“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”
– Noam Chomsky, The Common Good
“We always had hope that next year was gonna be better. And even this year was gonna be better. We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different. You just tried harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”
—Wayne Lewis, Dust Bowl survivor, 2012
Whether or not we want GMO’s in our food supply is much less about immediate health concerns than it is about what agricultural system we choose to support.
The debate around GMO’s cannot be reduced to simple arguments about whether or not they’re “healthy”, or to false dichotomies that lump the entire field of GMO’s into either “good” or “bad.”
This type of discourse prevents us from deeply understanding this issue and its implications, but we’re predisposed to it.
Within the context of our global food supply and industrial agriculture model, GMO-dependent industrial monocrop agriculture is a system with a host of harmful impacts, from economic to environmental.
This agricultural system:
- Directly produces between 19 and 29% of world greenhouse gas emissions
- Depends on an oil industry that is supported by between 775 million to 1 trillion dollars in annual global taxpayer subsidies, despite the top 5 companies pulling in 900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010 while paying their CEOs as much as 100,000 dollars per day
- Ultimately produces environmental devastation and nutritionally poor chemical-laden food of increasingly little variety
- Creates a systems trap known as “shifting the burden to the intervenor” that creates an increasing cycle of dependence on patented pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and fungicides that require patented, genetically altered plants to survive them.
There are viable alternatives to this system that produce profitable, higher-yielding, more resilient crops with a much lower or even positive environmental impact.
A system called agroecology, for example, use a combination of modern science and local knowledge within an adaptable polycultural model that produces more food per unit area than industrial agriculture while:
- Reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
- Improving soil and watershed health
- Sequestering carbon in the soil while increasing topsoil retention and depth (a positive global impact)
- Requiring less carbon for transportation to market
- Better resisting extreme weather
Agroecology has produced an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average of 116% for all African projects, and projects in 20 African countries demonstrating a doubling of crop yields within periods of 3-10 years (13).
It does this without patented seeds, monocultural systems or chemical input dependence, while improving environmental health and producing more local jobs.
If we continue to blindly support industrial GMO agriculture and think of it only in terms of short-term “health” arguments, the latter systems like agroecology can never be fully implemented or developed.
To ignore this is an irrational, narrow-minded denial of scientific research, and a rigid adherence to binary reductionist thinking that keeps our intellectual discourse at the level of facebook “memes.”
Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO’s, are a hotly debated topic.
Sadly, nearly all of this debate, even from well-educated people, is constructed in a way that leads people away from asking the questions that actually matter.
The most difficult part of understanding something is seldom the answering of questions, but to first find out what questions to ask.
Almost all public discussion of GMO’s avoids the most important questions, and keeps conversation at a level that always accepts the overarching system within which GMO agriculture is packaged, as if there can be no alternative.
A good question here: “What viable alternatives do we have to this agricultural system?”
This is an important consideration. As James Carse explains, there are those who play within the rules that are dictated for them, and there are those who play with those rules.
The present arguments around GMO’s do little but bicker within the rules set by the status quo.
Before we accept the structure being imposed upon us, we should pause for a moment and question if it must be this way. We can look beyond the squabble.
Questions that don’t matter as much as you’d think: Are GMO’s healthy?
The “GMO debate” is often posed this way, by asking a question that’s of limited significance: “Are GMO’s healthy?”
This can only be narrowly framed. We must define what “health” is, then find a way to study it over a short time period using outcomes and inputs that are objectively measurable.
Science inevitably works this way, through reductionism. We take pieces out of a complex system and see what linear relationships we can establish. We try to learn if X input causes Y output.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In many applications, it works out wonderfully. Yet, it has its limits and vulnerabilities.
An entire book could be written on the idea of narrowly defining health and then highlighting the things – including the ones that we’re still incapable of defining, observing or measuring – that have to be left out of that definition.
We could also discuss whether or not eating GMO corn instead of organic corn will give you cancer in a few years (it probably won’t).
We could talk about whether the beta-carotene in golden rice is sufficiently bioavailable for it to matter in the fat-deprived diets of children who are actually starving (certainly questionable).
Let’s not waste our time.
But this would be wasting our time. Squabbling within a box that doesn’t have to exist in the first place.
These are issues that narrow our thinking of GMO agriculture down to a level of near uselessness, and they often serve to reinforce false dichotomies in our logic.
People will use their conclusions from any of these “health” debates to say that GMO’s are either a good thing, or a bad thing. That GMO’s are either healthy, or they’re not.
We’ll ignore that latter statement, and address the former: Almost nothing in life can be reduced down to a simple black and white statement. This includes GMO’s. To say that they are uniformly anything – good or bad – is intellectually lazy.
