Mark Wilson: Megacorps and tribal compulsions derail informed decisionmaking about GMOs

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.

Wilson badgeI 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:

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.


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  1. Jeezabelle said:

    The UCS is a political organization with an ideological agenda, not an academic organization that reports evidence uninfluenced by political leanings and popular opinion.
    Regarding productivity, the terms “yield” and “intrinsic yield” can be jiggled, as you can see from above link to
    The USDA is predicting record harvests of corn and soy this year (the majority of course being grown with GE seeds):
    Of course, there are economic problems associated with high production:

    Susan Ornelas I am wondering if you took the time to investigate the links on the link that Mark Wilson posted; look again, and research please:

  2. Mark Wilson said:

    “Who have no skin in the game”. Really? Just an outright dismissal of
    The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the
    National Academy of Sciences, The American Association for the
    Advancement of Science, The European Union Commission? Or is it
    possible that you are judging the validity of science according to the
    criterion of whether the conclusions agree with your opinions?

  3. Ian Ray said:

    I see. Let’s ban all crops that do not increase yield (according to Gurian-Sherman) vs. similar crops. There goes all heirloom strains.

    This citation only analyzes a select few traits which nobody would expect to increase yield that much. These traits reduce inputs.

    What about other things such as ringspot and mosaic virus resistances? Wouldn’t those increase yield? I suppose they wouldn’t vs. a similar crop if it were consistently doused with strong insecticides to eliminate aphids, but that’s not the point. The point is using technology to reduce pesticide inputs or at least reduce their toxicity.

    The UCS is not all that credible on farming. This is the same organization which asserted that “factory” farmers feed plastic pellets instead of roughage in the article “They Eat What?” Of course this an absurd assertion, just try to go to a feed store and order plastic doodads. UCS never issued a retraction of this nonsense, they just replaced the page with other nonsense. A real scientific organization admits when they are wrong; a political organization posing as scientific covers it up.

  4. Kevpod said:

    Then what, exactly, is the urgency for a new law to disallow a failing business practice?

  5. Susan Ornelas said:

    Let’s look at what scientists who have no skin in the game think of GMO productivity – The Union of Concerned Scientists published this interesting analysis, entitled Failure to Yield – Evaluating the Performance of GMO crops. Sure I can see how scientists in a lab think this new GMO technology is interesting, but it just isn’t paying back in real farm productivity.

  6. California Conservative said:

    If GMOs were so bad, where is the proof? Are people dying left and right from GMOs? Are GMOs making people sick or develop chronic diseases? What is wrong with GMOs? What is wrong with a crop that can be altered to be drought resistant or resistant to pests that can lead to less pesticides and herbicides being needed?

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