Backing into Eden Chapter 13: GMO Plants

Rice on white BackgroundBacking into Eden is not about how we are going back to the garden, but rather about how we need to re-approach the garden of the Earth armed with all we have learned and to actively care for what wildness and what nature we have left.  It’s about how we need to take responsibility.  That means using the tools of our current age, which include drones and nanotechnology and genetic modification and excellent design and big data.  I cannot imagine that we can solve tomorrow’s problems (or even today’s problems) with yesterday’s tools.  One of today’s tools is genetic modification of food crops and other plants.

A number of people who I respect have written articles and chapters in books that support GMO crops. These include leading environmentalist Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: How the planet can survive the age of humans, and Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The power of ideas on a finite planet.

Other people (who I also respect) are strongly against GMO food. Even a short trip around the internet turns up a huge and deeply-fearful anti-GMO movement.  In fact, for the last few years, almost every casual acquaintance that I talk to is quick to vilify GMO foods.

I set out to research what I could.  I found no scientific articles that supported the fear. I didn’t find any conclusive evidence that there are any significant problems.  None.  I’ve found plenty of scary articles, but not one study that actually demonstrated real harm. I have come to the conclusion that GMO’s are almost certainly safe for humans to consume as grown and distributed so far.  Asds appear to use more roundup, which gives Monsanto a double-win).

I  did see some things I don’t like or trust, including Monsanto’s lobbying practices. For example, some GMO crops have reduced the use of more toxic pesticides (although bT corn fields appear to use more roundup, which gives Monsanto a double-win). I agree with the assertion that there are things we can’t know yet and that there might – might – be long-term consequences we haven’t seen yet.  But I actually came across more lies and half-truths coming from the anti-GM side than the largely silent pro-GMO side (largely in the form of pretty simple “Monsanto is evil” comments and un-supported ties between GMO corn and the death of bees and butterflies, GMO corn and obesity, etc.).  Also note that what Monsanto has done in agriculture is not terribly different than what any tech company in my world (I’m a CIO by day) has done to protect their own products and intellectual property and income streams. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I’m not about to go out on a limb and cheer for Monsanto right now, but a little perspective might be in order.

I think GMO foods need to be regulated, tested, and introduced slowly.  I’d love to see a non-GMO certification like the organic certification programs, and to see ingredient labels specify the GMO ingredients – we have  right to know what’s in the food we’re buying.

We do need to demand care.  Development of transgenic plants  is an area where it would be possible to make mistakes, maybe even big ones.  But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore our knowledge in this area, or that the genii will even go back into the bottle should we try to stuff it in.

And it’s a genii with some power; one we might want on our side.  Big mistakes are possible, but so are even bigger payoffs which we may desperately need.

The idea of improving on nature is not new, and not even recent.  We’ve been changing plants throughout history through a variety of techniques.  We will – and should – continue to do this.  But transgenic crops are different.  That’s what makes them powerful.  Golden rice is a GMO staple which was developed to counter a dangerous vitamin A deficiency.  It was not created to make money; it was created to improve health.  Vitamin A could not have been inserted into this rice using old tools.

Not only is it time to stop vilifying Monsanto for its very existence (while remaining watchful and even noisy about the things we don’t like), but it’s also time to separate how we feel about this technology from how we feel about big agribusiness.

We should consider GMO plants one of the more powerful tools in a full toolbox.

I can easily imagine a time in the future when we are going to need even more sophisticated genetic modification abilities.  Between the twin pressures of population growth and climate change, we  probably need to grow crops in new places with different conditions, or even in the same places with different conditions.  We may need to make plants hardier, or to make them survive with less (or more) water.  We may need to make them hyper-capable of photosynthesis.  Hiding our heads in the sand is not the best way to prepare for this. Instead, we should be working hard and fast to ensure a strong testing framework and we should be funding university research and non-profit efforts to use this technology for good.

Plant Science or agronomyI did a little brainstorming.  Ways we might use transgenic crops in the future include:

  • Trees built to store more carbon than current forests
  • Wheat that can grow in a desert and survive a monsoon
  • Wheat that people with gluten allergies can eat
  • Pine trees that are resistant to the bark beetle
  • High yields on almost any food plant
    or even
  • A plant with a sugar flower, a perfect protein berry, and carbohydrate leaves.

In my research journey on GMO’s, I found a lot of negative storm with no substance, and many reasons to support this technology while remaining cautious and watchful.

Note – I am sure I haven’t seen all of the research (pro or con).  Please feel free to link to articles that contain actual information on any side of this argument.

Links for further reading and research….

GMO’s are not the cause of colony collapse:

Sick Bees – Part 18E: Colony Collapse Revisited – Genetically Modified Plants, scientific, Randy Oliver

A key environmentalist changes his position:

Time to Call out the Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theory, Mark Lynas, April 29th, 2013:

A food safety doctor suggests GMO’s could be bad, but there are far worse things:

GMO Foods: A potentially disastrous distraction, Dr. McDougall’s Health and Medical Center, August 22st, 2013

WHO weighs in with a FAQ

World Health Organization website, 20 Questions on genetically modified foods

Other articles on GMO Safety:

The Evidence on GMO Safety, Ramez Naam, April 28th, 2013:

Monsanto v. Monarch Butterflies, The Genetic Literacy Project, Sarah Fecht, March 25th, 2013:

A hippie’s defense of GMOs:  WHy genetically modified food ins’t necessarily a bad thing, Saul Of-hearts, Slate, July 25th, 2013:

2 thoughts on “Backing into Eden Chapter 13: GMO Plants”

  1. Interesting that you say you could zero studies about the harm of GMO food, as they are out there… Here are links to four peer reviewed studies on the subject: (page 38, “A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet”, including double blind autopsies.)

  2. I agree with you on all points. The anti-GMO crusade is short on facts. Much of their “studies” have been debunked by actual scientists (including the famous rats-potatoes-cancer study). We in the developed world have choices of what to eat, but much of the Third World is not so lucky and genemod crops will–not could but will–make the difference to many between life or starvation.

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