On Thursday, I had a post published on Scientific American’s guest Blog about claims that genetically modified food crops could contain allergens. In it, I am critical of the Union of Concerned Scientists (a science advocacy and policy organization), for what I read as misplaced opposition to genetic engineering:

The UCS’s concern about the dire state of our food system is well-founded, and I applaud their efforts to get out in front of the policy debate. There’s just one problem: they oppose using all of our technology to help combat this problem. Specifically, I’m talking about genetic engineering (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMO)

Via e-mail and on twitter, some folks from UCS made it clear that they believe I’ve mischaracterized their position. They haven’t given me permission to publish the e-mails, so I won’t, but I’ll try to paraphrase. I was told that UCS does not oppose all uses of GMOs, but they believe that current policy does not do enough to regulate new GE varieties, that GMO companies have too much power to push past the regulation that does exist, and that there are alternatives to GE that should be pursued more aggressively. You should check out their website to read their position for yourself.

I largely agree with their position on agricultural issues – there isn’t adequate regulation of new crops, large industrial farms have too much influence, and we’re too reliant on monoculture (growing a single variety of a single crop year after year). However, none of these problems are unique to genetically engineered crops, and I think the fact that UCS has singled out GE as a problem confuses these issues. If GE crops were banned tomorrow, all of these same problems would remain.

I should be clear that I support UCS generally, and their work on agriculture specifically. Their roadmap for healthy farm policy is a wonderful and succinct explanation for what’s wrong with the way we currently grow food, and policy proposals to make it better. But GE is a technology (among others) that can help us make it better. Yes, they should be regulated, but so should new varieties produced by techniques like mutation breeding. Yes, we need to move away from monoculture and industrial farming practices, but that’s true of GE and organic farming alike.

Genetic engineering, like any other technology can be used for good and for ill. It can be helpful and it can be dangerous. New regulations and policies should be technology-neutral, and focus on outcomes.

This post was also published at my new blogging venture, Red Wine and Lariam

Comments

  1. #1 Michael G. Fons
    Oceanside, CA
    June 1, 2013

    I am totally in favor of GMOs if they produce useful things like drought tolerant crops, or crops which are resistant to disease. But, genetically altering a crop to be resistant to RoundUp, or other weed killers, so millions of acres of farmland can be drenched in herbicide is not my idea of sustainable, because it destroys the fertility of the soil. In regards to USC saying GMOs may cause allergies or toxins, I believe it is as the author says, “in principle possible”. So, I do not understand his problem with USC saying “GMOs MAY cause allergies or toxins”. They said MAY cause….not DOES cause.

    • #2 Kevin Bonham
      June 1, 2013

      No doubt – companies are using the technology in ways that don’t further sustainable agriculture. But companies are using a lot of technologies that don’t further sustainable agriculture – singling out this single technology as objectionable promotes the narrative of GMO opponents, namely that GMO = unsustainable, unhealthy and bad, while organic = healthy, environmentally friendly and good. Non-GMO farmers use herbicides and pesticides too, organic farmers use monoculture and industrial farming techniques.

      So, I do not understand his problem with USC saying “GMOs MAY cause allergies or toxins”. They said MAY cause….not DOES cause.

      Cell phones MAY be used to detonate bombs. A power drill MAY be used to rob a safe. Satellites MAY fall out of space and land on a person.

      Does this clarify my objection at all?

  2. #3 proximity1
    June 3, 2013

    this is a non-sequitur: “No doubt – companies are using the technology in ways that don’t further sustainable agriculture. But companies are using a lot of technologies that don’t further sustainable agriculture – singling out this single technology as objectionable promotes the narrative of GMO opponents, namely that GMO = unsustainable, unhealthy and bad, while organic = healthy” …

    as well as beside the point.—

    as for, “But companies are using a lot of technologies that don’t further sustainable agriculture”…

    So what? These, too, are just as objectionable. If the other objectionable uses aren’t sufficiently insisted on, it does nothing to undermine the main point.

