Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

I’ll have a glass of wine and the genetically modified salmon, please

By Zachary Karabell
March 22, 2013

While tiny Cyprus teeters on the brink, dominating much of the news, and elusive peace in the Middle East remains in the headlines, there is another battle going on — the latest in a long war that is shaping our planet far more than the events in Nicosia or the West Bank. Food and water are essential to human existence, yet in the last few decades the ability to increase food supply by technological means has stirred fear and passion. Cyprus’ woes may come and go; the food wars are going nowhere.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s just announced they would not sell a soon-to-be-approved genetically modified salmon called AquAdvantage. That follows Whole Foods’ recent announcement that it would require all items sold in its stores to include information on “genetically modified organisms” by 2018. Popularly known as GMOs, these are foods whose genetic code has been scientifically altered. The recent steps are just the latest salvo, and follow a failed ballot initiative in California last fall that would have mandated all GMO foods to be clearly labeled.

These measures were presented as part of ongoing efforts to allow consumers to make more informed choices about their foods, but they also take a clear moral stance against GMOs. In announcing the salmon ban, a Whole Foods spokesperson stated: “We believe all farmed animals — whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes.” A number of Whole Foods shoppers were already outraged that the chain has been selling products containing GMOs, particularly corn produced from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds. One advocate labeled Whole Foods “Wholesanto,” claiming that it only agreed to labeling after too many customers threatened to boycott the store. There was also reference to the policies in the United Kingdom and much of the European Union, where public attitudes towards GMOs are overwhelmingly negative.

Why be so concerned? On the plus side, GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.

The animus toward GMOs is widely shared, and yet, the prevalence of GMOs has been part of the massive increase in agricultural production over the last few decades. Yes, that point in not without controversy. Critics of the biotechnological advancements in agriculture claim that decades of use have not increased yields and instead have weakened the organic food chain, eliminated crop varieties and actually decreased the resilience of the food chain worldwide by reducing natural diversity.

Still, it’s undeniable that as the population has exploded in the last hundred years, so has our food supply. That is especially true in the last 20 years, which have seen the sharpest rise in acres planted with genetically-modified seeds. In 1992, there were about 5 billion on the planet; today that number is in excess of 7 billion and climbing. Yet far from there being food shortages, much of the world is in surplus. Not everyone has enough food, but it’s not for lack of supply, but because of distribution. Potable water is a far greater issue.

Over the last two decades, crop yields have increased significantly in countries that have high levels of biotech crops. In the United States, close to 90 percent of corn and soybeans are genetically modified, with seeds made by Monsanto leading the way. Since 1992, yields have climbed as much as 75 percent. Similar effects have been seen throughout the world, from Brazil to Russia to South Africa.

It’s true that agricultural productivity has been growing steadily in the past century, even before biotechnology produced seeds. And many of today’s GMO seeds don’t themselves increase yields; they are designed to reduce the need for pesticides. Proponents say that using fewer pesticides is not only good for health, it is good for the planet. In addition, some of the next generation of GMO seeds are being designed to deal with the pressing issue in the years ahead: climate changes and more drought. Drought-resistant seeds may be the key to avoiding large-scale famine as the global population grows and arable land shrinks. It’s either that, or people getting by on less food.

Better to go with the former. And yet consumers seem to be struggling with the choice. Part of the mistrust around GMOs stems from the companies that make them – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta – companies that have not always engendered the support of farmers. Monsanto in particular, having produced the toxic deforestation chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and taken a strong hand with price fixing for small farmers has been vilified as the worst of corporate greed and indifference. Though Monsanto’s culture has changed dramatically in recent years, these images take a long time to fade, and as its recent Supreme Court case against a farmer who tried to copy its seeds demonstrates, it still has an adversary relationship with its customers.

There’s also the familiar fear of technology that has run through Western society for centuries. Fear of the printing press, fear of the telephone, the television, and the Internet as destabilizing forces is on the same spectrum as fear of biotechnology.  Playing with the DNA of what we eat raises specters of “Frankenfoods” and humans rolling the dice with nature’s code, with unpredictable and destructive results. Though humans have been manipulating the genetics of animals and crops since at least the early 19th century (when Silesian monk Gregor Mendel began experimenting with green seeds and yellow seeds), the fear that we are messing with an equilibrium has never been far from the surface.

