Q: What's another word for "Genetic Modification"?
A: "Agriculture".

We've been doing it for about 10,000 years.

Let's take it as a given that Monsanto are evil bastards who do not have your best interests at heart -- they are a corporation after all, so that's a tautology.

However, people who are against genetic modification of our food sources are basically using the same arguments as the anti-vaxxers. It's anti-science magical thinking.

If you're wealthy enough that you can afford the artisanal, bespoke grapes with the seeds and bugs left in, enjoy them.

but if you want all our food to be constructed using pre-Paleolithic methods, get ready for a die-off on the order of 6.5 billion people, because without the optimization of agriculture, that's around the planet's carrying capacity.

Prop 37 was stupid. It was full of loopholes and solved no real-world problems. It might as well have said, "this is a non-binding resolution that Monsanto Bad!" Which they are. But that's not the point.

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36 Responses:

  1. Elusis says:

    Hear, hear.

  2. R. utt says:

    Largest sponsor of Prop. 37 was, in other words, this guy:

    Nice, huh?

    • Adolf Osborne says:

      Do we not all want to grow up to be just like that?

      I mean, I'd treat the front lawn differently (a large food garden, more trees, and a place for folks to pitch a tent seems so much more useful than an unglorified grass fairway), but I think we'd all welcome the cash to make it happen: Who doesn't want an in-ground pool, a house big enough for a whole lot of whatever, whenever, and enough cashflow that paying for the upkeep isn't a big deal?

  3. Dave Pease says:

    interesting timing on the last two posts

  4. R. utt says:

    Dave, if you are hinting at something, I'm a little too dense to get it. Explain?

  5. Ryan Finnie says:

    I never found the original quote again, but I remember a commentary from years ago (for all I know it could have been you) that essentially said, "Genetically-modified plants are made by a crazy process called 'selective breeding'. People are scared of the term because they think it involves lasers or something."

  6. Based on my careful observations, I am putting my money down on no more than three more hours elapsing before someone angrily accuses you of being on Monsanto's payroll.

  7. Agricultural technology keeps putting off Malthus, and we can't have that.

  8. Yariv says:

    There is more than one way to "GM". One way is through selective breeding, and is relatively safe. However what Monsanto is sometimes doing is 'gene implant'. That is they take a gene from one organism and put it in another. This is where you tread unknown territory.

    The genes implanted are usually enzymes catalyzing some chemical reaction. For example they might enable the creation of some new compound, or the change of another. Adding previously non-existing enzymes to a metabolic system creates new metabolic pathways.

    I remember reading somewhere that in one instance ("golden rice"?), adding a handful of new genes created about 50 new chemical compounds. A couple of these were intended, the rest no so much. The long-term effect of these new compounds on your health is unknown. In another instance the new compounds were insecticides, which also have dubious effect on the human health.

    I think that GM is generally a promising idea, but one has to be carefull and understand the implications of what he is doing.

    About Monsanto, they are considered an 'evil corporation' for many other reasons. I remember stories about them suing farmers for using 'Monsanto' seeds, whereas the farmers did not intend to in the first place. Turns out that because of cross-pollination and the fact that GM plants are usually tougher the GM plants took over the fields - without ever being invited.

  9. Simon Hawkin says:

    So why is Monsanto bad, again?

  10. luddite says:

    goddamnitall, now i want me some bespoke grapes.

  11. I recommended Yes on 37 just because I like labels. But yeah, it was a stupid law, like Prop 65. Maybe someone will try again in a few years with a less stupid version.

    • Maybe "someone" in this case could be the body of people that we pay to be professional drafters, editors and passers of laws, instead of some itinerant goofy billionaire with a bug up his ass?

      It's just a thought.

  12. Tom Lord says:

    This is pretty wrong: "Q: What's another word for "Genetic Modification"? A: "Agriculture"."

    On the one hand you have ancient practices of selective breeding, cross breeding, and hybridization. On the other hand you have processes of induced and engineered mutations. The latter produces outcomes that can not be produced by the former. So arguments that proceed from the assumption that we're just doing what we've always done, only more efficiently (and therefore should feel safe) are specious.

    I'd like to hear (and have yet to hear) any positive arguments that industrial scale release of induced and engineered mutations are banal. We know that they spread transgenically. We know that they induce pesticide resistance in pests. We know that escapes displace native species in some cases. We know that there are no "takebacks" in this game. We know that naturally occurring mutations aren't distributed randomly on genes -- implying regulatory mechanisms that favor mutations at some locations more than others -- and we know that we don't know the effect of genetic engineering on those hypothesized regulatory mechanisms. We know that industrial ag use of these crops perpetuates practices that deplete soils and promote petro-intensive agriculture.

    The comparison to vaccination fears is pretty galling. We know that if vaccination rates fall -- even if only a modest minority "opts out" -- that the diseases we vaccinate against come roaring back and effect the entire population. We know that the anti-vaccine folks offer no realistic solutions to that. By contrast: While tt's true that we know that we don't know any way to supply enough food for the world without so-called green-revolution technologies ... we also know that we can greatly reduce our dependency on them and maybe eventually do without them (and live in more robust and resilient societies as a result).

