Why I am Not Anti-GM: the chatty FAQ version

Why am I interested in this controversy?

First, my older brother was a crop genetics researcher in the 90s, so I’ve been hearing about the latest research in crop genetic engineering since I was about 8-9 years old when he’d chat to me about what he was doing, and my brother snook me into the French government’s nuclear and genetic research labs where he was working (waving to security as we went) when I was 10 to give me a look around and explain what he was doing, also demonstrated what happens when you dip a Morning Glory flower in liquid nitrogen and then flick it (dry ice is also great for making Baked Alaska) and then played ‘telepathic’ guessing what I was drawing on the chalkboard in the library, by him climbing up the bookshelves and peeking over the top (cheating).

I’m not a molecular biologist, I’m an animal behaviour and evolutionary biologist, so I don’t have any economic interest or incentive to defend my job. If anything, my repeated public criticism of Organic marketing claims is more likely to limit my future employment prospects than give me any advantage. Maybe being close enough but not too close to the details to be is an ideal position to be able to explain the overall scientific viewpoint on ‘GMOs’ or, as scientists prefer to say, transgenic techniques.

Secondly, I’m a human being, so I care about other human beings naturally. I also happen to be a Quaker and a member of the Green Party, so I’m not exactly your stereotypical baddie pro-GM ‘lobbyist’, and most of my friends disagree with me, so I’m certainly not motivated by social conformity either. I believe transgenic crop development is likely to be extremely important or essential to feeding a still exponentially growing global population (I’ll return to that), especially without using so much of the petrochemicals used in the 1970s ‘Green Revolution’ to accelerate crop yields, and also for mitigating and adapting to the effects of man-made climate change.

I am also concerned that Quakers and Green Party members (a lot of overlap in my friends circle) will find in a few decades or centuries that because of their fashionable subscription to the prejudice against all GM indiscriminately that they’ve been unintentionally partly responsible for mass deaths in poor countries due to hunger and conflicts that needn’t have happened, and that, in general, attributing absolute moral significance to any particular technology or a brand (transgenic vs. ‘Organic’) is unwise and the ethical confusion it represents detracts from the public credibility of our moral advocacy in general beyond our own in-group.

Not Anti-GM or Pro-GM?

I’m anti some applications of transgenic technology and pro others. For example:

Pro Anti
Golden Rice Roundup-resistant crops
Bt crops ‘GM Salmon’
Blight-resistant potatoes

Golden Rice – Originally developed by Swiss academic scientist, Ingo Potrykus, in order to put Vitamin A (beta-carotene, the orange stuff in e.g. carrots and swedes) into rice, so that people in poor countries where their stable food is polished white rice with insufficient Vit A in their diets would get their Vit A needs in their traditional main staple and stop going blind at a rate of 250,000pa globally. The UN World Health Organisation has been handing out Vit A tablets as effectively as they could for decades, and that 250,000pa rate of night blindness due to Vit A deficiency was not going down. Unfortunately, Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues initially got the Vit A genes from daffodils, which are not a food plant (and poisonous), so the safety testing would have taken longer than if they had taken the Vit A genes from a food plant.

My brother’s old company, Syngenta, bought the IP rights to develop Golden Rice and re-did the transgenic cross by splicing in the Vit A genes from sweetcorn instead. Syngenta planned to market Golden Rice as a loss leader in poor countries to try to influence public opinion in Europe, but still the safety testing would take 5 years. Ingo Potrykus was outraged that the food safety authorities would require 5 years ‘safety testing’ on a crop with only genes occurring in many existing food plants to be ‘safety tested’ for 5 years while another 1.25m people go blind. The risk of people going blind without Vit A in their rice is near certainty, the ‘risk’ of just giving them the Golden Rice seeds straight away is purely a PR exercise – there is no sensible scientific reason to expect the slightest additional risk from transferring a gene with a well-known function in multiple food plants into another food plant.