    You’d apparently like to refocus attention “elsewhere”–but the “elsewhere” is a “difference without a distinction.” To “argue” that “But companies are using a lot of technologies that don’t further sustainable agriculture” is to indulge in a distraction which happens to grant the point you prefer not to grant directly.

    if it is objected–as it is– that, in sum, ” companies are using the technology in ways that don’t further sustainable agriculture” and you grant that, as you do, then the rest of your “But….” is so much palaver that does nothing pertinent to demonstrate that the point in question is rebutted.

    Your argument is seen everywhere from young children who protest, “Yeah, but they did it, too!” to dictators who say, “Maybe I’m a tyrant but there are others, and some of them are even worse!”

    From a scientist, that is not a respectable argument–though, from scientists, it’s hardly less commonly appealed to than is the case from non-scientists. That is a shame.

    • #4 Kevin Bonham
      June 3, 2013

      So what? These, too, are just as objectionable. If the other objectionable uses aren’t sufficiently insisted on, it does nothing to undermine the main point.

      It does undermine the main point, if your whole reason for objecting to GE technology is because of its use in unsustainable agriculture. It’s as if I was lobbying against tractor technology because tractors are used in industrial farming. Or lobbying against cell phones because they can be used to detonate bombs. It makes no sense to lobby against cell phones, policy should be implemented to curtail bombs.

      My point here is that policies should be implemented to curtail unsustainable farming practices regardless of the technology used. The fact that many other technologies are used in unsustainable farming is relevant, because people are not objecting to things like tractors and irrigation, despite the fact that those technologies are also used in unsustainable farming.

      To your analogy about tyrants, this situation is more analogous to people objecting to the idea of fences, because fences are being used to imprison political dissidents. The problem is not the fence, it’s the way the fence is used. I’m not saying, “look at those other tyrants that are worse,” I’m saying, “The tyrant uses cell phones and loudspeakers and cars to suppress people’s rights, too. The problem is not the fences, it’s the Tyrant!”

  3. #5 proximity1
    June 3, 2013

    RE:
    …” if your whole reason for objecting to GE technology is because of its use in unsustainable agriculture”…

    Excuse me, but I never argued that sustainability exhausts my objections to GE. It’s one, and an important one, of the reasons I object to GE, but it isn’t nor need it be the only one. Thus, you have a presupposition: namely that, apparently, the valid arguments boil down to a matter of “sustainable-or-not” and, since there are many other non-sustainable techniques in use, those who object to GE on that ground are bereft of a good argument.

    Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Your view assumes GE as a precondition; it implies, ‘There’s is GE and there is going to continue to be GE” but in a dispute which opposes the a priori need for and use of GE in the first place, with, as one of several arguments, that it is also unsustainable, you’re not entitled to the luxury of the flat assertion that GE is simply a “given” –this is what is formally called a petitio principii fallacy and it is mind-numbingly common.

    Suppose, for example, that for some weird reason, it happened that GE techniques were “sustainable”? Would they, on that account, be any more likely to be safe, healthy, and desirable? It seems to me the answer is and ought to be, “clearly, no.”

    GE technixques, I argue, pose unnecessary dangers–unnecessary because we can do better by far without these measures–in addition to being, as you agree, unsustainable.

    • #6 Kevin Bonham
      June 3, 2013

      Excuse me, but I never argued that sustainability exhausts my objections to GE

      You didn’t, but this is a facet of many people’s objections, and as you say it does not exhaust your objections, it seems to be a facet of yours. But as I’ve said before, the fact that a technology may be used for some awful purpose is almost a tautology. Any technology can be used for any number of nefarious purposes. We should object to the nefarious purpose, not the technology.