    Prop 37, though it may have been flawed in its details, was hardly rooted in "magical thinking". The premise of proposed legislation like that is that underinvestment in non-GMO ag is a market failure caused by an irrational discounting of the risks of modern industrial Ag. 37 would have tried to help correct that market failure by offering information to consumers.

    • jwz says:

      Likewise, transistors have little to do with water-wheels. Level up.

      We have been manipulating our environment without fully understanding the consequences for basically 200,000 years, and will continue to do so because you can never fully understand complex systems. Oh, and also because if we don't, we'll all die.

      • Rick C says:

        "Oh, and also because if we don't, we'll all die."

        To some, that's a feature, not a bug. I wish they'd lead by example, though.

  13. Colin says:

    Had pretty much this same debate with a bunch of my friends over FB yonder. I know I'm mostly preaching to the choir here but I thought I would paraphrase the discussion as it was interesting enough to pass on…

    For the most part,people's reasoning was "Monsanto is bad" which you already pointed out is a piss poor reason to force labels on food. The second big reason was that they felt have a right to know what was in their food. Too which I pointed out that adding the label GMO tells you nothing about what is in your food. At best it only gives you a general idea of what one of one of the processes were that went into making one or more ingredients of the food item. It's like saying Food A was stirred by hand and Food B used a fancy electric mixer — but either way both could have cyanide in them. If people are afraid of unregulated and untested GMO then sure fight for more regulation. Labels are meaningless and misleading and also frankly businesses shouldn't be forced to place warning labels unless there is actually a specific proven health issue to warn about.

    • DaveL says:

      "May have been stirred by electric mixer" is a great proposed label. Referendum incoming.

    • Brian B says:

      Somewhere I read that the essential difference between "natural flavor" and "artificial flavor" is how old the process involved is. In both cases you have no idea what sort of chemistry went into the otherwise anonymous ingredients.

      • Colin says:

        Yep that was my understanding as well. No real meaningful difference between natural and artificial flavors.

      • Dusk says:

        For at least some flavors (e.g, vanilla), it's literally impossible to tell the difference between the "natural" and "artificial" variants without looking at the isotopic ratios. On a chemical level, they're completely identical. The only difference? One of them was chemically extracted from vanilla beans, the other one was chemically synthesized from petrochemicals.

  14. Ray says:

    Seems to me that the real concern is that GMO crops are being rushed out, launched on a massive systemic scale with minimal testing (primarily of the 'worked for me on my system the one time I tried it' variety). While there are certainly some good features, there are also most likely some bugs in there too. We may not realize that the database ( supply & population) is corrupt until it's too late to fix easily (possibly a generation or more), and we have no backup (had to delete it to make room for the new system). In that light, it makes sense to slap a 'Food (beta)' label on it.

    Sure, we're gonna evolve, food's gonna evolve, and GMOs are gonna be part of the future. Some of 'em are likely to turn out to be pretty good. But is it really so bad to want some unit tests and regression tests for something with that much potential to do massive damage if it goes badly? And anyway, what's wrong with asking for a 'beta' label so that consumers know to expect a few problems?

    The real question is how do we determine when it's mature enough to not need the label - how much testing and time does it need?

    • Max says:

      There is little reason to argue using tiresome analogies. Your analogy is bad because you are excessively discounting the fact that GMO produce comes from plants that were viable enough to produce fruit.

      Little of the software available today undergoes testing that rigorous.

  15. latemodel says:

    To be fair, Monsanto is a special kind of evil. They're attempting to create an unholy hybrid of the "sue your customers" record-industry model with an attempt to completely break that 10,000 year history of agriculture. Use the seeds from last year's harvest? What seeds? And if you found seeds, you owe us royalties.

    The great part is that I grew up knowing them as the company responsible for the majority of the Superfund sites in my home state of Massachusetts. Turns out, they were big in PCBs, DDT, and Agent Orange until a young Bain consultant named Mitt Romney came along. You can't make this shit up.

    Corporations never have your best interests at heart. But these folks are the last people you want anywhere near your food supply.

  16. kt says:

    There's GMO and GM-Oh.

    Selective breeding doesn't put bits of some other organism into plant. I'm referring to the use of a bacterium genes to make cottron bug resistant. I don't so much have a problem with this, but only because I don't eat cotton. But when we get transgenic vegetables, what then? Wont someone think of the vegans!

    The farming method of GMO crops:
    (1) plant GMO herbicide-restistant crops
    (2) spray the entire field with herbicide, killing everything except the motherfucking crops
    (3) profit!

    I take issue with the spraying of so much herbicide, because already we're seeing herbicide resistant weeds coming to the fore.

    Monsanto are arse-hats because of their business practises, particularly the way they worm their representatives into governemnt positions, e.g.: Most levels of the U.S. Government, and Australia's CSIRO. That, and litigating anyone who goes against them into bankruptcy (e.g.: people providing seed-saving servcies for non-GM crops).