I’ll go a bit quicker through the next few stories.

Bt Crops – Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that naturally secretes an insecticidal toxin, ‘Bt toxin’. Spraying your crops with live, whole B. thuringiensis is an insecticidal technique endorsed by the Soil Association as ‘Organic’. So, there is no disagreement about Bt toxin being safe for human consumption and that it is not particularly environmentally damaging.

Bt crops have the gene for Bt toxin transferred into the crop plants’ own genome, so that the peas, for example, express the Bt toxin themselves. Pollinators, like bees, which don’t eat the plants’ leaves or flowers, are totally fine. (Nectar is basically protein-free, so no Bt toxin there, and pollen is from the germ-line of cells, so has no Bt toxin in it.) Only insects which munch the leaves or flowers get Bt toxin. This is even more specific and more environmentally safe than spraying large amounts of B. thuringiensis all over the crops and soil.

Blight-resistant potatoes – Blight (Phytopthora infestans) is what caused the Irish potato famine, and it still costs the potato farming industry globally about £8bn/pa to avoid or treat. Treating it involves spraying large amounts of pesticides against P. infestans, which as a protozoan, is relatively more closely related to vertebrate animals, so the specificity of those pesticides is (I guess) likely to be worse.

A new variety of far more blight-resistant potatoes was created by transferring genes for blight resistance from a wild potato variety into modern high-yielding potato varieties. This is called a cis-genic cross, because the genes transferred are not from a different species. This means there is no reason whatsoever to expect the gene to function any differently in another variety of the same species, and no reason to expect any additional community ecology risks whatsoever from a cis-genic cross versus the variety already in common use.

Cis-genic crosses can and do occur in the wild or by selective breeding, the difference with creating it in the lab using a bacterial plasmid to splice the gene of interest in directly is that the technique itself is very quick (in undergrad biology lab practical, we all made some transgenic plants in a couple of hours; the slow part is working out which genes to transfer), whereas to selectively breed that gene into a potato (normally takes a whole year to reproduce) would take many, many years, and actually would be riskier (when you’re in-breeding to get homozygous alleles for the gene of interest, you may get other in-breeding effects, without necessarily noticing, whereas using a bacterial plasmid to splice the gene in directly is specific and precise, and usually comes with a colour-coded or UV fluorescent marker to confirm it, so even first-year biology students in lab practicals can’t usually mess it up!

Marram-rice  – About the time I went to visit my brother’s lab when I was 10, the French government had just funded a cis-genic cross between marram grass (extremely salt tolerant) and rice, made in the same lab my brother was working in, to give to Bangladesh to help prevent or limit the severity of a famine due to salt-water inundation of their rice fields after a hurricane. As far as I know, it worked, no problems, and no-one made a fuss because it wasn’t fashionable to be indiscriminately anti-GMOs yet.

Round-up (glyphosate) resistant crops – Anything that involves spraying more herbicides, more indiscriminately, is obviously an environmental hazard. I’m unconvinced as yet either way about the safety of glyphosate (‘Round-up’) to humans and other mammals. (Personally, I use glyphosate in my garden, but only where I can paint it on with a small paintbrush onto tough-rooted weeds or spray it onto brambles inside a plastic bag and clothes-peg the bag closed until it’s all absorbed or dried on, to prevent any spray-drifting. I wouldn’t like to use it on or near food plants, at least not within a month of harvesting.)

But putting glyphosate-resistance into crops is only one (particularly stupid) thing you can do with transgenics, not an intrinsic part of transgenic technology. It might also be possible, although slow and expensive, to breed for glyphosate-resistance in crops using traditional selective breeding or mutagenic selection (I’ll explain that below), but it would still be ecologically stupid.

GM Salmon – so, first of all, what I mean by being anti ‘GM Salmon’ is that I criticise and oppose the current incarnation of transgenic salmon, but wouldn’t necessarily if they fixed the following problems.

