The True Story About Who Destroyed a Genetically Modified Rice Crop
September 3, 2013 1:33 AM   Subscribe

Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.
posted by Blasdelb (76 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm inclined to think it would have been equally misguided even if genuine farmers with mud on their boots and no dye in their hair had done it.
posted by Segundus at 1:51 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Activists" would seem to be somewhat misleading.

"The surprise attack was staged by the group led by Wilfredo Marbella, deputy secretary of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Philippines (KMP) and Bert Auter, secretary general of KMP Bicol. Also identified were members of Anakpawis Partylist and MASIPAG."

The article describes the KMP - the Peasant Movement of the Phillipines - as "an extreme left wing organization" and the KMP website leaves little doubt about the accuracy of that description. The Phillipines still has a large communist insurgency.

But aren't these tactics a fundamental reversal for the left? I mean it used to be that farmers and farming were revered by Asia's communists and young urban dwellers were sent to the countryside to work on collective farms to become good drones of the state. Now they come from the cities - with dyed hair - pretending to be peasants and destroy crops.
posted by three blind mice at 2:12 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you believe Slate and the Philippine ministry of agriculture, that is.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:15 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The hysterical and misinformed opposition to GM produce is yet more proof positive the deep well of human fear, stupidity, and ignorant superstition will never run dry.
posted by Nibiru at 2:15 AM on September 3, 2013 [29 favorites]


But aren't these tactics a fundamental reversal for the left?

I don't know anything about the KMP but I'm guessing they're nothing to do with state communist parties and more like Western Trots who as we know, are always ready to helicopter in on any protest on a pragmatic basis.
posted by Segundus at 2:37 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Greenpeace has picked a weird hill to die on here.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:18 AM on September 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Greenpeace has picked a weird hill [for a lot of people in starving countries] to die on here.
posted by cthuljew at 3:29 AM on September 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


Nibiru: "The hysterical and misinformed opposition to GM produce is yet more proof positive the deep well of human fear, stupidity, and ignorant superstition will never run dry."

If it were just about the seeds and produce themselves, that would be accurate. But the context and environment in which they are pushed upon people are relevant too.

Bt cotton was taken on by almost 90% of cotton farmers in India over the last decade, thanks to a really tough sell from Monsanto and various state governments. It worked great for a while, but now the (Monsanto-supplied) pesticides have been hiked up in price (first one's always free, kids!) and farmers are going bankrupt.

So yes, it's not the fault of "GM produce", but it's part of a bigger system in which it's not clear who the "GM" will end up benefiting. It can be argued that GM is caveat emptor like all other products, but third world farmers are already working at a profound information disadvantage against Monsanto marketing and state meddling.

Looking at this specific case of Golden Rice - in theory, it provides Vitamin A much more cheaply than other foodstuffs, so that's great and completely benign! Except Vandana Shiva suggests that these corporation-supplied GM monocultures are specifically designed to reduce biodiversity and create monopolies. It's entirely possible she's wrong, but as a vocal and respected voice for third-world farmers she will be listened to. And what casual observers are going to hear is "GM bad."
posted by vanar sena at 3:40 AM on September 3, 2013 [36 favorites]


Farmers using GM crops are contractually obligated to buy new seed each season; they're not allowed to reuse seed (which is effectively free for the effort). This can become a massive expense, and not easily backed out of -- once they've stopped saving seed, they have nothing to start with after severing ties with their supplier. (Why can't they just save the seeds from their last GM crop and then cut ties? The seed is treated as intellectual property by Monsanto; using it or any derivatives of it is intellectual property use and requires payment.)

This and what others outline above are major reasons for opposition to GM crops in the third world; anti-rationalism and fear of science play comparatively minor roles.
posted by ardgedee at 3:54 AM on September 3, 2013 [45 favorites]


Let's imagine that there are very good long-term economics reasons for certain groups of people to oppose GM crops, but that the biological/medical reasons are weak to non-existent. Let's imagine that it's also next to impossible to persuade people not to eat GM crops because of economic reasons, but that it's easy to convince people not to eat food that they think is tainted or poisoned.

I think you can see why certain groups are pushing hard on the biological angle, even if it's mostly bullshit.
posted by empath at 4:00 AM on September 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


"Farmers using GMO crops are contractually obligated to buy new seed each season; they're not allowed to reuse seed (which is effectively free for the effort). This can become a massive expense, and not easily backed out of -- once they've stopped saving seed, they have nothing to start with after severing ties with their supplier."

This is specifically not the case for Golden Rice, or even most commercially available GMO strains. One of the primary priorities of the International Rice Research Institute, which is funding this as well as many other rice related anti-hunger projects, for each of the hundreds of strains of Golden Rice that they have created out of local used varieties is that the seed be both reusable and locally breed-able such that farmers can continue to maintain the Golden trait themselves with conventional breeding techniques.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:00 AM on September 3, 2013 [55 favorites]


since everyone on metafilter thinks 'DRM' for media is great and an important way that large multinational media companies look out for everyone's best interests, it's no surprise that we all agree that more tightly binding agriculture to intellectual property laws and the large multinational agricultural companies that own them is great too! Now, you could argue that this has little to do with GMO and is largely true for traditional hybrids... to which, you could reply that the production of, say, corn in the US is hardly a model of what you might want to do biologically, ecologically, economically or for the sake of everyone's health.

also, this article mischaracterizes the IP situation wrt "golden rice." as i remember, farmers were given the right to "save seed" by the corporation that owns the IP for golden rice. but, distribution of those saved seeds is strictly limited and who knows what else is in the fine print. the point being that if you are growing golden rice, for the sake of your business, you now have to read the fine print. i bet many philippino farmers are illiterate.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:01 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's not how Golden Rice is distributed, though. The licensing agreement specifies that GR seed can't cost more than standard seed, and farmers are permitted to use harvested grain as seed.
posted by gingerest at 4:01 AM on September 3, 2013 [22 favorites]


since everyone on metafilter thinks 'DRM' for media is great and an important way that large multinational media companies look out for everyone's best interests, it's no surprise that we all agree that more tightly binding agriculture to intellectual property laws and the large multinational agricultural companies that own them is great too!

