the precautionary principle and GMO’s

Two techniques used in this week’s presidential debate resonated with my internet Sustainability study on this week’s topic – GMO’s.

There seems to be three areas of concern on Genetically Modified Organisms (“GMO’s).  Their effect on our health, on our environment and on our wallet.  I will not dwell on environmental issues (such as genetic drift or loss of diversity) or wallet issues (will the seeds which produce our food be owned by corporations?).

But as for our health, there are studies which say GMO’s are safe and others which say they are harmful.  This past Wednesday one presidential contender said he had a non-partisan study which said the other contender was wrong, to which the response was essentially “and I have 6 studies which say you are wrong”.  So with studies nothing is conclusive until there has been a long lapse of time – consider how long it took for most everyone to agree that the climate is indeed getting warmer, notwithstanding that the timing of migratory flights and blooming of flowers changed several years ago and neither birds nor plants had a dog in the fight.    And with studies you can become very cynical when you look at who did the funding.

A familiar legal concept is “burden of proof”  or “onus” and in criminal cases the accused is presumed innocent, so the onus is on the prosecutor to prove guilt.  When new drugs or procedures are introduced, which can impact our health or the environment, where rests the onus?  The precautionary principle, in one version, states that “if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”

There is a strong version of the principle, which does not weigh costs and benefits, and a weak version which does.  The strong version of the precautionary principle will require those advocating GMO’s to prove that they are safe.

This is where the exceptions and prevarications get interesting.  We use, and have come to depend on, electricity and the internet.  They were new technologies that were not proven safe at the time of their introduction and even today have not been proven safe – can cell phone radiation damage our brains?  Application of the strong form of the precautionary principle would have prevented or delayed their introduction.

And now for the second technique used in the presidential debate, which was also used in my internet lecture this week.  In the presidential  debate one contender said it was “immoral” to continue to create government debt.  “Immoral” is such a strong word, it gets your attention.  In my GMO lecture it was argued that applying the strong form of the precautionary principle is paralyzing, prevents development and can be “immoral” if it prevents the development of countries.

The strong form of the precautionary principle does not weigh costs and benefits. But in our own lives we do take risks and we weigh them against the benefits.  Crossing a road can be dangerous, but for most of us the benefit of getting to the other side outweighs the risk of being struck by a car.  Applying the principle strongly leads to delays, such as delays in introducing new drugs, which can cause harm.  And so the argument goes, we should not stall progress and we should apply the weak form of the precautionary principle and consider costs and benefits.

And this apparently is where we are today with the application of the “substantial equivalence” rule which lightens the onus on those introducing GMO’s.

And two additional consolation arguments for the unconvinced – with world population growth and change in consumption patterns resulting from increasing affluence, we have to find a substitute for the green revolution and GMO’s can be the answer.  (There is nothing like having your arm twisted to compel  your concurrence or at least, silence).  And finally, are GMO’s really all that novel?  After all how about the wizardry of early inhabitants of America who used selective breeding to accomplish the miraculous transformation of  grass/teosinte into modern corn/maize.





8 thoughts on “the precautionary principle and GMO’s”

  1. You have this way sometimes of writing posts that are too hard to respond to because there are so many nested and flawed arguments. It’s hard to respond to any of it without dissecting the entire post. There’s really so much wrong here, in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to begin. Most of what you present here are arguments used by others, that in one way or another have already been discredited or disputed.

    Like you pointed out, scientific studies can generally prove what you want. In a similar way you can also argue a point to whatever conclusion you want. It’s like guns, religion or abortion, and a lot of it comes down to what and who you choose to believe or accept, or who can spend enough money to sway your point of view. There’s often not a lot to be gained by debating these kinds of things, and mostly you’re on your own to come to your own conclusions.

    Having said that, I’ll start with the Green Revolution.

    The Green Revolution was a complicated thing, and I won’t deny some positive things came out of it, but many people dispute your very rosy picture you paint of it. There was already an increase in agriculture productivity underway before it came along, and in the opinion of many (including me) the technologies of the Green Revolution did little to add to that preexisting trend. I think there’s very little reason to believe it had anything to do with the population of the world increasing.

    Even now, there’s this ongoing debate if organic agriculture could feed the world and meet the expectations of consumers. There’s little question the diet of the world would be different, with less meat, but I think there’s very little reason to believe people’s expectations couldn’t be met or they would have any less food then now.

    There’s a similar debate with GMOs. There are many people, maybe you included, who will talk about all the things GMOs can do that can’t be done any other way. What’s missing however is the proof of this. All we have now are emotional statements that this is the case. This is one of the frequent complaints of GMOs, that there’s no consumer benefit and beyond lofty marketing claims, no prospect for consumer benefit for the future. There’s no evidence they can play a useful role in protecting the environment or feeding the world’s populations, only claims that it must be so.

    Almost every sentence in this post can be debated on it’s own in this way.

    More than anything, it all depends on what you want to believe and what sources you want to trust for reliable information.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comments. I was trying to summarize a complicated issue but you are correct, my writing can be too interwoven and sometimes, when I go back after a few months and read what I have written, I really have to concentrate to unwind it. Two of my points – that the Green Revolution significantly enhanced crop yields and that the recent rapid increase in world population was a direct result of increased availability of foods at low prices (perhaps lower infant mortalities), came from my internet course on sustainability. I am not suggesting the Green Revolution is good since it produced major environmental degradation (that’s one of the reasons why I grow organic), nor is the world population increase good since the trend is not sustainable. I also have real concerns about GMO’s.