The problem, in this example, is that the wild-type female salmon find the transgenic-type male salmon very big and sexy, but their offspring are infertile and-or unviable (because of polyploidy). That means if the transgenic male salmon escape, and they jump, it could lead to localised population extinctions until the transgenic male salmon die out without successfully reproducing and then more wild salmon re-populate the habitat.

In general, the problem is that when you create a transgenic variety, often it cannot inter-breed successfully with the wild-type, and, if so, effectively you’ve created a new species. Aristotle said, very wisely, “nature does not make jumps” (natura non fecit saltum). Natural selection would have selected for pre-zygotic reproductive isolation mechanisms (sorry, will explain in a mo!) before the new type reached the speciation point at which it can no longer reproduce successfully with the ancestral type. In cases like the transgenic salmon (so far), they’ve effectively made a new species but skipped stages in the speciation process.

Returning to ‘pre-zygotic reproductive isolation mechanisms’ – that mouthful is a relatively shorter way of saying that differences in markings, in courtship behaviours, in habitat preferences, etc. can prevent two sides of a speciation event from inter-breeding, and, since it would be unsuccessful, both sides have higher reproductive fitness if they have variations which prevent them from inter-breeding, so those variations evolve. I.e. They are reproductively isolated before (pre) forming fertilised eggs (zygotes).

If the GM salmon producer went back and added in genes for differences in markings, courtship rituals or habitat preferences (for example, by making them exclusively marine and unable to enter freshwater where the wild-type go to sporn), such that the wild-type and the transgenic type no longer attempted to inter-breed, and validated that over maybe ~10yrs with multiple independent research teams, all trials pre-registered publicly and all data published, I’d be fine with that. Or, just keep the transgenic salmon somewhere there are no wild-type salmon and they couldn’t possible survive outside the farm or get to any wild-type salmon (not sure that works for salmon, as they’re quite good migrators and jumpers, but it works for alien species used as biocontrol agents in polytunnel horticulture, which is effectively the same issue ecologically).

So, to summarise this section, we’ve got a few general criteria from the above discussion, of applications of transgenic technology which I’d recommend approving or opposing:

  1. Cis-genic crosses can always be expected to have none of the ecosystem risks of trans-genic types. If it’s cis-genic and it’s not herbicide-resistant, it’s probably okay.
  2. Long safety testing is not necessarily a good application of the precautionary principle in cases in which the risks of continuing to not use the transgenic type are very high and there is no sensible reason to expect any additional risk from using the transgenic type.
  3. Skipping stages in speciation can be a problem in cases where the transgenic type and the wild-type could inter-breed (and there are other ecosystem risks if they succeeded too), but there should be ways of transferring in genes for pre-zygotic reproductive isolation mechanisms too, which should solve that problem.
  4. Making herbicide resistant crops, by any means, transgenic or traditional selective breeding, or anything which leads to using even more herbicides, more indiscriminately, is a bad thing.

‘GM is Not Natural’

First observation, this is unlikely to be a cool, calm, rational kind of statement. Or, as Hume so eloquently put it:

“…[A]s reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”

But supposing that, if you’ve read this far, you’re most probably a biased self-selected sample of Anti-GMO believers who are emotionally prepared to doubt your intuitive disgust long enough to contemplate another point of view at least for a moment, I will continue in hope.

‘Natural’ – philosophically, this could mean at least two things:

Natural vs. Manmade – this implicitly pre-supposes that humans are not an integral part of nature, or that human niche construction activities are somehow absolutely different from other animals’ niche construction activities (see Niche Construction: the forgotten process in evolution, by John Ognee-Smee, or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niche_construction for starters). I hope that just clearly expressing the assumptions which this concept of ‘natural’ implicitly relies on is enough to point out its absurdity.

