I’ve been asked why we’re writing so much about Monsanto and genetically modified food. “It’s been tested,” they say. “It’s safe,” they say. “There’s nothing to fear. Why are you spreading disinformation?”
I’m not a geneticist. If I say “We don’t know enough about this,” I’m just one guy. So I’ll let a geneticist answer those questions.
David Suzuki is a geneticist. He’s one of the top scientists in Canada, his textbook is one of the most widely-used in the world, he’s published more than 30 books. As head of the David Suzuki Foundation, he’s both a promoter of science and a popularizer.
So when David Suzuki speaks, I listen (see the end of this article for a list of sources). And David Suzuki says,
“Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.”
One plus one equals two. That’s simple. But one gene inserted into a complex chromosome may not work in a simple, linear fashion.
Transgenic crops are not simple products like widgets, ipods or even automobiles. They are living organisms that can interact with other creatures in the environment in myriad ways. Nature is complicated. When you modify an organism at a genetic level, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the results are also complicated, and often unexpected.
…Science does not proceed in a linear fashion the way we write up our grant applications, you know—experiment A leads to experiment B to C to a cure for cancer. So all of the supposed benefits of our manipulations are purely speculative. We don’t know how it will all turn out. And then when we create new organisms, new products, and release them in the wild, in our food, in our drugs, we simply don’t know enough to anticipate what the consequences will be.
We don’t know…
The bottom line with GMO is very simple: We simply don’t have the science lined up to make any sort of blanket reassurances that GMO is really safe. Here’s Suzuki:
I’m a geneticist. What bothers me is we have governments that are supposed to be looking out for our health, for the safety of our environment, and they’re acting like cheerleaders for this technology, which… is in its infancy and we have no idea what the technology is going to do.
…At the cutting edge of scientific research, most of our ideas are far from the mark – wrong, in need of revision, or irrelevant. That’s not a derogation of science; it’s the way science advances. We take a set of observations or data, set up a hypothesis that makes sense of them, and then we test the hypothesis. The new insights and techniques we gain from this process are interpreted tentatively and liable to change, so any rush to apply them strikes me as downright dangerous.
…Because they won’t tell us
Not only have there not been enough studies done… when studies ARE performed, outside researchers often have to pry the data out of Monsanto via Freedom of Information filings and lawsuits. That’s a big concern concern as well.
Transgenic crops are, in many ways, radically new and should be subject to the greatest of scientific scrutiny, not suppressed by proprietary concerns.
So what is the rush to apply ideas that will prove to be irrelevant or wrong? Money, of course.
The history of science is the history of the unexpected.
…History informs us that though we love technology, there are always costs, and since our knowledge of how nature works is so limited, we can’t anticipate how those costs will manifest. We only have to reflect on DDT, nuclear power, and CFCs, which were hailed as wonderful creations but whose long-term detrimental effects were only found decades after their widespread use.
…As we learned from experience with DDT, nuclear power and CFCs, we only discover the costs of new technologies after they are extensively used. We should apply the Precautionary Principle with any new technology, asking whether it is needed and then demanding proof that it is not harmful. Nowhere is this more important than in biotechnology because it enables us to tamper with the very blueprint of life.
Putting genes back in bottles
How do you clean up a potential GMO mess? You don’t.
The difference with GM food is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult or impossible to stuff it back. If we stop using DDT and CFCs, nature may be able to undo most of the damage – even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our surroundings, they can replicate, change, and spread; there may be no turning back. Many ecologists are concerned about what this means to the balance of life on Earth that has evolved over millions of years through the natural reproduction of species.