Some thoughts on GMOs

A family member recently shared with me an article/opinion piece that said that Monsanto (the Big Ag company) is slowly dying, and asked my opinion about it, and about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Fields of goldTo borrow a very good phrase from Ramez Naam, “GMOs are neither poison nor panacea.” I have several reservations about them that mean I cannot embrace them freely, but I think that they should not be dismissed out of hand, simply by virtue of being GMOs. Some, like golden rice, or drought-resistant corn, seem like they have some good arguments to accompany them, as being “simple fixes” to endemic issues. Additionally, as climate change becomes an increasing factor in everyday global life, I am loathe to get rid of any potential tool.


My reservations about GMOs can be divided into two main categories: uncertainty of effects, and dislike of monopoly.

Perhaps Jurassic Park had too much of an effect on my impressionable mind, but Jeff Goldblum intoning “life finds a way” sounds in my head on a fairly regular basis.

Put less flippantly, humans are not omniscient, and nature is endlessly inventive and adaptive. As with new pharmaceuticals, or new construction materials, while we may be able to create a GMO to address a specific issue, there is no way we can know or control for all the potential side effects. Humans have a history in the natural world of causing a problem, then introducing something new to solve that problem, only to have the solution lead to another problem, and so on.

GMOs will eventually cross with wild species, whether they are intended to or not.** And we can’t really predict what effect that will have. In cases of such uncertainty, I tend towards the precautionary principle. (Which, amusingly, the top-of-page Google boxed result says, “has mainly been used to prohibit the importation of genetically modified organisms and food.”)

That’s not to say that I think GMOs should never be used, but … there is a line where my willingness to risk potential side effects crosses over into unwillingness. I acknowledge that my knee-jerk assessment of any given offered GMO will need examining and refining; hopefully by doing so, over time, the line of willingness will become more defined, less blurry.

My bigger issue with GMOs actually has to do with their production, distribution, and control. I am leery of the privatization – on a national/global scale – of basic necessities of life like water and food seeds. It is not just Monsanto that worries me, although it is of course one of the major names in a discussion of GMOs.

Giant corporations that are, for all intents and purposes, monopolies have little impetus to behave in any way that threatens their bottom line. And the bottom line of a corporation is profit. Most large corporations give away a great deal of money in charitable donations/grants/etc., of course. (The Ford Foundation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (though that technically came about thanks to the Gates themselves, not Microsoft). Etc.) But that is not their core business. Their core business is to make money, and it is at times hard not to view their altruistic endeavors as cynical business/marketing maneuvers.

Additionally, everyone’s going to need to be able to work to adapt to whatever vagaries climate change throws at their little corner of the world. A monolithic organization just can’t be as nimble and adaptive, even if it feels the impetus to try. While the advantage of large corporations is that they have a lot of resources to use on an issue if they so decide, they tend not to have the fine-grained, localized knowledge that will help them apply those resources well. Additionally, a global corporation is not going to have the attention span necessary to really address an issue over time. Since they have to keep an eye on their interests around the globe, and their resources have to be prioritized, I think that they tend to apply resources to address a localized issue for a while, but then something elsewhere will pull focus and resources.

My biggest issue with GMOs, however, is with the privatization of the basic necessities of life. Water should be publicly owned. Seeds should be, if not publicly owned, then at least not patented and consolidated under the control of one organization. Another friend commented that patent law outside the US is basically unenforceable, and therefore not something that necessarily needs to be worried about. I can see his argument, but the existence of a patent necessarily brings with it the possibility of lawsuit. And since we don’t know how GMOs will act in the wild over the long term, the uncertainty plus the possibility of legal action gives me pause.

Although Monsanto occasionally waives licenses or royalties on seeds, this doesn’t mean that they don’t hold patents on these seeds. It just means that for the time being they are letting farmers in developing nations use them without the other constraints. Additionally, Monsanto explicitly bans the saving and replanting of many of its seed varieties, which means that farmers have to buy again, year on year, even should they wish to try replanting F1 hybrids.

In short, I understand that not everyone can live in a pastoral idyll of seed swapping and organic heirloom varieties and all the stuff that drives much of the hipster gastronome culture. But I don’t believe that a gigantic corporation like Monsanto (or Nestle), whose bottom line is profit and who isn’t kept in check by the market force of competition, should be trusted as sole custodian of the basics of crop production (or water). That’s just begging for abuse and callousness.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we’re going to deal with feeding everyone on the planet. GMOs get a lot of press as a way of addressing this, but I suspect that much of that has to do with Big Ag’s desire to stay Big, and the human, technophilic desire for a quick fix.

The problem is, most of the ways that I can think of to address the food/global population imbalance involve having many more people move back towards an agrarian lifestyle, which – aforementioned hipster gastronome culture aside – not many people are actually going to want to do. And I don’t blame them for not wanting to. There is also the question of whether it would be enough. The global population is growing, obviously, and I don’t know if non-intensive agricultural methods would be able to feed everyone, at least not without turning over all arable or potentially arable land (goodbye, national parks) to agricultural uses.

I think we could do a lot by rejigging the agricultural market, which is currently focused far too strongly on commodity crops (soybeans, corn, etc.) and not enough on edible crops. For example, in 2015 the USDA’s FSA reported there were 694.3 million crop acres (link is to a zip file of the report), based on reports from farmers in several of its funding programs (so that number probably doesn’t represent the actual total of all cropland in the US). Of that, 167.1 million acres were planted with soybeans or corn, the second- and third-largest crops by acreage. (The largest crop by acreage was grass, at 350.7 million acres – or more than half the total amount of land reported. I’m guessing this probably reflects the needs of the meat industry.) This means that the top three crops – nearly 75% of the total cropland reported – are given to, basically, commodity crops. That seems wrong to me.

But to rejig the system, we’d have to remove the influence of Big Ag companies, rearrange food distribution systems, alter a half-century’s worth of ingrained consumer habits and desires, etc., etc…. I admit that it’s not something that is likely to happen until things get a lot worse in the developed world, and until that happens, Monsanto et al have little incentive to make deep systemic changes.

Anyway, to sum up:

– I don’t think GMOs should be dismissed out of hand. They may yet prove extremely valuable tools in a densely populated, climate-changing world.

– I suspect GMOs will not act wholly as predicted in the wild.

– I have strong reservations about the control of crop necessities (and other life necessities) by monopolistic global corporations, and that is my biggest reservation about the GMO system as a whole.

– I know that things are going to have to change in the agricultural system, globally; I don’t have any ideas that seem feasible on how to make those changes, however.


**Also, the more pesticide-resistant crops get planted, the more pesticide gets sprayed, the more unhealthy ecosystems we get because of the collapse of not just the bee colonies, but all the other bugs that are the base of the food chain and which really need to be around in very large numbers in order for things not to get… buggered?


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