Yours truly doesn’t profess to *know* anything about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not having researched the subject, although he thinks the chasm between the reporting and the fear cannot be overlooked. (Notably this New Yorker story from last year, called Seeds of Doubt, in which Michael Specter politely and almost apologetically reported that a slew of peer reviewed scientific studies from around the world have found no health impacts and identified no harmful biological mechanisms to human health in GMOs themselves.)
Dr. David Katz, of Yale, put it a little more spikily, pointing out that among the safe and accepted genetically modified organisms in our common experiece is the tea rose and the dog, which is a genetically modified wolf.
But even if GMO impacts on human health have not been found that’s not to say that their impacts on natural systems and agriculture have no consequence. Far from it. Nor does that let manufacturers such as Monsanto, who profit mightily from their use, off the hook. This month in Harper’s, contrarian and leftist Andrew Cockburn writes a remarkably sharp piece about a seemingly different subject — invasive species — in which he shows that the fiercest scientific opposition to invasive species, from a famous ecologist named Peter Raven, allied with a personal faith in GMOs that was enormously useful to Monsanto.
The piece is called Weed Whackers. In it Cockburn shows that GMOs and glyphosate are very much intertwined in history of action on invasive species.
For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs. The company’s grand scheme was to genetically modify crops — particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton — to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops. Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic nonengineered plant obviously about to expire. “Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability,” Raven told an interviewer in 1999. “There is nothing I’m condemning Monsanto for.” (In his conversation with me, Raven defended his former patron even more stoutly, noting Monsanto’s many civic philanthropies and absolving the company of any ill intent: “They obviously have no interest in poisoning everybody or doing something bad.”)
I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn’t clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology. “What’s natural anymore?” he replied. “If we’re going to play God, we might as well be good at it.”
With the backing of Al Gore, an admirer of Raven’s, and support of the Clinton administration, in the 1990’s GMOs were encouraged by federal anti-invasive prioritization that promoted new formulations of Round-Up, Monsanto’s leading herbicide, for “habitat restoration markets.”
Even if well-intended, surely the prospect of massive applications of herbicides to the natural landscape for the sake of wildness has to give pause. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” and all that. Read More →