Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.  The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

But maybe not for the reasons you might think.  My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?

I’m a bit of a history junkie.  I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century.  Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.

rasmussen1

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

rasmussen2

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios.  The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.

Now, this did take more than 150 years.  Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”

Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops.  At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.

An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding.  In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?

verdict2

There’s still loads of opportunity ahead.  But there are barriers.  It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.

Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?

Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.”  I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement:

amanda maxham1

One thought on “Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

  1. Hey Cami, this initial report doesn’t really surprise me all that much. I think the introduction of GM crop varieties is not likely to have the same impact as adding nitrogen fertilizer or irrigation. Most changes to agriculture make incremental improvements, often with unanticipated consequences to offset advantages. Same in other areas of science. Many GMO crops were designed with features other than nutrition in mind unlike the fast-growing salmon and Golden Rice.

    I’m not afraid of GMOs, and look forward to seeing people get access to Golden Rice. But you know what? That salmon feels fishy to me. It’s pushed my squeamish button to the limit. I try to think of it as an engineered mating of an awesome king salmon with some lesser species, but I’m having to be very deliberate in my consideration of it. For those who succumb to the naturalistic fallacy more easily than I do, yes, all GMO is suspect and without clear environmental or nutritional advantages to overcome the amazing anger at Monsanto, yes, this “promise not yet met” report will support the “anti’s” who are truly off the charts of irrationality.

    But frankly, I think the GMO defender folks go too far in their uncritical defense of Big Ag to the point that they’re not considering potential downsides of many Big Ag practices. It’s been 20 years since “Jack” destroyed my indifference to the way meat is processed in the US, but I still can’t buy “industrial” ground beef. I will occasionally buy an “unground” cut of beef, but I buy local beef from small producers when I can.

    FWIW, I totally agree that for women to spend less time weeding could only be a good thing. A little weeding goes a long way in my life!

    My wish: I would like Bill Nye, Michael Pollan, and some of their friends to, at the very least, clearly acknowledge that there are not health risks to current GMO crops. Could you get them to do that for me, please;-)

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