Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 12:33:17 -0700 (PDT)
From: Robin Skyler ;
To: S-------
Subject: Re: GMO?

Ah, you know how to get me talking. This is actually a fascinating issue, and I think it's a lot more complicated than most people realize. The best piece I've ever read on the subject is an essay by Barbara Kingsolver that keeps getting posted in full online, although it moves around. Right now it's here, and it's definitely worth a read; she deals with this stuff a lot better than I can:
It's from her book _Small Wonder_ if you ever want to find it again in the future.

Basically, people don't oppose GMOs because they're superstitious or they think we're defying God or anything like that. In fact, by and large people don't actually oppose genetic engineering at all. This is about practice, right now in 2003, not about the theory of what engineering could do or should do. The real objection people have is about diversity--which is a straight-up survival issue.

Just as world exploration could only take place when rich monarchs were convinced of its potential (which always meant economic potential), just as the Internet and GPS and nuclear power were each developed only when a powerful military decided such things could yield an advantage, genetic engineering is being pursued most vigorously by a certain group of people. That group of people happens to be selling something. I have met one or two research biologists who dismiss this as, essentially, not their problem. But you cannot separate the business world from the scientific world; they are the same world and we have to live on it.

So here's a notorious example of who's paying to produce--and aggressively market--GMO crops: Monsanto Inc. Monsanto is notable for engineering "terminator technology" into their crops, to render them infertile; you can't just buy some Monsanto seed and then use it to go on breeding year after year the way you usually would. Once you're on Monsanto, you have to buy new seed every year. Now, this is perfectly legal, but take a minute to appreciate the significance of it. There is only one possible reason for this. It doesn't make better corn. It doesn't make more corn. It is a modification of a product, in this case an organism, strictly to lock down a customer base. Same way Microsoft, Apple and others ensure continued cash flow by churning out new versions of software (and in Apple's case hardware) and simultaneously withdrawing support and interopterability with their older products--which otherwise work as well as they ever did. Again, all legal, just typical business practice--but let's make a note of which goals are in the driver's seat.

Monsanto is also noted for filing lawsuits constantly. For instance: corn is wind-pollinated. The wind blows, corn will pollinate. The wind doesn't respect property lines, so one farmer's corn will pollinate another farmer's corn. Until recently in human history, nobody ever tried to assert ownership over a genome, so nobody had a problem with this. But now Monsanto holds a patent on a particular genetic structure within corn, and that pattern can be blown willy-nilly into anybody's cornfield. There have already been a number of trials in which Monsanto has aggressively sued farmers for patent infringement--because some traces of Monsanto's patented genome were brought in by pollen from the next farm over. Monsanto wants to be paid because the wind blows. Or rather, more importantly: Monsanto wants to own all the corn in the world, and has a vested interest in making life hard on farmers who don't buy from it. (There's a case still going on in Canada, in this case involving oilseed rape I think but otherwise the same as above, where the farmer turned around and sued Monsanto for the contamination of his perfectly good family rapeseed with their deliberately broken, self-neutering pollen. Many eyes watching that one.)

So that's Monsanto. Their other major racket is much the same as what a lot of huge corporations do: they undersell the hell out of everybody until the customer is hooked, in order to nail down the customer base. In this case, Monsanto works through the World Bank to give its seed for free to people in poor countries--pretty much whenever the rich countries agree to give seed to poor countries, Monsanto is there insisting on being the supplier--and then charge for pesticides designed to go with the crops. And of course, after a few years using Monsanto's non-replantable crops, you have to buy new seed every year or you have nothing. You are, in effect, addicted. (There are more details--in many cases the World Bank refuses to lend money to poor countries unless they accept and use GMO crops, for example--but I'm not sufficiently well-informed to discuss it much more.)

