Donnerstag, 4. Juni 2015

Anti-GMO is not anti-science - or - why sound science doesn't validate all its applications

Ab food 06

Sometimes an article pops up in my social media streams which basically equates an Anti-GMO stance with being anti-science in general. (like this one The psychology of why so many people are anti-GMO ). And I am Anti-GMO in a certain sense. 

Being a scientist by training and by heart, I obviously don't like being accused of being ignorant or stupid which is the main conclusion of these articles --- although being dressed in somewhat less insulting words. 

I feel obliged to respond what I am against, what I am in favor and why I think that these articles all argue into a complete irrelevant direction. 

I think that advances in biotechnology are great! The ability to genetically modify organisms is an immense achievement. For example the production of insulin from E.coli. bacteria or yeast is a prime example of the value of the biotechnological advance and the benefits it can bring to humans.

Hence, I'm all impressed by biotechnology and it's methods. In general at least.

What's my issue with GMO

You could think that given my strong admiration for biotechnology I must be a strong proponent of the use of GMOs everywhere. Like really everywhere. On the fields, in my backyard, in Africa, USA, Europe, whereever there are people planting something. But I am not. 

In my opinion GMO as it is used now is a means. It is a means to control farmers, to make them dependent and rip them off. Not only farmers are being ripped off, but as well us consumers. Big seed producers (of seeds on GMO basis) are imposing a kind of tax on each ton of food which is produced, worldwide. Not that farmers --- especially in the developing world and especially small scale farmers --- are not ripped off without GMO, but I argue that GMO makes it easier to rip them off. 

It is not the science that is the problem, it is the application

The issue is not the scientific basis, but rather the way how GMOs are used. They pave the way for non-diverse monoculture. Of course, monocultures are existing already, but GMOs cement that. One can see this in the USA where monocultures are the main way of farming. And each and every voice which argues against such things is suppressed by large multinationals. It frankly doesn't matter if some genetic modification seems safe in a lab experiment because A) if it doesn't, try to get the study published, you'll encounter a lot of resistance from these big multinationals and you will be wiped from the scientific landscape (see Seralini et al.: instead of addressing and maybe refuting arguments and ---whohooo making studies which contradict Seralini's results --- there was immediately a concerted, mostly non-scientific (i.e. ad hominem), attack and B) you have to extrapolate to large scale monocultures. Sorry, the often brought up argument that "because we think that GMO is completely safe, we don't have to produce studies which show that it is safe" it is not a valid argument, it is just a cirular argument. 

The economic incentives rig the scientific process

Whilst I'm a firm believer in science in general and in the scientific process, I don't see the scientific process working in the field of biotechnology. The issue is similar to pharmacological research. It's nearly impossible to publish a study which doesn't show what has been the desired outcome. And if you by chance succeed in doing so, you'll be stomped upon.

Another issue is patents. If all GMOs were patent free and thus independent from the big multinationals and they wouldn't have to squeeze every penny out of these patents in a time as short as possible, one could assess the positives and negatives in a less biased manner. But due to the system which is in place currently all this assessment ist completely rigged. 

The great possibilities of GMO which are never realized (because there is no money to grab)

Then, biotechnologists are always talking about the great possibilites like golden rice and producing stronger roots which help the plant survive in regions where people couldn't plant anything so far. All great, but nothing of these ideas exceed the preliminary trial stage. Why you may ask? Because there is no money in there for multinationals. What do they care if people can feed themselves or not. They rather want them not to be able to feed themselves. 

And then there are many measures which would lead to similar outcomes than GMO, but with a much improved biodiversity. Imagine not planting large monocultures, but to plant many smaller fields with varying crops and rotating these crops yearly. And planting rows of bushes and trees between these fields to attract the natural enemies of insects etc. You'd increase biodiversity and you'd be in general much better protected against all possible insects and fungi and so on. Of course, it is a tad more involved for the farmer and -- whooohoo -- big multinationals wouldn't make such a large profit, because farmers would probably need less herbicides and pesticides. 

GMOs are not really needed, not even in large scale farming

As we can see, GMOs are not planted in the EU (except in trials) and may not be sold there as food for humans. Still, the EU feeds its 450 million people. How is this possible if feeding so many people is argued to be impossible without GMOs?

The "let's talk only about the science, not about the application"-argument

Often in the discussions about GMO, the flawed argument comes up that one shouldn't judge GMOs by its applications, because the science is sound. But science can never be separated from the application. Think of nuclear reactions. It's truly great science. And it's sound science. It's understood science. But you're still not allowed to build your own nuclear bomb. Why? Hey, the science is well understood. It is, but that doesen't validate all it's applications. And the same is true for GMOs. The science might be well understood and "under control", but that doesn't validate or even mandate it's use in all circumstances and on a large scale. And especially it doesn't validate its use against the will of the people even if they are not biologists with a specialty in genetic modifications. 

Look for example at neonicotinoids. We are fairly certain, that they are the culprits of bee colony collapse disorder. But reducing their usage faces immense resistance from the producers. 

Look at how EPA is being starved from funding, because it takes care of the rules made to protect environment, humans and animals. 

Look at climate change. It is clear that we humans are warming the world and acidify the oceans. But supposedly because of economic arguments by big multinationals we are not allowed to modify how our science and technology is applied. Hence, the application or non-application of science depends on economic interests. 


Anti-GMO is not so much a distrust in the science and the scientific process as a whole, but a distrust in the working of the scientific process in this specific field and a distrust in the big drivers (large multinationals) behind the applications of the results of this scientific process. Not every application can be applied and should be applied --- or on the other hand should not be applied --- just because the science behind is settled.

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Anti-GMO is not anti-science - or - why sound science doesn't validate all its applications by Peter Speckmayer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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