‘Natural’ in the sense of ancient vs. modern and artificial. Compare traditional selective breeding – in the sense of niche construction activities which influence the selection factors for other species is probably at least as old as the Homo genus, but mostly in the last 4,000 since agriculture and domestication. It is based on sexual reproduction, and humans, un-consciously at first, then later consciously, directing or controlling mating between other animals or plants (or yeasts, etc.) to select for traits desired by humans. The un-conscious stage of selective breeding probably wasn’t efficient or quick enough to cause any major negative consequences (though woolly mammoths might disagree).  The early conscious stage of selective breeding by the Victorians had mixed results- some very negative, some of which we’re still living with – genetically deformed ‘pedigree’ dogs which continue to suffer unnecessarily because of human choices about their ancestors’ breeding. Selective breeding is not un-problematic either.

Transgenic techniques are based on horizontal gene transfer, which is a process occurring in nature, through bacterial plasmids and viruses. Bacterial plasmids are circles of DNA which transfer between bacteria in the same generation to swap bits of genetic code around. Sometimes they also swap bits of genetic code from non-bacterial cells which they’re symbiotically associated with either as parasites or mutualists, or as parasites of mutualists or as mutualists of parasites, you get the picture, it’s complicated when you look closely. When bacteria swap plasmids, a process called ‘conjugation’, it looks in many ways like they’re having sex – they form a tube between their cells, and swap circles of DNA through it, but the DNA swapping doesn’t involve meiosis so technically it’s not ‘sex’. The importance of horizontal gene transfer, mostly by bacterial plasmids, in evolution generally and particularly its importance in vertebrate animals, has been and still is massively underestimated by scientists not in the specialist field of researching horizontal gene transfer, which you can read more about in Evolution Through Genetic Exchange by Mathew Arnold. Key message: Horizontal gene transfer by bacterial plasmids is far older than sexual reproduction itself, in the long evolutionary timescale. Estimates how much older are in the billions of years. There is evidence of horizontal gene transfer into human and chimpanzee genomes too (Arnold), so if you disregard whether the horizontal gene transfer by bacterial plasmids was consciously directed by humans or not, as both are natural ultimately, we are all GMOs too. (“Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Cohn-Bendit)

The risks associated with the ‘consciously directed by humans’ aspect of transgenic technology are exactly the same as the risks of the same aspect of traditional selective breeding.

The real risks of ‘GMOs’ are related to how wise or unwise people’s choices of how to use transgenic techniques are, not because of the transgenic technique itself versus selective breeding. Selective breeding has all the same risks and actually has had more disastrous consequences historically.

Biocontrol (using predators/parasites/parasitoids to control pests) has very similar ecological risks if applied unwisely, and actually had very similar negative consequences in the first generation version of it in the 1950s. Now biocontrol practice and the ecological risk assessment protocols and testing before any new biocontrol agent is licensed have improved so much that the Soil Association Standards recommend it without any cautions, but historically it really caused vastly more harm than GMOs have ever even been accused of.

The proper target of environmentalist’s concern about GMOs and selectively bred varieties and new biocontrol agents should be the ecosystem implications of each particular case. The naturally-occurring biological process of horizontal gene transfer is not the problem, but human choices about how to direct it are sometimes a serious problem, and sometimes also very good.

Indiscriminate over-generalisation and demonising one technology actually in practice means ignoring or neglecting to scrutinise and hold private interests accountable for the risks of unwise applications of other technologies. Also scientists just learn to totally ignore ‘environmentalists’ when they come to expect unreasonable, ignorant opposition without any attention to the real details or outcomes; if you want to be taken seriously, engage with the scientific details and make a more reasonable argument on a case-by-case basis, or point out some fundamental problem with the process which isn’t just an irrelevant misunderstanding. Demonising all GMOs indiscriminately also discourages scientists from developing transgenic organisms that would be of greater public benefit than the bad examples, because they expect popular opposition regardless of the details or real outcomes.