So there's the stage; you've got GMOs, but rather than coming from some shining laboratory of pure science, they're getting hawked by savagely monopolistic corporations locked in an endless struggle to get a corner on the market. So:

Corn is old, as you say, and has been refined by generations of farmers all over the Americas and now beyond; there are thousands of genetic strains of corn. You mentioned Mexico; Mexico is the greatest maize seed bank in the world. By that I mean that the greatest variety of different strains of corn grow there. And the US? The least. Between the predominance of large corporate farms in the Great Plains, and the huge success of Monsanto and companies like it in converting those farms to its products, we have the least diversity in our crops, total. Monsanto doesn't engineer thousands of corn lineages. They're looking for the one perfect strain--cheaper to produce, not so much research. The one perfect strain that will always produce more and better than any other. The one strain that will obviate the need for any other strain, ever again. One size fits all. (And incidentally, of course, a total market lockdown.)

This is the threat: this is the controversy. One size never fits all. Diversity within a species is how evolution works. When the total population is highly diverse, no one threat is likely to wipe the whole species out at once. If some disease came along that was lethal to right-handers, the human race would survive it, to toss out a dopey example. If somebody came along and patented the ideal human genome and we were all about the same, and incidentally we were all right-handed, the same disease would be cause for extinction. Natural selection punishes a species that puts all of its eggs into one basket.

Familiar with the story of the American chestnut? It used to be the archetypical North American tree, overwhelmingly common in our forests, and it was highly prized for its nuts and its exceedingly solid wood. Then came a blight, from what continent I don't remember, which did *not* wipe out all of the chestnuts. It wiped out most of them. A huge majority. But some survived and continued to breed--the ones who happened to be equipped to resist the blight better than the others. The ones through whom the species would have come back again. Except that people, desperate for the last of that good wood when it seemed clearly bound for extinction, cut the last of them down. We didn't understand, or anyway Joe Woodcutter didn't understand, what was happening, and we did a stupid stupid thing, and now our best tree is gone, baby.

Monsanto doesn't understand either. And for the sake of a similar short-term payoff, it's maneuvering to outcompete, economically, the thousands of Mexican farmers who hold the emergency reserves of corn for the whole world. The seed banks of Mexico are like an Irish monastery, carefully guarding and recopying the bulk of all Europe's written knowledge through the centuries during which so many other texts were lost to ignorance or to the bonfires of competing religious dogmas. Monsanto would like to take that monastery over--make customers out of the monks--discard their long work as unnecessary--fill the world with its one or two perfect, one-size-fits-all proprietary strains that do not reproduce themselves, that can only be hatched out of one basket.

All of this is just jim dandy, from a free-market point of view. Until that blight comes along.

The problem with refining one strain is that it's tantamount to pretending that evolution has stopped, that the conditions your perfect crop will encounter in the field will always be the same as you have observed this year. But the world will not oblige you. Evolution is a dynamic system, every species involved in dozens of arms races with predators, prey and parasites. And in nature, every plant is an experiment. Every germ, every hungry bug, is a fresh potshot at overcoming all obstacles. Corn in the field, however carefully steered and tended by human breeders, is the same; every stalk has a different strategy for besting weather, disease, and pests. We cannot match that pace in a lab. We can launch one or two new genomes in a year; old-fashioned farmers can launch a trillion. Fill the world with one or two, and pretty soon some pest will come along who's got your number. A year is too short a time to react, and too long to wait. You need to have been running many tactics in parallel. That's what they're doing for us down in Mexico.

Well... obviously you've hit a subject I've been following for a while. As Mark Twain said: "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have enough time." Sorry about that. Anyway Kingsolver says the most important parts better than I do; the essay is called "A Fist in the Eye of God" if you ever want to find it again.


On Mon, 15 Sep 2003, S------ wrote:

> Here is something that I don't quite understand (maybe you have more info available). Why are genetically modified crops so despised by the developing world? I understand why developing countries are against dumping of any product, and I do not agree with the US position on this for agricultural exports, but GE crops should increase the yield of crops around the world. Genetic Engineering of crops is pretty much how the we have been able to survive with increased population densities. Does Mexico think that the corn they are growing is the same as what they had 15,000 years ago? Ancestral corn is so small that it is nearly useless. It is only through thousands of years of "genetic engineering" that it has turned into the useful crop that it is today.