Having trouble with the GMO debate? Me too. Lets talk about it.

The point when I first made up my mind about GMOs was in a college biology class in 2010, when a student brought up GMOs in class, and the professor said that we should be very concerned about GMO technology, indicating that it was a troubling practice that we should all be wary of. This same professor had discussed other crunchy philosophies with me that I felt on the fence and maybe a little skeptical about, such as vaccine refusal and raw milk, and I felt pretty confident in the things she said about those, vaccines are safe and effective, raw milk is a waste of money, etc., etc. So when she straight up said in class that GMOs were bad, I figured that sealed the deal. I became pretty hardcore in my opposition to GMOs.

But, as years have gone by and I’ve read a lot of scientific articles on the subject, my position on GMOs has softened some. It still seems a little off, I mean, if we were to do that to humans it would be eugenics, but I don’t apply the same rules to humans as I do to the rest of the living world in most cases, so why should I in this one? I no longer worry that GMOs aren’t safe for human consumption, either. Despite what my biology professor said then, there seems to be a large scientific consensus that GMOs are safe for human consumption and for the environment. How can I defend scientific consensus on climate change, but doubt it on GMOs?

I suspect that bio professor probably has different answers about GMOs now, too. I can kind of see how even a college biology professor could get swept up in a campaign that talks about pollinators dying from BT corn pollen and new species being introduced into ecosystems that aren’t prepared for them, pollinator die off and endemic species are serious issues that biologists (and everyone) should be concerned about. But when it was researched, it turned out that GMOs weren’t contributors to these problems. It was reasonable to think they could be, sure, but it is my understanding that no research (at least, the peer reviewed, generally respected kind) has been able to find a causal relationship between GMOs and these issues. (It is troublesome that all of this research seems to have taken place after GMOs were on the market and consumers were complaining, but we’ll address that in another post)

I’m sort of a science fan girl. I’m not really cut out to be a scientist, but I might throw my bra on stage at a science concert, if you catch my drift. So I’m kind of inclined to want to see cool things happen with GMOs if they are safe for people and ecosystems, as the scientific consensus seems to be. But still, I have a hard time saying I’m pro GMO. There are a few issues standing in the way of this.

Most environmental organizations and environmentalists still oppose GMOs

While it seems like I’ve seen a few make an abrupt about face on GMOs and go from opposing to supporting them (cough, cough, Grist.org), most are still strongly opposed. I wonder what is going on there. Most environmental organizations are fairly pro science, so are they seeing some research that everyone else isn’t seeing?

I have been searching online for pro GMO progressive environmentalist types, and it’s like searching for vegan cattle ranchers. There are lots of pro GMO people out there but very few identify themselves politically in any fashion. What’s strangest to me is that most pro GMO people are strongly anti organic, despite their assertion that GMOs are not substantially different than organic crops. And if we’re just talking about the end product, they’re not, from what I can tell. But the process of growing is important, and that is what organic is about, not the end product.

The process of organic agriculture creates more than just food to be sold at market, good organic agriculture also creates healthy soil, cleans water, builds biodiversity, and sequesters carbon (while conventional agriculture does the opposite on all counts). What kind of progressive environmentalist doesn’t support that? If GMOs are not different than any other crop, then there is no reason why they couldn’t be grown in these conditions just as well as any other, so there’s really no reason to oppose organic if you are pro GMO. Why is that happening? Why can’t you be pro GMO and pro organic? I don’t understand why there is so much animosity between the proponents of the two groups, if the two systems are compatible, and from what I can tell, they are. You would think there would be more people in the middle who believe there’s room for it all, but I can’t find those people.

