This morning, I read a Salon article on “Anti-Vaxxers” and a Resilience article on gardening and I think to myself: “So being ‘anti-GMOs’ – is this a privilege thing?”
In other words, with an ever-increasing number of people on the planet, can we truly in good conscience be against a thing that makes more food?
I’ll save you some time if you’re busy: I don’t really know. I still think this article to be worth your time. I hope you’ll agree.
It’s a tough thing to discuss, because like so many other things, a lot of political weight is given to terminology that it shouldn’t have. Indeed, should not be expected to support. For example, what do we mean by GMOs, and is that what it really means?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. What this means at the root level is that humans have purposefully selected traits in another plant or animal that they find favorable and encouraged its growth while simultaneously discouraging the growth of other plants or animals that do not exhibit those traits. It also means that the converse is true: In trying to eradicate a plant or animal, we kill off most of it, but the strongest survive, leading to stronger and stronger plants and animals (and bacteria) we consider “undesirable”. The first we have done intentionally – I often hear “since the beginnings of agriculture”, but I surmise that it might have begun even before that. The second, unintentionally, we have done only for as long as we’ve had the populations and energy to do so. We drove species to extinction before, but things really ramped up as we hit “industrial society”.
Every decision we make, individually and collectively, about which other organisms we will allow to live or choose to kill (or spay or neuter), we’ve made a modification to the total gene pool available to the future of that organism’s species. As a result of who we are as a species, ie: intent, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every other species on the planet is a GMO for some reason or another as a result of our actions – intentional or not.
When I talk to others about GMOs, and give these definitions, I am quickly told (as if I’m from another planet) that this is obviously not what they meant. They’re right, I’m being obtuse. What they mean is scientists in labs messing with science. I find that these arguments, when Socratic-ly investigated, fall in to one of two categories.
The first stems from not actually understanding (or knowing) many of the scientific processes and basing opinions instead on TV pundits, politicians, or other people who they perceive to know more about the subject than they. Unfortunately, I have also found that many of these opinions come from people who also have no idea, but feel their credibility stands on having an answer, whether fabricated or not.
This last is especially dangerous, since the authority is based on our collective cultural assumption that “authority” is a thing, and that certain people should be authorities on every subject. I’m looking towards politicians at this point, who we expect to know everything, but couldn’t possibly . We give away our personal power and expect parenting, but this is not what we get.
Eula Blis writes in the “Anti-Vaxxers” article mentioned above, that,
Power is gendered, so even if we’re talking about a female doctor talking to a father, there can still be that sense of mansplaining, because you have someone speaking from a position of authority and power to someone who is subject to that authority and power.
Further, she explains that the people we put in authority rarely have the time or inclination to give us all of the information we need to make these important decisions for ourselves, leaving us doubly at the mercy of authority: once because we want to give ours away, and once because we will not or cannot support it, and choose it anyway.
We (many?-most? of us) don’t have the scientific background needed to understand scientists in labs doing science, and (many of the) scientists have been told (or at least, behave as if) that credibility lies in writing in such dense language that we without scientific literacy cannot understand it, and we as a society keep them busy enough that they can not, will not, or do not take the time to explain it to us such that we can understand . Thus, the arguers are left with no real information. No information, that is, except saccharine-sweet corporate cheerleaders (who we will get to in a moment), and Hollywood fictional horror a la Frankenstein and World War Z. Both stand to make millions by taking opposite stances. Both rely on gut feeling rather than scientific method.
The second category of arguments has nothing to do with science, but with corporations. GMOs in this case have everything to do with a (possibly deserved) distrust of the concentrated wealth and power that are represented by modern multinational corporations. This, too, is based on our collective desire to have someone else do the heavy thinking and deciding, as well as Hollywood’s horror show. This time, exemplars include Elysium and In Time. Again, gut feeling.
In either case, we are left with gut feeling, and that gut feeling is fueling the debate. I wonder if anyone, myself included, would recognize unbiased scientifically rigorous information if it started growing in our front yards.
What do we do with our gut feeling? It depends. Those of us with little access to options in food eat what we can get, whether they are engineered or not. Those of us who feel that GMOs are dangerous and have money to support it go to great lengths to ensure (often unknowingly unsuccessfully) that they do not support it. Eula Bliss speaks of vaccination:
In comparison, we have relatively more economic stability, relatively better controls on our pharmaceuticals, relatively better government oversight, and relatively better healthcare in general, with more access for more people—but we still have problems. Part of what’s going on behind the resistance to vaccination here is a response to problems in all those areas: It’s a response to corruption in pharmaceutical companies; a response to problems in the way our government regulates and oversees things that have an impact on our health; problems with unequal access to medical care.
But replace “pharmaceuticals” and “medical care” with “food” and “vaccination” with “GMOs” and an interesting question emerges: if the choice to not vaccinate is a problem of privilege that hurts those without, is resistance to GMOs the same emperor in a different outfit?
To answer this, what are the arguments for GMOs? 1) More output on same land to 2) feed the growing population using 3) foods better acclimated to various specific environments. Additionally, to 4) make the plants resistant to the chemicals being dumped on them to destroy various “pests” which build up in monoculture.
Well, the original question is: can we truly in good conscience be against a thing that makes more food? Let’s go backwards.
#4: If more food comes at the expense of potable water in the form of poisons in the waterways, then more, cheaper food comes at the cost of having to purchase drinking water. That’s net-zero for the poor and a net-loss for the Earth. At least theoretically… at a gut level.
#3: Foods better acclimated to certain climates is a great idea, but they generally already exist. I don’t need GMO low-water rice in a world where quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum (to name but a few) already exist. The problem isn’t that rice isn’t acclimated to my area, the problem is that I’m resistant to trying new foods, and the other problem is it’s cheaper for food giants to use machinery already in use. At least theoretically… at a gut level.