      Thus, you have a presupposition: namely that, apparently, the valid arguments boil down to a matter of “sustainable-or-not” and, since there are many other non-sustainable techniques in use, those who object to GE on that ground are bereft of a good argument

      Sorry, this is not my presupposition. The arguments around GMO are manifold, and I find it useful to unpack one at a time. My piece in SciAm was meant to address the concern about allergens. The comment I replied to here (and part of my response to UCS in particular) is around the idea of sustainable agriculture. That does not mean that I assume it is the only objection or that other objections are meaningless or inconsequential. One thing at a time.

      Your view assumes GE as a precondition; it implies, ‘There’s is GE and there is going to continue to be GE” but in a dispute which opposes the a priori need for and use of GE in the first place

      Is your position in the dispute that we should not use E. coli to produce human insulin? That we should not pursue gene therapy to treat human disease? That essentially all biomedical research done in labs around the country should be halted? All of these things use and depend on genetic engineering.

      Even if you want to restrict the discussion exclusively to the use of GE in agriculture, the fact that the majority of corn, soy and cotton grown in this country already uses GE, and the fact that many farmers want GE products puts me on pretty solid ground with my assumption. I suppose we can have a philosophical discussion about whether we should have ever used the technology in the first place, but it seems to me that historically those opposing the advance of technology are tilting at so many windmills. I think a much more productive discussion is how can we shape the use of technology such that it tends towards beneficial rather than harmful applications.

      The conclusion of that discussion may be that the benefits of GE in agriculture may not outweigh the risks, but the technology exists and is being used, I don’t need to presume that much.

      Suppose, for example, that for some weird reason, it happened that GE techniques were “sustainable”?

      Again, you’re missing the point here. Some products of GE may help with sustainability, and some products may not. The technology itself, the ability to precisely manipulate the genes of an organism, is neutral on this subject.

      Would they, on that account, be any more likely to be safe, healthy, and desirable? It seems to me the answer is and ought to be, “clearly, no.”

      I agree, clearly not. But again, I don’t think any of those labels (safe, healthy, desirable) can be applied with a broad brush to anything produced with GE technology. I think that E. coli producing insulin is clearly all three things. I think that rice that produces beta-carotene to help make up for a nutritional deficit and prevent blindness is healthy and desirable, and most likely safe. If I manufactured tomatoes that expressed anthrax toxin, that would clearly be unsafe, unhealthy and not desirable (unless it was produced to make an anthrax vaccine, in which case it might be desirable).

      I personally think that several of the GE products currently on the market are safe, health neutral and desirable. However, even if I granted that roundup ready corn is unequivocally bad, that would not be an argument against GE.

      GE technixques, I argue, pose unnecessary dangers–unnecessary because we can do better by far without these measures–in addition to being, as you agree, unsustainable.

      I actually don’t agree. To restate (I know I’ve said this a bunch of times, but I want to be clear), GE technology itself may be used in unsustainable ways, but again, that’s not any more informative than saying that tractors can be used in unsustainable ways.

      As to questions of dangers, necessary or not, it’s clear that I disagree with your conclusions, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. As I said, one thing at a time.

      I want to credit your attitude to the disussion here, however we disagree on the facts and the principles. Your readiness to read and consider and argue puts you light-years ahead of the tone and attitudes of other bloggers at other blogs in this site when discussing the same issues

      Likewise :-). Even if we end up agreeing to disagree, it’s nice to have a discussion where you don’t accuse me of being a monsanto shill, and I don’t accuse you of being an ignorant pseudo-science wacko. These are incredibly complicated issues, but I think they’re important, which is why I’m taking so much time away from my experiments (using genetically modified mouse cells btw!) to discuss this.

  4. #7 proximity1
    June 3, 2013

    P.S.

    I want to credit your attitude to the disussion here, however we disagree on the facts and the principles. Your readiness to read and consider and argue puts you light-years ahead of the tone and attitudes of other bloggers at other blogs in this site when discussing the same issues.

    I appreciate what you show so far in that respect.

