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Is the GMO Fight Over?

This week, I went to hear a science lecture at Skidmore College, "Can We Still Feed the World in 2050?" by Professor Wilhelm Gruissem of ETH in Zurich. 

As a serious vegetable gardener, I am, of course, monumentally interested in this question.

The answer, according to Professors Gruissem is yes, with GMOs. He is most interested in genetic manipulations that boost the nutritional value of staple crops such as rice and cassava, as well as genes that fight pathogens that threaten crops like wheat and bananas–and not, thank God, in RoundUp readiness.  

He said that he differed from his colleagues in genetic engineering, also, in believing it would be good if we farmed more diverse crops, rather than just improve the handful of monocultures that provide most of the world's food.

He also lamented the loss of diversity within different varieties of crops, and proposes turning the genetic variations in heirloom varieties of vegetables into information.  He doesn't think seed banks like Svalbard are particularly useful to scientists–or farmers.  "Farmers won't be growing these crops,"  he said. He thinks we need instead to create a giant database of the genetic riches in our vegetable varieties, so scientists can recreate and insert these old genes, should any of them prove valuable, into modern varieties.

Of course, that puts the burden of evolution squarely on the scientists' shoulders.  No more adaptation in a field!

It's not easy, doing bioengineering in Europe, where GMOs are reviled.  Professor Gruissem showed photos of activists destroying his field trials, his house spray-painted with anti-GMO slogans, and his wife's car covered in paint thinner.  

And then he showed a slide of horrible American supermarket food, in order to illustrate how much more reasonable we Americans are.  He said that he eats this food when he is in America and doesn't get sick, so what's the problem? (Sorry, buddy, but I feel much better about my agricultural experts when they also happen to be foodies!)

Professor Gruissem seems to have a great deal of contempt for the small farms that surround him in Switzerland–and the Swiss who think they need to see where their food grows.  In America, we are more sensible, he said, because we believe food comes from the Safeway and we accept production agriculture. 

I won't take the time to go into the many ways that production agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster. Ultimately, the problem of feeding the world is one of limited arable land and a rising population.  And diverse small farms, which can produce more food on the same acreage than giant industrial monocultures–with less ecological damage–seem to me an important part of the answer.

Nonetheless, I do have an open mind about the possibilities of genetic engineering.  But I would have assumed that this was a politically incorrect position.  I seem to be wrong.  The single most interesting thing about Professor Gruissem's lecture was that an audience of college students showed no outrage whatsoever in the Q&As about GMOs.  

In fact, they largely left it up to Professor Gruissem to criticize Monsanto.

Has the battle for public opinion actually been won by Monsanto?

Posted by on October 21, 2011 at 6:57 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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23 Responses to “Is the GMO Fight Over?”

  1. There is a certain arrogance with the so called agricultural experts that I find very demeaning to small farmers. I too had a rant.
    http://www.friendsdriftinn.com/real-life/world-food-day-2011.html

  2. El says:

    I likewise am not terribly opposed to GMOs if they are used in sane ways to actually feed people and not merely sell more product. The daisy chain that Monsanto et.al. get farmers to participate in–buy our seeds to ensure our poisons work–is and should remain reprehensible. (As is its hording and trademarking of seeds, actual lifeforms, but the Supreme Court has given its okay to that so I suppose that can be saved for another rant.) GMOs should be simply another tool in the arsenal of feeding the planet.

    There are other, easier tools in the arsenal too, like getting people to stop wasting food (what, 25% in this country?), but that’s probably also another issue.

  3. Egad! I’m so blown over I don’t know what to write. I’m horrified by him, the activists, etc. I want to help small farmers. That’s why I’m part of our local co-op. I also grow my food–when it’s not a summer like this. Americans aren’t “reasonable.” They just didn’t know what GMO, Roundup-Ready would do to us. I bet that was hard to sit through.~~Dee

  4. Rachel says:

    Unfortunately GMOs have been shown in studies to actually produce less food. That said, no biotech company is going to put the research into making crops healthier and then give it away for free.