Intellectual honesty implies an understanding of nuance.
Until we’re capable of holding in our minds the idea that GMO’s can be good in certain applications and harmful in others, we’re incapable of understanding them. And we fall prey to the mindless shouting into the void that has so far defined this discussion.
Crucially – We must understand that this shouting is not harmless and that it’s quite possibly a behavior that someone out there with a financial stake in our decision-making is hoping for. It’s distracting us from looking for better questions to ask.
How did Idiocracy become a documentary?
We’re living in an interesting era. We’ve seen decades pass that have shown a large body of scientific advice to be anywhere from misleading to inadvertently wrong to deliberately harmful.
The USDA food pyramid will make our nation the healthiest on earth.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils are a panacea.
“We believe in science. That is why we continue to provide funding for independent research into smoking and health… Science is science. Proof is proof. That is why the controversy over smoking and health remains an open one.’’
– RJ. Reynolds Tobacco Company advertisement, 1985.
We’ve seen wave after wave of BS come from some scientists, and this makes it easy to disregard the brilliant and world-changing things that have come from others.
As Scott Adams has pointed out, when it comes to diet and fitness in particular, simple pattern recognition will by now lead many of us to mistrust information coming from established authority figures.
Over the past several decades, the nutrition advice coming from your hairdresser is just as likely to have been correct as the advice coming from the USDA, FDA or the dieticians whose education is based on their dictates.
Thus, we cannot be surprised or blameful when the public disregards professional advice. We’ve brought this on ourselves, by systematically undermining our own credibility.
Running to extremes
Take this understandable mistrust and combine it with other factors influencing our thoughts and behavior, like:
- Our need to affiliate with a group, and then protect that affiliation with a host of cognitive biases
- 24-hour digital media designed for clicks over journalistic integrity
- Web 2.0 filter bias
- The remarkably fluid grasp we each have of reality
- Our propensity for self-delusion
…and you end up with thoughts and opinions that rapidly stratify into binary extremes.
The result is anti-vaccination parents, conspiracy theories that the gubmint is poisoning us with chemtrails, the 2016 presidential race, the curious success of “The Food Babe” and, unfortunately, people who are vehemently opposed to GMO’s of any kind.
Public opinions can develop organically, somewhat in the same way that organisms evolve, through emergence and spontaneous self-organization. However, as we can see in studies like this and books like this, public opinion can also be deliberately shaped when it’s extremely profitable to do so.
Through either of these mechanisms, this reduction to extremes, the mental ease of playing within rules instead of with them and our predisposition to simplify complex concepts into false dichotomies makes it easy to follow the tried-and-true “are GMO’s healthy?” debate.
The conclusion when this happens is to dismiss opponents of GMO’s as being in the same anti-science camp as anti-vaxxers or chemtrail nuts. And that works, because within the narrow framing in which this issue is usually discussed, that’s often the correct inference.
You don’t need the support of a lobbyist to use science.
GMO agriculture and its supporters don’t have an exclusive patent on science, however, and we cannot blindly say that we are only following science if it’s of a form that supports industrial monocrop agriculture.
A tree growing in a laboratory is no more following the rules of science than a tree growing wild in a forest. We just tend to pay more attention to how the first one works.
This brings us back to the idea of playing with rules, and of questioning the premises that have been predefined for us.
Forget the pieces. Think about the whole system.
When we talk about GMO’s, we have to talk about the system they are a part of.
I’m not talking here about GMO’s in places like the medical industry –using GM bacteria to make insulin or growth hormone, etc. These are very good things.
I’m specifically talking about GMO agriculture, and within that field, I’m referring to one of the largest subsets of that ag system: GMO corn, wheat, rice and soy.
This ag system has major drawbacks, there are excellent alternatives to it, and we should question whether we need to focus so heavily on these crops in the first place.
If you’re eating a food that says it’s GMO-free, it’s probably referring to derivatives of one of these crops. The majority of them produced in the US are genetically modified, and we produce a lot of them.
The most well-known forms of GM crops are “Roundup Ready.” This means that the plants have been genetically modified to withstand an herbicide called Roundup, or glyphosate. Normal plants or weeds will be killed by it, but the corn or wheat has been modified to survive it.
This is how most GMO agriculture works at the industrial commodity level. We’re using a system of agriculture that requires herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that would normally kill everything that they touch, but by genetically engineering these crops, they can survive to be harvested and consumed.
This is a massive industry, and it’s evolved to be very profitable.
It’s not profitable because of free-market dynamics, however. It’s profitable because your tax dollars are funneled to support it.
Wealth redistribution – from your pockets to industrial agriculture.