With GMOs, we are faced with a greater-good question: Should we use all means available to allow billions of new inhabitants of the planet to enjoy adequate and even abundant food, so they can have the same opportunities and advantages as the affluent developed world? Or should we shun these technologies because of concerns about resilience and diversity, risking widespread famine if alternate tools do not produce sufficient yields? Or is there a third way, hoping that human behavior and patterns of consumption change on a global scale more quickly than we are able to exhaust the food supply?

These are individual mores, to be sure, and we should go ahead and empower ourselves to make informed choices through better labeling of foods. But the ease with which the developed world is rejecting the tools of biotechnology speaks to its affluence, and not to the conditions that are still prevalent for the billions in India, China, Africa and Latin America who are poised to enter the middle class. Facilitating that demands whatever solutions we can bring to bear. In biotechnology, we have, for now, an answer.

PHOTO: A Greenpeace activist displays signs symbolising genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels November 24, 2008. REUTERS/Thierry Roge

Comments
23 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

If your point is that it is only the rich of this planet, who have already transformed their own natural environments beyond recognition to suit their pleasures, who can afford to feel superior about GMOs — then I’m 100 percent in agreement. We let our ancestors wipe out the Indians and the buffalo and the forests and — while tooling around on freeways, talking on $400 smartphones, and eating in expensive restaurants — feign horror at the gamble that biotech takes with nature.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive
 

1. Genetically modified food further reduces the gene diversity. Having few gene pools makes the whole ecosystem much more vulnerable and less adaptable to changes/attacks/diseases.

3. The “inventors” of genetically modified organisms have hardly an idea how the gene changes effect the whole organism.
The GMO inventors are essentially working like computer hackers who inject some pieces of code into the genes. If newly-born modified organisms survive then the modification is considered ok. To call this gene code hacking “scientific” would be far fetched.
If these “scientists” really understood genetics they would be able to build organisms from scratch. As we know, they are not capable to do that. Likewise they do not fully understand the effects of their hacks.

Posted by geejay101 | Report as abusive
 

what objection to labeling products to identify what a person is buying? Is it not the purchaser’s choice to make? On the salmon topic, the GMO fish will certainly be farmed using huge amounts of smaller fish for feed – already verified to contain very high levels of pcbs. Who’s afraid of GMO salmon? – I’m more concerned with proven carcinogins that come with trying to mimic nature

Posted by auger | Report as abusive
 

Only those that believe “God will provide” can look at the earth’s existing burden of SEVEN BILLION humans (with more on the way every day) without seeing that humanity is already in serious trouble from “overproduction”.

“Should we use all means available to allow billions of new inhabitants of the planet to enjoy adequate and even abundant food…”? In the end, how does one debate with those who would otherwise starve otherwise?

“…so they can have the same opportunities and advantages as the affluent developed world?” Ahhh, THERE is the “unsolvable” problem. There is simply no way SEVEN BILLION people can EVER have the “future” they see on TV every day in third world societies. No one can tell them and live, and they would not believe it anyway. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The battle is not one of hearts and minds but of a harsh and utterly impersonal uncompromising reality.

Being in the majority of no land, no wealth, no education, no skill, no job, and no reasonable prospect of any of these things, all most offer is empty hands, empty mouths, empty stomachs, urine, feces, and ever more of themselves. These shall increasingly and inevitably fall to famine, starvation, lack of water, disease, and the conflicts of futility that arise from associated and increasing desperation and awareness.

