Why Poor Peasant Farmers Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Grow GM Crops

Note: I’m duplicating this post here, as for some strange reason beyond my ken comments were closed on the version below

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.


1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918


16 thoughts on “Why Poor Peasant Farmers Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Grow GM Crops

  1. This quiet seems odd –

    Plant breeding – conventional and GM – do, IMHO, deserve a place in the tool box mankind has fashioned. I can’t claim to be objective on the point – I earn my daily bread as a plant breeder. And by way of full disclosure I might also confess that the particular plant species I work with is a broadacre grain of international import – the humble soybean. Further, I have been at this for more than 30 years, so I’ve had a box seat as GM technology has evolved. [perhaps also worth disclosing – the humble soybean has had a relationship with Homo sapiens for over 3,000 years… so I’m merely Johnny Come Lately].

    With that, I want to have a go at points 6 and 7. And I’ll imagine Chris – you would have expected no less from me.

    There seems a little internal conflict in the piece with regard to plant breeding in general. In 6 conventional plant breeding is hero (at least as set against GM); but in 7 plant breeding of any kind turns out to have little claim of merit. I realize you don’t toss breeding completely overboard – dually appreciated – but I wonder whether I might convince you to reappraise its potential value as a lever worthy of assisting in the grapple we should undertake to fight two components of human suffering: malnutrition and starvation.

    I deliberately choose to not employ the word ‘poverty’ here – and if that disqualifies my argument from the outset, so be it. But I fear poverty – the existence of humankind at the bottom end of an income distribution – will be with us regardless of the levers we have at hand or struggle to create. This may sound defeatist – but my motivation is not to abolish poverty but to soften its consequences. So starvation and malnutrition are the windmills I will tilt toward.

    You’ve rightly noted there is adequate food now and that distribution mechanisms are more to blame for starvation and malnutrition. Fair enough. And you’ve also pondered where the goal for a sufficient amount of food should be drawn. Again, a fine proposition to offer. Waste is a bad thing, here we also agree.

    But the keys and lamppost metaphor in 7 seems overly dismissive to me. If I were to rewrite the item I’d fashion a plant breeder as a Good Samaritan who comes into the lamplight to find our drunk in his predicament. She offers to switch on her flashlight and see if together they might explore a larger area than the lamppost has on offer. Still no guarantee the two will be successful, but surely the odds of success increase once this tool is borrowed from the toolbox and wielded by a capable hand.

    And I hope the significance of the Good Samaritan being an altruistic fellow human is not lost along the way. Yes, commercial plant breeding corporations are motivated by profits. Corporations can be altruistic if they choose, but this is not their primary remit. So if one particular corporation should choose to ‘stick to its knitting’ and merely breed plants then I say fine. Let them do that. Even a blind pig sometimes finds an acorn. And if large scale agribusiness captures the vast majority of the surplus value created by improvements in said plants… well, that outcome can be critically assessed. But having food now and having the means to make more and better food into the future is fairly important.

    Perhaps I might suggest we make a list of the metaphorical levers you allude to in #7. I’d be keen to negotiate where plant breeding falls on such a list. I’m guessing my opening bid will be somewhere above “fairly low”.

    • Hi Clem

      It’s not quite so quiet over on Applied Mythology: http://appliedmythology.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/five-tasty-reasons-to-reconsider-gmo.html . But it would certainly be interesting to have some of those stridently ‘GM for the poor’ folks on that site address my comments in this post. Fat chance, I suppose.

      So, in response to your thoughts:

      1. First of all, I’m always impressed with your ability to take a metaphor and press it further, usefully, than I’d ever dream of being able to go: so I take my hat off to you and your flashlight (or torch, as we’d say over here).

      2. I think your distinction between poverty and absolute destitution is an important one, and it’s one I always try to reflect back to GM-for-the-poor proponents with their ‘let them eat broccoli’ jibes. To abolish poverty indeed seems an almost insurmountable challenge, whereas to abolish absolute destitution is not as challenging.