In reality, it seems likely that the real reason environmentalist groups are so opposed to GMOs has more to do with the fact that GMO proponents are so opposed to the form of agriculture we support. Maybe if the pro GMO movement got on board with concepts like no till agriculture (which reduces erosion, sequesters carbon, builds soil fertility, enhances biodiversity, and protects against both droughts and flooding, amongst other benefits), managed intensive grazing (which has similar benefits as no till agriculture), polycultures (which reduces the needs for pesticides and herbicides while increasing biodiversity), and cover cropping (which reduces the need for fertilizers, reduces erosion, sequesters carbon, and can increase production and profits for farmers), progressive environmentalist groups would get on board. As long as we keep up the false narrative that these things can’t coexist with GMOs, I don’t see the two groups coming together.

Which leads me to my next point …

Business practices and farming techniques that go with GMOs

I’m still not sure that I care for the way GMO crops are marketed and sold. Yes, I’m aware that GMOs are kind of hard to define (thanks to this article that helped me to understand the complexity of it a little more), so I guess it’s not the GMOs themselves, but rather the companies that make them. In any case, GM crops are generally grown in monocultures, with high pesticide or herbicide inputs, high fertilizer inputs, lots of tilling, and all kinds of other practices that are bad for the soil, for water, and for climate. Many of the traits bred into GMOs are traits specifically to give the plants an advantage only in those growing conditions, such as RoundUp ready and BT crops. Maybe I don’t think this is the best use of this technology. Surely we could use GM crops in a more sustainable fashion, and instead of injecting traits that makes them easier to grow in monocultures, we could just improve their hot or cold tolerance to expand the zones in which they could be grown, increase nutrient levels (this has been done, but why it’s not the foremost thing we’re doing is beyond me), or, I don’t know, enhanced carbon sequestration properties. I understand the R&D that goes into these genetic manipulations is probably intense, but the choice was made to prioritize crops that allow you to spray more herbicides (that conveniently are made by the same company that makes the seeds) and crops that will be less pest susceptible when planted in monocultures first. They could have focused on other traits to research and create, but they chose these ones, and that just doesn’t seem as altruistic as pro GMO people make this technology out to be. It sounds to me like just another company creating another product that forces you into buying more of that company’s other products. That is good business, I guess, it probably brings in a boat load of profits, but it seems a bit like a scam to me.

Surely we could create GMOs in ways that don’t require or encourage the types of agriculture that destroys soil, contaminates water, and contributes to climate change? If GMOs are safe for human health and the environment, that’s great, but monocultures, tilling, and Haber process fertilizers aren’t good for the environment. Why create GMOs that make those practices more accessible and desireable? Why not create GMOs that are compatible with more sustainable agricultural practices? Sure, you could use RoundUp Ready and BT crops in any kind of agriculture, but there’s not really a point to using those in a system where you don’t need large inputs of herbicides because you’ve got things planted too intensely for many weeds to grow, and you don’t need much in the way of pesticides because high crop diversity dramatically reduces your susceptibility to to pests. But higher nutrient crops, deeper rooting crops, extended season crops, there could definitely be a point to that.

It just feels like the way this is being done is more about some really big, rich, companies making more money and getting more control over a market than it is about advancing agriculture or mankind’s access to healthy food or safe environments. I don’t know everything on this subject and I’m certainly open to new information, but right now I may be okay with the technology in general, but I’m not sure I’m okay with the way the technology is being used.

I don’t have an avocado tree

Now that I think about it, I’m a little pissed GMO technology hasn’t made it possible for me to grow avocados here in Denver yet. Can we get on this, Monsanto, please? I don’t know if I can be cool with you until that happens. And they better taste good, not like those Flavor Savor tomatoes that allegedly tasted so terrible (I was a little girl when those came out, so I don’t remember if I ever even tasted them).

I know my feelings on GMOs probably won’t be super popular with most of the homesteading world, but I wanted to put it out there anyhow. Maybe there are other people out there who do share these views, and I’d like to reach out to them, if they exist. I want to be on team scientific consensus but I also have these concerns and I don’t know how to work them out all alone.

Do you ever feel conflict in the GMO debate? How do you resolve that? Do you resolve it? Tell us about it in the comments.

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