It's almost like different people in a large community have different opinions!
posted by empath at 4:01 AM on September 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Pros or cons of Golden rice aside, that Vandana Shiva article was comprehensively demolished in previous threads on golden rice on metafilter. It should not be held up as credible.

Also I wish we could genetically modify a thread on GMO that didn't result in the same two dug-in sides talking past each other.
posted by smoke at 4:02 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


The objection based on the inability to save and plant your own seed is a reliable marker for people who don't actually know much about farming.

Farmers have purchased hybrid seeds from seed merchants for decades. You can't plant the second gen seed, it loses the hybrid characteristics. Farmers willingly purchase hybrid seed because it yields a lot more, it's a good business investment.

So please kindly stop using that argument.
posted by Mokusatsu at 4:05 AM on September 3, 2013 [38 favorites]


"Bt cotton was taken on by almost 90% of cotton farmers in India over the last decade, thanks to a really tough sell from Monsanto and various state governments. It worked great for a while, but now the (Monsanto-supplied) pesticides have been hiked up in price (first one's always free, kids!) and farmers are going bankrupt."

There are a great deal of complex problems with Indian agriculture putting a huge amount of pressure onto Indian farmers, from India's transition from a largely socialist ag policy to a very capitalist one to urban sprawl gobbling up all of the arable land, but contrary to the fevered imaginations of many in the Western activist community, GMO crops are not really among them,
Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security PLOS ONE
The role of genetically modified (GM) crops for food security is the subject of public controversy. GM crops could contribute to food production increases and higher food availability. There may also be impacts on food quality and nutrient composition. Finally, growing GM crops may influence farmers’ income and thus their economic access to food. Smallholder farmers make up a large proportion of the undernourished people worldwide. Our study focuses on this latter aspect and provides the first ex post analysis of food security impacts of GM crops at the micro level. We use comprehensive panel data collected over several years from farm households in India, where insect-resistant GM cotton has been widely adopted. Controlling for other factors, the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. This technology has reduced food insecurity by 15–20% among cotton-producing households. GM crops alone will not solve the hunger problem, but they can be an important component in a broader food security strategy.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:08 AM on September 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


The golden rice trial was being conducted by the government’s Philippine Rice Research Institute, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and other public sector partners—contrary to the activists’ accusations, there is no private corporate involvement.
Just in case anyone missed that in their rush to write a comment about Monsanto and patents and seeds and whatnot.

"Also I wish we could genetically modify a thread on GMO that didn't result in the same two dug-in sides talking past each other."

Is that how it is here? I mean, I'm 100% against the Monsanto business model of GMO. I'm not ambivalent in any respect about it. And I also don't think there's anything inherently wrong with GMO and that reflexive opposition to it because it's "frankenfood" is just ignorant. Is it not possible to hold both these opinions?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:10 AM on September 3, 2013 [20 favorites]


The licensing agreement specifies that GR seed can't cost more than standard seed, and farmers are permitted to use harvested grain as seed.

but the licensing agreement makes income distinctions between farmers: what your "rights" are wrt golden corn depend on how much money your farm makes (as decided by who?) and you can't breed 'golden rice' to sell seed to other farmers. i have no idea about how rice is farmed, small-scale, in asia but the licensing agreement seems designed so that outside humanitarian groups will largely control the distribution of seed.

Also Syngenta retains commercial rights. If golden rice became saleable in asia, you can bet Syngenta will control it's distribution.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:11 AM on September 3, 2013


There's not enough "ugh" in the world for shit like this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:14 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


smoke: "Pros or cons of Golden rice aside, that Vandana Shiva article was comprehensively demolished in previous threads on golden rice on metafilter. It should not be held up as credible."

Not really my point though, which was that a discussion that should - for the most part - be about policy, marketing and lobbying, becomes a discussion about biology instead.
posted by vanar sena at 4:20 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Also Syngenta retains commercial rights. If golden rice became saleable in asia, you can bet Syngenta will control it's distribution."

If Golden Rice were to somehow turn into a commercially viable product it is entirely appropriate that Syngenta should be able to control its commercial distribution, but that is entirely beside the whole point of Golden Rice. What makes Golden Rice so amazing and useful in ways nothing else can be is that Rice has existing local infrastructure for growing it and distributing it even where international commerce does not reach in exactly the areas affected by Vitamin A deficiency. Its commercial value is and will always be entirely irrelevant to its true value to humanity because the trait is already pretty much worthless to anyone who can afford to buy it off of a shipping container from a corporation rather than an NGO that can fix prices for starter seed to whatever is locally appropriate. Rice can travel where aid workers with needles in land rovers cannot, it does not immediately spoil even in tropical climates, it is value dense, and it is self replacing. All that is needed is the seeds, thoughtful education campaigns, and for activists who don't know a damn thing about what is important in agriculture or aid work to get out of the way.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:22 AM on September 3, 2013 [18 favorites]


Syngenta's rights have just been licensed back to the humanitarian board for this particular subset of users, as far as I can tell. The thing about licenses is that they are not guarantees that a certain arrangement will exist into perpetuity. And this particular subset of users, for example, what happens when they exceed the threshold as it set at the moment, whether because of prosperity or for that matter inflation or currency exchange issues? Is it the humanitarian board's job to collect royalties... or are they then in violation of Syngenta's license?

