Science, Sustainability, World Hunger, and GMOs: A Skeptic’s Rebuttal


Hungry World: Still Hungry

The biotech industry loves to wax poetic about noble intentions regarding world hunger — meanwhile developing such world-saving products as GMO apples that resist turning brown, or stacked-resistance crops to feed overfed countries with an engineered resistance problem — so that we can grow more artificially cheap corn, to produce more artificially cheap meat, so that we can die early from the Western diseases of overabundance.

Many factors play a role in world hunger, but most often in developing countries the central problem is one of resource distribution. In other words, it’s not that we don’t produce enough food to feed everyone; it’s that often poor people can’t reach it. Among poverty-stricken areas of developing countries, evidence suggests that traditional low-tech farming methods work better than ultramodern industrial oil-dependent patent-protected profit-driven biotech methods, for feeding hungry families.

World hunger is a problem of poverty, not one of production.

Where Science Stops: Social Justice, Food Monopolies, and Moral Reasoning

Evidence suggests many reasons to remain skeptical of the world view offered by biotech evangelicals. But even beyond the problems related to biased research, or ever-increasing pest resistance, or unexplored potential health impacts, or negative impacts on biodiversity — beyond any of the science-based reasons one might reject industry dogma — we must step beyond the domain of science, and recognize the ethical implications of allowing corporate privatization of the global food supply.

A GMO-driven agricultural system privatizes access to one of life’s most basic needs — seeds for food crops — for the gain of the few at the expense of the many. Science can’t tell you whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea; moral reasoning must step into the fray.

Physicist, ecologist, and social justice advocate Vandana Shiva asserts that those who assume GM crops produce more food for hungry people are “sadly mistaken.”. Introducing genetically engineered seed means introducing toxins (such as Roundup) to whole ecosystems, including other crops growing alongside GM corn, soy, or cotton. Effects of these toxins, and the facilitation of resistant superweeds in surrounding fields, often result in LESS food being produced for the farmer and his or her family.

Government studies have repeatedly found this to be the case in India, after the introduction of genetically modified crops. Far from facilitating increased food production, Shiva says, when you make traditional farmers dependent on patented GM seeds,

“You are creating hunger; you are creating disease. Superweeds taking over your fields are a recipe for hunger; pests overtaking your fields are a recipe for hunger. But worse, seed patents are a way of getting money out of poor people. This is NOT a solution to hunger and poverty: this is aggravating the crisis that poor people already face.”

Each new genetically modified trait inserted into a food crop takes about $139 million, to develop and then bring it to market. With so much to recoup, and with patent law dictating repurchase of seed for each new crop, do we really stand prepared to believe that poor farming communities in developing nations will benefit from this expensive technology?

The world hunger problem is already chiefly one of inequitable resource distribution; GMO seeds and their related chemistry pose yet another distribution challenge. Is it ethical to pour our world resources into development of these unsustainable strategies, guaranteed to cultivate dependence on global megacorporations, rather than traditional agro-ecological techniques that can sustain poor families without reliance on cash economies or external supplies — without actively reducing the amount of food they can produce, to feed hungry families?

I think that’s a difficult ethical position to reasonably argue, or to support.

Conclusion: Science and Reason Trump Biotech Catechism

Scientific thinking and moral reasoning work together to lead towards better understanding of the universe, and towards better decision making skills. Believing what you’re told makes you a useful tool for whoever tells the best story — but is unlikely to change the world in any positive way, except for whoever’s using you.

Is there a way to use biotechnology for food crops to do more good than harm, to the world?

The only scientifically sound answer to that question is that within the current bias-ridden, self-regulated, data-deficient, tranparency-phobic biotech industrial model, we have no way of empirically investigating that question.

Given the magnitude of potential detriment to human health, environmental integrity, and food security within poor communties, ethical reasoning argues for applying the precautionary principle, and viewing GMO agriculture (in its current form) with considerable skepticism.

Food issues don’t get a pass on sense or science. Neither Mr. Lynas nor anyone else should ‘believe’ in GMO agriculture or ‘believe’ it’s a problem. Skeptical inquiry and data-driven decision making, combined with thoughtful moral reasoning, will lead to reasonable agricultural strategies and food policy designed to benefit the public good; but they can only lead there if we follow reason, not ‘belief’ in the biotechnology industry’s self-serving parables.

Image credits: Creative Commons photos by FlyingSinger and Peter Blanchard.

  1. Dee

    wow! well done, tanya! this is such a thorough and well-referenced article. how could anyone offer a satisfactory pro-GMO rebuttal to the clear call for skepticism that the evidence laid out here urges? i will share this far and wide. this is a really important issue that affects all of us but slips so often under the radar. thanks for the hard work you put in to make this issue and the evidence around it so accessible.

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Thank you, Dee! I think it’s pinging on the public’s radar more and more, but industry has a monster of a marketing budget and (so far) has been all to successful in outshouting critics, and shaping public opinion towards corporate goals (despite the ethical and evidentiary problems inherent in what they’re selling). As public awareness grows, I think that will become harder to manage that spin. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  2. John L. Farthing

    An essential feature of scientific thinking is a healthy skepticism, a refusal to accept claims without exposing them to rigorous critical scrutiny. Science is all about a careful examination of the facts and a determination to follow the facts wherever they lead without giving way to bias, prejudice, or economic self-interest. Given the prestige of science in the modern world, nothing is more crucial for those who seek a rational, sustainable public policy than to unmask allegedly scientific claims that are actually in service to the vested interests of corporations that put profits to shareholders above public health and safety. EDB has become a reliable source of alternatives to corporate “science,” and Ms. Sitton’s critique of Mark Lynas’s revisionism vis-a-vis GMOs is an important public service. Well researched and clearly articulated, this essay deserves a wide readership. Pass it on!

  3. Xplorexpress

    Strange this so sudden and drastic change… would like to know… well… was he paid by Monsanto a substantial amount of $$$ to now go with them??? More when you read that more and more reports now are bringing proofs of the danger of these modified genetics. Really weird!

    Thank you for this interesting article

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