    The deeper problem is that now companies like Monsanto own/patent huge amounts of the genetic makeup of the world's food crops. This reduces genetic diversity, leaves us open to food-crop disease risk.

    The whole argument: "We need to GMO to save the starving"; That's just a bunch of marketing snake-oil. The starving are the poor that can't afford the exhorbitatnt rates charged for GMO seed. They spend their days ploughing the earth with the arse-bone of a giraffe, and their nights field-servicing their AK-47s. The western world is only a few bug/fungus mutations away from starving due to failed monocultured crops. We will be the starving.

    The take-away: GMO crops through their proliferation and thereby monoculturism are reducing the genetic diversity of our food supply, putting us at risk of a crop-blight. It happened in the 17th centry with the potato in Ireland (all one species), it happened in the 1950's with the "Gros Michel" Banana (everywhere!). GMO + Monoculture are helping it happen again. That's what is wrong with GMO.

    Geeze, when was the last time you ate a good tomato.

    • jwz says:

      We had farming monocultures, misuse of pesticides, and predatory, patent-happy corporations many years before we had transgenic anything. Aim your hate at those business practices and companies, not physical mechanisms.

      Everyone loves to panic about transgenics, and that's bullshit. You want to fix the problem, fix the patent system. Or give the FDA teeth. Or any number of other things that could fix real, demonstrable problems instead of theoretical boogeymen that scare you because ooooh genetics.

      • kt says:

        > We had farming monocultures, misuse of pesticides, and predatory, patent-happy corporations [...]
        Yes, but not on the same globalised scale. Never before has the world had this level of monoculture, with so few seed companies in control. I'm not saying "ooooh genetics", I'm saying "ooooh monoculture". I'm not against GMO because of the genetic manipulation, I'm against the way it reduces diversification in our food supply. This is not "magical thinking".

        > Aim your hate at those business practices and companies, not physical mechanisms.
        I thought did ;)
        Globalised crop-blights are not theoretical boogeymen, they've already happened.
        But you are right in saying that it's a problem of the patent system (or the abuse there-of).
        GMO programmes like "Golden Rice" are great, but should it be the only rice? No.

        I don't think you adequately support your assertion that "[being suspicious of transgenics] is bullshit", and I must say I'm a bit disappointed with this response. Transgenic crops do not fit into your original premise of humans GM'ing crops for 10,000 years. Gregor Mendel never spliced one species into another. An interesting side question - If he could have, would he? (I think so).
        I must admit that I cannot cite a verifiable reason as to why transgenic foods are not good. Maybe we do need human genes expressed in cows' milk, and pork. I expect someone less-ignorant than I might suggest something though - more vectors for cross-species disease maybe?

        Your original idea, if I may paraphrase it, was that GMO is just a continuation of plant breeding and selective re-planting. Transgenics does not fall into this category at all. You can't cross-poliate a bird with a bee.

        • jwz says:

          GMO is a continuation (an inevitable and useful continuation) of agriculture in exactly the same way that the transistor is a continuation of the water wheel, in that it's just fucking science. Yeah it's scary, just like trying to explain electricity probably would have made the Mad Monk Mendel shit his robe. Maybe he'd have tried to burn you at the stake.

          There is nothing about transgenics that reduces biodiversity. Profit motive does that all by itself, and has reduced biodiversity quite admirably without the genetic boogeyman being in the picture at all.

      • 205guy says:

        Very late to this discussion, but here goes: I think what jwz's position fails to account for is that fixing the patent system, the FDA, the ag-industrial practices, the ag-industrial corporations, the lobbying, etc. is beyond the ability of the common citizen, the dedicated activist, or even the coalition of interested parties backed by a millionaire. So, the strategical solution is/was to go after the establishment's Achilles heel, the public acceptance of knowingly buying scary-sounding products. In other words, a form of social hacking of the otherwise very secure power structure.

        It would be like jwz trying to "fix" SF politics and power structures instead of asking people who care about live music to go to hearings.

        I also believe that transgenic != hybridized. That would be like saying strip clubs are the same as music clubs just because people go there for entertainment. Therefore, let's lump them all together and treat them morally as the same thing.

  17. sn says:

    kt, it's never gonna seem as hard next year as you're making it out now to make bumblehawks (firegulls, jumping cactusworms...)
    How long until public health involves picking a course of inoculation of measles, mumps, and McCaffeery or GrayMouse?
    What should cheat mode do on a plant; maybe you get a debug shoot? You want the seed to be labeled so you can expect it to open debug mode on any SNES-compatible product, but you just have to try it. Those beans should flash red when their flavor is optimal and sun down. Definitely all the Pandemonium and Pandemonium 2 cheats. In any case, nobody wants to think what they do is banal. Knowing a few extra courses of viable diversity you like to keep viable is another thing, aided poorly at best by labels. May as well print up a series of Mr. Queasy stickers to sell at the fruit stand to vendors who wish to cultivate a shadier demense (as if tutti frutti weren't a punishing flavor by itself.)