If the latter, if enforcement is still in Syngenta's hands and not the humanitarian board's, then the best laid plans of the board are going to matter not at all in the long run. There's a lot of high-minded stuff here, a lot of good intentions, but the same issues still arise: Monocultures, genetic contamination of crops that may not be eligible for the humanitarian license, etc.

I'm all for the actual genetic modification side of this, if it was going into the public domain, because if it was in the public domain, there'd be continuing motivation to create diversity. Putting a major staple of the developing world into an agreement like this, with the clear plan that it will supplant other rice crops? Yeah, I find that terrifying. I mean, not such that I'm going to set anything on fire, but certainly such that I would prefer someone else came up with a better (PUBLIC) solution to deal with the Vitamin A problem.
posted by Sequence at 4:22 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've understood that hunger on a global scale is much more of political/distribution problem rather than a lack of food problem?
posted by edgeways at 4:24 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Edgeways, my understanding is that you're right. However, with regard to people's day-to-day needs, I also understand that it is often many magnitudes easier to address the food aspect than political aspect. You can't always safely and effectively oust a warlord or tinpot dictator, but you can feed people, and in that way, you could also undermine said dictator's hold on the area.

I don't really know, though.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:31 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I've understood that hunger on a global scale is much more of political/distribution problem rather than a lack of food problem?"

In these sorts of conversations someone is always quick to point this out like it is the obvious simple solution to an obvious simple problem of hunger unaffected by global production, much less production in the developing world, but it really is like all simple solutions to complex problems. Indeed, every political attempt at more equitable distribution of the West's agricultural resources, absent various dire famine emergencies, has ended in an epic and uncontroversial failure to improves the lives of anyone but the corporations that supply western farmers. I'm talking about the difference between the Rockefeller foundation and Norman Borlaug bringing the technology necessary for high yield agriculture to Mexico, which employed millions and feed tens of millions, and NAFTA, which flooded Mexico with cheaper food than Borlaug ever could but drove millions of farmers off of their land and into poverty and hunger when they could no longer afford the food that supplanted them.

The answer to hunger in the developing world cannot possibly involve disenfranchising the poor by 'distributing' the West's food to them, dispossessing farmers, destroying agricultural communities, creating the problems that come with large refugee communities of people with only agricultural skills, creating yet more systems for extracting wealth from the developing world in exchange for this food, or building the massive and complex infrastructure necessary for this 'distribution' instead of the often far simpler systems necessary for people to grow their own food in an economically and socially sustainable way. Doing this honestly necessarily involves finding economically and socially sustainable ways of making modern seed technology developed in ways appropriate to the developing word, just like golden rice, available to farmers in the developing world. It involves refusing to let corporations fill the hole left left in our social economy by our collective ignorance and apathy, which is exactly what the IRRI is trying to do here, if only western activists would let them.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:34 AM on September 3, 2013 [28 favorites]


> Syngenta's rights have just been licensed back to the humanitarian board for this particular subset of users, as far as I can tell.

I stand corrected, and I'm sorry for stirring that particular pot. I continue to think that it merits keeping a watchful eye over the IP aspects because they are not simple and will not have simple long-term conclusions.
posted by ardgedee at 4:37 AM on September 3, 2013


However, with regard to people's day-to-day needs, I also understand that it is often many magnitudes easier to address the food aspect than political aspect. You can't always safely and effectively oust a warlord or tinpot dictator, but you can feed people, and in that way, you could also undermine said dictator's hold on the area.

In addition to Blasdelb's excellent economic points, how do you go about feeding people in an area that is militarily controlled by someone who has a direct and vital interest in controlling the people in it? If you just roll in with trucks of food, the people with guns will take it from you and distribute it the way they want (which will likely not be to the most hungry). And "undermin[ing] said dictator's hold on the area" is a nice, bloodless way of describing "encouraging people to rise up and (re-)ignite a civil war."
posted by Etrigan at 4:39 AM on September 3, 2013


Blasdelb: "Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security PLOS ONE"

Am I correct in understanding that the latest data in this survey is five years old?
posted by vanar sena at 4:40 AM on September 3, 2013


If you just roll in with trucks of food

I should have been more clear - I was talking about people growing their own food, such as with golden rice, and not simply distributing food from the West as any kind of long-term solution. I'm well aware of the harms of otherwise well-intentioned aid.

My point was, yes, almost all long-term famine/malnutrition/etc. is in some way political, but it's almost impossible to simply "fix" the political aspect, as if it was as simple as replacing a burnt fuse. That's why golden rice, etc. is important, because farmers who can grow sufficient crops are providing a real solution.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:46 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm pro-GMO, but I think it's important to acknowledge that, at best, we're trading one tragedy for another, smaller one.

If you can increase yields by 50%, you're better off paying for seeds than you are reusing them. It's a simple division of labor issue: let the folks who specialize in making high powered seeds provide the seeds. The seeds are only a small portion of the overall cost of farming, so even if the seeds cost many multiples more than the unmodified ones, they're not making a big difference in costs while substantially increasing revenues.

