originally published October 1, 2011 and September 27, 2013

Genetic Engineering

Why I Marched Against Monsanto

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. But 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. We may be gaining skill and experience, but we aren’t actually learning anything about how to avoid mistakes with major unforeseen consequences.

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.

It was concerns like that which led me to participate in the March Against Monsanto. But not only that; I also have a more immediate problem with their genetic engineering in particular. I’m pro-science and pro-innovation, so in most ways I’m not actaully against genetic engineering as such. If somebody wants to Frankenstein up a zucchini that tastes like bacon, or a caterpillar that shits high-strength dental fillings, I say have at it. A genetically engineered algae to sequester carbon sounds like a great idea. And even on the food I eat myself, if they use gene splicing to improve nutrition or something, I’ll probably be fine with it. So why oppose Monstanto’s GMOing?

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. The single biggest use they’ve been making of genetic engineering is to allow farmers to soak all their crops with glyphosate, which is their cash cow chemical product. There are increasing indications that this stuff is not good for your intestines.

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 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 trends I mentioned above. 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 may now be ahead of anyone else at feeling comfortable with it and thinking they won’t do anything wrong. I would really not be surprised if the first gene-spliced organism that causes a major ecological disaster is one of Monsanto’s. As our perception of the risk trends downward, Monsanto’s is even lower, helped along by the connivance of bought legislatures who want to insulate them from even the risk they acknowledge. They are actively supporting and encouraging their own ignorance of danger.

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, but we treat them as if it were safe and routine. We do this in part because of corporatized science and propaganda, of which Monsanto is probably the biggest source in this field.

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. And genetic engineering in general has to be handled like it could blow up in our faces at any moment, because it absolutely can do so. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but we definitely should not do it either casually, or in an environment of corrupted science and deflected responsibility. We can’t let short-term greed be taken as valid grounds for avoiding regulatory oversight that “stifles innovation”. The risks affect all of us, and that means the right and responsibility for oversight also belongs to all of us.

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