17 March 2010

Where Do I Stand on GMOs?

I'm conscious that I've written a lot of negative posts about genetically-modified organisms on this blog. That might lead readers to believe I'm against them. That's not the case: I am naturally pro-technology, and GMOs are potentially an important tool for addressing many of the world's most pressing problems. But I have my concerns, and I was pleased to find that Salon's Andrew Leonard not only shares them, but has expressed them rather well:

I don't actually have a position on whether GMOs are by definition good or bad for the environment or human health or even the challenge of alleviating hunger in the developing world. My basic stance, in fact, is pro-science: I believe technological advances have greatly advanced human health and affluence, and will continue to do so, if properly regulated. My concern re GMOs has always stemmed from a profound skepticism that profit-seeking corporations can be trusted to responsibly serve the public good. One need look only at the constant stream of reports detailing unethical and criminal behavior by major pharmaceutical companies to realize that this is hardly a hypothetical concern.

In the case of GMOs we are dealing with a remarkable concentration of intellectual property ownership in just a handful of corporations. Like all well-endowed corporate actors, these companies do not shy from vigorously lobbying governments in favor of putting into place place legal frameworks that are designed to maximize profits and minimize caution.

Exactly: what worries me is the way that global companies are using GMOs, and the intellectual monopolies they represent, as instruments of power - particularly over poor farmers in developing countries - purely to bolster their market and financial positions. The sooner we can de-fang companies like Monsanto - for example by revoking gene patents - and explore the potential of GMOs in an objective and scientific manner, the better.

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Philip Cunningham said...

To me, there is a clear parallel between GM and the banking crisis. The key technology behind GM is patented and will ensure, if it all works, a few companies will make a tremendous amount of money and the poor will pay more for their food. If it all goes horribly wrong – even in a very small way – the companies responsible will be bailed out as the clean-up costs will be born by the public.

I’d support GM if the public health risk was explicitly insured by a tax on the patents. Otherwise, it is just another sorry case of “heads I win, tails you lose”.

glyn moody said...

@Philip: excellent point.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the public bearing all the costs. While universal healthcare and the like will certainly absorb a lot, any public health disaster from our food would result in many, many expensive, private lawsuits from most US citizens since most have eaten GM food. Tort lawyers would have a field day. This would dwarf the asbestos lawsuits, which clog the courts and have struck down or are striking down every asbestos company that hasn't gone bankrupt. Particularly since tort reform isn't coming anytime too soon. Of course, nobody wants the health hazards to happen since everyone'll suffer a lot more and the medical costs will definitely be more than the people will get back, but we can be sure that we're taking those Monsanto devils with us.

glyn moody said...

Well, I'd say that's an argument for ceasing to use this stuff sooner, rather than later - at least until enough safety work has been done.