The pesticides (i.e. Roundup) are a different issue, and there's real potential for price-gouging there. But part of the problem is context. GM farming is most easily accomplished in industrial farming contexts. It's an economy of scale operation. It's easier for bigger farms to handle the demands, like buffer crops, that make GM farming most effective. So GM is going to drive out smallholder farming, and often it does that in very painful ways, like allowing them to run up debts and then watching as they fail when a bad piece of weather hits them, as it inevitably will. You see the same waves of busted smallholders in every society as farming stops being the main employment (think England and Enclosure of the commons, or the US's Great Depression.) It's a tragedy, but partly because it's both horrible and necessary for economic development. The other model for farm consolidation is state seizure, and I'm not sure that's much better.

So a country has to choose its tragedy: development or poverty, economies of scale or not. For all the risks of GMO and multinational agribusiness, they're nothing compared to the constant daily risk of being soul-grindingly poor. You've really got to think that smallholder farms are an intrinsic good to think that we should accept smaller yields and more poverty-related infant mortality in order to preserve them. But the alternative is that lots of successful middle-class folks in poor countries are going to become poor folks in middle-class countries.

GMO fans who treat this debate like a fun chance to snark miss that they're not defending an unalloyed good: they're literally defending the lesser of two evils. I think we shouldn't forget the costs.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:53 AM on September 3, 2013 [14 favorites]


sticherbeast - while somehow getting seeds to people to grow their own food in a place where a dictator has a stranglehold sounds like a good idea, i know that at least in NK, i've read that they can pretty much be killed or carted off to labor camps for that sort of thing. a lot of what is grown and harvested in NK is taken from the farmers who are then given barely enough to live on.
posted by sio42 at 4:58 AM on September 3, 2013


The era of massive corporations duping poor countries into getting hooked on their product while the rich countries enforce "property rights" only for the Good Ol Boy Club is completely over, so I see no problem with GMO.
posted by DU at 5:09 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


In these sorts of conversations someone is always quick to point this out like it is the obvious simple solution

I wasn't really offering a solution, simple or otherwise. But wondering how if distributing food is an ongoing problem how distributing seeds is going to be much different, especially of those seeds have to be distributed each year? Why would repressive government X look any more favorably at seeds coming into their country then finished food?

If golden rice is indeed one of those hybrid/sterile crops then getting them seeds on time each year in certain areas of the world seems not that big of an improvement. It still is a distribution/political problem.
posted by edgeways at 5:10 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


anotherpanacea: " GM farming is most easily accomplished in industrial farming contexts. It's an economy of scale operation. It's easier for bigger farms to handle the demands, like buffer crops, that make GM farming most effective. "

This is a central issue, yes. Not just because of scale but also knowledge. Third-world farmers didn't know how to use hybrid seeds, so their yields suffered and they had to use too much pesticide. Now they have these magical GM crops like Bt cotton, which they are using equally poorly, and the same problems are repeating themselves after the initial honeymoon. Ordinarily this would mean Monsanto et al make out like bandits on both sides - seeds and pesticides - but in this case it's looking like they might lose the right to sell their GM seeds in India at all.

In the case of Golden Rice, it's not just the GR but that third world farmers are using ground water to grow rice, instead of less water-intensive but possibly more Vitamin A-heavy produce. Adding Vitamin A to the rice is a band aid.

I was berating a farmer relative recently for switching back from vegetables to the wheat-rice cycle in Punjab. His reasoning: the logistics for perishables like vegetables are so awful that he had to go back to these crops just to break even. This is a really well-educated guy who has managed profitable tea estates in the past before coming back to ancestral land. He knows he's shooting himself in the foot in the long run by depleting his water table and poisoning his land, but who's going to feed him if he does the right thing?

But if he switches to GR he'll be getting some Vitamin A, so that's good at least.

Interestingly, the Congress government copped a lot of flak for the recent lifting of restrictions on foreign direct investment in the retail sector, but one of the smartest things they did was require a hefty investment in distribution and logistics. They watered it down in the end, but it's still quite large.
posted by vanar sena at 5:33 AM on September 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


(Why can't they just save the seeds from their last GM crop and then cut ties? The seed is treated as intellectual property by Monsanto; using it or any derivatives of it is intellectual property use and requires payment.)

This right here strikes me as not only part of the problem, but a really fascinating point. Why, precisely, is Monsanto able to call their seed intellectual property, while people who genetically modify crops and animals through more natural means (breeding, grafting, culling, pollinating, etc) are not allowed to do so? If I buy seeds from a store, I am buying the result of multiple genetic modifications made over time, but I am still able to keep the seeds for myself. Why is Monsanto's form of genetic modification different and special?
posted by corb at 5:37 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why is Monsanto's form of genetic modification different and special?

Because the people that help decide those matters are often former Monsanto executives. Much on that topic in this investigative article that ran in City Pages (Minneapolis) two months ago.
posted by mcstayinskool at 5:47 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


from that article:

These days, the company has infiltrated the highest levels of government. It has ties to the Supreme Court (former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas), with former and current employees in high-level posts at the USDA and the FDA.

But the real coup came when President Obama appointed former Monsanto vice president Michael Taylor as the FDA's new Deputy Commissioner for Foods. It was akin to making George Zimmerman the czar of gun safety.

posted by mcstayinskool at 5:48 AM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


One last point re: GMOs. I'm perfectly willing to be okay with GMO crops if I feel like the research done on their safety is transparent and open. But "GMOs are safe because Monsanto says so" is laughibly not acceptable, and given they do this research behind the protective shroud of IP, that's all we get before these plants get dispersed on to agricultural lands.

