Anti-GMO = anti-capitalism?

Interesting blog post at the New Yorker about a debate on GMO foods between Michael Pollan and Pamela Roland– a plant geneticist and advocate of GMO foods.  Here’s Roland’s take, which not suprisingly, I find pretty compelling (and I generally count myself as a Michael Pollan fan):

Ronald strongly disagrees with Pollan’s view that G.M.O. crops, broadly, are failing. She cited examples such as Bt cotton that have cut the amount of chemical insecticides applied to crops globally by millions of pounds a year. “The U.S.D.A. just reported a tenfold reduction in the use of insecticides as a result of the engineered Bt trait,” Ronald said. She also cited an example ofpapayas that were genetically engineered to resist ring-spot virus and helped to save the Hawaiian papaya industry. “It’s a shame to demonize an entire technology because of Roundup Ready,” she told Pollan and Patel when they began a debate after she had given an hourlong PowerPoint presentation.

Ronald’s own experiments in genetic engineering have seen notable success. In 2006, Ronald and her colleagues isolated the gene used by the International Rice Research Institute to produce “scuba rice,” a strain of flood-tolerant rice that can grow in submerged fields; four million subsistence farmers have since grown this rice in Bangladesh and India. Just last month, Ronald and her collaborators published the results of a successful five-year effort to develop genetically engineered bananas resistant to Xanthomonas wilt disease, which has decimated millions of acres of banana crops in East Africa. The world is filling with ever more people, Ronald reasons, and we need ever more food from the same amount of land. She argues that genetic engineering will play a critical role in protecting finite soil and water resources, staving off crop diseases, and responding to the pressures of climate change.

Short version: sure there are some costs and potentially serious ones, but the benefits can be really quite substantial and we shouldn’t forget that in the efforts to demonize Monsanto as the face of all GMO.  But what really caught my attention was this:

One ominous metaphor was by far the most prevalent among the students with whom I spoke after Ronald’s lecture: “G.M.O.s have come to represent the corporate control of our food system,” Mikel Shybut, a twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. student in plant and microbial biology, told me. Shybut stressed that he and his peers had little concern about the human-health impacts of G.M.O.s. He said that he believed in “the promise and power of genetic engineering,” but only insofar as they are “used for people, not for profit.”

Oh, come on now.  It’s called capitalism.  If you want people to innovate they are going to do it for profit.  Sure, its’ great if your invention helps reduce human suffering, but that invention is going to be way more likely if someone has a financial incentive to create it.  Sure, maybe GSK is a profit-hungry big Pharma company.  They also invented Lamictal, the anti-seizure drug that basically keeps my son alive with a high quality of life.  I doubt they would have done so without being motivated by profit.  Or medical device manufacturers.  Or my trusty 1998 Toyota Corolla still going strong.  Or a million other things that we’ve come to expect in our modern world.

Now, just how you regulate that capitalism is a matter of substantial disagreement, and you know I’m on the more regulation side.  But once you argue that new technologies should not  be “used for profit” it’s just a losing battle.

I find this concluding portion about Pollan interesting as well:

Pollan echoed this sentiment, and agreed that the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “I haven’t read anything to convince me that there are inherent problems with the technology. I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve,” he said.

You know he may very well be right.  But I think that means we need to work that much harder to use GMO technology responsibly and to make sure that society is thinking about the issues in sensible ways.  But to me, that means you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and simply oppose GMO food.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Anti-GMO = anti-capitalism?

  1. Mike from Canada says:

    I read this article and I just can’t agree. So many anti GMO people say so many different things about GMO food, you can’t pull one out of the blog o sphere and hang that on the movement as a label. I think most are simply not knowledgeable enough, or have swallowed to much untrue propaganda (or internet BS) to make a well informed decision.

    They’re just saying slogans that they think might sound good and get their message across. I’m sure some are anti capitalism, just as some think they are going to grow an extra set of nipples if they eat GMO food. Which they probably already are. Eating GMO food, that is, not growing an extra set of nipples. GMO food is in almost every processed food these days. Almost all livestock feed contains GMOs.

    If GMO’s were a health hazard, we’d already know it. And if their really concerned, they better learn to cook from basic ingredients. Like the majority of North America is going to do that.
    Of course more and more vegetables and grains are going GMO, and we don’t know which.

    I’m hoping one day the companies will start making food taste better. I want tomatoes that taste like one I grew myself and picked this afternoon. Not a tomato that tastes like a golf ball and all the same texture, color and bounce.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Point taken. I thought about whether I was just cherry-picking, but re-read the beginning of the quote, “One ominous metaphor was by far the most prevalent among the students with whom I spoke after Ronald’s lecture.”

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