The government distributes between 10 and 30 billion dollars per year to subsidize farm crops (1), and more than 90% of those subsidies go to corn, wheat, rice, soy and cotton (2).
These subsidies do very little to support increasingly rare and frequently struggling family farms, and in fact they often help large corporations buy them out. They’re distributed so that, in recent years, the top 10% of producers have received 74% of subsidies (3).
A large percentage of the proceeds from this industry funnel through a small number of corporations. The vast majority of GMO seeds around the world come from Monsanto, and much of the GMO corn grown in the US passes through Archer Daniels Midland.
This system depends heavily on fossil fuels for things like the production of synthetic fertilizers. It takes about 10-15 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food.
This makes it the single largest industrial consumer of petroleum products. It now takes the equivalent of about 1,500 liters of oil to feed one American for one year (4).
Faster and faster to stay in the same place.
This industrial monocrop ag model is a losing game, or a Red Queen’s Race at best.
Plants and insects adapt to the chemicals meant to kill them, soil becomes further depleted and erodes, fertilizer requirements increase… the cycle is endless. Nature never stops adapting.
Around 10% of the energy used in agriculture is now spent just to offset the negative effects of soil erosion (5).
Roughly 90% of US farmland is losing topsoil at above-sustainable rates (1t/ha/yr) and leaching carbon into the atmosphere (6). The increasing use of synthetic fertilizers further promotes this soil degradation.
This brute-force system imposes agricultural models on environments that are poorly suited for them, require intensive irrigation, and increase the need for that irrigation over time as topsoil depletes and water retention falls. The Ogallala aquifer is being depleted at between 130 and 160% of its replenishment rate, and the Colorado river is now typically run dry before it reaches the ocean.
The Roundup that used to work on GMO crops is beginning to fail as weeds evolve into “superweeds” with their own genetic resistance to the chemical (7). Note here that this evolution occurs with any herbicide, whether the targeted plant is GM or not. The issue is the industrial monocrop system, a lack of “integrated pest management” and the feedback loop that ensues.
Farmers coping with superweeds first try applying more of the same chemical, and when that doesn’t work, they include different types into the mix. Scientists are now working on new, stronger chemical combinations to replace Roundup.
This agricultural system is used to produce the commodities that processed foods depend on, and that have played a key role in America’s growing obesity epidemic.
At the same time, this system is destroying economically viable farmland, killing off resilience-promoting biodiversity, and poisoning our aquifers, rivers and oceans with runoff.
But, what choice do we have?
Organic food isn’t that much different. Nutritionally, it’s surprisingly similar, and many organic farmers still use a variety of the same chemicals that conventional ag uses.
What’s fascinating about this situation is how narrowly the debate is confined.
Any “scientific” discussion of an agricultural systems is limited to two sides of the same coin: Industrial organic agriculture, or conventional industrial agriculture.
These are the same systems, with slight variations. We shouldn’t be surprised when they’re tough to tell apart.
There are other systems.
You’ll almost never hear this mentioned in discussions on agriculture or GMOs, but there are other entirely distinct systems with substantial merits.
The most common of these is known as agroecology.
It uses a combination of modern science and local knowledge within a polycultural model that produces more food per unit area than industrial agriculture while (8,9,10):
- – Reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
- – Improving soil and watershed health
- – Sequestering carbon in the soil while increasing topsoil retention and depth (a positive global impact)
- – Requiring less carbon for transportation to market
- – Better resisting extreme weather
Agroecology has widely accepted positive impacts on poverty alleviation, food production and climate change mitigation (11,12), and the food it produces simply tastes better.
These systems can work in countries like the US as well as obscure developing nations with severe poverty.
They’ve produced an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average of 116% for all African projects, and projects in 20 African countries demonstrating a doubling of crop yields within periods of 3-10 years (13).
This can happen without patented seeds, monocultural systems or chemical input dependence, while improving environmental health and producing more local jobs.
Why have most of us never heard of this?
We never hear about agroecology as an alternative to our current industrial ag system because it’s much easier to dismiss criticism or questioning of GMO-dependent agriculture as the same intellectually-depraved anti-science nonsense as being a climate-change denier or an anti-vaxxer.
Debates on agricultural systems almost always stay within the one system that predominates, and exclude anything else. This positive feedback loop, known to systems theorists as the competitive exclusion principle, ensures that once something gains an initial foothold it becomes increasingly easy to stay at the forefront.
We’ve been playing within the rules that were predefined for us without ever questioning if there was anything outside of them, and falling prey to a handful of common cognitive biases.
Thus, the way this GMO debate usually plays out is:
1) Frame all anti-GMO opinions as the same thing as anti-vaxxer or climate-change denial opinions, so that an anti-GMO stance can be called “anti-science” and proponents of it can be dismissed without thought.
