Wednesday, June 24, 2015

First world problems

First world problems.

I am talking about those things that only people who live in the wealthiest nation that has ever existed (well, except for Magrathea) could conceivably complain about:
  • It is just impossible to get one of those jogging strollers at a decent price. 
  • I had to wait in line to get my new I-phone for THREE HOURS. 
  • My second car broke down, and AAA won't tow it. 
  • I just found out that my preferred bottle water is not sold at my local health food store.
  • We sat on the tarmac for two hours before finally departing through the air to a location HALFWAY AROUND THE GLOBE.

And: My local restaurant does not serve organic food.

The GMO debate strikes me as very much a first-world problem.  My tomatoes are too big, and make it to market looking fresh, but don't taste like the tomatoes of my youth. The corn we grow gets used in making things with empty calories, making us all fat and unhealthy. 

My undergrad sociology professor, Dr Abercrombie, once told us, "The rest of the inhabited world has no idea what an empty calorie is.  It is a meaningless term to people who are on the fringe of society."

I look at my colleagues who are most adamant about the GMO issue, and do not see people who are homeless making the arguments.  Nor do I hear people who have no access to clean drinking water.  For that matter, most of the people making the arguments are not even people who raise their own food.

The majority of the people who fight to ban all GMOs and instill a desire for organic produce are wealthy. Perhaps not 1%-ers in the US. But 1% worldwide? Sure. 

This is a first-world problem.

I have read the stories of small farmers that have been sued for patent infringement because they are planting grain that has been pollinated with bees from a neighboring farm.  As best I can tell from the results of the court cases, the farmer's claim that it was cross-pollinated with GMO was false, and the court sided with the seed company....

...who had an agreement with the farmers that they would buy new seed from them each year - rather than keeping back a portion for next season's planting.  It is an agreement.  Legal.  You buy this seed, and you sell the results.  But no cheating!

Farmers, of course, are accustomed to setting aside part of the harvest.  Who wants to buy all new seeds, when you have some already on hand?  But the agreement said that they had to.  The reason might just be the control over the strain, or it might be an attempt to maintain purity. 

But it doesn't matter. 

What does matter is the places where these innovations can make a difference.  In  a world where population is expected to double again by 2050, secure sources of food will become increasingly critical, especially for the farmers at the fringes.  Salt-resistant strains of grain, insect-resistent strains of vegetables, bacteria resistant strains - all items that can be grown in smaller plots of land.  Is there a problem with making it easier for the small farmer to feed small groups?  And if it is done in a genetics lab, rather than in a Mendellian lab, cross-breeding drosophila or wrinkled peas?  Does that make it scarier?


But is it riskier? 

That is harder to decide.  As Chris said, we are far from knowing all of the long-term effects of genetic modification.  Will the bee population survive?  My instinct is that those bees unable to pollinate GMOs will die out.  The ones that can will be stronger.  Like penicillin-resistant bacteria, right?  Furthermore, no credible study has linked GMO and dietary problems.  Unfortunately, like the 'smoking' gun (see what I did there?), it is hard to establish any direct causal link in a society with so many variables to control.  Did you get sick because of GMO?  Or was it a diet high in saturated fats?  Or the office where you worked?  Or any number of millions of differences.

And the FDA is charged with making sure that it is safe to consume the foods under their jurisdiction.  They have limited resources to do pure science (as a federal employee myself, I know a little about the impacts of dwindling budgets) and determine causality. 

Are they in the pocket of the big agrobusiness?  I don't know.  I suspect that they are an awful lot like the people I work with - frustrated at an arcane bureaucracy, trying to do some good.

Here's the end result.  I try and raise my own food in the tiny space available to me.  I eat as much of it as I can.  I love it when a cucumber ripens.  Or a tomato.  Or habanero peppers.  I love it when my cilantro goes to seed, and volunteers pop up in my yard.

And as a result, I fight the bugs and diseases and snails every day - and it is a losing battle.  I don't use pesticides - the dogs spend too much time trying to chase the cat out of my garden to be ok with that. The result is that I am feeding butterflies much more than my face with beautiful tomatos.  I have not even seen my broccoli that I planted.  And the cucumber got smote by a worm. 

But until organic superfarmers (yeah, organic is big business, too):

...until the organic superfarmers start charging less for their products, to where the poor among us can afford them, I have no problem defending my consumption of GMOs.  It is no more of an ethical choice to buy organic, non-GMO food than it is an ethical choice to buy IBC root beer (owned by the Kraft/Snapple/Dr Pepper brand) instead of Mirinda (under Pepsi). 

Avoiding big business?  I get it.  My dad owned a company that competed with Lowe's and Home Depot for decades.  I always feel like we should support the little guy, rather than the big box.  But at a certain point, it does not make sense to feed your family one organically grown tomato, when you could afford a lot more otherwise.

And until we get proof that the direst predictions of the anti-GMO crowd are true, the argument sounds a lot like most of the reactions to technological changes:

"What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" - The Quarterly Review, March, 1825.

"American oil supplies will last only another 13 years." - US Department of the Interior, 1939

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office, 1876

“Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison, 1889

"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, 1903.

I am going to be watching for the unintended consequences (cool website here of positive unintended consequences) of GMOs.  I am going to be reading about the scientific studies that are being done. And I will allow myself to be swayed - I was not a believer in climate change for a long time, either.  But I kept reading and kept asking questions.  So I can be convinced.

But until I am convinced that the science has outstripped our ability to use it well, I am going to eat my tomato sandwich, without worrying that it might be a GMO.

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