“But there hasn’t been enough research into the risks of GMOs…” (heard on Radio 4 last week)

If this is meant to apply to the transgenic process itself, then it is simply ignorant bullshit. The main reason transgenic techniques are used in agritech, biotech, medical and fundamental biological research so widely is because they are as near to absolutely precise as any human activity could conceivably ever be. Certainly, the process is far more precise than traditional selective breeding, and far less intrinsically risky than mutagenic selective breeding. So what’s mutagenic selective breeding?

Since about the 1970s, selective breeding with mutagenesis has been common practice in R&D for crops. Gamma radiation or chemicals which increase the frequency of mutations in DNA are applied, which generates more variations quicker to select among. The selection is for desired traits, so there’s not much incentive to notice or report unintended consequences of other random mutations. Selective breeding with mutagenesis is an intrinsically far riskier process, yet there is almost no public awareness or opposition.

If the claim is meant to apply to research into the community ecology risks of introducing, intentionally or accidentally, transgenic organisms which are effectively novel species into an ecosystem, then that’s a more sensible claim, but the reason so little of that research has been done is, I imagine, partly because so-called Environmentalist campaign groups have been so indiscriminate and stupid about their opposition, and agritech companies haven’t perceived a marketing interest in doing the kind of ecological risk assessments that are well established for licensing new biocontrol agents and have been proposed for transgenic crops in the academic literature.

Environmental monitoring of real outcomes and pragmatic engagement

It will sound like a digression, but please excuse me while I tell a story to illustrate the point more clearly:

A ship recycling and decontamination company in Strathclyde won a contract with the USA military to decommission, decontaminate and recycle about 200 big old US navy ships. In order to fulfil this contract, they would have had to repair and improve the dry dock wall, so that they could contain the toxic and hazardous materials in the ships and prevent the dangerous materials getting into the air or sea while they dismantled the ships and took the non-recyclable and dangerous parts to safe disposal sites. The dangerous material was mainly asbestos – low density asbestos used in non-flammable insulation. Asbestos is dangerous because it is extremely inert, so the immune processes in our lungs which break down foreign objects and expel them can’t get rid of asbestos, so it stays and irritates the lining cells continuously forever after, causing asbestosis, a very serious lung disease. However, asbestos, being so inert, is totally non-soluble, so if you bury it under 1m of soil, it is as harmless as before it was mined in the first place. Our parable really begins with a local group of Friends of the Earth supporters, who decided to oppose the dry dock improvements and decommissioning of US Navy ships in Strathclyde, remembering the history of poorly managed heavy industrial pollution and public health harm in Strathclyde and Liverpool, and apparently not pausing to investigate the details of the case.

The alternative to the US navy old fleet being decommissioned in Strathclyde was for them to be decommissioned in Bangladesh. Since Bangladesh has about the lowest standards of Health & Safety for workers and environmental protection in the whole world, the public health risks, global and local environmental risks of decommissioning the ships in Bangladesh or anywhere like it were far, far worse. The whole point of the Strathclyde contract was that because of Strathclyde’s history of terrible industrial pollution and awareness of it, and being located in a rich, educated country with a strong public health care system, the company and the regulatory framework around it was as well prepared as anywhere on earth to do the decommissioning as safely as it possibly could be done.

National Friends of the Earth HQ realised this, and to their credit, pulled out of the campaign against, and distanced Friends of the Earth from the Strathclyde group.

What the Friends of Strathclyde and Friends of the Earth should have done was say to the company that they would not oppose the development any further on the following conditions:

  1. Registered and security-vetted representatives of local environmentalist groups, as well as Council H&S and public health officers, must be allowed unfettered access without advance notice at any hour of the day or night to inspect and monitor, including taking photographs and video evidence of, the disposal and covering of asbestos in suitable landfill sites to ensure it is covered absolutely all over with the regulation thickness of 1m of soil/ clay and none is spilt or released into the wind (i.e. don’t try to bury it on windy days).
  2. The company must pay for independent water pollution testing at monthly intervals or as often as necessary, to be published online and made available in accessible formats in the local public library and Council offices, to publicly verify their claims that the dry dock would not leak any dangerous materials, for as long as the operations continue plus ten years afterwards.
  3. H&S of workers to be independently and strictly monitored and results published.

