GMOs

Urban lefty-minded people (myself included) agree that it’s entertaining to make fun of conservatives who deny global warming and evolution. After all, they’re ignoring basic science! Or just making up their own nonsense! Well, unfortunately, the left wing has its own science-deniers, and they’re anti-GMO activists.

In April, Chipotle declared it would stop using genetically-modified ingredients in its food (creating some excitingly ironic parallels between, say, Fox News’ valiant 1,000 wingnut climate scientists and Chipotle’s valiant 300 wingnut biotech scientists). The rationale posted on its website recycles some standard anti-GMO arguments, framing the company’s decision as part of the larger trend in the past few years to ban and/or label GM crops (a trend led by dangerous people like Vandana Shiva and driven by broad European skepticism of mostly-American biotech grains). Given the backlash Chipotle is facing I sincerely hope this represents the anti-GMO Waterloo, because the trend is, for lack of a better word, stupid.

Let’s start out with health. Chipotle and lots of uninformed people claim that GMOs may be harmful to human health, and that there has not been enough research done. What does the science say? Over the past twenty-five years, every major scientific and governmental advisory body in the world has examined the impact of these plants on health. They say they’re fineNo different from standard crops.

Fine, you might say. Health. But what kinds of M’s are they making to the O’s? Are they weird? Biotech scientists insert genes into plants to make them more resistant to drought, wind, and harsh weather, to repel crop-destroying insectswithout using pesticides, to fight off blights and diseases, and to improve soil health to prevent erosion. The goal of all this is to increase yields, improve access to food, and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. Which is good. But it’s also necessary.

By the end of this century, there are likely to be eleven billion people on Earth. With a decrease in arable land due to global warming, there is no way we will be able to feed that many people without the increased crop yields provided by GMOs.

But it’s unnatural! you cry, you silly straw man. I don’t really know what that means. Have you seen pictures of what corn looked like before the Mayans started cross-breeding it? It looked like a skeleton thumb. Humans have been genetically modifying crops since the dawn of time. Now we just do it in labs. Not to mention that, as Steven Novella writes, nature does it all on its own:

The notion that GMOs are “unnatural” is simply meaningless. It is also often based on a false premise – that there is no way for genes from a bacteria, for example, to get into a vegetable in nature. While irrelevant, it is also not true. Scientists, for example, recently found genes from soil bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties, a natural gene insertion that occurred about 8,000 years ago.

While I was in Colombia I heard a lot about the evils of Monsanto. Their GMO crops are invading the world, etc. And yeah, Monsanto is at least a little evil. But so are a lot of corporations, and the story is much more complicated than partisans make it out to be. Not to mention that farmers choose to buy Monsanto seed because it’s a good product (if occasionally a mixed blessing). And, let’s be real here. Evil Mega-Corp Monsanto’s revenue was about $14.8 billion last year. Scrappy grassroots do-gooder Whole Foods made $12.9 billion. A big part of this back-and-forth is about market positioning and good press.

I think the evidence is clear that there are real benefits to GMOs, and there are real (and frightening) costs to banning GMOs. Let’s use the famous example, Golden Rice. Your classic white rice is a pretty crappy food source, nutrition-wise. It’s also the staple crop for over half the world’s population, concentrated in Asia. A lot of those people suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies, which cause millions of cases of blindness and kills hundreds of thousands of kids every year. Enter Golden Rice, which is rice plus a gene from carrots that produces Vitamin A. It’s perfectly safe. IRRI, a nonprofit, is willing and able to give free seeds to any country that wants to help its people. The problem is that anti-GMO organization like Greenpeace shut the project down. The result:

[A] study, published in the journal Environment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

So there are consequences. But some more well-informed people than I think the tide is turning. As Jon Entine writes, “We’ve reached an intellectual tipping point on this controversy. Almost every prominent liberal journalism outlet, from the New York Times to Scientific American to The Atlantic, has prominently featured an article contrasting the growing disconnect between scientists who view GMOs as safe and popular fears hyped by some foodie heroes and organic activists.” Let’s start splicing.

In other news, rats have more empathy than most humans, American regime change DOES work, world!, every conspiracy theory ever is true, I wonder why no one trusts Hillary Clinton, and wow, who knew the TSA was completely incompetent?

I know I missed a Memorial Day letter last week, so direct from Ms. Laura Hughes of Madison, Wisconsin, here’s a very nice story from the Big War.

INTERESTING STUFF

  1. Sebastian Junger, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield” in Vanity Fair.

Our finest war reporter on American veterans, PTSD, the modern world, and the human condition. This is a top 5 article in 2015. Please read it.

  1. Jeffrey Goldberg interviewsBarack Obama for the Atlantic.

Iran, ISIS, and Israel. The three I’s. Fascinating. It’s nice when you see journalism actually work sometimes, and a genuine expert gets to ask serious questions and receive serious answers from the President. Barry O knows his stuff.

  1. Matt O’Leary, “I Let IBM’s Robot Chef Tell Me What to Cook for a Week”for Medium.com.

Change of pace from nuclear annihilation. A chef and food writer lets Watson come up with the meals. “They taste like nothing on earth.”

  1. Volodymyr Yermolenko, “Russia, zoopolitics, and information bombs”for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Pages 72-79. I thought this was a really great, concise analysis of what the hell is going on with Russia. Their idea of The Big Alternative to Western civilization, along with a brilliant propaganda campaign to destroy objective truth. That second part matches well with this fun new study.

  1. Peter Kaplan, “That Joke Has Everything”: David Letterman, Before Late Night” for Esquirein Dec. 1981, reprinted for Deadspin.

Letterman’s gone. I didn’t ever watch much of him, but I suppose it’s the end of something in comedy. This is a profile of him from before he got the show. It’s sharp and says interesting things about comedy and the US and, of course, Letterman.

  1. Christopher Solomon, “When Birds Squawk, Other Species Seem to Listen”in the New York Times.

Classic NYT headline. This article kind of blew me away. Apparently, squirrels and what have you pick up on songbird calls and broadcast them through the forest.

And a bonus! This site maps English accents across the world (including audio), although their coverage of the UK is best. I vote Shetland Islanders as hardest to understand.

MUSIC

  1. John McCauley sings Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend”for the Rollo & Grady Sessions
  1. Tyler Childers does “Charleston Girl”with Russell Waddell on banjo for Shaker Steps.
  1. The Shouting Matches live at Coachella 2013. The whole set’s great but you gotta love the “Avery Hill” opener.
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