  5. #8 Stew
    June 4, 2013

    “we need to move away from monoculture and industrial farming practices, but that’s true of GE and organic farming alike”.

    I don’t believe organic farming is done either in monoculture or industrially, but when it comes to GE, isn’t
    science being used here, to enable these forms of production?. Indeed, GE tech would almost seem tailor made, if one was actually planning to continue, if not enhance, these very same destructive, business/farming practices.

    • #9 Kevin Bonham
      June 4, 2013

      There is certainly industrial-scale organic farming, and much of it is indeed monoculture. Organic farmers tend to be more environmentally conscious, and so are more likely than conventional farmers to move away from monoculture, which is great. But there’s a lot of money in organic farming, and there’s plenty of corporate and industrial organic farming.

      And no, I don’t think GE tech is tailor made to continue those destructive farming practices. In fact, I think there are a lot of ways that GE technology could help ameliorate those practices. For instance, GE varieties that are drought resistant and can grow with less water so we’re not draining aquifers. I think Bt crops are great in that they reduce the need for chemical pesticides that inevitably get into runoff and groundwater. Unfortunately, the main players in GMO production are major corporations that care more about profit than the environment, so current varieties have often been put to use in destructive ways. It needn’t always be thus.

  6. #10 Tim D.
    United States
    June 4, 2013

    Kevin, you said in your other post, “but this would have to be by malicious intent of the scientists, not some accident.”

    I don’t think you have to mark this up to malicious intent by scientists. You just have to believe that a corporation may decide to maximize profits in a way that doesn’t take into account unintended consequences for vulnerable sub-populations, or public health, or what-have-you. Unfortunately, this happens all the time — drug companies, tobacco companies, chemical companies, oil companies. It’s not some made-up fairy-tale. And I say this not to demonize corporations, but just to recognize that they are hard-wired to maximize profits.

    The tough questions here are not about science per se, but about regulatory philosophy, precaution, risk, etc. Do we trust corporations enough to let them self-police? Or should we attempt to apply science-based and public health-based criteria in writing regulations? How should that process look?

    “New regulations and policies should be technology-neutral, and focus on outcomes.”

    That is a lot easier said than done. The truth is that any regulatory regime probably won’t be technology-neutral. No one is going to write one reg to “end unsustainability.” What we have is a patchwork of laws, which impact GMOs in a variety of ways. And yeah, that’s not optimal, but it is the political reality.

    I’m curious what you think about policy specifics. On their website, UCS has a list of 5 policy goals for GMOs, and I’m curious if you actually disagree with any of them? They are pretty clearly NOT calling for a blanket ban on GMOs. I think that if you got into the regulatory weeds here you would find that your position is very close to UCSs.

    • #11 Kevin Bonham
      June 4, 2013

      I don’t think you have to mark this up to malicious intent by scientists. You just have to believe that a corporation may decide to maximize profits in a way that doesn’t take into account unintended consequences for vulnerable sub-populations, or public health, or what-have-you.

      Fair point. I don’t think this changes the conclusions though – that you need policy to address the damaging action or product, not the technology itself.

      The tough questions here are not about science per se, but about regulatory philosophy, precaution, risk, etc. Do we trust corporations enough to let them self-police? Or should we attempt to apply science-based and public health-based criteria in writing regulations? How should that process look?

      I couldn’t agree more – and those are the conversations I WANT to have. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to have those conversations amidst cries of “FRANKENFOOD!” and “BAN GMO!”

      That is a lot easier said than done. The truth is that any regulatory regime probably won’t be technology-neutral. No one is going to write one reg to “end unsustainability.” What we have is a patchwork of laws, which impact GMOs in a variety of ways. And yeah, that’s not optimal, but it is the political reality.