There are plenty of people in the anti-vaccine/no-flouride-in-my-water/save-me-from-GMOs freakout mindset out there, and they certainly dominate coverage about this topic, but there are also much more rational scientific reasons to be against this. Pigeon-holing everyone against GMOs as nutcases is a really shallow conclusion.
posted by mcstayinskool at 5:56 AM on September 3, 2013


"Because the people that help decide those matters are often former Monsanto executives. Much on that topic in this investigative article that ran in City Pages (Minneapolis) two months ago."

Like many journalists who cover this sort of thing, the author of that piece conspicuously lacks a basic understanding of either the science or regulatory environment they're discussing. The best answer to corb's question though can be found in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a United States Supreme Court case dealing with whether genetically modified organisms can be patented from 1980. This is now limited by Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, which roughly determined that sequences found in nature cannot be patented.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:06 AM on September 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


Thanks Blasdelb, that is actually helpful - but I mean more specifically, has anything been specified on why the process of genetically modifying organisms in a lab is different than genetically modifying them through selective breeding, etc?
posted by corb at 6:16 AM on September 3, 2013


One of the things that struck me as curious in the Slate article was the bit where the rice project manager denied the activists were farmers in part because some of them had dyed hair. I couldn't decide whether my gut feeling about that had to do with American systems of distribution or with my innate suspicion of narratives about what technology, etc. folks in rural/ex-colonial parts of the world have access to.
posted by immlass at 6:22 AM on September 3, 2013


"One last point re: GMOs. I'm perfectly willing to be okay with GMO crops if I feel like the research done on their safety is transparent and open. But "GMOs are safe because Monsanto says so" is laughibly not acceptable, and given they do this research behind the protective shroud of IP, that's all we get before these plants get dispersed on to agricultural lands."

This is something that I hear every so often but have never run into an example of some piece of data that is important in any way to safety being hidden behind anything, much less IP, the point of which is to make information exactly like this widely accessible by protecting the underlying technologies and processes in such a way as to make industrial secrecy both pointless and a liability. There is research being done on GMO safety by companies that is reported to the USDA, FDA, or EPA depending on context and then published by them in giant reports as part of the regulatory process, which has its advantages being free to society but also has obvious limitations of trust, research done directly by USDA/FDA/EPA staff that is often appropriately redundant and gets published by the relevant agency in those same giant reports, and research being done by academic institutions commissioned by all sorts of involved public agencies that then gets published in the academic literature. So when you talk about research relevant to safety being hidden behind anything I really have no idea what you mean, could you maybe provide an example?
posted by Blasdelb at 6:30 AM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thanks Blasdelb, that is actually helpful - but I mean more specifically, has anything been specified on why the process of genetically modifying organisms in a lab is different than genetically modifying them through selective breeding, etc?

I don't know much about this subject, but I think your basic assumption is wrong, at least in the U.S. Plant breeders here are able to get patents. For years, one of the University of Minnesota's most valuable patents was the honeycrisp apple patent.
posted by Area Man at 6:34 AM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Why, precisely, is Monsanto able to call their seed intellectual property, while people who genetically modify crops and animals through more natural means (breeding, grafting, culling, pollinating, etc) are not allowed to do so?

It's the second part of that that's wrong. A moment's casual search reveals that plant varieties are protected intellectual property under the Plant Patents Act of 1930 or the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 depending on the plant.

If I buy seeds from a store, I am buying the result of multiple genetic modifications made over time, but I am still able to keep the seeds for myself.

I expect you'll find that the seeds you buy in the store are (mostly) out of protection.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Thanks Blasdelb, that is actually helpful - but I mean more specifically, has anything been specified on why the process of genetically modifying organisms in a lab is different than genetically modifying them through selective breeding, etc?"

The basic idea is that patent law provides for the issuance of a patent to a person who invents or discovers "any" new and useful "manufacture" or "composition of matter." What the Supreme Court decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty did was say that a synthetically generated critter could be determined to be a new and useful "composition of matter" and thus eligible under patent law. Chief Justice Burger's majority opinion also laid out a number of reasons why the critter specific to the case, a Pseudomonad bacteria with some over-hyped oil digesting abilities, could be considered "a new and useful composition of matter" such as its human-made and genetically engineered nature, as well as the fact that it possessed a specific kind of ability not found in nature. The 1930 Plant Patent Act, which afforded patent protection to certain asexually reproduced plants, and the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act can also be relevant as patents of the plants themselves or related protections of varieties depending on context.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:44 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Michael Pollan had a recent comment about this that I can't seem to find now which was essentially "why not just give people carrots"? Why make this single sourced, ip restricted commodity as a solution?

Also, Syngenta has a long history of disinformational pr campaigns related to their atrazine pesticide.
posted by destro at 6:57 AM on September 3, 2013


"Michael Pollan had a recent comment about this that I can't seem to find now which was essentially "why not just give people carrots"? Why make this single sourced, ip restricted commodity as a solution?"

There is a long and sordid history of 'social justice' campaigns that boil down to "Why can't poor people just act like us?" and ignore the root reasons for why poor people are poor to begin with, particularly those related to why 'we' are rich, along with the many good and smart reasons poor people live in the way they do. So I'm going to assume his master plan involves more than just overpaid westerners in Land Rovers just handing people carrots every week and actually includes people growing carrots where they are. Carrots specifically are vulnerable to extended rain even in climates they are suited to, spoil quickly out of the ground, are not value dense, absent refrigeration infrastructure require complex logistical planning to get them to market in such a way as they can be sold and used before rotting, just cannot be grown in many ecosystems, are not already part of the diets of many of the people affected by Vitamin A deficiency and thus would require complex cultural and culinary introduction, and are not calorie or protein rich and so will never be a priority for those on the edge of calorie or protein starvation. He might as well ask why those with Vitamin A deficiency don't eat cake.