      This morning at our group run along the river and follow up breakfast there was a newcomer, a Canadian geologist, and he made a claim about GMO’s that I must track down. His assertion is that our corn crops, which this year were severely afflicted by the mid-West drought, would have been much much worse had they not benefited from drought resistance installed by GMO technology. Is there a basis for this claim?

  2. Interesting question about the drought resistant corn. I don’t know much myself, but I did a little surfing, and came across a lot of articles like this one:

    I’ve read some other things about GM drought resistant crops in general, and unlike what you might think, most of them don’t need less water, in fact some of them need even more water than their traditional counterparts. The drought resistance comes about because under some conditions it can survive a drought longer in a sort of hibernation state, before continuing to grow after a rainfall. In most parts of the world with droughts, this isn’t very useful, and using less water is far more important.

    There’s nothing cheap about Green Revolution foods! In fact as a rule, these are the most expensive crops in the world to produce. They require many times more energy and chemical inputs, and the seeds themselves cost many times more than traditional seeds. Like I said, many people including me would strongly dispute the assertion Green Revolution increased yields, but this is too complicated for a blog comment. The only thing that keeps it cheap are the massive government subsidies.

    Decades ago I heard it estimated that without subsidies a McDonalds hamburger would cost $13. I think that has to be even higher today. The processed food we eat today is hugely subsidized, and one of the problems small farmers have is they usually don’t get any subsidies themselves and have to compete against these subsidies on other foods.

    1. Thanks for the helpful article which I have on forwarded. There seems to always be two sides to every assertion and I like to delve in and flush out the issues.

  3. The other aspect to this post I think deserves some discussion are the ‘rules’ like the precautionary principle, morality, substantial equivalence and so on.

    At the very beginning of my blog I had some real conflicts with others over these kinds of rules. Blogs were kind of new at the time, and I was becoming very popular very fast. All of a sudden I had relatively large number of scientists, member of international food organizations, occasional journalists and so on telling me I couldn’t say this, or I had to argue points in a scientific way and so on. I was asked to remove or change some things I said.

    As I recall you had a similar encounter with organic farming rules, when you began to realize just how much useless red tape was involved in growing certified organic food. Something that’s not worthwhile, unless you’re a (semi)professional farmer, intending to sell a relatively high volume of food.

    In the beginning, I had to politely but firmly explain to all those people complaining that I was not a scientist or journalist, I am a blogger. I have no boss, my blog has no editorial policy, and I will not remove or change anything I wrote unless I want to. As it turns out, I also live in a country that’s thought to have one of the strongest interpretations of free speech almost anywhere in the world, even more so than the US. I am for example, pretty well protected here from a Monsanto lawsuit, that might result from something I say on my blog.

    I can simply say what I want, when I want, just like you can. I can use the most foul language if I care to. It’s simply up to the rest of the world to decide if they want to read what I write. As it turns out, there are quite a few people interested in what I have to say.

    This is by the way an important right, but also an important responsibility.

    In light of this, my position is, there’s no reason to recognize things like precautionary principle, morality, substantial equivalence and so on. These are rules generally set up by large business interests, to protect their business models and to better deflect criticism. Before blogs came about, it really was pretty much the case that by declaring rules like these, they could manipulate what was said in traditional news sources. This has really changed a lot since then.

    It’s okay to use your own rules to criticize things you don’t like.

    It’s not that you shouldn’t talk about or follow rules like these, it’s just you might consider there are a large number of people out there who no longer consider themselves bound by these kinds of rules. It’s just like if you have an organic garden, you shouldn’t consider yourself bound by the paperwork that goes along with it, and you can still call it organic if you want!

    1. I agree. The reason that I posted about the precautionary principle is because the iteration of the concept was new to me and it seeks to protect harm to the individual and the environment. Although in its weak form, where costs and benefits can be introduced into the equation, it is weakened. As I mentioned previously I do want to hear and analyze the arguments and I then take my position, which I am prepared to flex if the facts change (as one politician put it, I think). May sound wishy washy and maybe I am impelled more by the intellectual analysis than conviction. Though I do take fairly strong consistent positions.

  4. But as for our health, there are studies which say GMO’s are safe and others which say they are harmful.

    There were no long term tests before release. We are the long term study.

    GMO’s can be the answer.

    Absolutely if you are a producer of insecticides. Farmers can now nuke their fields without any risk to the corn or soy that they are growing. Since the introduction of Roundup Ready varieties, pesticide use has climbed. And Monsanto, Bayer, et al cannot be unaware of the five-decades of insecticide-based cotton pest management where heavy usage led to insect resistance. It’s called a “pesticide treadmill”.

    As for increased yields, from the Union of Concerned Scientists: Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops: “The 2 primary GE food and feed crops are corn & soybeans. Corn & soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but not as result of the GE traits. Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices.”

    You might find The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes interesting. Also, Understanding the Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation. And Agricultural Chemical and Crop Nutrient Interactions – Current Update: “The extensive use of glyphosate, and the rapid adoption of genetically modified glyphosate-tolerant crops such as soybean, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa; with their greatly increased application of glyphosate for simplified weed control, have intensified deficiencies of numerous essential micro-nutrients and some macro-nutrients.” And GM CROPS – JUST THE SCIENCE – research documenting the limitations, risks, and alternatives

    These are part of an interesting collection on the environment –

    I think that it confuses the issue by talking about strong case, weak case. Better, I think, to frame it as black and white.


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