    The other thing that I CANNOT stand is the assumption that if you don’t get acutely sick from something then it must be OK. People don’t get acutely sick from smoking, but we already know it’s bad for you.

  5. Botanicbay says:

    I agree with the rant, I live in France and we are lucky to have Jose Bauve, who has made some appearances in New York over the past years, campaigning against globalization.(Ever heard of him ?) He is the epitome of what you would call an activist, actively taking part into the destruction of trial GMO fields, and this for over 30 years. I believe people like him help raising awareness in the population, wether you are pro or against his ideas, at least there is a debate !

  6. UrsulaV says:

    Monsanto sure hasn’t won the battle for MY opinion. If there was a label that said “Made from heirloom grains” on flour, I’d buy it. (It’s grains where I think we lose the most ground–fresh veggies are easy to get heirloom varieties, but we’re kinda screwed for flour.)

  7. Ray Eckhart says:

    I find this site to be very informative, readable, and objective on the subject:

    http://www.biofortified.org/

    “Biofortified’s volunteer authors are devoted to providing factual information and fostering discussion about agriculture, especially plant genetics and genetic engineering. The site is written by grad students, professors, and guest experts.”

  8. Matt says:

    Plant scientists almost universally see genetic engineering as a powerful tool, free of inherent health/environment/social risks. While lab scientists often naively overpromise what the technology is capable of, the breeders who actually develop new varieties do almost all of their work in the field, with much input from farmers.

  9. John says:

    Just the other day some expert was on the radio saying that the calories needed to feed the world ARE in the fields, it’s the delivery system to get them to the hungry mouths that has broken down. It all comes back to fossil fuels, again and again.

  10. Lu says:

    And diverse small farms, which can produce more food on the same acreage than giant industrial monocultures–with less ecological damage–seem to me an important part of the answer.

    Sorry, not gonna happen.

    Larger farms are more efficient due to the economy of scale. That’s the reason farms keep getting larger.
    Also there is nothing bad in monocultures. We need wheat, lots of it. Same for corn. Potatoes. Oats. The list goes on and on and on.

    I won’t take the time to go into the many ways that production agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster.

    Organic farming requires much more land, uses inefficient fertilizers of dubious origins (fishmeal…. bloodmeal… barf!) which could be ridden with human pathogens (compost tea, anyone?). In my opinion, that’s a disaster.

    There is nice article from the agricultural experts:
    http://aquamail.aquariumdigital.com/T/ViewEmail/r/ACEC22CBB5BE5C61/5D66E97B2556A9FFC67FD2F38AC4859C

  11. Dirty Girl Gardening says:

    sounds like a really great lecture… thanks for the share.

  12. I read Lu’s “nice article.” Very nice on pushing the pro-GMO propaganda. I would suggest those who want to see the other side (the side that’s not about money-making but about being “caretakers of creation”) read Joel Salatin’s books. First hand experiences written by a real farmer who wants to find the right answers–instead of just doing what everyone else is doing, taking for granted that others can better do the thinking for him.

  13. Sarah says:

    I have mixed feelings on this. First, I must state that I like the taste of the heirloom varieties much better than the GMO varieties. However, I am not convinced that the GMOs are actually bad for us. They just don’t taste good — which in itself is a reason to avoid them, but still.

  14. jeff z says:

    Lu-

    The economies of scale in farming work so long as we have access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuel. Without cheap diesel to run the tractors and natural gas to produce nitrogen fertilizer, it breaks down. That’s what we’re starting to see already.

    When we lose the small scale farmers, we lose a lot of knowledge that will be useful post-peak oil and gas.

  15. HOLY CATBREATH, Kat Woman! We are doomed if we have lost this fight… Either that, or the Revolution will be upon our doorsteps far earlier than I reckoned… Me, I am going to continue planting heirlooms, and saving seeds from the varieties which do best in my zone. No GMOs for me! and in my “little one mile radius”, I will continue fighting GMOs where ever and however I can. One of these here days, there will be reliable research proving the FrankenFoods are NOT nutritionally sound, and I do not intend to be a guinea pig for AgriBusiness. Humanity keeps surprising me with its’ insistence for blindly allowing big business to use us as guinea pigs. >^,,^<

  16. Mary says:

    I thought Lu’s article was pretty thought-provoking. And Jeff Z, if we lose access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuel, won’t that be just as detrimental to small farmers? they still have to move their products to the people. Economies of scale have been a boon to society & it seems like they’re being unfairly branded here.