To be clear, Golden Rice isn't really meaningfully 'single sourced' in that each of the hundreds of strains are a collaboration with local farmers, and also the only ip restrictions are related to commercial uses that aren't relevant here as well as preventing some predatory company from taking over the technology and exploiting it in a way that is not socially responsible.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


The carrots idea is wonderful. It's not like there would be any problems with growing, preserving our distributing them. The farmers should be able to zip down to the local supermarket for them.

For that matter, why can't they just put the farmers on collective farms? And with the savings in labour put some of them in factories to make tractors. We always need tractors
posted by happyroach at 7:32 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Michael Pollan had a recent comment about this that I can't seem to find now which was essentially "why not just give people carrots"? Why make this single sourced, ip restricted commodity as a solution?

"Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong." -- H.L. Mencken
posted by Etrigan at 7:56 AM on September 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


As long as we're bringing up Pollan and realistic, appropriate solutions to food problems, let's review this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:28 AM on September 3, 2013


Fascinating. This post is supposed to suggest that New Scientist is fibbing, but that GMO advocate Mark Lynas (on a list of people targeted for active recruited by Europabio according to the Guardian) and a slanted press release are more accurate.

If this passed your first blink, imagine what else did!
posted by mobunited at 10:04 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't see any indication that the New Scientist reporter was present at the incident or even looked into the allegations made in the Slate article.

More generally, GMO opponents claim that there isn't enough research into these crops, but then they cheer on the destruction of an actual testing site. Its a bit rich.
posted by Area Man at 10:33 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Complex logistical planning to get carrots to market? I'm quite certain this has already been figured out.
posted by destro at 10:34 AM on September 3, 2013


anotherpanacea: "It's a tragedy, but partly because it's both horrible and necessary for economic development. The other model for farm consolidation is state seizure, and I'm not sure that's much better. So a country has to choose its tragedy: development or poverty, economies of scale or not."

I am an urban planning PhD student (with a side research interest in food sovereignty) who is taking a class on development and the environment and this comment rang some bells of "er, not quite" for me. In particular, I just read two case studies* that eviscerate the easy descriptions and definitions of development and poverty that many of us in the West use. Here's a quote from the Mitchell piece.
Egypt's food problem is the result not of too many people occupying too little land, but of the power of a certain part of that population, supported by the prevailing domestic and international regime, to shift the country's resources from staple foods to more expensive items of consumption.

...

This convention of imagining countries as empirical objects is seldom recognized for what it is -- a convention. The relations, forces and movements that have shaped people's lives over the last several hundred years have never, in fact, been confined within the limits of nation-states, or respected their borders. The value of what people produce, the cost of what they consume, and the purchasing power of their currency depend on global relationships of exchange.

Development discourse wishes to present itself as a detached center of rationality and intelligence. The relationship between West and non-West will be constructed in these terms. The West possesses the expertise, technology and management skills that the non-West is lacking. This lack is what has caused the problems of the non-West. Questions of power and inequality, whether on the global level of international grain markets, state subsidies and the arms trade, or the more local level of landholding, food supplies and income distribution, will nowhere be discussed.

*James Ferguson (1994) “The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development,’ Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.” The Ecologist, Vol. 24, No. 5, pp. 178-181.

Tim Mitchell (1991) “America's Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry.” Middle East Report, No. 169, pp. 18-34.

posted by spamandkimchi at 10:41 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


hysterical and misinformed opposition to GM produce

That's a highly slanted ad hominem to throw at anyone concerned about the willingness of chemical companies to endanger those around them. Particularly when its highly likely that you don't know what it is they're objecting to.

First of all, resistance to GM crops is neither hysterical or misinformed if the GM is accompanied by a patent that prevents farmers from storing their own seed, and/or requiring them to purchase that seed and/or going to jail because some patented seed found its way onto their land. This is particularly true in Asia where many farmers are already suffering great economic threat

If GM crops aren't "open source" then they are yet another way for companies to plant their stockholders between people and their basic needs.

Secondly, there should be continued concern about the environmental safety of GM crops, until such time as they have proven to be safe, not only for humans but for all other lifeforms. The world-wide die-off of bees (which, it is increasingly apparent, are the result of pesticides) is yet another example chemical arrogance. Carelessly fucking around with the environment to improve the bottom line without adequate studies to protect the environment will eventually boomerang in very unpleasant ways.

Chemical companies traditionally don't care about much about endangering those around them; when they're caught at it, they just move somewhere else. The dumping of wastes of aniline factories in the Ruhr Valley by the predecessors of CIBA, Geigy, Agfa and BASF led to bladder cancer clusters in 1895. Some of those factories were moved to Toms River, NJ in the 1950s, where they also created cancers. Did they quit then? No, they just moved operations to China's Shanxi Province, where BASF alone is part of 45 Chinese ventures.

People need to be sceptical about GM for the same reason: for their own good. The Dows of the world don't much give a damn.
posted by Twang at 10:43 AM on September 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


mobunited: "Fascinating. This post is supposed to suggest that New Scientist is fibbing, but that GMO advocate Mark Lynas (on a list of people targeted for active recruited by Europabio according to the Guardian) and a slanted press release are more accurate.

