May 24, 2005

Feed the World

Would someone please tell me what makes people get so violently angry about genetically-modified food?

I get the concerns about its safety. I think some concern is valid. I think that organic foods taste better, and if I could afford to buy more of 'em, I would. As it is, I buy only organic milk, because I don't want to drink something full of recombinant bovine growth hormone. Granted, the risk to human health appears to be negligible, but I don't like the effect it has on dairy cows and, honestly?--If I don't have to have rBGH in my milk, why should I? That's my choice to make.

I don't drink a lot of milk anyway, so the extra expense of buying organic on that one works out, especially since the locally-available brands of it seem to be ultra-pasteurized with expiration dates far later than those on regular milk. When you're single and not consuming a lot of the stuff anyway, it makes sense to buy milk that will keep.

Although I do worry that someone's going to drop me a link now explaining how ultra-pasteurization is ultra-bad for you. Look: I only have so much money and so many hours in the day. I'm not going to live my life as though my chief goal were merely to extend its length. I'm into quality, not quantity.

Anyway, back to the GM foods: I was just reading this. Is it me, or this is a profoundly poor article? I'm looking for facts and details and I get this:

The Independent on Sunday can today reveal details of secret research carried out by Monsanto, the GM food giant, which shows that rats fed the modified corn had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood.

. . .

Doctors said the changes in the blood of the rodents could indicate that the rat's immune system had been damaged or that a disorder such as a tumour had grown and the system was mobilising to fight it.

This is probably just me, but: WHAT changes in the blood? I'm guessing it's not simple anemia (oh, pardon me, Brits: I mean an-aeoiusometimesy-mia--what you people do to spelling, I swear), because you'd think even the Independent would know what that is and be able to mention it. But what changes? Stupid paper won't tell me that, no. Instead it just tells me what the British politicians think:

. . . a senior British government source said ministers were so worried by the findings that they had called for further information.
Politicians always call for "further information." And this time, I don't blame them. Further information would be helpful, all right. Too bad the paper didn't print any.

But that's enough kicking the Independent for right now. What I'm not understanding at all is the Monsanto hate-train people against genetically-modified food are always boarding. Monsanto!--A word to provoke more hissing and spitting than a stadium full of angry cats. Evil, evil, super-wicked Monsanto.

Why is there this emotional component? You know, if there's one place strong feelings don't really belong, it's science. Strong feelings don't help you run a tight study, strong feelings don't help you classify your findings, strong feelings don't get you dick in science. Strong feelings hurt science, because every so often your study is going to tell you something you did not want to hear, and then what? If you're detached about it, it's back to the drawing board. If you're emotionally invested, it's back to the drawing board with sighs and regret. If you're wound up to the point some of the anti-GM crowd seems to be, though, science gets screwed, because what if the study shows genetically-modified corn is no more likely to kill you than the regular stuff? What if your findings don't match your feelings?

And I know what the counter-argument is: The counter-argument is that Monsanto, as an evil giant bug-killing cor-por-ay-shun, is hardly detached and unbiased and in this all for the good of science either. True enough. I was really hoping we didn't have to point out here the obvious fact about corporations, which is that they exist to make money for their shareholders. And no, many of them don't have the best track record when it comes to fully disclosing the results of their research.

But I don't get the rage, and I don't buy that Monsanto's only playing around with genes and food to make enormous evil sums of money and kill us all in the process. First of all, dead people don't buy shit. Second of all, someone who's starving from a bad harvest doesn't care whether his kidneys might shrink a little from genetically-modified corn. Do you have any idea what truly starving people will eat? Have you never encountered dumpster divers? Lucky, sheltered, privileged you then.

Even if Monsanto's board really is out to kill everyone--and I've kind of almost got to admire the grand ambition of that scheme, same as I can't help liking C. Montgomery Burns when he yearns to destroy the sun--I guarantee you the little science dudes working there aren't. They're probably thinking it's kind of neat to go to work everyday with the noble goal of making better food, designing crops that resist pests and disease. Crops that grow in adverse conditions. Crops that feed people who otherwise wouldn't be eating.

I'm just saying, the left would never hurl the "evil" tag against companies screwing around with human genetics. That's all hunky-dory, and anyone who suggests it may not be, anyone who dares to voice concerns about it, is instantly consigned to Jesusland these days (and good riddance, you retarded Bible-thumping freak). But you tweak a few genomes on even one little kernel of sweet, innocent corn, and you're automatically a bastard?

That makes no sense to me at all.

Posted by Ilyka at May 24, 2005 09:53 PM in news

People may be particularly upset about genetically-modified food because it's understood that once this genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back in. Only an incredibly careful defense will keep GMF from spreading in the wild and simply becoming the norm in food.

Of course, like most scientific advances, it's always too late to try to stop it.

- The Precision Blogger

Posted by: Precision Blogger at May 24, 2005 11:17 PM

What they neglect to tell you is that TECHNICALLY you're already eating genetically modified food. You see, most food products that you eat, either directly, or in premade products, are the result of selective breeding, both plants and animals. Tomatoes for example, have been bred specifically to have thicker skins, flavor be damned, and other fruits and vegetables are bred to be picked earlier and stay fresh longer. Animals are bred to have higher muscle/fat ratios. I mean, have you seen those chickens?

