Saturday, December 05, 2009

Reasonable words on GM Foods

I'm rather skeptical of genetically modified foods myself, both on grounds of safety and efficacy in addressing hunger (and I realize these are heavily contested points and I'm just not going to venture back into them now), but an article at The Guardian maintains that the new synthesis is in, and it's one I largely agree with:
On Wednesday night a debate on GMOs at the illustrious Royal Society of Chemistry HQ in London suggested a breakthrough. Afterwards the feeling was that it was a win on points for the GM sceptics... But [GM proponents] can take heart: the debate was less a defeat for GM than for the way it has developed. The corollary is that if the government really believes that the only way to increase yields is through GM technology, it will have to fund this itself.

The winning argument on Wednesday was not really about science at all, but about the ethics of a method of increasing yields that delivers such power into the hands of the multinationals... GM may be a small part of the answer. But it has a mixed record in Asia, where it has tended to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, and it is unlikely to be any part of the answer to food security in Africa for the foreseeable future. As the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation pointed out last year, there is enough food for everyone. It just isn't available in the right places... globally the need is for publicly funded science to investigate sustainable agriculture in the widest possible meaning of the word: better farming practices, a viable pricing system and, for the global north, a radical change in patterns of consumption.

The "consensus position" (of three or four people I've talked with) is that a reasonable position genetic modification includes a much larger public sector involvement and relative decrease in blockages from Intellectual Property Regimes (if not directly challenging established patents, then developing GM products in the public domain via universities and government funding; many have pointed out that whatever the pluses and minuses of the "first" Green Revolution, a key component of it was the public rather than proprietary nature of a significant portion of its technologies), AND most (of the three or four I've had an extended discussion with) agree as well that large-scale public epidemiology trials should be conducted. GM proponents often proclaim that it's the most widely tested, heavily regulated technology, yet there have been no systematic human feeding trials that I've ever heard of, and certainly no longitudinal ones. Since we're already eating them anyway, seems to me it only makes sense to do large-scale trials taking some people "off" GMs to the extent possible (this would pose a challenge but could be done in part using organic foods) and comparing to a paired sample of people maintaining a GM-diet (not hard since most corn and soybean in the US is already GM). Such trials would be complicated, but there seems little reasonable rationale for not doing them, and doing them would begin to settle much between proponents and opponents (not all, not by half, but much, and would be a substantial improvement on the status quo).

Of course, the thing about the consensus over making GMs:
a) publicly funded/public domain
b) widely, openly and long-term tested
is that it seems quite unlikely to happen, whatever we agree to. GM companies and most governments have no intention of vigorously supporting either position... making articles like that in the Guardian all the more important. If all those of good intent can agree on these two propositions (or something like them) and bridge the divide between people legitimately concerned with hunger and justice but with different evaluations of GM, we can force the hand of governments and companies. Arguing between ourselves has produced more heat than light; hopefully the event reported by the Guardian can be the foundation of a new direction?*

*Rather reminds me of an article a friend recently posted: Let's All Agree: Factory Farming is the Real Evil, Not Vegans. Which I can rather agree to, if one adds the corollary that "factory farms are the enemy, not meat-eaters. Even unconscientious meat-eaters aren't the enemy; we don't want to wipe them out, we want to convince them. Vegan/vegetarianism is threatening and foreign to many people, and trying to shock and shame them into better behavior seems to more commonly generate anger than conversion. Surely, vegans have as much a responsibility as small-farm omnivores to promote co-operation and reasonable discourse, and all of us have a responsibility to convince others. In looking to do so, we should evaluate what's most effective, not necessarily what seems most morally satisfying, most extreme, or most attention-getting. All of those have a time and a place, but it's not always the time and place for all of them. I don't read a lot of vegan writing, but it seems to me there's responsibility on both sides for toning down rhetoric and looking to work together against factory farming, rather than against each other. (Especially because I think consumer activism is severely limited and mainly symbolic by itself, without political agitation and structural change, anyway.)

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