Thursday, August 20, 2015

What's Going Wrong with the Genetically Modified Food "Debate"

The whole GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) debate is a farce. We keep pretending that GMO's are either bad or good. But it's an umbrella term. So why the hell don't we talk specifics? GM corn is not GM soy.

So when scientists are talking to us about how safe GMO's are, we're hearing that ALL GMO's are safe and that science is infallible. When we hear that we're safe, we're only talking about our health. What effect do they have on the environment? High intensity single crop farming has an effect on the environment whereas a more natural and less damaging approach is to rotate your crops (you grow corn one year, tomatoes another year etc.).

What happens if GM corn is found to have adverse effects on our health? This has happened before.

When vitamin deficiencies were linked to certain diseases, such as scurvy, the thought was to essentially carpet bomb your system with vitamins. It was then discovered that excess levels of vitamin-A and vitamin-E increase the likelihood of particular types of cancer.

There's loads of shouting about Monsanto. Who incidentally, are the only ones really benefiting from the GMO debate. While people are calling each other Monsanto shills and paranoid hippies, no one is talking about Monsanto's practises around patents. Farmers can not save the seeds from a Monsanto crop for replanting the following year. Farmers who break this rule are sued. This is where it gets interesting though:

Corn is a really interesting case because cross pollination happens really easily. At the top of each corn plant is a tassel which contains the pollen. Those stringy bits at the end of your corn cob receive the pollen. Each of those strings corresponds to a kernel and the nature of that kernel is dictated by the pollen that string receives. A bit of a wind is all that is needed. (Which is why you can get loads of different types of corn on a single kernel i.e. black and white corn on a single cob is quite ornate).

Imagine you have two farms side by side who are growing corn. One farm is using Monsanto's patented corn. The other isn't and relies on being able to save seed and grow it the following year. Monsanto can sue (it doesn't matter if they win or not because the nuisance is already enough to convince a farmer to pay for their seed) the farmer who doesn't use Monsanto seed because the saved seed contains Monsanto's patented seed by virtue of corn's pollination method.

Add to all of this the fact that we aren't privy to the information needed to make informed decisions. Imagine you go and do your research on GMO soy and decide that you prefer not to expose yourself to it. You can pay a premium (small runs, and possibly lower density growing rather than higher expense) for GMO free foods, or avoid anything with soy altogether.

One of the main reasons capitalism simply doesn't work is that we're not given the information needed to be able to make decisions around the products that we buy. Talk to any right winger about this and they'll do that whole "expense" thing that always has me imagining a infomercial actor failing at everyday tasks. i.e. "it'll cost soooo much money and that'll be passed onto the consumer. And they'll bring up out of context examples such as "may contain traces of peanuts" as if traces of GMO's is instant death i.e. the reason so many products have that particular warning is that peanuts (a legume) and nuts may have serious immediate consequences in small doses so any factory line processing different foods, only some of which contain nuts or peanuts, contaminates all other foods processed on that line.

We could insist on a supply line indication. i.e. default all ingredients that are likely to be GMO to having a GMO status, marked in the ingredients (it's not a branding, it's informing), and if the supply line can be confirmed i.e. the farmers mark their crops, and that information is sent down the line. Trace amounts could be ignored (no serious immediate consequences for trace amounts).

The real pity about all of this is that it could create a market differentiation. The reason I wasn't keen on NZ adopting GMO crops wasn't so much that I had any real objection to it, but that it was an opportunity to further the clean green image and create new markets by exporting GMO free foods. Smaller quantities sure, but a branding that could bring in higher prices.

Meanwhile, due to dairy intensification, our clean green image has fallen by the wayside while our branding seems to be all about short hairy footed people.

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