My Story Regarding GMOs
- When I Used to Condemn GMOs
- Things that Made Me Question
- My Research and Conclusions
- Some Recommendations
My story begins in college, when I was a graduate student of Philosophy, in the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Back then, I used to receive a very good political left-wing magazine, Z Magazine, where there were (and still are) sections reviewing several documentaries. Because of a particular review, I decided to buy one called The Corporation, which I consider to be a great film, and one that I still use in my Ethics courses. It was and is a great portrayal of the amoral nature of for-profit corporations in general, and the fallacy of believing that corporations can be ethical in principle. It also deals with the concept of "externalities" (i.e. negative externalities) generated by their profit creation process, a subject which is relatively undiscussed in the public arena, but is relevant when discussing ethics and responsible social activity.
Courtesy of Elke Wetzig
When I first watched The Corporation, I noticed that there were references to Monsanto and the problem that Indian farmers had to save their seeds. It was the very first time I heard of this company. Basically, Monsanto was shown as a remorseless creator of agent orange, DDT, and terminator technology. Vandana Shiva, presented as "physicist, ecologist, and seed activist", spoke in the documentary against GM seeds around the world, because Monsanto was using terminator seeds to prevent farmers from saving seeds for the next season. Of course, as a good leftie, I accepted all of these claims at face value, and saw how a big corporation with a horrible track record would use GMOs to exploit farmers to maximize its profits. After all, The Corporation also showed how Monsanto did not accept before the Vietnamese the creation of agent orange and harassed former Fox News reporters to disuade them from talking publicly about the potential risk of milk coming from rBGH treated cows.
So, ever since then, I have been against Monsanto and GM seeds, precisely because (as The Corporation "proved") it opens the door for living things to be exploited by big corporations. This is the moment where Monsanto and GMOs were equivalent issues in my mind ... as it happens with the vast majority of left leaning people who read, watch, or hear about GMOs. Back then, it never occurred to me that much of the claims may have been just pure propaganda ...
During my philosophical career, especially centered on Philosophy of Science and Husserlian Phenomenology (with some personal research in Ethics), I had to read a lot about a different subjects related to science, although I was not specifically interested in GM. My opinion was made up at the time.
Yet, every now and then, by mere chance, I would find a statement from someone I respected in the scientific community who would express her or himself in favor of GM. For instance, in The Blank Slate, in Chapter 13 "Out of Our Depths", Steven Pinker talks positively about the genetic modification. I know that Pinker is one of the most important minds of our times, especially because he disseminates scientific information to the public, and he has been interested on matters related to social justice. I sometimes disagreed with him, but I was surprised that he was advocating for GMOs. Pinker's statement was brief, only centered on the science, without considering the corporate potential for exploitation to farmers. So, I thought that Pinker was fundamentally wrong on the issue. I relied on the fact that Vandana Shiva was from India, that she saw first hand Monsanto's bullying against Indian farmers, and how it imperialistically wanted to push its products on farming lands around the world.
Many years later, while working at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, I was invited by a dear colleague to give an Honor course in Philosophy of Science (PREH 4996, August-December, 2013). I accepted, and started preparing the syllabus and the readings regarding different aspects of this field. I wanted to include issues pertaining Philosophy of Biology, and in the selection of readings in Michael Ruse's anthology, Philosophy of Biology, I noticed three that would start changing my mind about GMOs:
- "G. M. Foods, A Royal View" by the Prince of Wales - In here, Prince Charles presents all of the main arguments regarding biotechnology and genetically modified foods, especially how it inflicts violence against Nature with conventional farming.
- "An Open Letter to Prince Charles" by Richard Dawkins - In this reading, Dawkins argues against Prince Charles' views that "natural" is somehow good or better. He points out that agriculture has never been a natural activity, and that it has harmed ecosystems in very important ways. In fact, one of his main statements is that the best ethical life is the one that rejects some natural way of living. For example, it is not ethically acceptable to use the Darwinian struggle for life as a framework for social progress.
