I want to know what I should know about GMO


I don’t know what to think at this point. I’m obviously a big organic-eating back slapping liberal like the rest of my cronies in fair Berkeley. My wife and I grow vegetables in our back yard and do our best to eat food that was grown and processed in natural, sustainable ways. We compost, we recycle, and we teach our kids the importance and impact of all of these things. I watched Fresh and Food, Inc. this year and read Fast Food Nation years ago, nodding vigorously through all of them.

I’m also a big tech geek and do my best to keep up, and maybe even develop, things that help our society make the next great leap forward. I helped develop the original Netscape browser which helped the internet explode and ripped control of computer networks from Microsoft, handing it to the masses. I’m working on doing the same with open, public data right now at Freebase. I do believe that science and technology are bettering our society as a whole and that the risks and drawbacks far outweigh the rewards. I think they are making the world a more equitable place and giving more choices to more individuals than ever before, and I think this is a good thing.

So when it comes to GMO food, I’m a little confused. On the one hand, the notion of actually modifying the genetics of an organization at a cellular level seems like some kind of creepy science. On the other hand, this is just science improving the quality of life, driving down the costs of basic human sustenance. It’s just a logical extension of breeding crops for various traits, right? Some years ago I read one or two random articles (I think one was in Harpers, can’t remember what else I read) that had me thinking that on the whole, GMO food is bad. The science behind it can’t begin to address the massive complexity of our ecosystem. Further, the politics and policy behind patents on organisms, the limits that Big Agra puts on farmers for seed retention, and the notion of GMO as a way to reduce genetic diversity are really bad.

But with all the hubub recently about GMO + Organic and the Obama administration’s interest in the food system has given me a chance to at least try to reevaluate my position. The problem comes when I watch video’s like this Bill Nye video (In three parts: one, two, three) that I found via this Civil Eats Article on GMO food. I love Bill Nye. I think he makes science really cool and fascinating and I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to watch him. But this video is incredibly biased against GMO while trying to appear like he’s showing both sides. The worst part is that most of the anti-GMO bits are either morally heavy, substance free (“But isn’t genetic modification just creepy? Should we really be messing with organisms like this?”) or just fear mongering (dramatic enactments of monster food killing people, theoretical implications that haven’t actually happened, etc)

One argument I’ve heard (that got Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack booed) is that GMOs can be used for good – to feed the world! The counter argument I’ve heard to that is that basically we have enough food, that it’s really a distribution problem – that the GMO-to-feed-the-world is a lot of bunk. What I wonder though, is if it’s really a “distribution problem” why can’t we find ways to grow food near the people that need it? The bay area has lots of self-proclaimed locavores who aspire to eat food grown within 50-150 miles from them, but why then do we need to ship food from one side of africa to the other? What if one solution to that is GMO crops that crow in climates that currently don’t support human-food agriculture? What if it would take 500 years to breed the equivalent crop?

So I don’t know. I think next up I’m going to watch a bunch of Long Now talks: Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered, Rethinking Green, and Michael Pollan’s Deep Agriculture to see if I can gain any more insight.

  1. #1 by Alien on December 11, 2009 - 2:11 pm

    In principle genetically modified crops (and therefore food) can be good. But I don’t think we are nowhere near the level of knowledge that would let us do that safely. I think it should all still be handled in the laboratory.

    First of all the current technology of genetic modification can be described as shooting a bunch of biomaterial with a shotgun at another blob of biomaterial and seeing what happens.

    The second problem is that nature and all living things in it (including us) is intertwined in incredibly complex ways. We don’t see how it all fits together. So even if our technology gets perfect and we only change very explicit properties of organisms, we still don’t know how that is going to affect the system as a whole.

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