#2: The problem of overpopulation isn’t solved by feeding all of us. This is a very unpopular sentiment, and it’s probably going to keep people from sharing this article, but this goes back to the authority thing: we want someone else to make the hard decisions about how to reduce population. Government-mandated population limitations lead to problems, so the only things that can possibly work are voluntary action and finally hitting global limits. Delaying the hard decisions means there’s no reason to make the hard decisions, so why bother?
#1) The claim that GMOs will enable more yield from the same amount of land. Ignoring the meat issue , it is unclear whether more is necessarily better. Yes, some food is better than no food from an individual standpoint, but Claire Schosser argues,
Focusing too intently on growing the most food in the smallest possible space as the answer to the problem of increasing human population and decreasing farmland area may not allow us to consider how everything interacts to produce that food and the impact that food has on our health. For instance, if we are producing less nutrient-dense food as a result of focusing excessively on increasing yield (weight per unit area), we may need to eat more of that food in an attempt to obtain the nutrients we need. If that’s the case, even if someone following [one method] does not obtain as high a yield as someone following [another method], the latter may find she needs to increase the size of her garden in order to eat the same amount of nutrients as is produced by someone following [the first] method on the same soil.
By this way of thinking, genetic modification is not the (pardon me) root of the issue, but soil. We have placed technology at the center of our collective lives. Perhaps GMO fixation is really just the answer provided by the belief that technology will solve all of our problems, an offshoot of the core belief that we are other-than-nature, outside of natural processes. If we had the Earth, or soil, at the center, how might we behave differently?
Is profit, not technology, the center? I want the answer to be “no”. In my gut, I want to believe that what the corporations are saying (things like, “we’re trying to feed the world”) is true, that really, profit is secondary (or better yet, quadinary). But as a society, we have made the pursuit of profit the center of our collective effort, rather than sharing or being kind, or any of the other things we tell our preschoolers about how the world works best.
How might we behave if profit were taken out of the equation? Here’s an issue rarely mentioned in the GMO debate: energy. Does it take more energy – from an LCA perspective – to splice genes or breed? My gut feeling is that gene splicing requires glass beakers, fancy equipment, microscopes… lots of embodied energy. We wouldn’t go to all of that trouble if there was no promise of profit at the end.
For me, genetic modification is just an extension of what we have been doing all along, and with oversight of people with the best interests of Earth, of nature, and of humanity at large, could be used for good. Who decides good? Who decides who these benevolent overseers are? Ultimately, isn’t it all hubris? I think that there are already plenty of plants out there that will see to humanity’s needs without manipulation. If, indeed, GMOs are truly in the best interest of the people, there is one way that I think we could prove it.
Pro-GMO corporations do all of this research because the countries of the world have agreed that the manipulation of life is patentable. If you can patent it, you can profit from it, above and beyond the profit inherent to feeling good about making a dent in world hunger – until we breed ourselves to new problems, when we’d need to manipulate again.
Let’s make genetic manipulation and exploration open source. Let’s ensure there can be no individual profit in the tinkering with the world’s genetic heritage. Let’s leave profits out of the equation. Then, in the name of science, let’s see who still wants to argue in favor.
GMOs wouldn’t even be possible without the privilege of fossil fuels and extensive specialization that are offshoots of our society and exploitative economic system, so of course it’s a privilege thing. Take away the assumption that nature is there to be exploited and suddenly GMOs no longer make sense as a response to anything, much less our collective irresponsibility in the form of human overpopulation.
But that’s just my gut talking.
Further Reading – Smart folks who don’t see things my way:
Monsanto: An Overview of the Safety and Advantages of GM Foods. Accessed 2015 Feb 1.
Because if anyone is going to make a glimmering case, it’s Monsanto.
Genetically Modify Food. Intelligence Squared Debates. 2014 Dec 3. Accessed 2015 Feb 1.
Debate between “authorities”.
Unearthed: 5 GMO arguments to stop making, pro and con. Washington Post.
 Really? Footnotes? Is this the person I’ve become?
 Am I advocating we stop interacting with other creatures? Absolutely not. Keep spaying and neutering your pets, please. As long as there are shelter animals being killed, we have too many pets.
 I don’t want to get too far off track here, hence the footnote, but we put certain members of our community up for failed expectation because we want them to decide in our place, someone to do the heavy work of thinking and deciding so that we don’t have to, and we expect them to know everything about everything. Like a father-figure or mother-figure. Because of this, I think many of us answer questions even when we don’t know. I’ve tried to stop, but in my teaching, I have only gotten as far as the phrase, “I don’t know, really, but I can provide my best educated guess,” giving it, then ending with, “but you’d be best served by finding out yourself from reputable sources.” I then watch many students decide that my guess is enough information and then use this information in their own conversations and writing. In other words, I did it. Why? Shame that I did not live up to the cultural belief that I as a teacher, I as an adult, I as a man am supposed to know everything about everything. I don’t. Nor should I (nor anyone else) be expected to, yet I continue to pretend.
 This is, I think, why people who do take the time, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Vlog Brothers, etc have such numerous and dedicated fans – we are thankful that those who know have taken the time to explain things to us “mere mortals”.
 You don’t want to ignore it? Good. If 75% of the vegetable matter produced goes to feeding meat animals, it follows that growing vegetable matter for direct human consumption would make a much larger dent in feeding those hungry masses. The real question is how badly do you want to feed those hungry people? Enough to reduce the impact of your own diet? Enough to sacrifice even a little of your own privilege?