Twenty-three years ago, I spent a wonderful week hiking with my dog Fred in the Trinities, and fell in love with those beautiful mountains. As I came to know more and more of our wonderful bioregion, my respect and enchantment only grew.
But more than the light and fog of redwood groves, and long walks on the miles of empty beach, more than swimming and relaxing in the Mad River, it’s the people of Humboldt County that have made this my home. So many good people have settled here, and created a rich, diverse, supportive – and quirky – community, and I’m proud and honored to be one of you.
Within a community of like-minded individuals, sometimes mistaken ideas are accepted and then reinforced with a kind of tribal thinking that leads us astray. This is easy to see from outside the group when it results in behavior such as religious snake handling or protestors carrying signs declaring what God hates, but the dangerously low levels of vaccination in some of our schools is a warning that we here in Humboldt are also susceptible to the problems of tribal mentality.
I believe we’ve also been led astray with regard to the safety and potential of GMOs. When I was an undergraduate biology student in the early 1980s, GMOs were viewed as a primary tool to help us transition to a more sustainable agriculture. The powerful techniques being developed allowed biological rather than chemical approaches to be used in limiting crop damage, and they provided more direct and less invasive methods for developing new varieties.
This vision has been hijacked by behemoth corporations focused on chemical agriculture; a discussion of GMOs today veers instantly towards RoundUp herbicide, chemical resistant weeds, monocropping, patent law and 2-4-D.
As a result, the giant chemical/agricultural corporations have left us with a poison far more damaging than a legacy of glyphosate-resistant weeds. They’ve left us with a toxic idea, the idea that biotechnology itself is flawed, unnatural, and dangerous.
This modern viewpoint leads people – good people trying to do what they think is right – to condemn a powerful technology that will be of critical need in developing sustainable approaches to the agricultural challenges we face in coming years.
The condemnation of biotechnology, derived as a response to RoundUp Ready crops and insecticide-producing crops, has taken hold as a tribal identifying concept, and elsewhere has led to destruction of research trials, burning down experimental greenhouses, and other violent actions.
Perhaps locally we can still break free of this destructive tribal thinking. Based on the attendance at the GMO Speakers Series at HSU, there are a lot of people locally who care deeply about farming and who are actively trying to be informed. It seems clear that these people aren’t anti-science, and that they are thoughtful and intelligent and open-minded.
It’s disappointing that the series was organized as a one-sided affair, with speakers picked not because they represented scientific consensus but rather because they supported a political agenda. The plan was to have something like a trial in which the jury was only allowed to hear the prosecution; it’s a convenient tribal approach to condemn something but not a very good way to make informed decisions.
I’m glad that we were able to add talks by academic scientists that are active in biotechnology, and that as a whole the science won’t be as grossly misrepresented as the organizers originally planned.
There are a couple of central concepts that anyone trying to understand these issues needs to explore. First, there is widespread scientific consensus that the biological approaches used to create GMOs, and GMOs themselves, are as safe as traditional techniques used to create crop varieties.
Most scientific bodies that have addressed the issue think that biotechnology approaches are safer than traditional technologies, and not a single one thinks that the biotechnology is more dangerous.
This is a good place to start exploring this idea: skeptiforum.org/richard-green-on-the-scientific-consensus-and-gmos.
The disconnect between scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs and most people’s concerns is, in many cases, due to things that are specific to crops like RoundUp Ready (RR) corn.
For example, people will claim that GMOs don’t increase yield because RR Corn doesn’t increase yields, or they will say that GMOs don’t reduce pesticide use, because RR corn increases glyphosate use.
To some extent this focus on RR corn and soybean is reasonable given that so much of the USA is planted in corn and soybeans, but these concerns don’t extrapolate to other GMOs.
There are other GMOs that aren’t designed to be part of chemical agriculture, that increase yields and reduce chemical use, and that have significant benefits for the consumer.
Rainbow papaya is an example of a GMO that works well with sustainable agriculture. Rainbow papaya was developed 20 years ago in response to the invasion of papaya ringspot virus in Hawaii, which decimated papaya farms, and this GMO now makes up about 80 percent of papaya production in Hawaii.
It was developed by a Cornell professor (i.e., not Monsanto), it was distributed for free, it reduces insecticide use (because the virus is spread by an aphid, so control efforts were centered on killing the aphids), and it increases yields (annual yields of 125,000 lbs./acre vs. 5,000 lbs./acre in virus-infested fields).
It was developed for small farmers (most Hawaiian papaya farms are 3-10 acres) and the annual value of the total crop is only $10 to 15 million per year. After 20 years of growing Rainbow papaya successfully, the virus has not developed resistance.
There are other examples of GMOs that don’t fit the RR corn model including varieties of rice, cassava and bananas being developed by nonprofits for populations faced with malnutrition and diseases of staple crops.
The number of new GMOs being tested is not an overwhelming number, and it seems likely that GMOs aren’t going to be grown on a large scale in Humboldt county anytime soon.
Thus, it isn’t clear what a ban is supposed to protect us from. The goal seems to be the use of fear tactics to try to prop up support for organic producers; this can’t be a sound strategy for the long run.
Biotechnology offers great potential, and we shouldn’t let that potential be destroyed because of concerns about Monsanto products that aren’t even being grown here.
We can rightly be proud of our community. We can be proud of the support for local businesses, the thriving farmers’ markets, the small family-oriented schools, and the diverse and rich arts culture. I hope that we as a community don’t fall prey to what essentially is a simple fear-mongering campaign.
We don’t need to be afraid of the future and should reject those who try to scare us in the name of “Fairness, Prosperity and Protection.”
Mark Wilson is a Biology Professor at Humboldt State University, a microbial geneticist with a Ph.D from Cornell University. He has no ties, financial or otherwise, to any agricultural biotechnology company.