I try not to rant. There are lots of reasons for this but I suppose the most important is that, while a good rant gives satisfaction in the short term, a more measured and better thought through post has more staying power and leads to better things in the future. A bit like sex, really, where a rant is the equivalent of a quick wank.
I’ll make an exception today (OK, stop sniggering) because I have been quite stunned during the course of my background research into genetically engineered plants by the level of sheer, wild-eyed fanaticism on the part of opponents of what amounts to a very promising technique for continuing in our millennia old practice of making things better for ourselves.
Let’s start with a fact. Most, but not all, GE plants are produced with two objectives: resistance to herbicides and resistance to pests, usually lepidoptera (which includes butterflies but they are not the target species). Herbicide resistance is a question of modifying a plants reaction to (usually) glyphosate but insect resistance requires inducing the plant to produce an insecticide within its tissues, in other words, it now contains a new substance which it previously did not; a substance we can ingest when we eat the plant. These two things seem to me to be qualitatively different, with the second being the more troubling.
The problems with herbicide resistance are not insignificant. Resistant strains of weeds are of course being encouraged but this is not a consequence of genetic engineering, it is a consequence of crop monoculture and over reliance on a single method of weed control; lessons we learned as a society many years ago and which were codified by Jethro Tull at the dawn of the English agricultural evolution.
Tweaking plants to produce toxins (even if they are toxic only to specific insects) is different. It might, or it might not, be safe for humans and there are methods to determine this which are not being followed at the moment but the anti ‘GMO’ movement does not recognise this difference from herbicide resistance, or even the distinction between the production of toxins and the production of beneficial substances such as beta carotene. As far as they are concerned, it is all frankenstein science to be opposed with every pitchfork at their disposal.
And to be sure, they have some very impressive pitchforks after several decades of the refinement of misinformation techniques in the style of Carl Rove and his ilk. It is extremely difficult to search online for any information on the topic without falling into a bog composed entirely of self referential articles, all of which sound spookily similar and which promote a very specific extended equation. GMO = Pesticides= Monsanto = Toxins = Cancer. Examples include statements like “GMO crops and the pesticides they require”. “Pesticide promoting GMO crops”, “Cancer Causing GMO foods” none of which have any basis in fact. There was even an attempt to link genetically engineered crops to the recent die-off of bees, which has very complex causes, none of which seem to be linked to GE crops.
It seems to be impossible to get these people to stop and think long enough to understand anything at all about what they are criticising – and there is plenty to criticise! We are in possession of a tremendous knowledge which, like all knowledge, can be used for good or ill and here we have legions of people forming themselves into a peanut gallery chanting ‘Four legs good: two legs bad’ and congratulating themselves that they are vanguard of truth and understanding!
These people do tremendous damage for the very simple reason that the binary internal world they have created for themselves and within which they choose to exist is not the real world in which we all must live. Shades of grey do exist, even in the absence of handcuffs, and we must be able to recognise them in order to make valid judgements.
Enough! More on GE foods later.