GM Crops: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good


Genetically Modified (GM) crops are slowly gaining traction against “frankenfood” opposition. I think this is great. Though if you hate GM crops, of course you’re unhappy. Similar to global warming, people tend to hold quasi-religious beliefs about GM crops. So realistically this (partisan) post won’t change anyone’s mind. But if you are on the fence or haven’t been paying attention, it’s worth reviewing where things stand.

First a quick refresher. GM crops are crops with spliced in genes. Far and away the most common alterations are for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. See chart below.

Pop traits

Currently about 12% of global crops are GM. From Nature: “Advocates say that they have increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed.”

The next generation of GM crops look even more promising. Below are more quotes from Nature, which had a recent special issue on the topic:

At Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, for example, scientists are working on GM plants that will need even less pesticide than Bt cotton, and maybe none at all. The key is an ‘alarm pheromone’ that some species of wild plant have evolved to mimic the chemical warning signals put out by aphids — a major crop pest in the temperate zones — when they are under attack. Putting the genes for this defence into wheat has created a crop that could trick the insects into thinking that they are in peril and drive them away. Unlike Bt cotton and other existing GM organisms, such a crop would need no insect-killing chemical for protection from pests.

Vanderschuren and his team are genetically engineering cassava to be resistant to two particularly damaging viruses, by starting with a variety that is naturally resistant to cassava mosaic virus, and then inserting genes that confer resistance to cassava brown streak virus.

On the downside, Nature also reviews a list of problems and accusations of problems:

  • GM crops have bred superweeds. This is true. Herbicide resistant crops have led to herbicide overuse, leading to weed resistance.
  • GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide. This is false.
  • Transgenes spread to wild crops in Mexico. This is unknown. The original paper claiming this was discredited, and the issue remains in dispute.

Clearly there are real and legitimate risks with GM crops. But the hate comes from a more gut level. People fear them as monstronsities. The nickname Frankenfood captures the zeitgeist. Perhaps most damming for GM critics has been turncoat Mark Lynas, who was a hater of GM crops who now admits “in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.”  Also see this progressive who calls GMO opponents “GMO Truthers.” If you are a science nerd, supporting GM crops is really a no brainer.

It’s hard to be certain where the visceral opposition comes from. But it’s worth noting this opposition is bipartisan, though slightly stronger on the left. From the right perhaps it’s the idealization of the rural independent farmer, now growing impure corporate food. From the left I think the hate comes from a longing for environmental perfection. Perfection of course being the enemy of the good. If you take either of these arguments to their logical conclusion, you have to accept the consequence that more poor people will starve. Look what happened with “golden rice”:

Finally, after a 12-year delay caused by opponents of genetically modified foods, so-called “golden rice” with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

To answer the question: Yes. Delaying golden rice allowed children to die. In some ways I’m more sympathetic to GM resistance coming from people so fearful they think frankenfood will destroy civilization. At least they make a logically consistent case for letting children die.

Like I said, I’m a GM partisan. So where are things headed? Current surveys show most people fear GM crops. But resistance is slowly declining as GM crops continue to become more normalized. Given current GM crop growth trends I suspect this will all become a moot point in another decade. Like it or not, people will have move on to arguing about something else.

2 thoughts on “GM Crops: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

  1. This is a quote from the Slate article you linked to called “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left” which you linked to by saying, “supporting GMO crops is really a no-brainer.” :

    “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.”

    So, how did we do with the manipulation we have done to crops? It seems everything is getting bigger and better? Not to me, really. It seems more like things are getting bigger, shinier, and more tasteless with less nutrients. It’s no coincidence that growing something in your garden is more tasty and nutritious than what is in stores. It’s no coincidence that heirloom tomatoes are so popular. There is a controversy regarding modern wheat (do we even have heirloom wheat strains anymore?), for instance, see, for example :

    Basically, I think we have seen a decline in food quality in order to increase yields per acre and reduce costs. My question is, do we really want to speed up that process?

    1. As you said, GM crops just make everything that’s already happening happen faster. Short term making food cheaper and more tasteless. Long term making food more tasty and nutritious. Justify that second statement by thinking of tasty heirloom tomatoes as a luxury good. Far more popular than decades ago. That’s because food is cheaper and people are richer. Once people aren’t starving they can afford them. The sooner we get through the starvation downslope and climbing back up to the tasty luxury upslope the better off we are.

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