Friday, April 15, 2005

It's Alive, I Tell You, It's ALIVE!!!

I just finished reading Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown. I have to say, entering into this book, I had a vague idea, like most Americans, I think, that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were a sort of necessary evil, but if you had the money, organic food was the way to go. Now, I'm not only seriously considering boycotting organic food, I'm also thinking about agitating for mandatory GMO labeling, so I'll be able to buy them preferentially.

Why the change of heart? For one thing, Federoff and Brown go into some technical detail (perhaps too much for a popular science book, but the detail is itself reassuring) on how exactly crops are naturally (and unnaturally) bred. Now that I know how they do it, it just doesn't seem bad when I hear about genes being added to corn or wheat. It's a very specific and targeted effort-- it's not like you just grab some random shit from a whale and blend it with some swiss chard and see what happens, like, for kicks, man. It's not a simple process, by any means, but it's also not a complete mystery either.

Another thing the authors point out is that it's not as if GMOs exist in a vacuum-- artificial foods of one kind or another have existed for most of the past century. Hybrid corn, for instance, is an artificially-created organism, and it comprises over 90% of current US corn production. And it's not as if we can somehow magically not need them. The main reason Paul Erlich and his thematic ancestor, Thomas Malthus were wrong (well, okay, one of many) is that they didn't account for the dramatically increased crop yield we've enjoyed since the "Green Revolution" started in the 1960s. This yield is the direct result of messing with our food's genes by hybridizing it with sometimes surprising combinations. We certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it if we had stuck to techniques and crops of pre-1961.

Organic farming isn't a solution either. The authors cite an economist, Indur Goklany, who estimates that if we reverted to the mostly-organic methods of pre-1961 farming, we'd need to use approximately 82 percent of the earth's land surface for farming, instead of our current 38 percent. When Sir Albert Howard essentially invented the organic farming movement in 1940, he was operating in an environment that even then was rapidly becoming obsolete. In the world Howard grew up in, the US population increased some 40 percent between 1870 and 1920, while the total arable land grew by 75 percent. In an environment like that, where no concern was given for environmental factors or preserving species habitats, organic farming is not an unreasonable approach. But the organic approach to agriculture requires, when considered as a whole system, at least twice as much land overall compared to conventional farming. That simply isn't an option in the world we live in today. When considered in terms of wildlife habitat preserved, organic farming does the earth far more harm than good. Unless you don't mind destroying the habitat of the Asian Elephant to grow more rice, that is. Personally, I can't stand the inscrutable bastards, but I must respect other people's opinions, even when they're wrong.

One detail that I didn't know before is how far the limit to which you can artificially tweak plants with no oversight whatsoever-- apparently, you can generate new organisms by irradiating them with gamma- or x-rays, or expose them to mutagenic chemicals to get the specific mutation you want (there are a number of behaviours you can't get this way, but play along for now), in addition to unknown others that may be neutral, or possibly harmful, and sell the stuff tomorrow. You can even sell them as organic foods, if you are an unethical bastard. But if you were to splice in one specific gene that generated the precise protein you wanted (and this is do-able; the hard part is knowing whether or not that protein will work the way you want it to), with every other gene in the plant being otherwise normal, you might be lucky to get it on the market within three years. So, the one that has completely unknown properties we can sell, but the one with known properties has to pass a complex array of tests and certifications that vary depending on which of the FDA, USDA, and/or EPA decide your crop falls under their jurisdiction. Yeah, that makes sense.

Allergies are certainly still a problem-- we still don't know everything about how they work, and why, but we are learning. Some research is going on now to reduce the effects of allergens, as well as to understand more about how they work, and more importantly, how they don't. So it's definitely still important, I think to let people know if their foods contain genes from commonly allergenic plants or animals. Even so, GMOs are a net win, I think.

The book covers a large number of other topics, including biodiversity, food safety concerns, the real meaning of sustainable agriculture and more that I don't have the room (or right now, the energy) to discuss. At the end of the day, though, my conclusion is that organic farming, while it feels good to be kind to Mother Earth and all, is harming her more than it helps, by requiring more land to support it than mainstream agricultural processes, and also by giving its consumers (wittingly or no) the impression that what they're eating is worth paying more for. At some point, and we've already hit this point in many third-world countries right now, we're going to have to realize that we either start eating GMOs, we start killing off even more wildlife, or we stop eating at all. Of the three options, well, I like eating, and I like birds. So pass the Roundup-ready corn, and don't forget to grill it with artificially-generated canola oil!


Mr. Burns said...

Sounds like an interesting book, but I find the idea that organic farming takes up "at least twice as much land overall" somewhat troubling. I worked on organic farm for a couple years and don't recall having to drill seed or plant starts much farther apart than normal.

Eric said...

The problem is that you (and don't feel bad, a number of studies have omitted this as well) don't account for all the other land that has to be in use for an organic farm to succeed. For instance, manure doesn't appear out of nowhere-- you have to raise livestock for that, which take up even more space in proportion to the amount of nutrition they provide than crops do. Don't forget the methane either. (Those cows have it out for us, I tells ya!)

Also, depending on whether or not you allow a field to lay fallow for a season, which some (but certainly not all) organic farmers do, that further reduces the amount of productive land. I'm at work now, so I can't cite all the justifications used for that claim in the book; those are just the ones that popped off the top of my head. I'll read more later and give the full explanation.

Mr. Burns said...

OK, the livestock angle is a good one, but as an argument it's not entirely satisfying. First, whether we are in favor of them or not, livestock ranches are here to stay. And since they are, why not recapture a bit of all that inefficiency? Second, manure is not the only source of organic N. Compost, nitrogen-fixing crops--- even human feces/urine (which the Koreans and Chinese still use, but I would never recommend)--- can easily substitute.

Inorganic N may be feeding the world, but because its manufacture and application is so petroleum-driven, it's allowing a larger and larger population to stand on a foundation that can only grow smaller and smaller.

Eric said...

There are other issues-- yields, for instance, are typically lower. But taking the manure aspect for now, you can't just assume that organic farming will recycle efficiencies from existing livestock farming-- for one thing, the livestock farmers are going to need it. For another, unless they're nearby (and they usually aren't) you incur transportation costs as well.

Using human waste leaves open the issue of parasites and germs. Treating that waste is of course possible (and would have to be required, if it were used), but then you have to somehow handle the disruption to our existing waste treatment processes. I don't know that it would be a big deal-- in fact, I don't know anything about it. I do know that what we have now is extremely carefully engineered, and perturbing the system even slightly requires all kinds of impact statements, which aren't free. Not to mention that the public outcry would be deafening.

As for nitrogen-fixing crops-- sure, they work just as well, but then you have to either devote more land to growing them, or you reduce your available space for growing crops. This is not counting the environmental costs of clearing the additional land, mind you, and anyone who's tried to clear land for farming can tell you that nears being cost-prohibitive in America today.

Your point about the problem with inorganic N does have merit though, which is one of the major arguments in favor of genetically engineered foods (we really need a less scary term for this). If we can create plants that are more efficient at converting N to ammonia, that would certainly reduce our need for it. I don't see any way around needing it, though.

Eric said...

I should clarify my comments about nitrogen-fixing crops-- they work about as well as manure, but both of those are woefully inefficient compared to inorganic N in terms of amount required to deliver the same quantity of N to the crop.