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GMOs: An Unhealthy Way of Thinking?

We ignore Whole Systems Thinking at our peril….

Look at this lovely wild hedge mustard! He’s all hanging out in my backyard, strutting out of that old cinder block like he owns the place, all robust and thriving and bushy like a serious champ. So cool! I could eat him, I suppose, but I think I’m just going to let him hang out and flower and give the local pollinators something to munch on. Still, here’s a question I have: what impact does GM broccoli have on this lovely wild mustard?

Hear me out: wild mustard, like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale (fucking kale, am I right?), and even that crazy weirdo kohlrabi are all part of the same plant family, Brassicaceae. In point of fact, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale (fucking kale), and even weirdo kohlrabi are all the same plant. It’s called Brassica oleracea and all of those “vegetables” are just different varieties. Pretty neat, huh?

So how does this enter the GMO question? Because, members of the same plant family can potentially cross-breed with one another! Everybody always talks about this in terms of “crops,” but all of the “crops” we grow have wild correlatives. Corn, for instance, is grass. Soybeans are related to lupines. Wild Solanaceae grow all over the tropics and subtropics. You may know Solanaceae as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and, hot peppers. This isn’t to say that all of these plants will cross-breed, but potentially, they could.

(As an aside, a lot of GMO opponents like to point to human-initiated plant breeding as “Genetic Modification” (so GOTCHA because broccoli is “genetically modified bro”), which, “OKAY,” but seems to me “breeding” to modify plants is a little different than “cutting open a plant’s gene and stuffing a fish’s gene in there.”)

So, suppose somebody plants a field of GM kale right next to a lovely field of wild mustard? What if just the right series of events occurs and the GM pollen from the kale floats over to the wild mustard and we end up with an escaped GM kale/wild mustard hybrid? Wild mustard is an invasive in a lot of places — what happens if the GM wild mustard becomes resistant to pest control mechanisms? Then again, what happens to the members of the wild ecosystem that depend on the wild mustard? What happens to wild grasses if GM corn genes get all mixed up in there? Is this even a possibility?

The only answer is: we don’t know. We didn’t know that neonicotinoids would be detrimental to bees when we started using them. We didn’t forsee that using conventional farming practices in Iowa would mean a huge “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, or that scraping all of the topsoil off of the entire midwest would result in a Dust Bowl.

Humans have this bad habit of finding something cool and thinking, “this will save the world’s food problems!”…and then all of the fish die. Most of the problems with the “world’s food problems,” however, are political and cultural. The world already makes enough food to feed itself, but we (the industrialized nations, natch) throw most of it away. This isn’t going to be solved with GM foods. Now we’ll just have GM apples that don’t turn brown in our garbage. Yay!

This short-sightedness makes for some strange logic. Take this quote, from another article titled “A Liberal's Defense of GMOs”:

I’m not going to object to something that could have a positive effect on the world’s food supply because there’s a chance that something I eat might give me cancer ten or twenty years down the line.

With all due respect to the author, that seems like crazy talk to me. You know what? Only one in ten smokers gets lung cancer. So smoke ‘em while you got ‘em, right? This argument doesn’t take the entire system in question into consideration. It’s “this could be good, so full steam ahead,” not, “this could be good, so we’d better be sure we know about its impacts on the entire ecosystem into which we’ll be introducing it before we start putting it out there.”

The concern here, in my opinion, is a lack of (for a better term) “whole systems thinking.” In invironment, I’ve sometimes referred to the “metaentity,” a concept which includes all of the members of a particular ecosystem. Industrial “science” often seems to ignore the metaentity when it does things. “Let’s use these chemical fertilizers on our crops,” they’ll say, focusing sharply on the impact of chemical fertilizers on the crops. But, what about the other members of the metaentity? What about the entites in the soil, or in the stream, or in the river into which the stream drains? If we know something is poisonous to one entity, should we maybe make sure it’s not poisonous to other entities “downwind” before we start putting it all over everything?

Using sustainable farming/gardening methods, “organic” agriculture, and integrated pest management allows us to take the metaentity into consideration. These simple principles don’t generally depend upon technologies requiring labs and transgenic splicing, and can be learned and applied by just about anyone. And, we know, from THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF FIELD TESTING, that deep mulching and companion planting and sustainable ag practices won’t give you cancer 20 years from now.

It’s the Precautionary Principle again: if you can’t prove it doesn’t cause harm, maybe you shouldn’t do it. At the very least, you should give people who aren’t convinced the option to opt out. And, as my co-invironment-alist points out, GM crops very potentially will eliminate that option for farmers, consumers, and even, potentially, your local wild mustard.

Does this mean we shouldn’t use GM crops, or develop them further? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that we should be able to decide for ourselves whether we want to support companies that ignore the metaentity, or choose to purchase from companies that use technologies which take the whole system into a little more consideration. And this is why I support GMO labelling.


Jeremy Puma is a student of Permaculture. He writes things, cooks stuff, and can also be found at StrangeAnimal.net and Magirology.net.