GMO --- Genetically Modified Organisms

In a recent post on his blog Paul Knoepfler asks:
  1. What are the facts on GMOs?
  2. I should already know GMOs inside and out, right?
  3. There's a lot of information and "information" out there though. How to tell the difference?
  4. Why do GMOs incite such intense reactions with usually no room for middle ground?
  5. I suppose by even doing this post I am asking for trouble, huh?
On the first two questions, Paul surely has a technical understanding far far beyond mine. But I don't think that the "technical" knowledge is all that Paul is thinking about.

Anyone who wants technical information "confirming" that GMO is safe can scan a synopsis of about 600+ papers at this website. David Tribe cites these many papers to demonstrate that no evidence has been found for harm done by GMO. Rhetorically, he asks:

Is GM food safe? if an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.
This has an authoritarian ring to it, like being hit over the head with a I'm-smarter-than-thou sledgehammer.

I'm one of those people who has suffered at the hands of expert opinion --- opinion that is now (40+ years later) well on the way to being debunked. I have a good excuse for being poorly disposed towards authoritarian's bearing expert opinion. Other people might just have a gut reaction against it.

If Mr Tribe seeks to assert his superiority then I expect that his website will be a big hit with those who are already in his "tribe". He can hardly expect to make any converts to his cause. Pauls fourth question has a two word answer: Expert arrogance. OK, that's a trite answer, but it has a smattering of substance.

In his comments on a David Gorski post, Saijanai has turned the David Tribe website on it's head, in a most interesting way. Basically, he's saying that the pro-GMO crowd are glossing over things that deserve to be more thoroughly studied. I tend to agree.

I can accept that much of the pro-GMO research has merit just as I accept that much of the anti-GMO rhetoric is hot air. But I am wary of people who presume to know so much that they can take absolute positions.

I suspect that the real reason why GMO has been a hard sell probably has little to do with how you tell the difference between information and "information". Or to be more blunt, how you tell the difference between noise and knowledge. Perhaps the matter is more about economics and social perceptions, let me try to explain.

First, let me make the outlandish suggestion that genetically modified organisms are all around us. Evolution is about genetically modified organisms. What we call GMO is about human's intentionally modifying the genes of organisms as a matter of "design" by humans. Creationists see things differently with regards to evolution and there is no sense beating ones head against that. It would be interesting to know how attitudes towards GMO are coloured depending upon the extent to which one is a creationist or more accepting of evolutionary theory.

I suspect that there might be subgroups within both the creationist and evolutionist camps that adopt very similar attitudes towards GMO:

I don't exactly share any of these views. But I don't condemn them, either.

My point is that positions on GMO are not just a matter of knowing or not knowing and neither are they a matter of believing or not believing. I think they are more deepy rooted. But rooted in what?

My father grew tomatoes for a living. To call him a successful businessman would be a great underestimation. He was a green artist.

I helped during school holidays. In the morning we would pick tomatoes and then grade them and pack them after lunch. Needless to say, I was somewhat over-exposed to the fruit. Nevertheless, I would sometimes spot the perfect-tasting tomato. That was put aside for lunch. My dog was the same. He would walk up and down the rows of plants smelling out only the most flavourful fruit. Never doubt that a dogs nose is an evolutionary masterpiece --- he usually lunched better than me.

Even before GMO there were many varieties of tomato. I'd like to say that we grew the best, most tasty, most wholesome fruit. But that would be a lie. We grew varieties that were best suited to marketing. And so it was that I would pick thousands of tomatoes in a morning and still, sometimes fail to find one that was worth eating for lunch.

Traditional methods for breeding varieties of tomato were done by businessmen for commercial purposes. But traditional breeding methods were democratic. There were many other motivations and many breeding enthusiasts would be more properly called artists. The line between enthusiast and commercialist was blurred --- and I think that such blurring is very humanizing.

So my point is this. Why do we do GMO? GMO is a specialists game. GMO is not something for an enthusiast to do for a hobby. Nor for a commercial gardener to play around with for his interest. I would suggest to you that GMO is only for commercial purposes. These things have deep consequences for freedom.

GMO hype gives the impression of being benevolent. A scientist tries to engineer a baboon gene into cattle so that they can be more efficiently farmed in tropical Africa. I'll wait to see the business plan before believing that Santa Claus is coming to Africa. I wonder what the wildlife would say? Oh the irony, baboons crowded out of existence by cattle carrying their gene. The lion population has been reduced to one tenth of what it was when George Adamson walked with them. Does Born Free mean anything for either (wo)man or lion? Should scientific knowledge so slavishly serve to grow human numbers?

We have all heard the complaint that GMO-companies force farmers to use their seeds. The pro-GMO technologists, on the other hand, will claim that the farmer is not forced to do anything --- rather the farmer buys the seeds because they perform best. Of course they do. The seeds are optimized for commercial success. So a farmer is forced to buy the seed or become uncompetitive.

The key point here is that the optimization is for commercial success. It is a fact of multi-variable calculus that optimization for one parameter will be at a cost to others. Were I to pick GMO tomatoes for an entire year, I might not find one to my lunch time taste --- even though all the fruit was most suited for the market. The commercial win is at a cost to freedom and aesthetics. At a certain point, commercial power becomes Big Brother. Freedom and aesthetics are integral parts of a human sense of security and well being.

Such things matter.

The issue is one of control. People are well-equipped to deal with changes on the slow time scales of evolutionary GMO. Traditional agriculture vastly speeded up the rate of genetic modification but the technology was accessible and democratic. People could have a sense of ownership, a sense of control, a sense of freedom. (Not so much our planet-mates.)

Skeletal remains show that physical health suffered as people shifted from being hunter gatherers to being agriculturalists. Nevertheless, the shift may have been inevitable in the sense that the agricultural lifestyle simply enabled greater numbers. Those that wouldn't shift were crowded out. Did some resist the transition? History says less about about long lost hunter gatherers than about dwindling lions.

One way or another people adjusted to agriculture, the first speeding up of GMO. Our modern GMO industry is of a vastly different scale and type to anything before. It is a highly specialized industry in which only a select priesthood can pay the price to actively participate. This time it is plain to see that many resist the transition.

I cannot answer the question that Paul raises. Perhaps there is no answer, only perspectives.