      I’m curious what you think about policy specifics. On their website, UCS has a list of 5 policy goals for GMOs, and I’m curious if you actually disagree with any of them? They are pretty clearly NOT calling for a blanket ban on GMOs. I think that if you got into the regulatory weeds here you would find that your position is very close to UCSs.

      I think you’re right here too. As I mentioned in both this post and the one at SciAm, I support UCS and a lot of their positions with respect to farming and agriculture. I think they lay out the problems with our current agriculture system quite clearly and I think most of their policy goals are quite sensible. I’m a huge fan of their healthy farms initiative (though that doesn’t mention GMO at all). As to their specific policy goals around GMO, I’m fine with all of them except labeling (I’m on the fence on that one) – I don’t necessarily agree that all of those things are needed, but I wouldn’t object. Still, I think you can support those goals without the need to mislead people about the benefits and dangers of GMOs.

  7. #12 Tim D.
    June 4, 2013

    I should add that I do agree with your basic point. Policy should address the specific cases and harms, not the broad technology itself. It’s just as silly to say “Ban all GMO” as it is to say that every possible genetic modification is “the same as” regular plant breeding and so should get an automatic free pass (as was the industry position for years).

    In fact, I suspect that this problem will just get worse as the technology gets more sophisticated. Is it possible to write a law that will encompass the breadth of GMO technologies as they will stand 10 or 20 years from now? Probably not. We may need a taxonomy of different types of genetic modifications that are being brought to market, each with a different policy response. Some potential future products may require more scrutiny than others. Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t always do “flexible” very well.

  8. #13 proximity1
    June 5, 2013

    RE: “The comment I replied to here (and part of my response to UCS in particular) is around the idea of sustainable agriculture. That does not mean that I assume it is the only objection or that other objections are meaningless or inconsequential. One thing at a time.”

    Well, as this is your blog, all I can do is say, that’s your choice, of course, but it seems to me a needlessly strained approach–but the epitome the way modern techno-science approaches almost everything, i.e. in isolation, though there are signs that this is beginning to change slightly.

    One (too) brief answer RE medical research and GE:

    I distinguish between GMO & GE research and development in médicine from that done in and by scientists and engineers in commercial agriculture and chemicals. Maybe I shouldn’t make that distinction but I’m still prepared to grant enough good-will to the bullk of medical researchers’ efforts in GE. Still, I’d argue that their efforts should ultimately be no less subject to a real, i.e. effective publicly-founded review and consent, without which latter, it should be prohibited.

    I can easily accept that there may be instances where a very good case can be made for the use of GE (in your example, Escherichia coli in the manufacture of insulin) in medical care and in pharmacology. In such instances, the case should have to me made to the public, even if it’s difficult and time-consuming and carries the “risk” that the public, in its ignorance, won’t decide wisely in each case.

    When it comes to public safety, the general public, being freer of the corrupting influences which abound as soon as one enters the realm of R&D, esp. as done today via centralized political and Financial interests, are much more likely to weigh in on the side of warranted caution, and the expert technocracy much more (& much too) likely to be corrupted by those just-mentioned influences–since the technocracy has selfish gain as a powerful motivator. Something has to be instituted against that and there is only one candidate: a public whose informed consent is requried for pursuit of what technocrats call “progress”.

    When you arrive at the point where you discuss “Who decides what is or isn’t safe enough, and how do they decide, I’ll be very interested in the issues surrounding those questions.

    BTW, you may know–, as your comment may have been have allusion to them– there are blogs and bloggers at this site who are indeed, little more than shills for Monsanto Co. It heartens me that you aren’t among them.

    “Bring the public along, or don’t go there (unless and until you can).”

  9. #14 Jim Thomerson
    June 9, 2013

    I suspect that pest protection GM will be transient, because pests will be selected to deal with the GM pest protection. Any reports yet of roundup resistant weeds? If not, just be patient.

  10. #15 Magpie
    July 11, 2013

    Yeah, there are roundup resistant strains popping up all over the place. Google will sho you plenty of articles.