Friday, July 26, 2013

Even PBS and a hippie say GMO food is ok. Get going then!

When I was young--I don't mean younger, but young--I once watched with immense excitement my father arguing against a cousin of his, who was two decades his junior.  It was about introducing automation and computerization in India's banking industry, which was (and is?) dominated by public and not private banks.  It was a classic argument of apprehensions against new technology.  Except for one deviation from any stereotype: the old guard was eagerly supporting it, while the Young Turk was vehemently opposed to computerization.  Argumentative Indians shaped my life, it seems!

Skepticism and caution when new ideas are introduced are nothing new.  Happens all the time.  In her own way, my mother has always resisted changes to the way she does things in the kitchen.  Now that I live by myself, I am merely one shotgun away from chasing people off if they dare to tell me how to lead my life.  We are humans.

But, we humans are also pretty darn good at adapting to the positive changes.  The Young Turk continued on with his banking service and moved on to the managerial ranks.  Now, he even does Facebook.  My mother watches cooking shows on television and customizes new ideas--into the seventh decade of her life!

Small adaptations and innovations from the personal level to huge organizations and countries are how we humans became so healthy, so rich, and so smart over the centuries.  Yet, we do resist some changes more than others.  The virulent opposition to GMO crops is one of those, as I blogged even recently.

Thus, the subheading at this Slate piece drew me to reading the entire essay:
I’m a vegetarian yoga instructor, and even I can tell the case against genetically modified food is overblown
I am already sold.  A hippie defending GMO.  Bring it on!

She explains important points that I wish the GMO opponents would read about:
Genetic manipulation is nothing new. Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. Many of our staple crops (wheat, corn, soy), would not exist without human intervention. The same goes for domesticated farm species.
Whether we’re using genetic modification or selective breeding, we're playing God either way. But some people seem to think that selective breeding is "safer"—that it allows less opportunity for damaging mutations than genetic engineering does. This couldn't be more wrong.
Yep. Agree.  Let us get to her second point about splicing genes, especially from an animal:
Genes are basically bits of computer code that are interchangeable from species to species. When you isolate a tiny bit of gene, it doesn't retain the essence of whichever species it came from.
Yes.  This is no chimera project.

So, yes, we need a better understanding of the issues, and not a knee-jerk opposition to GMO:
I'll be the first to admit that we need more research into the long-term effects of GM products. But I'm going to bet that the answer turns out to be something like this: Some GMOs are safe, and others are not. Lumping all GMOs into the same category is like lumping all fertilizers or all pesticides into the same category. Genetic changes are only as dangerous as the proteins they encode for—just as in any plant. Consider how many "natural" plants have genes that produce poisons and toxins.
If that doesn't convince the limousine liberals who lead the charge against GMO, well, here is their favorite television channel, PBS, and their favorite science program, Nova, making the case for GMO: (ht)
By 2050, farmers must produce 40% more food to feed an estimated 9 billion people on the planet. Either current yields will have to increase or farmland will expand farther into forests and jungles. In some cases, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would offer an alternative way to boost yields without sacrificing more land or using more pesticides
But, hey, we we would like to have real examples of how such an approach worked, right?  Here is one:
In the late 1990s, the agriculture corporation Monsanto began to sell corn engineered to include a protein from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, better known as Bt. The bacteria wasn’t new to agriculture—organic farmers spray it on their crops to kill certain insects. Today more than 60% of the corn grown within the United States is Bt corn. Farmers have adopted it in droves because it saves them money that they would otherwise spend on insecticide and the fuel and labor needed to apply it. They also earn more money for an acre of Bt corn compared with a conventional variety because fewer kernels are damaged. Between 1996 and 2011, Bt corn reduced insecticide use in corn production by 45% worldwide
But, opposition has increased over the years.  Opposition when there is no scientific basis for opposing it!
dozens of long-term animal feeding studies concluded that various GM crops were as safe as traditional varieties. And statements from science policy bodies, such as those issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the European Commission, uphold that conclusion. Secondly, techniques to tweak genomes have become remarkably precise. Specific genes can be switched off without lodging foreign material into a plant’s genome.
Of course, it is fashionable for the elites in poor countries too to mimic the limousine liberals of the West:
In parts of India, farmers spray more than 60 insecticides on their eggplant—known to locals as brinjal—during the growing season, mainly to protect the purple fruit from burrowing bugs, says Ponnuswami Balasubramanian, a plant molecular biologist at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India. To reduce the insecticide load without losing the harvest, Balasubramanian, together with public sector researchers and a private Indian seed company, developed Bt versions of four varieties of eggplant that are popular in southern states. Monsanto was not involved, but still public outcry from GMO opponents blocked the eggplants from federal approval.
We certainly do not want an all-powerful Monsanto.  Instead, we want to throw open the GMO business so that we can have something like the Silicon Valley revolution happening in the GMO world.  But, unfortunately, as the GMO opposition continues, small players find it increasingly difficult to work with the enormous national and international regulatory regimes that have emerged, which then means that only a powerful corporation like Monsanto has resources to navigate through the regulatory labyrinth.  What an irony that opposition to Monsanto has made Monsanto way more powerful than it would otherwise be!  Thank your GMO opposing limousine liberal for that!


Ramesh said...

Completely agree with you and the issue of the tendency to oppose virulently, that you raise, perhaps deserves some exploration.

In most issues, bipolar views seem to be the problem - either you are completely for or completely against and "tea party like" a nuanced view means that you are a wimp. And when people start to protest, the issue seems to take them over so completely that they become insane with opposition. That's how people like Medha Patkar have become professional protestors - that's all they do in their lives, protest against something or the other and have forgotten what it means to do something positive in their lives at all.

I believe the right to protest in a democracy has been grossly misused. Sure you have a right to protest, but in today's age of instant information and billions of people, there will always be a few thousand people who will be against any particular idea. Total unanimity in the population is impossible. And therefore there will be somebody or the other (and even 0.5% of the population can amount to a million people) against anything somebody tries to do. And with protestors always committed and more activist than the rest of the population, it is easy to stop anything. Something like this is what is happening in India. End result is paralysis - nothing can be done. Is this what democracy is about ??

The right to protest has been grossly overused and any right, when grossly overused becomes a liability.

Sriram Khé said...

Crazy, right?
The reality is that thanks to those protests, chemicals are being abused like crazy. Science has established beyond doubt that those chemicals are to be ultra-carefully used. And they are not, especially in countries like India and China. Who do those elites care, eh, when they are able to jet-set around the world to different conferences crying wolf about GMO!

That Nova article had a photo of potatoes covered with pesticides that will scare the bejesus out of anybody. The protesters prefer that to GMO, which science has green-flagged as ok? What a shame!

The deaths of school children in Bihar was from food contaminated with an agricultural pesticide. A chemical that WHO and FAO have always warned to be dangerous and requiring handling only by well-trained personnel. The moronic protesters would rather have that than GMO food?????

Sriram Khé said...

So ... over at Google+ (yes, Ramesh, I am there too!) a Ena Valikov ( comments on this post, which automatically gets posted there:

"They don't teach biotechnology in yoga and music classes, and hippie gathering. And hippies never, ever, ever go to Burning Man- a commercialized gentrified version of genuine hippie gatherings."

And she tags the pro-GMO arguments as "propaganda" ...