Friend/colleague/journalist Keith Kloor has a very interesting piece about the problematic character of some research that recently purported to cast doubt on the health safety of GMOs.  The piece is an excellent effort to push back against crap science and crap evidence in the GMO debate, and stands as an interesting example of a general need to critically evaluate “scientific” claims about any number of issues from the harmful character of vaccines to those would deny anthropogenic climate change.  However, the piece, in making a strenuous argument for evidence, overreaches in its conclusions and too-quickly dismisses the ecological issues associated with GMOs – exactly the opposite outcome Keith was seeking.

In general, I agree with Keith that the screaming about the health impacts of GMOs has greatly outstripped the evidence, but I take issue with the idea that GMOs have been largely proven safe all around.  There remain significant questions about ecological impacts that have not attracted a solid scientific consensus (i.e the impact/cost/tradeoffs of gene flow between GMOs and the surrounding ecology, pest resistance, etc. –.  The evidence base in this area is pretty small, and ecological systems are very diverse and complex, so the levels of uncertainty here are fairly epic (Pamela Ronald, whose article Keith references approvingly, even notes that the ecological impacts of GMOs are still an open issue).  Honestly, Keith is too dismissive of this challenge:

Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Modern genetic engineering does not have all that much to do with selective breeding.  We are doing things in GMOs that could not occur in nature, which is rather different then applying what amounts to a modified evolutionary force (human selection of seeds to plant the next season or animals to breed) in the selection of traits within certain crops.

Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

Again, this is a bit off to one side.  Yes, agriculture has always been about the radical simplification and management of ecosystems in a complex world, and therefore is indeed an endless battle for control between farmer and surrounding ecology.  What this elides, though, is the fact that some of these GMOs have made things harder for us in the long run.  It is hard to sell this as a good, or even neutral, outcome.

I raise this issue because of its implications for conversations about food security. People (some, but not all) working in food security tend to be a bit dismissive of the ecological concerns surrounding GMOs, loosely equating them with the human consumption concerns that have largely been disproven at this point.  The response to insistent questioning about ecological impacts is the argument that, on balance, GMOs have done more good than harm and/or that GMOs are necessary for global food security going forward.  The “more harm than good” argument seems to me based on evidence that is hardly complete, and often references a glowing, startlingly unproblematic vision of the Green Revolution.  The “we need GMOs” is a crisis narrative of food production that drives current and future claims about their value.  At the moment, much of the food security world is arguing that there is a dire food production crisis either coming or just arrived (embodied in the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes), and therefore we cannot wait for the burden of proof surrounding any issue associated with GMOs – we must act now!  This crisis narrative effectively reduces anyone who raises objections to an all-out push for more production to some sort of monster who would rather let innocents starve than engage with the messiness of the real world. Basically, precaution is conflated with timidity, making those who show concern over the ecological impacts of GMOs into the food security equivalents of Neville Chamberlain.

This would perhaps be true…if, in fact there were a global production crisis and we needed GMOs to feed everyone. This is a much harder thing to sell, however, when one realizes that the world produces roughly twice as much food as needed to feed everyone adequately each year.  There isn’t a global production crisis (though there are local production crises that arise from complex causes and need to be addressed in locally-specific ways). I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: globally, there is plenty of food. Now, and likely for quite some time. Period.

In the twitter conversations that emerged around Keith’s article, Robert Wilson, a mathematical ecologist, argued for “an adjusted precautionary principle where we consider the risks of inaction, as well as action.”  This strikes me as both reasonable and necessary when discussing food security policy and programs these days.  If we did this, though, I think we would find that the risks of inaction are, in fact, substantially smaller than the risks of action – this is not to say there are necessarily huge risks to action, just that when you are producing twice the calories needed already, the risk from doing nothing is, at least in the short term, pretty small.  There is time to test more crops, more widely, under more conditions, before we arrive at any production crunch.  There is no need to rush.

In short, we need to be sure that our efforts to push back against crap science (which is really what Keith was doing in his article) don’t overreach and inadvertently empower narratives and arguments that are not supported by the evidence – exactly the opposite outcome Keith sought.