Luddites and laws

The New Scientist recently broke the news that a bit of a furor has erupted over the instant approval of a non-GMO crop with exactly the same genes as a GM crop that’s been in testing for years. Strangely, the fuss is not over whether GMOs are dangerous or not.

Rather, it is over the idea that the current EU legislation either is too soft on ‘traditional’ crops, or too hard on GM crops. It really amuses me that, from a genetics standpoint, the current approach to crop approval is practically guaranteed to make lawmakers look like hypocritical asses. Which is fine by me.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that this is only a tiny part of a larger trend towards ludditeism. The EU is driving itself nuts, as usual, over what should be a simple choice.

To illustrate how simple this choice is, try this experiment: Take a piece of bare earth. Divide it into four equal pieces. Leave one piece bare, compost the next and put fertilizer and compost on the rest. Now turn the soil, remove the stones and plant a crop over the whole patch. Finally, use insecticides, fungicides etc. only on the fourth piece and do not irrigate the first piece. When the crop is ready, look at the difference in yield between pieces one to four.

The first piece represents what would happen if farmers discarded all of the techniques and technologies that help them to put food on your plate. I beg anyone to try and live off the tiny, diseased products of that unmodified piece of land. The other patches represent what farming has gone through to get to where we are today.

An example: I tried this with watermelons and couldn’t produce a single frigging thing (apart from weeds) in pieces one and two. I would have starved (from lack of delicous cool summer treats) had it not been for the transformative technologies of soil management, nitrogenous fertilizers and pest-control.

The message is obvious. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t demand more food on your plate from less land (and only high quality food, no less) and still expect farmers to go without a technology that can help them to do it. Genetic modification is not a panacia, nor is it some horrific break from an idyllic past to a dystopian future. It is simply another step up from simply hoping that food will happen; no better or worse than hybrid lines or the Haber process.

Which leaves me with one last question: How can people still think that, because we finally learned how to identify and insert genes into plants, the world is suddenly in peril. How long must the genetics community bang its goddamn drum before people wake up and start listening?

If the EU is any guide at all, the answer is ‘forever’.

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