      3. Yes, I’m happy for you to persuade me that plant breeding can have an important role. The only provisos I’d make are, firstly, that it must be done in a wider context involving that institutional and policy environment of which Scoones speaks, rather than assuming you can just parachute in a wonder seed and the job is done. And secondly that conventional plant breeding is a critical part of that picture, despite the attention-stealing brouhaha over GM, whose contribution remains quite unclear.

      4. Hmmm, a list of levers: international trade policy, international migration policy, arms trade limitation, removing US/EU farm subsidies, funding for public health (especially for clean drinking water), attention to carbon pricing and carbon offsetting, stronger anti-trust legislation, promoting the rule of law, reducing official corruption, promoting security of tenure, investing in education and public works, redressing gross inequalities in the distribution of landownership, reducing the financialisation of private investment, reconsidering the level of meat production, investing in farm extension services are a quick top of the head list. And of course plant breeding – agreed, not necessarily last on that list, but not right up at the top either IMHO.

  2. I saw a comment from Mary (at Steve’s blog) after you put up the first version of this post. She was having fun at your expense for the COMMENTS CLOSED faux pas (I also saw your mea culpa)… has there been any discussion since?

    So, in sequence:

    1) Many thanks.

    2) Agreed.

    3) Participatory breeding.

    4) From where I sit it appears many of the levers on your list might be considered First World vs Third World differences. Plant breeding doesn’t speak any particular language, it observes no borders, indeed the plants themselves do most of the work. And before I forget yet again, there really is more to agronomy than plant breeding. All manner of husbandry is important. And it may well be the husbandry aspects which are far more culturally influenced and vulnerable to the kinds of issues Scoones raises (oh, and thanks for the ref to Scoones BTW… you are always a proficient source of new things for me to consider).

    As for the ‘parachute in’ remark in #3 – this notion betrays a certain misunderstanding of real plant breeding. You already understand this I think – and if you have any doubt, have another look at Torbert Rocheford’s work with high Vit A maize for Africa. [BTW, the effort Torbert is involved in SCREAMS participatory breeding… is not a GM trick, so do have a look if you haven’t yet]

    So let’s plan a global conference – gather everyone – to have a sit down and thrash out how all these levers will be built up and deployed. We can set an agenda… meeting to get underway sharply at dawn with a good breakfast. Discuss international rule of law for a couple hours and then break for a refreshment – say milk and cookies? Then back to hard work of tossing off those nasty subsidies. That might take us up to lunch – a hearty lunch of say bangers and mash so the long and tedious negotiation ahead doesn’t leave anyone light headed. Public health and safe drinking water are extremely important topics! And at least 2-3 early afternoon hours may be needed to recognize how significant proper agricultural practice is to providing nutritious food and safeguarding supplies of water. All this thinking is making me thirsty – shall we schedule a quick break for a spot of tea and a crumpet? Of course we should get on with farm extension – that is a very important topic and we’ll not want to give it short shrift. Very good then. So what should we serve for supper?

    An army moves on its belly. Food has to have a fairly high vantage point IMHO.
    Scoones suggests that many of the serious issues he raises will take quite a while to implement. I hope the larder is well stocked.

    If I’ve not mentioned it before, remind me sometime to toss in my favorite quote from Jonathan Swift. JS precedes Malthus by quite a bit I think… but I think the former better understood the potential of agriculture’s technological marvels.

  3. An Aha moment (perhaps… )

    It has puzzled me for some time now why the two of us but heads over the relative importance of plant breeding in the pantheon of various human endeavors that might offer some respite from misery. Its not as though we are at polar opposites, just the particular degree of importance is calibrated differently between us. I’d given it up to our particular life histories… I’m obviously more invested in the breeding solution, and you’re more fascinated by aspects of human behavior. And that may be all there is to it. [that, and the obliquely relevant point that I’m just a stubborn old curmudgeon]

