originally published October 1, 2011 and September 27, 2013

Genetic Engineering

When genetic modification was new, the hurdles that it had to pass to get into any kind of mass production, such as for food products, were high.  We were cautious.  Though the risks, at that time, were pretty low.

Over time, the perception of risk with this technology is inevitably going to decrease.  As we gain experience and ability and see successes begin to pile up, we’ll feel safer and more confident, and gradually see less and less need for caution.  But while the perception of risk goes down, the actual risk is going nowhere but up, as projects get more complex and ambitious.

The result of plotting these two trends is clear to see: unless one or the other is interrupted, it is completely 100% inevitable that sooner or later, we will create a catastrophe through genetic engineering.

Hell, we may have done it already.

Why I Marched Against Monsanto

I’m pro-science and pro-innovation, so I’m not against genetic engineering as such.  If somebody wants to Frankenstein up a zucchini that tastes like bacon, or a caterpillar that shits dental fillings, I say have at it.  So why oppose Monstanto’s GMOing?

Well firstly, because the main thing they’re using it for is to add more pesticides to our food.  And not just the pesticide itself, but the DNA to keep making more... if that gets taken up by one of your gut bacteria and expressed there, you’re in trouble.

I don’t fancy eating food soaked in Roundup (glyphosate) either.

On the longer term front, Monsanto has been particularly bad at abusing the legislative lobbying process to short-circuit any decent oversight, or legal responsibility.  They’re trying to make it so that even when they screw up and create some kind of environmental disaster, they won’t even be held responsible for it after the fact.  This is bioscience done in the style of wall street banksterism.

Note that I say when, not if, they screw up and create a disaster.  I say this because of the two clear trends mentioned in the first section.  The more familiar we get with genetic engineering, the more we’re inclined to treat it as comfortable and predictable and safe.  Our perception of the risk trends downward, and Monsanto’s perception of risk is even lower, helped along by the connivance of bought legislatures who want to insulate them from even the risk they acknowledge.  But the actual risk we take is going nowhere but up.

When Calgene came up with the Flavr Savr® tomato, the first GMO to be approved for human consumption, it was treated as a big scary thing to be handled with great care.  But the actual risk was miniscule; it pretty much couldn’t go wrong.  Nowadays, things like Bt Soybeans are far more seriously risky — they and their fellow insecticidal crops may well bear some significant responsibility for the poor health of honeybees across North America, not to mention any number of possible intestinal health complications — but we treat it as if it were safe and routine.

Sooner or later, the lines on the graph, of rising risk and dropping perception of risk, have to cross.  Sooner or later, we’ll take one chance too many.  And then we get an environmental disaster.  And perhaps not just a one-time incident that can be cleaned up, like an oil spill... it might be a disaster that keeps on inflicting additional damage indefinitely into the future.  And as long as we don’t get our attitudes right and watch the GMO industry in a way appropriate to the real risk they present, it is guaranteed that risk-taking behavior will only be checked when a disaster is eventually produced.  That’s the way it goes in every other industry that isn’t watched.  And the potential downside risk for GMOs is enormously large.

Monsanto needs firm opposition not so much for what they make now — though that’s objectionable enough — but for the way they’re actively working to keep the road to future catastrophe as wide and open as they possibly can.

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