The green revolution

A quick rant:

Being in crop biotech, I have major issues with the anti-GM crowd. Its all been said before, I know (what hasn’t), but it still irks me that the first thing anyone says when I mention that I’m a biotechnologist-in-training is: “Say, don’t you people put, like, unnatural stuff in food? Dude, genetic modification is totally wrong. That shit could, like, go wrong and kill us or some shit. Who do you think you are, God?”. And yes, people have actually said this. My usual response is to sigh, repress the desire to tell the moron to fuck off (which is great for your stress levels but bad for scientific understanding at large) and explain like so:

The official stance of the anti-GM groups is always about unintended consequences, at least when they talk to us. When they talk to their members and the lay public (that great pulsing mass), the message morphs into long rants about evil, god-complexes and Frankenstein. It’s incredibly hypocritical and uninformed. But shit, nobody wants to eat unnatural stuff do they? Well, I hate to break it to all the natural-living hippies and organic food yuppies, but you’re tools. Nothing about agriculture is natural. The wheat in your bread, the fruit in your dessert and the livestock in your stew are all the products of millennia of selective breeding. In fact, our desire to get the most out of farming has lead to the creation of what amounts to symbiotic relationships with our food. Wheat, corn, cows and chickens simply can’t hack it out in the wild any more. They need us as much as we need them. If you want to see natural food, try chewing on teosinte (the stock from which mesoamerican farmers painstakingly produced corn). Trust me when I say that ‘natural’ is not the way you want your food.

Next will be, inevitably, some ignorant-but-concerned soul who worries about the dangers of GM crops. What if some fish gene or something gets into your petunias? Or, heaven forbid, your chianti? Well, fair’s fair. There are issues with some crops that might have wild relatives in the area. Pollen from one could get into the other, sex could happen and seeds could be produced with a transgene in them. Luckily, this is only true in some cases, and can be detected anyway using the right assay. In short, not a big deal. This is usually the point at which said soul then cries something along the lines of “What about unintended consequences! What if we develop an allergic reaction or something? What if it eats puppies?” The short answer here is ‘extensive tesing’. GM crops face more stringent trials than most drugs, leading to maddeningly long waits (up to ten years in some cases) before any crop gets grown.  I strongly suspect that if, after a decade of testing, nothing has come up then its likely nothing will.

Then, of course, there will be some fuck-wit who will say that breeding and genetic engineering are, from a moral standpoint, fundamentally different. This is true, if by ‘fundamentally different’ you mean ‘faster, safer, more reliable and more flexible’. Otherwise, you just come off sounding like a hypocrite for wanting your hybrid wheat but not wanting wheat growing to move forward. Drawing a line in the sand and calling it an ‘argument’ merely means you misunderstood the word. We’ve moved on from spending 50 years trying to breed traits into plants and you’ve moved on from listening to songs on vinyl (at least, some of you have). This does not mean that somehow we turned evil, any more than saying cds and mp3’s have suddenly made music bad.

Finally, there will be someone who will say that we don’t need GM crops. Why bother, if organic farming is going to save us all?

Yeah, organic farming. It’s been tried. In fact, it was the norm until very recently in most of the world. Which is one of the reasons why, until very recently, famine and food-poisoning were everyday facets of life. Fuzzy thinking by first-world enviro-morons will not make poor land yield more food. Nor will it prevent ergotism from killing off your village every time it rains. Organic farming is simply a yuppie way of buying overpriced goods from first-world farmers with a good grasp of feel-good PR. Subsistence farming, however, is hell without end. Would you condemn a generation of people to starvation because you happen to be a well-fed Luddite?

Modern advances in farming were bought at huge cost in terms of equipment and chemicals, often for limited gain. Poorer countries (which, perversely, derive a greater proportion of their wealth from agriculture than rich countries) simply cannot afford to bankroll modern industrial farming on the same scale that rich countries have done. This leads, inexorably, to a vicious cycle of under-production followed by flooding of the local market with subsidised food from rich countries. Which depresses prices, which lowers returns on food produced, which lowers profits that can be spent on equipment and fertilizer, which lowers production. Your poorer countries suddenly find themselves in poverty-cycle hell.

So how can they get out? The only way is by increasing production, and the only way for third-world farmers to increase production is to find a way that uses less equipment and fertilizer for the same yeild of crop. Enter the green revolution.

I won’t fill pages with the details (for that, go to wikipedia), but the results are mind-blowing. By one estimate, the teams responsible for the development of the high-yielding varieties are responsible for the existence of 1000 000 000 000 extra human lives. I physically can’t conceive of numbers like that, my imagination simply fails.

These scientists would be rightly regarded as Gods in a sane world, Titans whos’ works brought nations of people into being. They should be lauded and feted, fed grapes by virgins (sex of their choice) and all given Oscars to boot. That they have remained anonymous is possibly a sin against the universe at large. Yet there you have it.

With GM, we have a chance to start another green revolution, to lift billions out of poverty and potentially allow the existence of millions more. I simply cannot conceive of a more worthy goal. And yet some tit will tell me over dinner that I’m evil and that genetic modification is a dangerous monster.

Put simply: fuck you. And fuck off.

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