being and its other characteristics. It was assumed that there is no integrative overall structure or inter-relationship between the various parts of the genetic sequence. Typical assumptions of the techno-savvy left-brain mindset. All very neat and orderly, a place for everything and everything in its place. Turns out that assumption was false, DNA is integrative and inter-relational, and one drastic change in one part tends to have other effects on other characteristics too which they didn’t bother to check out, since the assumption was that nothing else will get affected.
So it’s not like the flagship products of the GMO sector have “a few chinks to iron out”. The very technologies they are based upon have lost their core USPs in light of emerging realities, and have become redundant. You can’t make an improved version of a floppy disk : it’s pointless, you need to go back to the drawing board and look at the whole thing again from an improved understanding of the science of food.
Some websites where you’ll find good info on this topic:
GMO Seralini : this European scientist repeated Monsanto’s same feeding trial on rats that had “proved” safety of their GM products, but made one tiny alteration: He ran the experiment for 2 years instead of Monsanto’s 3 months. (after which their opposition to independent testing really kicked in!) The result : After 2 years of eating them, those GM foods seem to be the exact opposite of safe, and the rats that managed to survive the feeding trial are just not what you’d call “perfectly healthy”. To this day, Monsanto is refusing to accept the research’s results, but not daring to repeat it, which would have been the scientific way of proving something wrong, which happened to them (Seralini repeated their study and got disputing results). They even terminated another long-term study of theirs midway and refused to share the results with anyone. So for someone who supports science, it’s worth questioning which side of science are GM producers on? If they are pro-science, then why are they and their supporters opposing independent scientific research?
Videos : Genetic Roulette, Seed Freedom, Bought… there’s many independent films out there which channels like Discovery don’t want to show, even if the film-makers themselves aren’t charging any money. (saala tereko free mein itna mast maal mil raha hai… fir bhi wohi purane shows repeat pe repeat karte jaa raha hai tu?). But there’s surprisingly no independent films out there (not in my years of looking around) which make any case FOR GM foods. It seems every independent film maker out there working on food sector is against GM only, while every corporate studio wants to religiously avoid sharing these objections. Wonder why?
Now, for those who don’t care about the harms part and want to “be positive” and focus on the gains, here’s a 30-year side by side growing study by Rodale Institute (they incorporated GM when it became mainstream). Tested conventional non-gm, GM, organic.
Farming Systems trial: 30 year report
Result? Organic won hands down. Greater yield per unit area, lower costs, lower inputs, lower CO2 emissions, negative damage to soil (ie, soil health improved year on year). Everything that the world’s scientists and our governments have been desiring from a technology to grow food, delivered without the pesky patents or high input costs. And what’s more, it’s an industry alternative that while lowering the bottom line, actually creates more jobs (with zero work related illnesses) at the same time! Organic technology has much higher job creation opportunities, while simultaneously having much lower costs than GM technology! Now you’d object that this organization might have had some bias (but apparently Monsanto conducting its own tests has no bias). May I point you to the scientific method : The best way to prove a research study wrong is by repeating the experiment as defined and publishing your results.
Note: There are presently heavy government subsidies given to the competitors, and the market dominance combined with lack of market mechanisms for decentralized organic technology are hampering these cost benefits from making their way to the retail end. That changes when more people join in and market share increases, and this sector is witnessing exponential growth right now, with the first adopters being everyone from politicians’ families to movie stars to industry leaders to well-educated people. Like in any other technology’s life cycle, early adopters pay higher but this funds the technology and enables it to come into its own.
What makes things difficult here for those who love technology and internally bracket everything natural as non-technological and backward, is having to eat humble pie and admit that nature might be technologically more advanced than present human attempts in at least ONE sector (saala ek ko jaane do, kya jaata hai tumhaara?), and might have a solution that is still far better than what our best scientists and mega-corporations have come up with so far. Given the fact that she has had a multi-billion year head start and access to a planet-full of resources to tap into for her research, we shouldn’t be so surprised and definitely not so jealous of her. On our end, more research should happen of course, but it should happen safely, without treating you and me and our children like lab rats. Defective products shouldn’t be pushed to market for the sake of recouping investments made so far. If you know your closest competitor is so far ahead of you, then you should either invest in researching something like GMOs for the long, long run (I’m talking multiple human lifetimes here), or not invest at all and simply go for the best alternative solution available that delivers better, even if you can’t earn royalties off it. But it’s wrong to get impatient or greedy and push defective products to market just for the sake of showing a profit this year, and it’s wrong to use massive government subsidies, IPR and friends in high places as a crutch to conceal your product’s defectiveness.
And that’s pretty much what all your “anti-technology” friends are trying to tell you. Nobody’s being anti-technology. They’re just warning about defective products that can cause irreversible harm. That is all. On the other hand, they are also actively supporting organic technology which seems much more promising, so it would be nice if we didn’t have anti-technology and anti-science people and mega corporations unnecessarily harming progress.