    Maybe it was something you said, or something Scoones pointed out, but its finally dawned on me that within this pantheon of prospective endeavors are behaviors and activities with very different temporal life expectancies. And among the shorter lived technologies – our specific plant commensals. Capitalism may not be the best way to run a market system… but it has been with us for a very long time. It has been fought over very violently, tweaked in many ways, but it endures. The plants we grow – by species only – can potentially lay claim to a longer history with us (indeed our relationship with wheat and several other cereals precedes our species’ ability to record history). BUT, the wheat we grow today would not be recognized by even our grandparents. Or, put in a different perspective, the wheats our grandparents grew would not serve us nearly as well as those we now use. This does not imply (to me anyway) that plant breeding is a failing technology… it can’t solve a problem for more than a handful of years… Its just that the problems it solves are similarly temporal and always changing. You have breakfast to start your day, but that doesn’t prevent you needing another meal at some point. You can’t learn how to not burn through some calories and eventually come to an equilibrium state. The requirement for food doesn’t quit. [nor does it quit for those pests we find ourselves struggling against – and breeding can help us in those struggles as well – check out the Red Queen hypothesis]

    So there is sufficient food on the planet at this particular time point – distribution is the present problem. On a list of levers to be built and deployed you might well gaze on the ‘plant breeding’ box as one to check off [or move down the list…relegated to life among inferior ideas]. It worked, we have food. But on my list I put a simple dash… a work in progress, and for that matter it seems an enterprise just like farming (of any scale)… never completely done.

  4. Hi Clem

    Regarding Steve’s blog, Graham Strouts weighed in with his usual balm for troubled waters, and I responded in kind…which is bad for the soul, so I haven’t looked lately. Steve’s blog is always interesting even if I seldom agree with it, whereas his commenters tend to the insulting, uninformed and skin deep dismissal of alternative views.

    Regarding your comments, yes I think much truth there. I don’t think I’m quite such an enthusiast for capitalism as you, though more enthusiastic now that I’m a self-employed businessman and my Marxist days are behind me – and more enthusiastic for actual capitalism rather than the anti-competitive corporate simulacrum we currently endure. More on that soon after I’ve finished reading and digesting Arrighi’s brilliant book.

    Regarding plant breeding in particular, an additional point is the implicit and/or explicit target of the analysis. Obviously we have to walk and chew gum at the same time, so whatever rank we assign plant breeding in the list of anti-poverty policies the fact is plant breeders have to carry on in their honest work otherwise we’re all sunk. My comments really are directed at those who are so smitten by GM that they do basically have a non-participatory and parachutoid notion of GM crops as the answer, and regard any attempt to question that or to emphasise different approaches to poverty and/or the role of peasant farming in the modern world as some kind of disgraceful anti-poor romanticism. I certainly don’t want to denigrate the importance of plant breeding, even though from my outsider’s perspective I might question some of the lines it’s been developing along in recent years.

    • Simulacrum – my new word for the day. Thanks once again.

      Plant breeding like any other human endeavor will move along lines of self interest. Follow the money. The big stories will be ones narrated either by folk with a vested interest, or by folk who can fashion a story to wow the largest audience and thus attract the most eyeballs. Oops… sounding pretty cynical there. Where is that stubborn silver lining when you need it?

      I suppose there are all the smaller stories – smaller in the sense they’ve not attracted so much attention (like high carotenoid maize) that I am aware of (even the high protein soy work that we are involved in where I work)… these efforts give me reason to be optimistic, and thus to sense some silver linings.

      Anyway, like Tom I’m looking forward to your thoughts on nitrogen; and it sounds like many other interesting items are in the works.

  5. I guess I’m still a bit fuzzy as to why traditional plant breeding tends to get conflated with GM plant breeding. One takes place at a slow pace where results can be monitored over many years and mimics nature. The other assumes a level of knowledge about the intricacies of endlessly complex ecosystems.

    The technology behind GM is not in and of itself bad. But that our species has done a remarkably fine job of not taking care of this planet should give any of us pause before unleashing new technologies that have unknown consequences.

    • I’ll take a stab at a couple of thoughts you’ve raised.