  17. Dancedancekj says:

    I believe there is room in the world for both heirlooms and GMOs, for small scale farmers and large scale ones. We cannot have just one or the either really.
    I personally am not worried about GMOs. I’d rather be consuming GMO broccoli and worrying about improving my health in other ways (lowered exposure to VCO’s and PCB’s, proper overall nutrition, upping physical fitness etc.) The idea that just because a food is a GMO and the other is an heirloom makes the former inferior is a bit silly. The idea that it might be dangerous because we don’t know what that allele change does is silly as well, since we don’t know most of the hundreds of thousands of alleles that are in our heirloom varieties (which may or may not genetically be the variety we think we are growing).
    I just don’t think it’s a battle I necessarily care to fight, and so long as not every plant we grow is genetically modified, I think we’ll be OK.

  18. I think the arguments for/against GMO’s are drowned out by the unnecessarily polarized dialogue coming from the left and right extremes. A simple, fair and balanced discussion that cuts to the heart of this issue and weighs the pro/cons can be found in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and his garden notes about the blue potato: http://www.pbs.org/thebotanyofdesire/potato-control.php

  19. Sarah says:

    Interesting article, Alan, thanks. Personally, I would much rather see a diversity of crops. At the same time, when so few of us actually garden, let alone farm, the large farms are almost forced into specialty monocultures. Because of this, I highly doubt GMO’s are going away. I just wish they wouldn’t be pushed so heavily in seed catalogs.

  20. cellbioprof says:

    Posted by: John | October 21, 2011 at 01:51 PM

    “Larger farms are more efficient due to the economy of scale. That’s the reason farms keep getting larger.
    Also there is nothing bad in monocultures. We need wheat, lots of it. Same for corn. Potatoes. Oats. The list goes on and on and on.
    Organic farming requires much more land, uses inefficient fertilizers of dubious origins (fishmeal…. bloodmeal… barf!) which could be ridden with human pathogens (compost tea, anyone?). In my opinion, that’s a disaster.”

    Where to start???
    The “inefficient fertilizers”, perhaps. John, do you know ANYTHING about how synthetic NPK depletes the soil? Anything about soil bacteria? About fungal symbionts and mycorrhizae? About the cycle of conventional industrial agriculture which uses more and more synthetic fertilizer, with more and more environmental damage from runoff, and more and more fossil fuel usage to make and apply those fertilizers?
    Time to learn about agriculture, John. And some ecology, while you’re at it.

  21. Lu says:

    Alan Burke, asla
    A simple, fair and balanced discussion…..

  • Jon says:

    From 1950 to 1970 the introduction of hybrids, modern fertilizers and pesticides has more than doubled world production of food on the same acreage. Prior there were far more famines and expectations that increased populations would cause many millions of deaths. This did not happen because of modern agriculture.

    Test after test have shown that heirloom crops and modern crops are nutritionally the same and in taste test after taste test there is no difference in taste. Sure if you grow your own or have access to fresh picked food it can taste better.

    Those who push for the agriculural practices of 60 years ago should realize that if their wishes were granted they would be sentencing tens of millions of people to starvation.

    Hopefully we wil never elect officials foolish enough to try and reverse agriculture to the practices of 60 years ago.

  • Fiona Whitehouse says:

    ‘The Irish potato famine was the result of British Empire policy.’ Just like to point out that there was famine across Europe at this time and the English had no empire in Europe apart from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The crop failure in general being due to monoculture allowing the spread of uncontrollable disease.
    Not saying the English governing class were not unfeeling and thick. Just it was a failure of policy across Europe. (The famine was in England too.)Also England was near bankruptcy because of being at war most of the time. Sounds a little familiar.

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