GMOs and Technological Change

Genetically-modified organisms have been the buzz again lately on my Facebook feed, so I’ve been thinking more about the subject and its implications:

gmosObviously, there is lots of scientific support for lots of GMOs’ safety. I doubt all GMOs are bad, and I don’t lose any sleep wondering if the corn I ate for lunch was GMO. However, I don’t agree, even given their complete safety, that they are the best option for feeding the world, compared to a shift away from energy-intensive monocultures and toward polycropping.

I know the GMO white knights like to say “why not both?” but we all know that “both” isn’t going to happen. “Both” implies that the parties involved in our agricultural infrastructure are giving each possible technique equal consideration; however, it’s clear that those in the industry that are pushing for GMOs are those invested in high-value output, high-energy industrial ag, people who have no interest in ecology other than proving they are not directly responsible for destroying it. They’re not going to suddenly switch to mixed-value output, low-energy ecological polycropping and then also use GMOs.

It helps to understand how technological transitions work.  There is a field that studies this called “transition theory”, and one of its key observations is that technology is adopted on multiple “levels”.  The terms they use are “niche”, “regime”, and “landscape”: A niche would be something like Bt sweet corn, a regime would be something like GMO crops, and a landscape would be something like the industrial food system.  For one more example, a niche would be something like coal gasification, a regime would be something like coal energy, and the landscape would be the fossil energy system.  Using this analysis, it’s clear that while many niche changes and some regime changes have taken place in the last 200 years, the landscape is basically the same.

So yes, of course there are GMOs that present an improvement, in the sense that they are not intrinsically bad, but these are fixes that facilitate causing more of the problem, rather than fixes that move us closer to the overall solution. GMO crops are a niche change that is part of a new regime in the industrial agricultural landscape.  This may improve the industrial agricultural system, but it won’t fix the problems that are at the root of the landscape.  It’s a solution without a problem, more green tech with no ecology. We don’t have a problem of technical efficiency, we have a problem of structural efficacy.

Industrial agriculture, specifically the industrial bit, where products are produced with the singular purpose of maximizing the difference between the input and the output, is a major source of ecological problems.  Under industrialism, even when a product thrives on wastes, we still don’t manage to producing it without adding waste to the system. Energy is cheap thanks to its externalities, which makes agriculture the worst cause of climate change. “Reducing” the impact of agriculture is like “reducing” the impact fossil fuel: What it will most likely do is not reduce the impact of agriculture, but rather make it cheaper to achieve the same result, thus increasing the intensity at which it can be done.

Back to the contentious question, the idea that there are “over 1000 studies in support of GMO safety” is a totally unimpressive statement. For one thing, 1000 studies in several decades is not many; there were twice that number between November 2012 and December 2013 alone, on the subject climate change. More importantly though, “GMO” is an entire regime: we’re talking about not just a technology, but a whole suite of technologies, each with their own distinct characteristics, each placed in distinct environments where they are interacting with highly complex systems.

To claim that GMOs are “safe” (no more questions) because 1700 combinations of technologies and environments are “safe” (and the support for them is not so unanimous in the studies) is a huge leap to make. If we studied 1000 species of Clostridia, should we assume that “Clostridia” is a “safe” class of organisms? On the other hand, if we discover that 5 species in Clostridia are dangerous, does that mean they all are? How do you think people would react to medical researchers claiming that they studied 1700 combinations of synthetic drugs and so then made the claim that “synthetic drugs are safe”?

There seems to be a recent trend in science, probably because of climate change denial, to browbeat every person who advocates any part of science into endorsing whatever is the ‘scientific consensus’, regardless of the value of doing so.  In the case of GMOs, pushing for GMO acceptance is a lot like pushing for clean coal acceptance, or buying green toilet paper, or driving a hybrid car.  They are solutions that are efficient, however, what we need is not efficiency but efficacy.

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