GM Food: Another Case for the Economics of Uncertainty

Here you can find my updated standpoint toward genetically engineered crops.

The discussion about the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture is one of the most heated environmental debates of the present. While some claim that Europe’s opposition to GM crops is “arrogant hypocrisy” and dooms Africa to hunger, others answer that the so-called green biotechnology only promotes superweeds, food insecurity and pesticides. It is indeed a very complicated subject where the treatment of uncertain hazards plays a significant role – similar to the nuclear power or climate change debates. I already once wrote a piece about the socio-economic aspects of GMO, but it was, admittedly, rather superficial. After having discussed uncertainty aspects more broadly and in the field of climate change in more recent entries, today I am going to try to give a broader, more balanced look on GMO with the focus on decision-making under uncertainty.

Hardly anyone would claim that biotechnology or, in a more narrow sense, genetic engineering, are all bad. In fact, we are already highly dependent on the use of genetically modified organisms – e.g., in the industrial production of penicillin. However, these largely unquestioned applications of GMOs are limited to laboratories. What came to be called GM foods, GM crops or green biotechnology is another, very different problem. These organisms are engineered to be deliberately released into the natural environment – mainly as agricultural crops with some specific characteristics.

This fact – the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms – bears the first general hazard to be considered here. In fact, what “works” in laboratory in a controlled environment need not work in complex natural habitats. It is hardly possible to foresee and preclude every risk – the microbial ecology is far too complex and still not very well understood.

What are possible risks of releasing genetically engineered organisms? They are manifold. Some of the most important are: transfer of artificially introduced genes to other organisms with unknown consequences (this happens, though at a small scale, naturally); unexpected effects in the GM plant itself (and thus possible health hazards for consumers); the strengthening of new pests due to the weakening of others with possibly negative net effects; contamination of natural habitats by the GMO (with hardly foreseeable consequences); adverse effects of toxins produced by GM crops (as in the case of Bt maize and cotton) on useful animals such as bees; etc.

It is not easy to assess the severity of these risks experimentally. With regard to health risks, some experiments were conducted and results published that suggest that GM foods may have adverse health effects – however, none of them could be confirmed by other scientists. This may sound like an argument against the serious consideration of these experimental results (and, indeed, for many it does) – however, there are at least two reasons why this shouldn’t be so. First, according to the precautionary principle, a reasonably possible risk should be considered when proper risk assessment and management is to be done. If the results mentioned above could be confirmed in further experiments, there would be no need for risk management of this kind, since we were (almost) sure that there is a health hazard. Secondly, the fact is that there are very few independent researchers in the field. Most of them get, directly or indirectly, support from the GM corporations – since biotechnology is expensive, this support is not something one can disclaim easily. This makes one vulnerable in some way or another – and the corporations in question have proved repeatedly that they highly dislike critical voices (perhaps as every industry does). Furthermore, to make research on GM crops, one needs the seeds – and since they are sold by their producers directly, it is not easy to access them for those known for making critical research.

Moreover, there are further problems. A purely “economic” one is the utter dominanation of the GM crops market by a few huge corporations – most notably the infamous giant Monsanto. It was repeatedly argued that this dominance has highly adverse effects on poor peasants in the developing world, whom intermediaries got into the “GM business”. For instance, most contracts prohibit traditional seed swapping and seed storage. Instead, the farmers are legally forced to buy new seeds every season (and the prices are high). Furthermore, in such a non-competitive market corporations have little incentive to research intensively into the safety of their products – and, indeed, they seem to invest little in this field.

Another problem is contamination of non-GMO cultivation areas. Imagine this: an organic farmer has a neighbour who cultivates GM crops. What does prevent the wind from transporting seeds between the fields? For the GM farmer this would not be a problem – but it may ruin the organic farmer. Not only that his products wouldn’t be “organic” any more, but there have been cases of suits by Monsanto against farmers who allegedly “counterfaited” or “stole” the seeds that got onto their land. There is the counter-argument stating that the introduction of “buffer zones” is a practicable solution. However, it is doubtful that someone would be eager to sacrifice enough fertile land for the buffer zones to be effective.

It was repeatedly observed that the extensive cultivation of GM crops leads to the development of the (somewhat blatantly) so-called “superweeds” and “superpests” – i.e., pests that became resistant to pesticides/plant-own toxins due to mutation. Producers of GM seeds see themselves faced by the need to “upgrade” their products frequently. A related issue is the fact that GM crops are designed to be grown in large monocultures – an ecological problem of its own.

So far an overview of the risks and downsides of genetically modified crops. But what are the benefits? Proponents claim that GM agriculture needs far less pesticides than conventional cultivation – thus lessening the environmental burden. Also, yields are supposedly higher. However, there are at least two problems with these reported benefits (even if we take them for granted, although they have been questioned by critics). First, they seem to hold in developed countries only (particularly in the US, where most GM crops are cultivated), which may be due to the better agricultural technologies used. Whatever the reason, if this is true, then the main argument for GMO in agriculture is severely harmed – that the technology has the potential to alleviate hunger. Secondly, the only GM traits made commercial on a wider scale so far are either herbicide-resistant or of the Bt kind. It was not yet possible to develop crops that would be drought resistant or have higher nutritional value – but this is what would appear to be more of a benefit. Furthermore, only a rather small share of the GM crops produced is actually directly eaten – most of it is worn (Bt cotton), burned in automobiles (corn then made to “biofuel”) or eaten by livestock (GM soya). Thus, the direct benefits for men and the real potential to alleviate hunger seem not very large (indeed, by using scarce land for biofuel-corn cultivation one rather aggravates the hunger problem).

This account is by far not complete. Experts in the field of genetic engineering, ecologists and others could certainly add arguments I omitted and correct errors if I made them. And this should be the main message of my writing: as Jerome Ravetz and the geneticist John Fincham emphasized in their book Genetically Engineered Organisms: Benefits and Risks some 20 years ago, the release of genetically modified organisms into the natural environment is not a purely scientific matter. It is important that all stakeholders (i.e., in this case, the whole society) be involved in the decision-making process. By now they would have to answer the question of whether the rather limited benefits outweigh the fairly ambigious but potentially important risks. However, the composition of the question and the underlying facts may change over time when new possibilities are developed and/or new risks discovered. In every case it is important to ensure that consumers, producers, regulators and other stakeholders reach a decision together – always keeping in mind that it will be hardly reversible.

Related post: Climate Change Denialism and GM Food Opposition

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