GMOs Are Safe, But Bill Nye Was Still Right The First Time

Bill Nye speaking at Jesse Hall
Photo by Mark Schierbecker, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently Discover, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and many corners of the blogosphere have gone over Bill Nye’s change of heart about genetically modified crops. Originally, Nye’s skepticism carried a lot of weight – he is “the science guy” after all.

Here’s the thing though. The whole discussion about GMOs is often about GMOs as technology as though it were completely divorced from the system in which it is produced. I am not going to dispute that they are safe to eat. They are, full stop (or at least they aren’t any more dangerous than a lot of other stuff).

Nor am I going to push too hard on the environmental front just now, though I am skeptical that anyone has worked out the unintended consequences.

Mother Jones asked (rhetorically) is what Monsanto showed Nye that made him change his mind. I’d say that the science of what Monsanto showed him was sound and they satisfied him that the technology was fine.

I think the issue, though, is not one of technology or even science. It is something that Nye brought up at the very start.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

I myself find it exciting that you might be able to do all sorts of things with plant biology. But the issue for me — and a lot of other critics — is when GMOs are touted as the solution to global hunger and food shortages, to the near-exclusion of anything else.

The problem with GMOs is that they can let us paper over very real problems. So we go on doing things that simply aren’t sustainable to begin with. More to the point, they let us keep social systems in place that are actively harmful. They are a technological solution to a non-technological problem.

Golden rice is great – but I want to know why we need to tack on vitamins to the rice at all. I want to know why it is the people we are selling this to can’t get the other foods they need. I submit that it isn’t some magical inevitable consequence of civilization, it’s a direct result of decisions we make about how we organize society. Vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in the developing world. But it isn’t like people there are so dumb that they wouldn’t buy vitamin A-rich food if it were affordable. If the population is only paid enough to buy rice and nothing else, then it doesn’t matter how nutritious the rice is — there’s a social structure problem that needs to be addressed.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Another crop, the potato, a “naturally” made GMO, presented the same kinds of problems in the 19th century.

Potatoes are a pretty miraculous crop. Thousands of varieties exist, and at least one study posits that the tuber was responsible for a pretty large fraction of population growth in Europe after 1700. A single potato has all the vitamin A, more than half the iron and vitamin C, and nearly a third of the calcium a person needs. There’s lots of starch and some of it is as good as fiber.

A miracle, indeed. In fact, potatoes can be grown on much less land than any crop of its kind, in a really wide variety of climates. By any standard that’s a win, right? Well, not in Ireland.

Most people know that the Irish potato famine was caused by monoculture, and the vulnerability of a particular type of potato (called the Irish Lumper) to blight and a lack of genetic diversity.

The problem, though, did not start there. Potatoes were a technical solution to the problem of growing food for a rising population of mostly tenant farmers. But its success was a problem in itself: the Irish dependence on it increased precisely because it was such a good crop for small plots of marginal land.

With wheat, there was a lower limit to how much land you could put an Irish peasant on. That is, too little land and the peasant starves, and dead people don’t pay rent or provide labor. To provide for a well-rounded diet a family of four needs at least two acres, but in Ireland in the 1840s a quarter of the farms were less than that. That left potatoes as the only crop that would provide enough calories. Potatoes are great in this regard; you can live almost entirely on potatoes and milk, and many people did. Pushing the farmers to smaller lots (which increased the rent revenue to the estates) put more pressure on tenant farmers to move to monoculture of potatoes, precisely because of their nutritional value.

The tenant farmers had few or no rights to the land they worked, which dis-incentivized capital improvements. At the same time the absentee landlord system rewarded cutting landholdings into small pieces and renting it out to as many tenants as possible — and pushing those tenants onto marginal plots so the rest could be used for cash crops or livestock (cows and sheep in particular).

The plants, though, worked. From a purely technological perspective the potato was a success. The issue was political  — how to organize the land economy in Ireland. Potatoes were an enabling technology, they just enabled the wrong thing. The result was a system that was unsustainable, and vulnerable to the slightest ecological shock. The blight provided one.

And that’s the problem I have with GM crops. I don’t doubt that Bt corn and Golden Rice and whatever else can do all the things that the companies that make say it can. But whether GM crops are physically capable of certain things is the wrong question. What’s necessary is a re-think of how we organize society, and why we distribute food in such a way that such crops are even necessary.

This isn’t just a question of GM crops. It’s a whole outlook that favors technological solutions that I and a lot of other people are calling into question. Technology can do great things, but it is not independent of the social system we live in.

I’m not against GM research. I am against using GM crops as a way to keep doing something that is unsustainable, and locking in social relations that create the very problems GM crops are supposed to solve.

In that sense Bill Nye’s original question – and skepticism – is still relevant.

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