- "The Environment's Best Friend: GM or Organic?" by Lee M. Silver - This reading focuses on the fact that GM has the potential of reducing a lot of the harm that humanity is inflicting on the environment, as opposed to organic farming, which claims to do so, but is seriously limited in that task.
I have to say that of all of the readings, Richard Dawkins' was the one that hit me very hard. It made me question long held beliefs I had, such as the conviction that organic was better, because it was "natural". Of course, now looking back at the time, I should have known that by supposing that, I was falling into the naturalistic fallacy. You should never identify being "natural" with being "good". I also realized that I didn't know very much about agriculture itself, since I've always grown up in the city with a urban lifestyle.
Silver's article further reinforced Dawkins' point, this time with more concrete examples. I had no idea what an "Enviropig" was. For some reason, none of the anti-GM propaganda I had seen mentioned it, so It was the very first time I read about it! Silver's writing explained it very well. It also demystified some things that I believed to be true, such as that organic farming used no insecticides or herbicides, that it was healthier for you, and that it is great for the environment. None of this was necessarily true. The text was very brief about it, but it hit me again.
Re-reading some books for more of my personal research on Philosophy of Science and of Biology, confirmed a lot of these points to me. This happened especially when I read again Dawkins' books The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth. Although I don't share Dawkins' exclusive focus on a gene-centered view of natural selection, these books made me realize that GM simply could not be worse than genetic modification by Nature itself. The vast majority of genetic mutations carried out by Nature (a blind watchmaker) in the entirety of evolutionary history is relatively neutral or for the worse, and only occasionally some traits appear that will benefit a species' survival given a particular environment. This is the reason why the evolution from single-celled organisms to all of those we see today took billions of years! On the other hand, genetic engineering is much better than the "blind watchmaker" Nature, because we can actually engineer mutations far more efficiently to satisfy certain present needs. We must underscore the fact that there is an intelligent purpose involved in GMOs, even our goal of preserving life on Earth.
Once I finished giving the Honor course, I wanted to think long and hard about my personal beliefs, including those regarding GMOs and organic foods. This is the time when I also left Roman Catholicism to become a Religious Naturalist.
I started examining the claims made by anti-GMO groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others, people whom I regarded with the highest esteem, whose integrity I never questioned. I investigated each claim I knew of made by these groups, and then started reading peer-reviewed articles on GMOs, pesticides, Monsanto products, and so on, preferably independent studies.
To my astonishment, I began to realize several aspects of this issue. (Please, forgive me if I sound angry about many of these points, but bringing back these memories make me want to kick myself for being so stupid and ideological about it, and feeling deceived by the environmentalist left regarding this issue.)
- There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that all of the GM foods in the market are safe. Pinker was not the only scientist to say that. Almost everyone in the scientific community thought so. This consensus was just as great as the one about climate change ... and THAT is a pretty strong consensus!
- ALL of the "major studies" being used by anti-GMO activists are mostruously distorted in their propaganda, or very poor studies, very badly executed experiments, or published in journals with extremely low reputation, even fraudulent journals. Sometimes they used studies where no experiments were carried out! I wish to emphasize that I'm not talking about "some" studies, or "most" studies ... no, I'm talking about ALL of them!!!!
- The anti-GM crowd is making a lot of loud noise ... with nothing scientific to support it! NOTHING!!!!! I cannot even begin to describe how awful I felt when I realized that much of what is being argued against GM is total bovine manure. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that GM food is causing any harm to animals, people, or the environment. In fact, the overwhelming evidence shows exactly the opposite!
