Friday, November 29, 2013

Label GMO foods!

For the purposes of this note only, let me stipulate that a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) food by itself is no more dangerous than non-GMO food.   I still say that one might want GMO foods to be labelled.

The most common used genetic modification is to give the food crop herbicide-resistance, specifically glyphosate-resistance.  The idea is that farmers can control weeds but not harm the food crop by using herbicides.  And so the use of Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup, has increased tremendously.   As some weeds have gained resistance to glyphosate, the genetic engineers are trying to confer further herbicide resistance to crops, so that other ones, like 2-4-D can also be used.  So a lot more of these chemicals are entering the environment, and also, leaving residues in food.

Are these chemicals dangerous to humans? Tested individually, for a short period of time, the answer is "scientifically no deleterious effects are found".  But no one has tested these for long term exposure, and more importantly, no one has tested the effects of a cocktail of these chemicals.

Even in the context of just Roundup, it is claimed that the surfactant used therein plus glyphosate is much more dangerous to people than glyphosate on its own.  It is also claimed that these chemicals have effects on our microbial environment (remember, your body carries ten times as many microbes as cells with your own DNA).  For instance, the rise of botulinism in cattle is supposedly because glyphosate affects negatively the bacteria that normally keep the botulinum bacteria in check.  I say "it is claimed" because I haven't yet examined all the literature for myself.

We already know of environmental effects, such as the loss of milkweed, which is essential in the habitat for Monarch butterflies, and that provides sustenance for a number of other species.
E.g., Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide
use: effect on the monarch butterfly population
in Insect Conservation and Diversity (2012) doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4598.2012.00196.x

Agriculture needs to be done in a sustainable way, and that means taking a systems approach to evaluating the effects of changes in agricultural practices.  One cannot take the piecemeal approach of reductionism, because the class of problems involved cannot be reduced to a single dominant cause. 

Another example of where the search for a single cause has been futile is that of the Colony Collapse Disorder afflicting honey bees.   No single cause has been identified for this, it is likely a melange of small but significant interacting factors in the environment that is proving to be deadly.

In light of the above, a responsible citizen may want to be made aware of their choices in the grocery store,  and it is therefore, in my opinion, the right thing to do - label GMO foods.

PS: incidentally, software systems that have grown over years by evolution, with little refactoring, show this kind of terminal complexity.  There may be 80 different causes of failures, each contributing to 0.5% of the defects reported by users.  Many managers are simply unable to grasp this, and keep looking for a silver bullet, the one thing to fix, that would eliminate all problems. 

PPS: I think in general, we do not have the societal ability to address multi-dimensional problems.  The problems with schools, higher education, health care, poverty, increasing inequality, etc., all require lots and lots of small fixes, I think, but politically, it is difficult to implement a program of manifold small fixes, no single one of which will show a significant impact.