      First off, ‘traditional’ as an adjective for plant breeding is going to get us in a bit of a spot until we make some more nuanced definitions and take an historical perspective. Who is a plant breeder? To at least some small degree, we all are. And in this VERY broad categorization I’d also submit we are all animal breeders as well. When we choose, we select. By picking one choice over another we are indirectly deselecting the other. Don’t like carrots? You still need to eat something. So you pick a greasy burger instead. You’ve made a choice, and the carrot lost. This is not carrot breeding (or greasy burger breeding) – but it is the basis for breeding of any kind… selection.

      The organisms we consciously and deliberately breed today have come down to us from our ancestors who first ‘selected’ them from among all the other wild things in their environment. Domestication is a sort of breeding – a kind of first step. Domesticated forms have less genetic diversity relative to all the diversity in the species from which they’re derived… due primarily to the need to keep (select) those genetic traits that lead to their domestic habit. This is getting a bit far afield, but it is important.

      So we have selected certain species to husband as our food and fiber sources – and we continue to modify these species to better suit our needs. As we learn what our animal domesticates need for good nutrition we breed their feed plants to accommodate them. As we better understand our own nutritional requirements we can breed the animals and plants to make more of what we need (and less of things we don’t). This has gone on in some form for longer than recorded history. In this light then, ‘Traditional’ covers an incredible arc that we might want to narrow up a bit.

      In the plant breeding efforts we have today one can reasonably differentiate between GM and non-GM by pointing to the introduction of a specific piece of DNA into a plant by a technical means that could not occur without our direct intervention. [this doesn’t make it somehow ‘unnatural’ – we are natural beings… it just means we need to own the credit AND the blame for the consequences]. So horizontal gene flow existed before we figured out how to do it on purpose – deliberately designing what we would transfer (and to whom we would transfer). The GM traits then are the ones we put there, and not necessarily good or bad – those judgments are made separately from the act of making the change. Anyway, as horizontal gene transfer occurred before we started doing it, one can reasonably argue that GM is in fact a mimic of nature. Both traditional and GM then mimic nature.

      And I would also suggest that today’s non-GM breeding:

      “assumes a level of knowledge about the intricacies of endlessly complex ecosystems”. [at least the better efforts I’m aware of do make use of current levels of understanding where these endlessly complex systems are concerned].

      One particular aspect of this comparing GM to non-GM that is quite significant from where I perch is the ownership aspect. Specific individuals or corporations ‘own’ the transgene and will subsequently patent or otherwise protect as intellectual property the use of the transgenic organism(s). This will start the conversation off in another direction – one I’m not going to pursue at the moment.

      Anyway, Brian, you are in good company if you feel a bit fuzzy about all the back and forth over the value (or lack thereof) for GM technology. There are very vast sums of capital shifting back and forth over this question. Sifting through the science and the hype is not a trivial matter. Folks on both sides of the argument now have about twenty years to reflect upon since the first transgenic plants were released. We still can’t agree about its positive and negative aspects.

      So for me, the salient point of Brian’s last sentence above is the questioning of our ability as an individual species to effectively husband the whole planet. We have certainly made some missteps in the past. If one needs a silver lining… I’d offer that we’ve unleashed incredible technologies in the past and yet here we are… still batting, perhaps forgiven by some force still bigger than us… but so long as we are ‘still batting’ then we should take the opportunity to continue learning about all these complex phenomena we’re screwing with.

      • How do we still get around the issue of GM migration to other crops? Example: It is increasingly hard to find heirloom corn that has not been contaminated with GM strains.

        • Excellent question. Wish I had a ready ‘excellent answer’.

          Corn might be the most difficult species to maintain. I don’t know how close you are to others growing corn, but I’m guessing you might be more remote than me and this might therefor be easier for you. A number tossed around easily in the seed production world suggests your corn should be at least 660 feet from any other corn that might potentially contaminate yours. This is a top of mind memory from a time that predates GM technology.