- I even found out that most about what is being said about Monsanto was false! I found out that terminator technology has never been developed or used by Monsanto. On the contrary, of all of the companies that work on hybrid and GM seeds, Monsanto is the only company that has made a commitment to not use terminator seeds (see its statement about it here). It never "developed" terminator. It acquired the technology as the result of buying Delta Pine Land, the real developer of a terminator technology. I also found out that the Monsanto that exists today is not the same Monsanto that participated in the development of DDT or agent orange. This is because today's Monsanto is the remnant that span off from a fusion between the earlier Monsanto and Pharmacia, a drug company that was later bought by Pfizer. Even at the legal level, the Monsanto that exists today is a different entity from the one that existed before (see here). By the way, the patents on seeds are not exclusive to Monsanto or GM food. They are present everywhere in the market, even in the case of organic seeds!!! (See this page on the patents in question.) These non-Monsanto patents on non-GM (and sometimes organic) seeds make similar requirements when asking farmers not to save their seeds for the purpose of exploiting them economically. In a similar manner, other things said about Monsanto turned out to be nothing more than urban legends: that Monsanto has induced Indian farmers to suicide, that Monsanto loves suing farmers, that Monsanto has bought the whole scientific establishment, and other garbage information.
- Even most of the ideologues of the anti-GMO movement are scientists with extremely bad reputation, people who claim to be scientists when they are not, or non-scientists who don't even know what they are talking about. Vandana Shiva is not a professional physicist. She was a trained physicist as an undergraduate, but her MA and PhD were both in Philosophy of Science (my field!), not Physics. She is not India's "leading physicist" as some people claim, not even a "nuclear physicist" as sometimes has been told (without any effort from her part to correct the record). Other people like Jeffrey Smith from the Institute for Responsible Technology, are also a non-scientists, and these sorts of organizations lack science advisors. Other people are linked to the organic industry ... yes, these for-profit, multinational, no-questions-asked capitalist economic interests, who prosper out of condemning GMOs and conventional farming in general, using pro-organic people and environmentalists as useful fools (oops!... sorry ... I meant "tools") to fill their pockets with money. These include people who are professionally unqualified to talk about agriculture or nutrition, such as Vani Hari (the Food Babe), or Mike Adams (Natural News), or Dr. Oz, and many others who have very much to gain from this. By the way, a substantial amount of the anti-GMO studies published as having "no conflicts of interests" have been found economically linked directly to many of these people and organizations.
- Contrary to what activists claim, GMOs have considerably reduced the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and the degree of pesticides administered in fields. So, the net effect of GM on the environment has been positive.
- Even a lot of the harmful social effects supposedly created by GM turned out not to be true. Data clearly shows that farmers in general (and I mean all over the world) are not upset by the adoption of GM seeds from Monsanto, nor are required to. The farmers are sovereign. They have many other options to choose from, since there are also other companies which sell seeds, including GM seeds. It is an open market. The reason why many farmers buy them is because they have been immensely popular and, in most cases, have enhanced their quality of life.
- Monsanto is not the only company developing GM food. Other companies such as Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer or Simplot, as well as many public institutions around the world, work on GM food that would actually make the world a better place, especially for the poor, such as golden rice, GM wheat for people with celiac disease, purple tomatoes that prevent cancer, Arctic® Apples, Simplot's Innate™ potatoes, and so on. Even scientists have been working on GM plantations that can withstand virus or bacterial plagues, crops that require much less chemical nitrogen, or that are drought resistant. Particularly the elaboration of golden rice is a first rate humanitarian cause. We already have transgenic technology that produces very cheap insulin for diabetics being used all over the world. In this particular case, it has prevented the sacrifice of many pigs, whose pancreas had been the sole source of insulin for diabetics.
- Last, but not least, I also discovered that the considerable delay in making a lot of these products available in the market is costing people's lives, especially the poorest of the world everywhere. The lack of availability of golden rice is a social sin perpetrated, not by Monsanto, but by the most ardent anti-GMO activism, especially Greenpeace and similar organizations, which actively destroy these plantations, and don't let the experiments continue.
Photo courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute
After noticing all of these facts, I concluded that the entirety of the anti-GMO campaign was just a great big lie. There was simply no reason to be against this new technology. So, being honest to myself, I changed my mind.
Of course, that implied having friction with a lot of my left-wing friends, peers, and students, but I cannot continue supporting in good conscience a cause that I know to be wholly false and thrives in lies. Besides, Philosophy is my field, so truth is my business. If I supported something that I knew to be false, I should resign as a philosopher.
Lucky for me, I won't resign!
J. M. Mulet