2) Support this stance with a red herring debate centered around straw man arguments.
Make the “science” of agriculture fixate on short-term, reductionist nutrition comparisons, or unrelated beneficial GM technologies like those found in the medical field.
Or trot out golden rice (questionable as it may be) and pretend that it represents all of GMO agriculture.
Point out “hypocrisies” in pop culture news, like the inability of Chipotle to entirely eliminate GMO’s from their supply chain due to GMO corn being in the HFCS in their beverages, or foolish discussions around calorie or sodium content of their food which makes it “still bad for you anyway.”
3) Keep the idiot echo chamber focused on shouting back and forth about the above debate so that they don’t think about the connection between GMOs, industrial agriculture, what your tax dollars are subsidizing, fossil fuel dependence, climate change and the social, environmental and political impacts thereof.
This keeps people from noticing that opposing GMO’s can be about refusing to blindly support an unsustainable agricultural system that:
- Directly produces between 19 and 29% of world greenhouse gas emissions (14)
- Depends on an oil industry that is supported by between 775 million to 1 trillion dollars in annual global taxpayer subsidies, despite the top 5 companies pulling in 900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010 while paying their CEOs as much as 100,000 dollars per day (15,16,17)
- That ultimately produces environmental devastation, nutritionally poor chemical-laden food of increasingly little variety, and
- A systems trap known as “shifting the burden to the intervenor” that creates an increasing cycle of dependence on patented pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and fungicides that require patented, genetically altered plants to survive them.
The merits of GMO’s cannot be reduced to a simple, binary, “good or bad” conclusion.
Debating their “health” in a simplistic sense is also not a productive means of understanding their value.
Within the medical industry and many other fields, they’re often wonderful advances.
Specifically within the realm of our agricultural systems, they’re probably often unnecessary or misapplied and likely harmful.
We cannot, however, take them out of the current system and expect that system to work any better. We must change the system itself, not just tinker with the pieces.
There is likely even a place for GMO technology in certain parts of an agroecological model. These things do not have to be mutually exclusive.
GMO-dependent monocrop agriculture exists because of the primacy of one particular system that’s been heavily embedded in our culture and political machine, and our inability to see outside of that.
To blindly support GMO’s in this area, which largely means the ones prevalent in American food, is essentially to support industrial mono-crop agriculture at the expense of healthier, more productive and socially and environmentally responsible models, and to promote ignorance of and worsening of climate change and the economic devastation that follows it.
Thus, advocating for GMO’s in this case is to take an anti-science stance. It’s knee-jerk reductionism.
It’s not about “Are GMO’s healthy?”
Being skeptical about the role of GMO’s in our food system is not about simple health debates.
It’s about questioning the existence of an industrial agriculture system with few benefits to those outside a handful of corporate and political organizations, which exists to the detriment of systems that are better for everyone else – physically, economically, socially and environmentally.
- Budget of the United States Government: FY2010, Historical Tables, Table 3.2.
- Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven, “Farm Subsidies at Record Levels As Congress Considers New Farm Bill,” Cato Institute Briefing Paper no. 70, October 18, 2001
- Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database,www.ewg.org/farm.
- Hendrickson, J. 1996. Energy use in the U.S. food system: a summary of existing research and analysis. Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, UW-Madison
- Gever, J., et al. 1991. Beyond oil: the threat to food and fuel in the coming decades, third edition. University Press Colorado
- Pimentel, D. and M. Giampletro. 1994. Food, land, population and the U.S. economy. Carrying Capacity Network
- Calogero Carletto, Sara Savastano, and Alberto Zezza, “Fact or Artifact: The Impact of Measurement Errors on the Farm Size– Productivity Relationship,” Journal of Development Economics 103 (2013): 254-261
- “Typhoon Haiyan Exposes the Reality of Climate Injustice,” La Via Campesina, press release, December 4, 2013
- Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012), 6-7.
- “Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late,” United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2013
- “Agriculture at a Crossroads: Synthesis Report,” International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, 2009.
- Schutter, O. De. (2010). United Nations report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Development, (December), 21.
- Sonja J. Vermeulen, Bruce M. Campbell, and John S.I. Ingram, “Climate Change and Food Systems,” Annual Review of Environment 37 (2012):
- “2011 Summary Annual Report,” ExxonMobil, p. 4; “2012 Summary Annual Report,” ExxonMobil, p. 4
- Elizabeth Bast et al., “Low Hanging Fruit: Fossil Fuel Subsidies, Climate Finance, and Sustainable Development,” Oil Change International for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, June 2012, p. 16
- Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006