My point with this anecdote is really that so-called environmentalists should take a more detailed, reasonable, pragmatic approach and think more about global and local outcomes, participate in independent monitoring of claims and publishing of results, rather than make knee-jerk reactions and indiscriminate stupid opposition to developments which potentially, if managed and monitored carefully, could be very much better than the alternatives.

“But Monsanto is evil”

Yes, many molecular biologists working in crop research in academia or for competing firms would agree with you and list many reasons. But the problems with Monsanto’s business ethics have nothing intrinsically to do with whether they’re using transgenic technologies or other technologies.

Some genuine grievances against the current business practices of agritech companies involved in transgenic crops, are:

  1. Refusing to label products from transgenic crops, rather than respecting consumers’ freedom to choose for themselves while providing unbiased information and trying to reasonably convince the public;
  2. Grossly unfair contracts with farmers; connected with
  3. Harassment, bullying, intimidation of franchise contracted farmers;
  4. Abuse of F1 sterility to centralise economic control of seeds in order to maximise short-term private profits, while compromising genetic diversity and all its long-term global ecosystem benefits;
  5. Abuse of patent laws as far as they can stretch them, particularly claiming monopoly patents for far longer than is reasonable or proportionate versus the public interest in free information and continuing innovation and the public investment in fundamental research which their work is almost always based on;
  6. Falsely claiming IP rights over the whole genomes of organisms which they have done minimal authentic ‘original work’ on; etc.

All of these are genuine grievances, and have nothing intrinsically to do with transgenic technology, and therefore are just as likely to happen –and indeed are happening– in relationships between big agritech companies and farmers and consumers which involve non-GMO seeds and products.

Another idea I’ve heard from a friend who’s opposed to all GM is that it is intrinsically more centralising of economic control over seeds and crop genetic diversity. Well yes current business practices probably are, but that isn’t an intrinsic part of transgenic biotech, and could probably be changed if that was the target of public campaigning. See suggestions below about getting the publicly funded research councils to represent the public interest at patent court hearings and argue the case for shorter patent periods and more specific patents that only cover the authentic ‘original work’ by the private company, not the whole genome or any other genetic code which they haven’t created.

“Local ‘Organic’ agriculture will save the world”

First, we have to distinguish two issues- productivity and efficiency. The nomadic hunter-gatherer mode of production was the most efficient ever in terms of calories gained for calories expended, however, it could only support a global human population of a few hundred thousand people. Now, we have nearer 7 billion and predicted to hit 9 billion in our lifetimes before hopefully decreasing in a peaceful, voluntary, female empowerment and contraceptives based way.

The improvements in productivity and efficiency per area of land in the post-WW2 -1970s ‘Green Revolution’ were dependent on fossil fuels to make petrochemicals, which are going to get more and more expensive and have well-known environmental problems. Efficiency in terms of energetic costs and benefits is now more important again, as it always was really.

To optimise our chances of managing the transition between current global agriculture and a sustainable future without any massive conflicts, collapses of civilization or mass starvation, we need both further improvements in efficiency and increasing or at least maintaining productivity. Yes, certainly, globally equitable distribution would help too, but there are entrenched cultural and political obstacles to that, which will take too long to resolve even if that process goes as well as could reasonably be expected, and in the meantime poor people will die of starvation or conflict.

‘Organic,’ or let’s be honest, old-fashioned, methods of agriculture, are probably more efficient in some ways, like hunter-gathering, but their productivity per unit area of land is just not enough to ensure global food security. That’s an unpleasant fact.

