Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits. The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?
I admit it. Those five words depressed me.
But maybe not for the reasons you might think. My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?
I’m a bit of a history junkie. I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century. Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.
The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios. The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.
Now, this did take more than 150 years. Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”
Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops. At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.
An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding. In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?
There’s still loads of opportunity ahead. But there are barriers. It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.
- Exhibit A: Vandana Shiva and her GMO suicide myth
- Exhibit B: Gilles E. Séralini and his rat study bundled up with a ‘neat’ little PR campaign
- Exhibit C: Jeffrey Smith, with his non-subject-matter expertise, who continues to spin anti-GMO tales of woe.
Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?
Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.” I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement: