About GMOs, Climate Change and Our Future

2013 March Against Monsanto DC 58 

Yesterday, following up on my articles about FAO, I received a couple of interesting questions in my email box from a reader who was concerned with GMOs and wondering about their nutritional worth and safety and whether they might provide a solution to feeding mankind in the face of the population explosion and climate change. He was worried that demands for consumer goods and services would "skyrocket while supplies plummet and consumer abilities to pay higher prices could be non-existent" - and that, as a consequence, our political class would "embrace solutions that [coincidentally] promote and entrench the fiscal aims of the world's richest corporations and richest 1%."

This person asked me whether anything I had experienced through my work with FAO indicated whether these concerns are grounded in fact.

My response was an emphatic "yes!", and I gave him some arguments that I want to share here with you.

First the GMOs. 

A lot of nonsense has been written about them, especially in Europe, and there's little doubt that GMOs are the most likely way we'll be able to feed an increasingly large and hungry population. Not as bad as in the film Soylent Green (Soylent is a contraction of soya and lentil) which you may have seen and if you haven't, you should try and see it, it's very striking.

Here's the official trailer:

And if you're curious you can see the whole film (97 minutes) on YouTube here:

The film dates back to 1973 and is eerily to the point, focused as it is on a world on the verge of extinction as a result of overpopulation and global warming. The message is that as all earth resources are depleted, we shall end up eating our own dead transformed into nice green pills (soylent!), and not even be aware of what's in them because the secret is in the hands of a global governing elite, the One Percent.

The soylent idea hasn't died out with that film. See the articles below about the magic drink concocted by some young California inventors - intriguing, but not something to look forward to if you like good food!

In the comments to the film trailer, you'll notice that some people protest the film got it all wrong, that we should be concerned not about eating corpses but about GMOs...

That's ridiculous of course. GMOs are not scientific monsters, they are just genetically accelerated modifications to improve plant and animal productivity and avoid excessive use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemical additives - better yet, allowing us to avoid altogether our current and highly destructive reliance on them.
Beware of formulations that claim GMOs are different from "traditional cross breeding" because they pick a gene from one species and "combine it into another". That would be mixing oranges and bananas, and scientists aren't about to do that, there's no market for "banoranges" and such a product makes no sense!

GMOs rely on the same principles as traditional breeding to select and improve characteristics; it's just that thanks to modern genetics, the breeding for improvement can be accelerated and doesn't require waiting for new generations to come up and grow and then cull them to isolate the desired traits. They can be built in, skipping the waiting periods that traditional breeding requires, and they work not by pulling genes from another species but selecting the desired genes, for example those that account for improved resistance to heat. Obviously a huge plus in the face of global warming. And the idea that GMOs can pass some genes into your digestive tract and attack your own genetic structure would require considerable experimenting to prove it because it's not plausible...

GMOs were often discussed among my colleagues at FAO and I never found anyone who was both a scientist and against them. Indeed, the fact is that GMOs could yet save us all, but we're not there yet. Bottom line, it really is a political and socio-economic problem - not a scientific one. Sciences has the answers, it's just that society doesn't wish to hear. People stick to their habits and traditions, they fear change.

Europeans are up in arms about GMOs, terrorized by what I can only call politically-motivated disinformation. In France, there are groups of farmers convinced that GMOs will destroy their crops, and in the name of "genuine" food, they reject them in toto, without trying to understand that an ear of corn is still an ear of corn, even if genetically modified so it can grow with less chemical support.

In India, there is the famous GM Genocide: over the past 16 years, it is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide and this tragedy is firmly laid at the doorstep of the big seed engineering corporations like Monsanto. See article here and trailer:

Now, like all problems in our society, this is a highly complex issue that has not one but several causes, and I will only quote here some of the major ones to give you an idea of the complexity:

(1) the Green Revolution introducing modern agriculture to India some 40 years ago has now spread across the land and has benefitted only the better-off farmers able to shoulder the debt needed to finance the additional inputs (fertlizers, chemicals, irrigation) - inputs that were not required in traditional agriculture; smaller farmers who tried to jump on the banwagon were crushed by debt;

(2) some of the new varieties introduced, including GMOs, were not always adapted to the environment and did not give the expected returns: insufficient or lack of adaptive research, excessive optimism, a headlong Monsanto rush to make money on its seeds are among among the causes - hence, more debt and increased poverty;

(3) with modern agriculture, much more water is needed and both the quantity and quality of water is quickly collpasing as too much is drawn out of the water table - hence again, low returns;

(4) totally insufficient social services and government support to farmers facing difficulties; rural populations are left to fend for themselves as Big Corporation agents selling seeds and other inputs continue to promise the moon while usurers lend money to farmers at cutthroat rates.

