Lets talk about Neil deGrasse Tyson, GMO’s and a little word called nuance.

Its taken me a few days to get to this because quite frankly it took a little while to digest.

But here is what happened. Three days ago I was surfing teh interwebz… reddit to be exact… and I ran across a Neil deGrasse Tyson video. I thought awesome. I love everything this guys says. He is the voice of scientific reason for an entire generation. So I opened the link and POW, (in big 1950s batman letters) I got smacked in the face.

This is what I was smacked with if you haven’t seen it.

As the video ended, I did what any well reasoned person who disagrees with what he has just seen would do. I reviewed my position.

After spending some time on the matter, I decided that this video cannot possibly encompass the entirety of NdT’s views on the matter and that he had to be answering a very specific question (which I did not understand, as it was in a tongue foreign to me), and that he was answering it from the position of someone who is tired of people who are not scientifically literate attacking work they do not understand. Quite frankly I can’t blame him.

I also decided that it would be useful to talk some about the realities of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), unnatural and forced selection and some of the ways that these issues affect us.

First off, what NdT said (and this should be obvious to anyone who pays any attention to him by now as he is a careful speaker who does not answer when he does not know) was absolutely correct. For millennia, man has worked feverishly to modify living organisms to improve their varieties to better suit the ways we choose to use them. It has greatly improved our lives over time and has provided a tasty and convenient food supply.

It is also true (at least from my limited knowledge of the subject) that the practice of genetic manipulation is a natural progression of that practice and should not be looked at with generalized fear. Scientific research and application of that research has been a boon to mankind overall.

And that is where nuance comes in.

You see, like everything else that we gain benefits from…there is a price to be paid.

The first thing I would suggest is that it may very well be true that our unnatural selection and specialized breeding (without genetic manipulation) has reduced the gene pool of our domestic stock to make them more susceptible to disease, birth defect and other issues. I would hold this position with both animal and plant life. I would also put forth the idea that adding genetic manipulation to the mix will make this issue worse rather than better.

The second matter of import in this discussion would be the matter of patenting life versus treating it as an open source technology. Before the pro-patent people attack me with clubs and torches I want to say that I am not strictly anti-patent person, but I do think there are times when patents make sense and times that they do not.

When it comes to living things, I do not think they are appropriate. Like with all legal issues I would look to precedence when trying to decide whether or not it was appropriate. First we look at what has happened historically. Prior to genetic manipulation, if I had a specially bred animal (no matter how many generations or how much expense I took to develop it) and I sold you its offspring. You were free to breed that animal and sell its offspring and you were even entitled to brag about using my stock. If I was a smart breeder I would even encourage it as it would raise the value of that stock and others I was developing. So that’s how it was done. The next thing we look at was did it work? Based on the number of breeding associations and the high level of SELF regulation that livestock enjoys, I would say overwhelmingly yes.

So now we look at the other side of it. See the people who are developing these plants and animals seem to think that since they have made major investments in research that they should be given ample opportunity to protect their intellectual property. The thing is, the living creature itself is not intellectual property…the method of making it is. That I don’t have a problem with. BUT, once that life form is alive and is given an opportunity to breed, we are talking about a natural process that is outside the realm of patents.

How do we solve this? Simple. Let them patent the method of creating this life forms. However once they live they live. If they choose to keep them inside their own supply chain and sell them as only end products they will have to do it the same way farmers and ranchers have done for hundreds of years. They will have to develop them, bear them, raise them, slaughter them and market them inside of their own supply chain. Continue taking the risk, continue reaping whatever reward may be there.

The third issue I would like to bring up concerning GMO technology is cross contamination. There is a market for both GMO crops and for organic crops. When a GMO crop is not contained, it can cause a huge depreciation of value in an organic crop. Up until recent rulings by SCOTUS, it has been accepted law that one was responsible for damage done by their property and/or charges. SCOTUS has recently ruled that not only is that not true, but that you can actually be sued for patent infringement because the GMO field contaminated your own. (Washington Post Article on same) As a brief political sidebar, it has become clear that certain justices are going to continue to disregard the law has it has been written until we the people start the processes to recall them. I can list three that need to go immediately.

The fourth item I am addressing today is do they even work or are they snake oil? Just this week Reuters is reporting that Farmers in Brazil are demanding refunds because seed supposedly modified to prevent pest attacks is not working and now they are having to spray as well in order to save their crops. (article) this coupled with many anecdotal claims that representatives of a major big chemfarm company are telling people that when their crops are not “ready” to fight off weeds even with multiple applications of their product that they should start deep plowing and pulling weeds by hand…you know like they did before this product came into existence. It really does beg the question…does it work? and how much legitimate research are they actually doing?

For the fifth issue, I am getting to my main opposition to GMO crops in general. That issue is what we are modifying crops to do, and the long term effects of these processes. Like NdT pointed out, we have bred for larger yields, consistent crops and more convenient foods ever since man began cultivating his own food. If that was the application of manipulating genes that the industry was putting forth, with long term testing for safety; I would have no choice but to adamantly support the work. That’s not the case though. The majority of the products currently available are geared towards allowing more and more toxins to be used on our fields. Not only poisoning the populace with glyphosate and atrazine and the like, but poisoning the fields. As it has been pointed out by many people, these products are not only dangerous, but they are persistent. So for years (seven if I remember correctly) after they are not applied, you can’t grow any broadleaf plant on that property that has not also been modified to survive them. This is damaging to the environment and a risky gambit for our food supply and biodiversity. I am going to cut myself off on this issue, as the article is already a bit  wordy and plenty of pages have been dedicated to this one in particular if one wanted to know more.

The last thing I want to say on the matter is what are you hiding? You see, one thing I do know about marketing is if something is good you brag about it, if something is kind of bad you spin it and if something is horrid you hide it and try to detract discussion about it. So if the companies that are making these products REALLY believe they are doing something good for the population, where is the bragging? If it is not that bad, where is the spin? I would ask where the hiding and detraction are but well, you see them. The industry is spending big to prevent any labeling law from ever being enacted. They are mocking and demonizing anyone who questions this. It really makes me wonder if I am being naïve in my hope that they don’t want to talk about it , is because people are reactionary and have to be treated like children. I mean really, marketing can convince an entire generation that McDonalds is food, but you are afraid to admit when you do what is basically the equivalent of a selective breeding program?

So in summary, my position is the same as it was. GMO’s don’t have to be a bad thing…and should not be treated as such off the cuff. If you don’t like them make sound and specific arguments against them. Life should not be patentable,  GMO or not. We need to make sure that this technology (like all) is used well, and by well I mean much better than we are now. I am not going to say NdT is wrong, but I wish his public statement had contained more nuance, and if history is a lesson I would say we can expect to hear more from him on the matter.

In the not previously mentioned in the article department of this summary I want to include that I believe our natural, organic and Permaculture methods are superior and the onus is on us to continue our work and to prove it. Lets grow some food.

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