If this passed your first blink, imagine what else did!
"
That is a pretty strangely succinct way to describe Mark Lynas' activist career, but that New Scientist article doesn't even manage to say anything it could be fibbing about, there is nothing there but weasel words and unquestioned quotes for 'balance.' This all sort of suggests that the New Scientist's online content farm might not be a great place for hard hitting investigative journalism.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:14 AM on September 3, 2013


That's a highly slanted ad hominem to throw at anyone concerned about the willingness of chemical companies to endanger those around them.

Non-GMO plants aren't chemical free. You can, for example, spray a crop with fungicides or insecticides that plants have a innate resistance to and still call your product "heirloom" or "locally-grown". In fact, things like Bt-corn reduce the number of chemicals needed for the crop.
posted by maryr at 11:23 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is very frustrating to me that the both sides of this issue have large numbers of proponents who have very little understanding of GMOs.

Broadly considered, there are two types of GMO crops: the first type consists GMO crops that are designed to give higher yields in industrial agricultural systems by genetic modification, typically either to better accept pesticides (e.g. roundup ready soy) or to express toxins themselves (e.g. Bt corn). The second type are "biofortified" crops, crops designed not to give higher yields per se but to solve vitamin or mineral deficiencies in developing countries. Golden rice is an excellent example, as is high-iron wheat.

Development of the first type of GMO is largely spearheaded by large Agrochemical corporations. These are the class of GMO crops people argue are dangerous, in part because they are taking genes from non-food organisms and expressing them in food. In the case of roundup ready soy, the resistance gene is from a species of soil bacteria, the promoter gene is from cauliflower mosiac virus (a virus that causes disease in cauliflower), and a coding sequence for petunias.

Now of course we eat this soil bacterium all the time when we consume bits of soil, which is the Big Ag argument, but anti-GMO proponents argue that having the gene directly expressed in the food means we're consuming far more of it and being more directly exposed to the protein, and that not enough research has been done to prove safety.

Bt corn is arguably the more scary of the aforementioned GMO crops, at least as far as the environment is concerned. It expresses a toxin from Bt, which is a really common soil bacterium that is used as a pesticide in organic farming. The difference is that Bt corn expresses this gene in all parts of the plant, and there is a lot of concern that it having massive negative effects on native insect populations. A pilot study found that Bt corn pollen was blowing onto milkweed and killing monarch caterpillars. A much larger study found that Bt toxin levels were too low in the field to actually kill the caterpillars. Regardless, monarchs have become much rarer (81% fewer eggs) in the last decade, probably because roundup is really effective at killing milkweed, but this is as much a pesticide problem as a GMO problem.

Now, onto biofortification. Biofortification is being led by international crop institutes like IRRI (rice) and CIMMYT (wheat). These are typically university-connected and funded, so it's a completely different group of people working on these type of GMO, many of whom are sensitive to concerns about how commerical GMOs have been deployed. In the case of Golden Rice, beta carotene (aka provitamin A) is already produced in rice, but only in the green parts of the plant. Researchers figured out how to get the genes that were already in the rice to be turned on in the seeds as well, so there are no cross-species gene transplants here. We already know that the expressed beta carotene is good for you, so that also isn't much of a worry either.

What makes destroying the golden rice plots extra stupid is that if the argument is that GMO crops need to be thoroughly tested before being released for general consumption, burning experimental plots is only going to prevent the very testing that people are demanding.
posted by zug at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


The argument Big Ag -- OK, screw Big Ag, I don't speak for Big Ag. The argument scientists make for things like Bt is not that we eat soil bacterium all the time. The argument is that the product of a single gene originally derived from a soil bacterium is not the same thing as a soil bacterium. Similarly, using penicillin is not the same as eating bread mold.

The problem in the original Bt-monarch study was, to my understanding, one of methodology. The small study used a part of the plant that expressed high levels of Bt (I think the anther) in addition to the pollen - using the pollen alone did not contain high amounts of Bt. It was a small point of technique but greatly effected the outcome of the study. The beauty of Bt crops is that they allow lighter pesticide spraying - so more milkweed!

(Also yes, rice manufactures beta carotene for use in photosynthesis, but Golden Rice uses genes from daffodil or corn, and Erwinia for the beta carotene synthesis in the grain, at least according to Wikipedia. Admittedly, I have not read the original paper.)

posted by maryr at 12:59 PM on September 3, 2013


spamandkimchi, I'm not sure how your citation is a refutation of my comment. In particular, it doesn't seem to refute the claim that my argument depended on, that the choice between tragedies ought to be a hard one. I could extend my comment to respond to your cite by pointing out that non-development is also the product of power relations, inequalities, and dominations, but it seems as if what you have offered is a non sequitur at best.

For more on my view, see Amartya Sen, _Development is Freedom_. I want to say it was published in 1999 but I don't remember the press. I can can dig out the cite if that would help.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2013


Sorry, I misread the original report, golden rice does use transgenes from a couple of other plants.

maryr - unless I missed something in your argument, I believe I already covered what you're saying: anti-GMO proponents argue that having the gene directly expressed in the food means we're consuming far more of it and being more directly exposed to the protein, and that not enough research has been done to prove safety.
posted by zug at 2:17 PM on September 3, 2013


and/or going to jail because some patented seed found its way onto their land.

Being sued for 'blow-over' is a myth, its never happened
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 5:43 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is a different way of saying what I said, I suppose. I've not seen any particular evidence that protein studies do anything to dissuade anti-GMO proponents (which would be GMO opponents, I assume?). Bt's a pretty great example of this - the only reports of any human health problems with it are related to inhalation and skin contact, both of which are alleviated by producing the protein in the plant instead of spraying with it (that info is from a UCDavis operated site, FWIW). (There's a good link in that article about the Starlink Bt corn recall as well - there's no evidence that Bt caused an allergic reaction, but neither is there absolute, conclusive proof that it did not. Absence of proof is not proof of absence... but the gastric-stable Bt is banned for human consumption anyway.)