About 30% of global food production is lost to pests and diseases or decay in storage. That’s an obvious first target for improvement- mosaic virus resistant tomatoes and cassava, Bt toxin crops, blight resistant potatoes, etc.. Another major target for improvements is the 20% inefficient re-oxidation of pyruvate back to CO2 and water in most plants form of photosynthesis, which gets worse as temperature or water stress increases (exacerbated by climate change) and the O2 concentration increases inside the photosynthetic cells. Pineapples and relatives have an alternative form of photosynthesis which gets around this problem by storing CO2 in granules overnight when it’s cooler, so another dream target for transgenic tech is to transfer the genes for the CAM pathway into other crops. Peas and their relatives have root nodules which support symbiotic bacteria which can fix atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates – plants making their own fertiliser. The UK publicly funded science sector has been working on transferring genes for nitrogen fixation into other crops for decades, it involves about twenty genes so it’s pretty complicated, but if the public would accept it, then it could basically eliminate the need for petrochemical fertilisers and eliminate run-off pollution, eutrophication and all the associated environmental damage from spraying fertilisers.

Criticisms of Organic

I have a big bee in my bonnet about ‘Organic,’ partly because we have a lot of friends in common and I’ve had to deal with Organic businesses quite a lot in my university career. First, it’s a premium niche brand; it’s not an absolute moral category. It does all the things you’d expect of a premium niche brand marketing scheme – ignores important details and real outcomes, focusses on irrelevancies that differentiate it from the mainstream market, and has its own corporate lobbying sector with its own fervent yet ignorant true-believers in the public. It’s also about as rational as the food rules in Leviticus from the time of the Babylonian exile, and has about the same motive – to separate posh middle-class people from ordinary labourers and foreigners.

Organic has some good points, which I thoroughly approve of-

  1. No routine prophylactic herd-level antibiotic or anthelmintic treatments, because these have ‘tragedy of the commons’ type costs by ignoring fundamental host-parasite co-evolutionary biology.
  2. Reducing import and transport of concentrated feeds and use of petrochemicals, which reduces environmental impact.
  3. Aspiration towards animal welfare – but in practice, some Organic farms are among the best, some are among the worst, and on average overall there’s probably no consistent trend between Organic = higher animal welfare, as concluded by an Advertising Standards Authority ruling in 2006. I have personally witnessed criminal animal cruelty on an ‘Organic’ dairy farm, a high proportion of broken tails (in most cases indicates criminal mishandling), and falsification of the medical treatments log book. Arbitrarily tripling the withdrawal periods on medicines means compromising or risking animal health and welfare for no real human benefit, and has no relevance in practice to incentivising long-term herd health management improvements, e.g. ‘Organic’ laying chickens die of worm infestations three times more frequently than mainstream.

Overall, I believe it would be far better, more consistent and effective, if environmentalists and animal welfare believers: a) investigated more and trusted brands less, b) support good practice wherever you find it, and don’t assume a premium niche label has anything to do with real outcomes, c) campaign for continuing pragmatic environmental and animal welfare improvements in mainstream agriculture, rather than withdrawing into a premium niche bubble.

But “chemicals…”

First, the only thing that is not a chemical is an absolute vacuum. Organic in chemistry terms means a carbon-based molecular compound. This is why you get that spluttering, blinking, don’t know what to say to the stupidity look when you say ‘Organic’ in the brand sense in front of chemists or scientists.

Second, see previous debunking about ‘natural’.

Third, learn to investigate the details and not believe the marketing hype –from either side!

Marketing for products targeting the ‘natural’, ‘eco’ and ‘Organic’ market is just as hyped up and full of bullshit as the marketing for mainstream products. Deriving most ingredients from plants rather than fossil oil is a good thing as far as I can think of, but otherwise it’s probably mostly just marketing b.s.