Some GMOs are involved, but they are not alone in causing the problems: it's the whole of Indian agriculture that is undergoing "modernization" and hence losing its population as the younger generations move to the cities; suicides are, alas, part of the process, particularly in the Indian environment where the authorities do not come to the help of farmers.

Nonetheless, over time, the role of GMOs will be re-dimensioned, and the promise that GMOs can help feed the Earth's growing population will eventually force acceptance - a limited acceptance, with caveats to ensure that human health is preserved, but acceptance nonetheless. At least enough to ensure that hunger is kept at bay.

Just like the climate change activists in the States will eventually win out over the deniers, as global warming becomes a reality and the question of who or what caused it takes a back seat; and people realize there's a problem to solve and that finger-pointing is a waste of time.

These things however take time to happen, new ideas filter down with difficulty, and it's very likely that when they do, it's going to be too late.

The only thing an otherwise superb film like Soylent Green got wrong was the date: 2020. We're not headed for disaster that soon. In Forever Young, my own attempt to look at the future and figure out the most likely outcome for mankind, I've set the date 200 years from now: in my view that's how long it will take before we get to that critical no-return point - because we are dealing with slow-moving socio-economic trends. 

Melting Twaites ice shelf (October 2013 aerial survey NASA)
But the handwriting is on the wall, scientists have warned that we have already passed the critical point in Antarctica with the melting of huge ice sheets that will require revising the predictions about the future rise of the sea level (see AP news here).

I expect sciences will regularly call out alarms about "turning points"; it will be like climbing down a staircase into hell, step by step.

But the real battle will be on the social front. The Big Corporations are in pole position to win the power game (and economic game). The One Percent model of society is definitely looking very real, with gated communities already springing up everywhere to protect the ultra rich.

Good-bye middle class, hello global elite and of course, good-bye to any real democracy. Because real democracy only works when you have a large middle class. If you don't, then elections start looking like what is happening now in Afghanistan...More generally, viable democracies, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, cannot emerge without the support of a widespread middle class.

A very dark vision, I agree. But if we don't realize where we're headed, nothing will get done in time to avert disaster. I do believe that it is the role of a certain kind of literature and movies to help us, through emotions (and entertainment!) to become aware of what's happening. It's far more effective than reams of scientific data.

That was certainly my objective when I wrote Forever Young - I started the book with positing that thanks to scientific advances, we can expect one of our current problems - aging - to be totally fixed. But if it's totally fixed, what kind of problems will that "fixing" in turn bring on?

The answer (given our current social trends) is obvious: only the very rich will be able to afford the expensive cures to stop aging and live looking "forever young" till the day they drop dead. The rest will not. And there you have it! The ultra rich not only will live in gated communities, protected from pollution, war, pestilence etc but they will also look beautiful and young for 120 to 140 years (the "normal" maximum life span of humans). Imagine the envy and social tensions...

It is of course always hard to look into the future and figure out which current social trends are likely to play out. Sometimes, movie makers and novelists do better than social scientists...Perhaps because they are less constrained by numbers and free to let their imagination fly. That (I hope) is what happened to me when I wrote Forever Young: it was, I confess, a lot of fun to try and figure out what our most plausible future would look like. If you want to find out what I think of the future facing our great-grand-children, read the book!
If you're still with me, I have good news for you: starting on Thursday 10 July, Amazon is running a countdown deal on my book (concerns ebook only).  This means that Forever Young instead of its usual $5.99 price will cost you only 99 cents on July 10,  and it will rise by one dollar each day, $1.99 on 11 July, $2.99 on 12 July and so on until its back to its initial price. So hurry up to get the biggest possible discount, click here!

Offer applies only to the US market. The same countdown deal will start on July 17 for the UK market. Regrettably Amazon does not run any countdown deals in any other market. Sorry about that!

But if you prefer to have a printed book, Forever Young is also available at a discount here (you can get it for less than $13).