It s Okay To Be Smart – Answer Bag: Scientific denialism in the GMOs

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Answer Bag: Scientific denialism in the GMOs vs. organic debate

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GMO . That s what you call a buzz word. Just like stem cells or abortion , it brings up some pretty strong feelings in people, for better or worse. I am not sure that people s feelings about GMOs fall into denialism , though. I think it s more a crisis of generalization and misunderstanding than it is ignorance of the facts.

Genetically modified organisms are particularly tough, because the term is really too broad. You can t just address bad GMOs, as if we knew what that meant. The line where genetically modifying foods becomes too far is a fuzzy one, and we all put that line in a different place. The term organic is just as confusing. As great as it is for describing some forms of sustainable and natural agriculture, it also just looks really cool on a carton of yogurt. So how do you get to the bottom of which might be better – GMOs or organics? And are we practicing denialism when we argue one over the other?

I ll start with GMOs. Like you said, from the first moment that human beings began selecting crops to cultivate we have been (inadvertently) genetically modifying organisms. Gregor Mendel genetically modified the hell out of some peas. The Native Americans genetically modified a prairie grass into maize. the Incas mastered potatoes and the Chinese selected rice to grow in their shallow wetlands (as far back as 10,000 years ago!) .

Now let s pretend we lived in a world without GMOs. In that world we are all dead, each and every one of us. We never explore the New World, Asia never rises, life expectencies and birth rates don t increase, etc. This is a sad thought. To be clear, we wouldn t be able to feed the world s population, now or through history, if we were not genetically modifying foods by passive breeding or by deep genetic manipulation. As population grows on Earth, our need for food increases, and we will need crops that can grow in new and challenging climates, perhaps on a warmer planet. Let s use Africa as an example.

If you have seen, well, basically anything about Africa, you know that areas like Kenya are pretty dry. It s sort of what they are known for. Plants, as you also may have heard, need water to grow. Without, genetic modification this would be a mutually exclusive proposition. But thanks to modern selective breeding and genetic modification, drought-resistant wheat strains were introduced to Kenya and thrive today. What was dusty is now green, and regions once known for distended bellies, starving children and Sally Struthers-worthy famine now have greater food security.

Of course, we are all smart enough to know that the practice of genetic modification doesn t unleash a fury of rainbows and sunshine into the world. On the other hand you have companies like Monsanto (cue scary music) who deliberately manipulate organisms to be resistant to herbicides like RoundUp, which they happen to also produce. Easiest gardening technique ever. Plant crop, damn the weeds, just wipe out every other plant on the field with a daisy cutter of chemical annihilation. That you happen to own the patent on.

If you re a farmer who plants Monsanto seed, you have to buy it under a license from the company. You also have to promise to not share it, and if you are a farmer on the field next door you have to make sure you don t accidentally get any of it crossed with your crops, lest you be in violation of Monsanto s patents. Of course, the entire Great Plains were fertilized by wind-borne seeds, so these things have a tendency to drift and migrate without asking permission from pesky humans first. With the hubris of owning power over genes, Mansantokind treads on dangerous ground. In fact, Nature herself has already been assailing the idea by producing RoundUp-resistant weeds. But is this yet a form of denialism? Perhaps denial of knowing that we can never truly have power over Nature, but not denialism in the sense of hindering scientific progress. Incidentally, organic farmers are suing Monsanto as we speak over their seed-Gestapo tactics.

Which brings us to organics . What a mess. What began as a way to resist the influx of chemical fertilizers and monoculture farming has turned into one of the biggest marketing schemes on Earth. You don t need me to explain that to you, though. People like Michael Pollan and Samuel Fromartz do a great job in their books and other writings. These foods still benefit the environment in many ways thanks to their avoidance of chemical fertilizer and slightly more seasonal growth cycles, but whether organic asparagus has more vitamins than conventional is a pretty thin claim. Organic foods, by just being organic , are not better for you. This is a form of denialism, where we assume that a marketing term has christened a carrot somehow better. It may be better, for us and for the environment, but being organic is beginning to have less to do with it than many other things. I suggest you look into the term greenwashing to learn more.

So in simple terms? No, organic foods are not healthier for you, per se. And GMOs are not bad for you or the world, per se. But some of the uses of the term organic are bad for you, just as some genetic modifications of foods actually make us less secure in our meals (and are just plain mean!). I don t think being GMO is bad, like many people jump to. Like I said before, this is a crisis of generalization, not of ignorance. If we would pay more attention to what these terms mean and don t mean, we would be able to separate the truly bad from the benefits each have given us. Is that denialism? I don t think so, unless we are denying ourselves a better perspective.

Advice? I m no sage, but try to do what mankind has done for ages: Eat what s around and not what s shipped from across the globe, eat it when it s in season, and try to make sure it was farmed in a way that makes you think of straw hats and overalls instead of lab coats and petroleum.

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