My point is that selective breeding is just lo-tech genetic modification. So I don't get why people freak out so hard.

I have a problem when you start switching in genes from other species, but as long as it's same species modification, I don't see the difference. Although that can be beneficial as well. Here in NC they're growing tobacco that produces some medicines by altering the plants' genetics, and then extracting them from the leaves, as an alternative source of income for tobacco farmers in these days when no one smokes anymore....

Sorry for the length, this is one of my "issues"

Posted by: caltechgirl at May 24, 2005 11:22 PM

mmm-wah-ha-ha, all those little science dudes working for world domination by superior crops and their precocious genes. soon everyone will have food to eat with vitamins and stuff. people all over the world will have enough food to spend time becoming educated, go to work and buy stuff from hard working Americans. then Monsanto's plan will be complete.

Posted by: rammer at May 25, 2005 04:46 AM

Long Island, New York, has high rates of breast cancer. Many people were convinced that there was an environmental cause of that, and a media campaign was launched to force the government to take action. The government decided to study the matter (sometimes further study _is_ the right move) A wide ranging series of studies, funded to the tune of over 25 million dollars, if memory serves, investigated wether environmental pollutants (such as DDT, PCBs, and PAHs; they also studied the effects of magnetic fields) were responsible. The results are at

and I encourage you to read them. The summary is that they found no observable link between the environmental effects studied and the increased rates of breast cancer.

These results were immediately rejected by the people who had called for the study: the researchers were biased, the researchers were bought and paid for by the pharmaceuticals industry, or the pesticide industry, or the government. The results simply couldn't be right, because they didn't match what the campaigners KNEW to be true.

Read the comments here:

This is the same attitude that is brought to bear on GM foods: the effect of scientific studies on people's beliefs are limited. People are not rational; a good researcher will choose a research field with that in mind. They're always going to need more studies of the links between disease x and environmental cause y. Of course, some results will be more acceptable than others....

"What this means in the real world is that epidemiological studies like this are virtually useless to disprove links between hormonally-active compounds and disease. The converse, however, is not true. A positive result of a carefully-conducted case-control study with large sample sizes should be taken very seriously."

Posted by: Seb at May 25, 2005 03:26 PM

One thing that gets me about GMO foods is, quite frankly, a purely intuitive one that comes down to the tone in all the assurances about the safety of GMO foods. This is purely intuitive and emotional (but then if the issue is one of having a feeling of personal security, perhaps it's personally reasonable) but all the assurances I've heard about GMOs safety never sounded like assuring safety was the top concern, just having the minimum amount of data to be able to claim safety. Again, this is purely intuitive, but most of the reassurances I've heard recalled those RJ Reynolds ads I used to see in my youth which would proclaim that no proof was ever found to show that smoking caused cancer (and, technically they weren't lying, there's only a solid corelation there).

So while I'm not one of the especially angry (just frustrated I suppose), I can see where anger comes from. People feel threatened because they fear this technology advancement may have hidden dangers and that fear turns into anger when the people assuring safety don't come off as being more interested in giving the feeling of assurance than in safety. It's like if you got a new doctor who gave you a prescription for a new drug and every time you asked for information about side effects the only response was "Relax, trust me, it's okay."

Posted by: Lyle at May 25, 2005 06:40 PM

Okay, took another read (you do make for compelling multiple re-readings Ilkya) and this part stuck out at me:
I don't buy that Monsanto's only playing around with genes and food to make enormous evil sums of money and kill us all in the process. First of all, dead people don't buy shit. Second of all, someone who's starving from a bad harvest doesn't care whether his kidneys might shrink a little from genetically-modified corn.

I don't think the sentiment is that GMO advocates are evil (not from the perspective of myself and the GMO-wary people I know, at least) but greedy and short-sighted. Considering the way many corporate execs have behaved in the past (I'm not talking misconduct, just stupidity I've noted in the business section) I don't expect them to really to show much concern for problems that may appear in the long term if those possible future dangers get in the way of a greater profit today (...and just today, I don't have faith in them to be thinking as far as tomorrow), even if that could mean great damage to the company in the long term.

The BBC article mentioned an organic farmer worried about cross-polination because a GMO crop would be grown near his farm. That's a very valid concern to me, since you can't undo that and future generations will be the "descendants" of the GMO corn, essentially taking his organic corn off the market. I don't think it's unreasonable for consumers to continue to want to be able to choose non-GMO foods, but if the cross-polination concern is ignored then it will get harder to find non-GMO foods.

The latter point is a very valid and thought-provoking one, but are the GMO crops being grown in the UK to provide food to the hungry or to provide packaged food manufacturers with cheaper ingredients, so that they can sell their products at the same cost but with a higher profit margin? I can rationalize away safety concerns when it means easing hunger, locally and globally, but padding corporate profits is not a goal that's going to inspire compromise. (And even if a corporation's job is to maximize their profits, that doesn't mean they should persue that free of objections if the public finds the methods inethical. Vandalism, though, is too far a step of objection.)

Posted by: Lyle at May 25, 2005 10:23 PM

This argument is easy to win. Just tell the leftists that we need the genetically modified foods to survive global warming.

Posted by: TallDave at June 2, 2005 01:16 AM