There are very good reasons for the “Do Not Feed the Pigeons” signs that those ruled by emotion in the abstract, perhaps even a majority, do not understand and are unwilling to seriously consider. Reality is not changed by closed eyes or poor choices. The predator still eats the ostrich with head in sand.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

The material of Glass is made artificially. What you really need is the original stone carved Stone filled with whatever you think natural enough liquid to suit whatever fish you think original enough to adapt to your favor. Nevertheless, the glass is definitely not original enough, because it is utterly artificial from the building material to the final product.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Fortunately, in this country we do have the ability to vote with our wallets. For those who wish to spend 30%-50% more for their non-GMO food, more power to them. Unfortunately, there is a segment of the population that does not have that luxury–but they still have access to healthy food (versus the processed crap the majority of the population prefers to eat). With the health crisis in this country, GMO’s are markedly less of a threat when compared to the health issues associated with obesity.

But I can also state, from the personal perspective of being in the business of agriculture, GMO’s have allowed us to significantly reduce or eliminate the use of some herbicides and pesticides, while delivering a quality product at a lower cost per unit. The livelihood of farmers and ranchers is dependent upon managing our land resources well. We prefer to continue to reduce the use of chemicals in production (that eventually find their way into our water.) GMO’s offer a viable alternative to do that.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

Next time, ask the waitress “Can I have a stone of wine?” She will be glade to server you in thought “This one is deeply organic.”

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Artificial glass will damage your soul, if not your body.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

A)..you must be on Monsantos payroll

B)..label GMO’s..what are they afraid of..?

C)..you must have a taste for Pesticides…pass the Roundup please…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive
 

Hold on – “should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare ” how is slaughtering animals en mase designed to promote their welfare? How has that got anything to do with GMO? If you don’t trust messing with genetics just say so. Appealing to humane treatment should apply to any all not twisted by bad logic.
Mass fear has prevented the use of irradiation to make foods safer for consumption. Instead we see high rates of ecoli and other bacteria resulting in misuse of antibiotics and unnecessary human suffering.

Strange how we flock to a medical system fully of otherwise toxic chemicals, GMO drugs and high energy emmissions to make us well but cower in fear of it being applied to our food.

Posted by Spruce_gum | Report as abusive
 

The author certainly has not researched the nutritional difference between wild harvested salmon (such as Alaskan) compared to farmed Chinook salmon which is basically fed rabbit feed pellets supplemented with a lot of antibiotics.

Posted by Betowess | Report as abusive
 

This article is wrong in so many ways.

Genetic diversity is at stake when it comes to Roundup Ready and other GMO crops. Their pollen blows far and wide. Their genes have already contaminated a high percentage of the thousands of heirloom maize varieties found in the cradle of maize cultivation in Mexico. These varieties, naturally adapted to resist pests and to grow in poor soil in arid areas, have often lost these qualities once bred “in the wild” with GMO pollen. Unsuprisingly, Monsanto claims inlellectual property rights over seeds created this way thereby appropriating seedstocks in the public domain for thousands of years.

Further, GMO are not a solution to feeding excess population through increases yields. The entire farming industry is based on fertilizers and pesticides created using oil and natural gas (including Roundup) and high mechanization. We will soon deplete these resources (40-60 years) and industrial farming will collapse.

There is no Malthusian conundrum in the sense you describe. Economists have long noted his feeble grasp of the efficiencies created by technological innovation. Scientific Industrial farming has moved the production possibilities curve (PPP) outward but it cannot expand indefinitely. The carrying capacity of the earth is a factor of technology and available resources. Once technology matures its contribution diminishes. Factor in resource exhaustion and the PPP stalls then moves inward to a new sustainable equilibrium.

While their is nothing inherently wrong with using genetic engineering to expand the food supply, but companies like Monsanto have too little oversight and they lobby hard to reduce oversight further. If the want the public’s trust the they should accept legal and regulatory oversight rather than putting profits above all. Companies have shown time and time again that they are willing to cut corners and endanger the public if quarterly returns, stock prices and managerial bonuses can be increased.