I still object to the simplification that "we eat this soil bacterium all the time when we consume bits of soil" is anyone's argument for using Bacillus-derived genes.
posted by maryr at 5:57 PM on September 3, 2013


(Aaaaaand a quick profile check shows that you're in Davis, zug, which I did not know when I pulled that link. Heh. So, um, you already know that UCDavis does lots of research on both GMO and traditional crops and hopefully you don't have horror stories about the department that I'm not familiar with.)
posted by maryr at 6:00 PM on September 3, 2013


I'd post this on a friend's Wall, a friend who assures me that GMOs are the death of us all. But he'd just tell me to wake up, and if I pushed back, he'd tell me that his Wall and his rules.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:48 PM on September 3, 2013


It is really fucking fishy how being suspicious of GMOs suddenly became a sin on par with being an anti-vaxer. All this consensus suddenly springing up basically overnight? Yeah, uhm, weird.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:54 PM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well where's the science? Citing and creating false stories doesn't really help your cause, if they cause is legit.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:06 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Complex logistical planning to get carrots to market? I'm quite certain this has already been figured out.

Yes. It's called "refrigeration," and it's a privilege.

I have a Filipino friend who used to go on medical mission to her home village every year. She stopped when the local political party felt threatened by her popularity and sent "activists" armed with machetes after her family.

I hope Greenpeace knows what it's doing. Politics in the Philippines can get quite dangerous, and they should be very careful in choosing their bedfellows.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:16 PM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Blasdelb: " a synthetically generated critter could be determined to be a new and useful "composition of matter""

What about politically generated critters who are determined to be old and useless "compositions of matter"?
posted by symbioid at 7:39 PM on September 3, 2013


It is really fucking fishy how being suspicious of GMOs suddenly became a sin on par with being an anti-vaxer. All this consensus suddenly springing up basically overnight? Yeah, uhm, weird.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you


What, like Metafilter is being astroturfed by Monsanto or something? I'm not sure exactly what you're insinuating by "fishy."

My problem with anti-GMO rhetoric is that it's largely based on fearmongering. I hate Monsanto as much as any right thinking individual, but lumping all GMOs in with Monsanto is ludicrous. I'm not accusing you or anyone here specifically of doing that, but it's a LARGE part of the anti-GMO narrative. In that you bring up anti-vaxxers, I think that's also relevant as much of the anti-GMO talking points are based on seriously faulty scientific "studies" such as the infamous French study with the rats given tumors from GMO corn.

I, and I'm assuming others, are very concerned that a potential major step forward for the world could be sidelined for generations by how people "feel" about the idea of technologically modified food. Never mind that many of the proponents of GMO = bad probably take modern pharmaceuticals like candy. Using "chemicals" and "unnatural" as if they are meaningful dangerous terms in the modern world is the height of absurdity, so I think there's a natural backlash to anti-GMO rhetoric.

(Standard caveats that again, Monsanto are evil, GMOs are not and will not be an unmitigated good, etc, etc, etc.)
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:09 PM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


What, like Metafilter is being astroturfed by Monsanto or something?
I don't know who the "opinion leaders" are. People are probably not actually posting here from their offices in Palmdale, because that isn't really how ideological dissemination works.
by how people "feel" about the idea of technologically modified food.
So peoples' feelings don't matter?
(Standard caveats that again, Monsanto are evil, GMOs are not and will not be an unmitigated good, etc, etc, etc.)
Those are some pretty big caveats, especially considering the history of shady and legitimately evil shit Monsanto/ADM have been involved in, especially considering that we are talking about degrees of control over the human food supply, especially considering that they are marketing it as a "new green revolution" and we're still dealing with the negative consequences of the last one.

Perhaps Elon Musk will have to come forward with a new GMO crop before we can examine this critically.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:20 AM on September 4, 2013


especially considering that they are marketing it as a "new green revolution" and we're still dealing with the negative consequences of the last one.

You mean all those people who didn't starve to death? Yeah, that's a real problem.
posted by atrazine at 3:42 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The hysterical and misinformed opposition to GM produce is yet more proof positive the deep well of human fear, stupidity, and ignorant superstition will never run dry.

Right, stupid fearful humans. Corporations would never do anything to harm the consumers, why that goes against the logic of the invisible hand of the free market!

So when concern over the use of IFT as a herbicide is expressed, such concern is people just being silly as The Government would never do anything to harm its citizens either.

What's next? The argument that GM Oing things is like a gun - the responsible use is just fine.

Greenpeace has picked a weird hill [for a lot of people in starving countries] to die on here.

Don't worry, the starving people option will change soon enough with new kinetic military actions to reduce the surplus populations. Oh and heating the biosphere.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:42 AM on September 4, 2013


"Right, stupid fearful humans. Corporations would never do anything to harm the consumers, why that goes against the logic of the invisible hand of the free market!"

Neither the International Rice Research Institute nor the Helen Keller Foundation are corporations, and neither of them are trying to disrupt your Purity of Essense.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:12 AM on September 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


As I said, my anti-GMO friends, listen to what I say, nod and then go on rants how I'm just a sheep who needs to wake up before the chemtrails destroy us all. I point to a study here or there and nope, that's all funded by Monsanto.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:05 PM on September 4, 2013


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