Residues of pesticides are a genuine concern – so scrutinise the details, and participate in publicly monitoring, holding to account and improving mainstream agriculture and production, don’t just withdraw into your premium niche bubble! Residues of antibiotics are strictly controlled by standard withdrawal periods based on solid peer-reviewed evidence in UK, and use of growth hormones, like Bovine Somatotropin Hormone, common in the USA, is totally banned in the EU.

‘Organic’ standards list certain permitted pesticides – yes, chemicals, old-fashioned, less specific and less biodegradable chemicals in most cases. The criteria for permitted chemicals essentially are based on marketing brand requirements, not scientific evidence.

Incidentally, ‘Organic’ animal farmers still use anticoagulant rodenticides too, so even vegans who only buy Organic cannot avoid moral contamination by just disengaging from the mainstream food market. By numbers affected and severity, anticoagulant poisons used to control rats and mice in food production are probably the second most significant global animal welfare problem after the genetic malformations suffered by broiler chickens.

There are biologically wiser alternatives to pesticides- good applications of biocontrol, either locally enhancing the population of a native biocontrol agent (e.g. the Danish farmers who added bird boxes to their apple orchards, and found after  few years it was as economically efficient as spraying insecticides had been and they had nice tweety birdies), or bio-mimicking whole ecosystems in which every organism is useful, perfectly counter-balanced, the whole ecological community is efficient and as fitted to the surrounding habitat as the locally native organisms were (see the counter-example about New Guinean silviculture in Jared Diamond’s Collapse).

But transgenic crops or GMOs are just not necessary

This was a new one I heard recently. I was baffled at first in what sense ‘necessary’ or ‘not necessary’?

Presumably it’s premised on the assumption that transgenic crops will always be F1 infertile, with centrally commercially controlled seeds supply, low genetic diversity and low adapted-ness to local environments, and all the genuine grievances which are not intrinsically connected to transgenic technology which we reviewed above. None of that stuff is necessary or inevitable.

‘Not necessary’ seems to assume that GMOs or transgenic seeds are always going to be more expensive – well, why should they be? Since the reason agritech companies prefer transgenic techniques over traditional selective breeding techniques is because they take less time and cost less to create new varieties, why should the patents be awarded for as long, and why shouldn’t prices fall in line with the shorter patent period, and then revert to free seeds with a fully public domain genome?

Since it takes less than an hour in a first-year biology lab practical to transfer genes into an organism and create a new transgenic organism, it really shouldn’t be too hard to transfer the same beneficial genes into twenty or two hundred varieties of any particular crop species rather than just one variety, as long as the safety testing regime is reasonable and takes into account the shared information between the trials. If private agritech companies don’t see an economic incentive structure to do that, then it would cost relatively little for the public science funding bodies to get it done. And since most private commercial R&D is based on originally publicly funded academic research, public funding bodies and their legislative authorities ought to make full use of their enormous economic leverage to insist upon maximising the public return on investment, including representing the public interest in patent courts.

Scientists are biased because of their economic relationships to commercial agritech

Sure, some are, but so are some biased by their connection to Organic business.

Compare the issue about ‘scientific consensus’ with regard to anthropogenic climate change. The vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is almost certainly due to human activities, particularly burning fucktonnes of coal during the early phase of industrialisation  and tripling the global atmospheric CO2 concentration. When a few cranks with some scientific credentials deny the evidence and reasonable inferences drawn by the majority of scientists, they are rightly dismissed as climate deniers and suspected of corrupt vested interests.

Compare the scientific consensus about transgenic crops – the vast majority of molecular biologists are cautiously pro- transgenic techniques, and I would guess most community ecologists would be more cautious about the ecosystem risks but not totally indiscriminately opposed, as long as currently associated business practices are distinguished from transgenic crops in principle. Then you get a few cranks with a few scientific credentials making vague statements, with no published data, taking advantage on the abstractness of complex adaptive systems theory to avoid explaining specifically what their concerns are about, and they’re assumed to be the few courageously honest ones by popular environmentalist movements.


Details matter more than headlines.


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