Posted by prcrlc | Report as abusive
 

Not seeing a problem here.
I will not eat GMO’s unless it is hidden from me.
I actually grow vegetables (from non GMO seeds) in my yard now for fresh organic vegetables.
Good healthy companies label their proucts “from non GMO soybean (or whatever)”.
Everyone else is free to eat whatever they wish.
For all I care, Zachary Karabell can eat bread made from wheat modified with human genes from people who died from terminal cancer.
This is America after all.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive
 

Forget all the moralizing and economics, I just want my food labeled so I can choose.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

Label GMO and make it illegal to patent or copyright it because once you release it into the wild it WILL get everywhere. Otherwise, do you really want a large corporation charging what it wants for something that was free – access to the ability to farm?
Look up what Monsanto has done in Argentina and Brazil.

ummm article starts as seeming to be unbiased, but a real disconnect happened around the time it said “Monsanto has changed” and “farmer sued for copying seeds”. Should read book “World according to Monsanto”, where it outlined how this corporation has used legal process to “argue” with honest small farmers attempting to be organic. Then the labeling issue was badly represented, followed by a slip into the larger moral issue of a privileged first world.

Terrible article.

Posted by thomasreut | Report as abusive
 

Not even a mention of what deleterious effects may be caused by GMOs…

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

Good luck with that glass of wine if it is Califorian. Its probly full of radiation from Fukushima.

Posted by diddums | Report as abusive
 

At this point we are witnessing “colony collapse” of bee populations all over the world. Colony collapse of the bees is exhibited by the total absence of bees in a hive. Because of that no one knows for sure what is causing colony collapse.

One suspected cause is neonicotoids that GMO plants create as a build-in insecticide. It is easy to say who cares if you don’t understand the important role bees play in our food chain. Without the pollination of bees the food chain we humans depend on will collapse.

As I said GMO’s are only a suspect because after colony collapse there are no bees to test. Unfortunately by the time we do get an answer it may be too late if all the bees are gone.

If it sounds a lot like “global warming” it is probably because it is just another corporate spin control.

Posted by andyreid | Report as abusive
 

Can we label all the “normal” foods too? All the major conventional crops are frankenfoods created in the pre-GMO era by use of carcinogens such as colchicine or radiation. Who knows what the mutations actually were? Usually, no one. But those classic breeding techniques are why crops don’t resemble wild plants. Food crops are all monstrous mutations selected for human convenience. They deserve the frankenfood epithet perhaps even more so than some GMOs.

Oh, and most of those pretty flowers in our gardens, too.

Plant breeding has been mutagenic for over 100 hundred years. GMOs bring relative order to the chaos. Not that a GMO can’t be a bad idea, maybe some are. But on the whole saying all GMO is worse than pre-GMO crops is nonsense.

Posted by Tanj | Report as abusive
 

What a laugh. He starts with a luxury product and ends with half the world starving. Classic misdirection. The salmon that is being manufactured in Central America is not destined for Africa or Asia. It can best be described as a me too luxury product to be sold in volume to Americans. Demand drives this market. We want salmon too, only cheaper and more of it. Pile it high on the BBQ. Show off to the neighbours.

Posted by Cheeseman | Report as abusive
 

Everything we grow for consumption has been manipulated for thousands of years. What is different is the fear that comes with rapid change and the potential for changes to get out of control. Invasive species do get out of control and do cause great harm to the environment. However, we are not talking about invasive species – just variants of existing species. It is extremely unlikely that corn, beans, tomatoes or even genetically modified animals will ever pose a threat. How could they?

Posted by charliethompto | Report as abusive
 

So, let me understand… As an example, if Monsanto GMOs salmon that live a lot longer, get fatter faster, and are resistant to almost every disease, and just happen to have big teeth…

…and 100 of those get released into the wild and they proceed to eat every other natural wild salmon plus a few other species, creating a devastating domino affect on the ecology of our fields, lakes, rivers, oceans…that’s okay? I should be cool with it, because it makes my salmon CHEAPER?

What the hell is it with everyone being so focused only on what’s “cheaper”? Is that the ONLY thing that matters to Americans anymore? Are we now the United States of Profit by Stupidity?

Just label my damned food and I’ll decide. I’ll control the market the old fashioned way – with my dollars. But then that’s what Monsanto is really afraid of, isn’t it?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

This article assumes that it is a good thing to promote food production capable of supporting a much larger world population. I disagree.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive
 

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