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Yes, I think I'm funny. No, I'm probably not.
"Biotechnology" == evil 
5th-Mar-2010 10:40 am
squeaky
Now that he's not at Microsoft, I generally find myself more tolerant of Bill Gates. I think it's awesome that he's throwing himself (and his fortune) into solving some big problems. I might not totally agree with it all, but it's certainly more noble than his previous occupation.

That said, I really really wish I could convince him that biotechnology (specifically, genetically engineered food) is not the answer to modern or future food supply issues. It's not his main deal, but I was reminded of his views by his article about a new farming book.

My thoughts on this subject have gone from almost complete ignorance a couple years ago, to vague malaise a couple months ago, to downright disgust with biotechnology in farming (read: GE crops). Granted, much of my education has been from biased sources, but I think I still have some fairly reasonable reasoning. And I'm not ragging on other kinds of biotech -- there is clearly a lot of good that it can do. But I am very opposed to GE food, for two basic reasons. The first is the way it is treated from an intellectual property perspective. The second is its lack of benefit when compared to its known and unknown risks.

The problem with GE intellectual property is this: when you put an unnatural gene into an organism, you can patent it. Not just the process, but the actual seed, the organism. This means that every plant with that gene belongs to the patent-holder. Farmers are criminals if they save seed. Compare this to conventional breeding: when I make a better variety of some plant, you can keep the seed. This change in options for the farmer results in a change in the formula for pricing the seed. If the farmer has the option of saving seed, the breeder has to keep the price low enough that it makes more sense to buy seed than to save it. If the farmer doesn't have the option to save seed, the breeder just has to keep the price low enough that the farmer still farms. This exact thing has happened: seed corn is somewhere around 400% of its price 20 years ago. Compare that to the CPI, currently about 200% of its value 25 years ago. So, if I make a GE seed, I can gouge you. And if I make the best conventionally-bred variety and then stick in a gene that you don't really care about, then I can gouge you some more.

The other problem with GE crops is the lack of benefits when compared to problems. The promise is this: higher yields, drought-resistance, pest-resistance, herbicide-tolerance. Compared to conventional breeding, GE fails to produce higher yields. GE has not produced a drought-resistant crop. GE achieved pest-resistance by making plants produce a toxin. Granted it's a "safe for humans" toxin. At least, it is when used in moderation and given a certain amount of time to wash off. However, the toxin is produced by plants at a rate 2-40 times higher than the toxin would have been applied by farmers, according to one estimate I heard. And every cell of the plant is producing the toxin: there is no "wash it off". Herbicide tolerance encourages the use of more herbicides. And that's the mostly-known effects of planting GE crops. GE seed is notoriously closed to scientific scrutiny.

So, that's my rant. I could go on and on, but that's enough for now.
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