          I suppose a sloppy answer might be to turn this around and ask how important it is to you that your heirloom corn variety is pure as the driven snow? And I’m not trying to be an apologist for the GM industry – they don’t need me for that. But corn heirlooms are hardly pure in a seedstock way [by this I mean there is residual heterozygocity… most heirlooms are ‘open pollinated’ and as such are more of a population than a highly inbred beast… so detecting subtle differences becomes problematic as there should actually be some variation in the real ‘pure’ material]

          That said, the phenotypic difference between traited (GM) material and an heirloom should be SO drastic that most anyone growing the heirloom should be able to spot outcross material and rogue it out (this is not an absolute – and yes, I realize its not a top notch solution).

          We could get fairly technical on this question if you like – let me know how technical you’d like to get.

          • Another ‘migration’ issue is hybridisation with the transgenic crop among wild/weed plants which then acquire problematic traits such as herbicide tolerance (directly that is, rather than just indirectly through the selective pressure created by spraying herbicide around) – Zapiola & Mallory-Smith have reported this for glyphosate tolerance in rabbitfoot grass in a paper in ‘Molecular Ecology’.

          • “We could get fairly technical on this question if you like – let me know how technical you’d like to get.”

            I respect your position and admire your facility for mustering your argument. I disagree not over any technical details but over the impulse of our species to double down on a failed culture. A planet of slums, as author Mike Davis termed it, is destined for the latest and greatest “Soylent” options? Is a technical solution the solution?

            We certainly have a checkered history as a species. But a century of cheap fossil fuel fueled technological gee gaws has done very little to inspire our planets confidence in us to solve our way out of this mess. It has accelerated every poor choice we have made giving us less time to slow down, reflect and change course.

            And, yes, I do want my heirloom corn pure as the driven snow. For that matter I’d prefer not to have plastic at the cellular level of every living creature. Now, perhaps my take on the state of the world has migrated into the realm of hyperbole?

            But my fear is that before this world shakes us off like the 24 hour flu we will manage to unleash something that cannot be controlled. My non-technical view is that we should stop fouling the nest we all live in. And GM is just symptomatic of all the geewhizbang stuff we market to try to keep up the illusion that we are in control.

            Now that I really have slipped in to the hyperbole stream, I cry, “Full steam backwards!”

          • Chris:
            Thanks for the Molecular Ecology paper lead. Have only just skimmed a bit, but it looks very worthwhile.

  6. So Brian, I feel I’ve missed the mark in my last reply. I took a rather narrow view of the question… and was trying to focus on heirloom corn genetic maintenance. It can be done. But because of the widespread adoption of GM technology it is more technically challenging today than it was for folks a mere thirty years ago. So my apologies for heading toward a rabbit hole.

    On the wider issue that I’m now supposing is behind your concern… “Is a technical solution the solution?”… I suppose my first kneejerk response is to question why the source of a solution matters. Are we solutionists (ala racists)?? I feel the angst of having to jump back onto a techno treadmill at every fork in the road. And sticking band aids onto every scrape and laceration isn’t an ideal health care prescription. But throwing ones hands up and griping doesn’t stop the bleeding either.

    I wanted to scorn about the prospect of there being a Neo-Luddite philosophy prospering in the room… but upon checking my spelling I ran into some interesting things that I’ll have a more careful look at. Maybe I have more Neo-Luddite sympathies than I’d suspected.

    The notion of us losing the planet’s confidence paints an interesting image. Not that I want to subscribe to the notion that this ball of rock and water can somehow be anthropomorphized to that degree… but still, cartoons of a globe with a forlorn expression on a human face – and a thermometer in the mouth aren’t too difficult to find. If that is the currency for this sort of discourse I’ll have find a place where I might borrow some legal tender.

    Hyperbole and distinction splitting aside – I get curious wondering how far back we might reasonably want to go at “Full steam” ? [on a tangent… the image of full steam backwards reminds me of Mark Twain’s Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven]

  7. Nice to see this debate unfolding here – I’ll be posting on technological progress, the metaphors of ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ and perhaps even the Luddites at some point in the new year.

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