(ALERT – Longish post. If you don't have time to read it all be sure to skip to the video linked at the bottom. Which is, by the way, a long thing too. The reward is a fabulous, ear-scorchingly effective rant on GMO-phobia).
With anti-GMO campaigns and truth-in-GM labeling drives putting so much wind in eco-activist sails, the UK's busiest newspaper (eg – its large New York bureau's scoop on who told on the NSA and revealed its appetite for private phone records) late last week ran a terrific story. In it is a sober and sharp explanation why one ought not to be quick to condemn things for sale in the market just because a few genes got switched in the lab from one species to another. I am unsure whether this ran in the printed paper or just on a website:
- Guardian/Professional – Marc Gunther: Will a failure to consider GM hold back sustainable fish farming?
To be sure, there is a lot of conventional journalism here. That is, not stupendous, but professionally competent and these days that alone is getting to be special. There is an anecdotal and relaxed lead, a gradual transition into the meaty issue at the yarn's heart, and a slew of cited points of view from many sources. The issue is what farmed salmon eat. Often, they eat fish meal. That means that while the salmon in a pen and eating stuff scattered off boats may imply that the operation does not deplete the sea of fish, it ain't necessarily so. For every pound of salmon sent to the cannery or fresh food counter a lot more pounds of smaller, wild fish may have been caught and ground into salmon chow. And if salmon farmers do feed them soy pellets or something of that sort (plus some dye to make them pink like the wild ones that eat crustaceans), the salmon come out without the Omega-3 fatty acids that are supposed to be so good for heart health. Gunther's story is about DuPont's effort to get those fatty acids into the feed without compelling use of smaller marine creatures. The solution was to modify yeast to build up the fatty acids and thus provide a supplement to grain-based feeds for salmon.
And Whole Foods, an influential American market chain, has refused to carry a brand of farmed salmon from Patagonia (Chile) that has some of this yeast in its feed. This is a great tale of how emotions, science, marketing strategies, and nutrition science get all tangled and rare is a sphere where the snarls are worse than in regulating and selling GM foods. An irony, or course, is that the salmon are suspect-by-association. I mean, what's the chance that anything identifiably transgenic is in the salmon's flesh? One argues that there may be many reasons not to farm Atlantic salmon in the pristine, Pacific Ocean fjords of Patagonia. But fatty acids from GM yeast seem like no whoop to me.
For a taste of press from the opposite pole, and from the US where GM-food tolerance is usually higher than in the UK and Europe, take a look at this:
- NOYO News – Dan Bacher: Packard Foundation funds group backing GMO-fed salmon / There's Something Fishy About Failures to Label GMO Food ; This is from Mendocino County on California's north coast. It is a place where the backwoods are redolent with marijuana plantations and nvironmentalism has its own pungent mix of wisdom and crackpotism. In other words, it is a fun place to visit. Salmon have been a major industry since the Pomo Indians ran the show. This piece also lambastes one of the founding members of activist environmentalism's Hall of Infamy, the DuPont Corp., which gets a very different portrait than in the fine Guardian piece up top.
While we're on GM science and politics, at least one US outlet took an incisive look at another aspect – a report in PLOS One on how GM-cotton seems to have improved the diets of farming families in India. They do not eat the cotton of course. The report says however that because the cotton has been fitted with the gene for the Bt toxin, which kills many insect larvae and thus cuts the farmers' costs by decreasing need for sprayed insecticides, the farmers net more money and can afford to eat better.
- Los Angeles Times – Karen Kaplan: Genetically modified cotton helps farmers escape malnutrition ; Kaplan sums up neatly the popular fear and suspicion of GM foods – and even quotes one former activist who helped to start the Frankenfood phobia and now has apologized for leading environmentalism astray.
Finally, I got on this topic after meeting recently a UC Davis professor of plant pathology and of genetics who simultaneously does research on GM crops, campaigns for more of them (after, of course, each application is carefully reviewed and tested), and also is happily married to an organic farmer without having to leave the topic of GMOs undiscussed at home. I was wondering how to get her angles on this into this post. I found that an ace San Francisco freelancer did all the work for me three years ago:
- Conservation (a Univ. of Washington pub) Erik Vance: Genetically Modified Conservation / It sounds like an oxymoron but genetic engineering is ushering in a new brand of agriculture that slashes pesticide use and thrives in a warmer, wetter world ;
I'd tell you what I really think but there is a video that does it better. In the course of preparing this post I came across an item by the sturdily clear-thinking Keith Kloor at his Discover-sited blog, Collide-a-Scape. It salutes the pieces at the Guardian and the LA Times I have done above and has the added value of a video. It's from www.cultofdusty.com by a guy named Dusty Smith, a man of such talent for rip-snorting scorn and coarse language I am sure everybody with a wisp of wit on the internet except me already knew who he is. His specialty apparently is evolution and the skewering of religion. I advise you to read Kloor's whole post. But to get straight to the good stuff here is the video on YouTube: I LOVE MONSANTO. If you don't watch this thing you are, to channel Dusty's mode of expression, too fu!@!#$%ing stupid to take seriously.
Frankly, I don't think the press can necessarily stem the tide of irrationality regarding science and GMOs. Look at what a sterling job we've done on moving stubborn, red-state politicians away from their aggressive ignorance regarding climate change. But we must do what we can to reflect both the arguments and generally accepted conclusions among the experts.