Recently, the GMO issue was put on my radar. GMOs: genetically modified organisms, as in–for instance–making corn “Roundup Ready” which allows the commercial weedkiller to be sprayed indiscriminately on a field of corn, killing the weeds but leaving the Roundup-resistant corn to grow and flourish. Pretty nifty science, I’d say. But the use of GMOs is mired in controversy, and it’s one that I’ve just begun to explore. It raises some really fascinating questions, questions framed in this post (along with some observations). As a novice in this discussion, I’m hoping that readers with a much better understanding of GMOs will contribute to the discussion and correct any errors or misrepresentations.

Proponents of GMOs argue that in species modification scientists are simply doing what we’ve already been doing since the discovery of genetics: breeding and cross-breeding plants and animals to achieve an organism with certain desirable characteristics. The only difference, they say, is that the modifications are being done in the laboratory instead of in the barnyard or in the greenhouse. If that’s true, I find nothing objectionable about the practice. Sure, it’s not as romantic, but that’s an issue of aesthetics not ethics.

Opponents of GMOs, such as Joel Salatin, counter that the above explanation of GMOs is a misrepresentation of the facts. The issue isn’t that two different species of corn are cross-bread with each other in a laboratory or that the genes of two different species of moths are combined in some research facility. Rather, using his example, what is being done is that scientists are crossing the genes of corn with that of moths, an impossible combination in the natural world: the reproductive organs of corn and those of the moth are incompatible. So, using technology, we bypass the reproductive process and force together two species that would not otherwise have reproduced with each other. In cartoons, witches and wizards waved a wand and–poof!–some hapless human victim sprouts the tail of a pig. Unnatural. Bizarre. Impossible! Not, so it seems, anymore.

In the 2012 film The Amazing Spiderman, Dr. Curt Connors injects himself with lizard DNA in an attempt to regrow a severed hand (lizards possess the ability to regrow a tail that has been severed). But the procedure has disastrous and unintended side-effects. In a desire to do good, Dr. Connors becomes the villain, a giant lizard that wreaks havoc.

Those who are proponents of the use of GMOs do so on the grounds of the great good that they make possible: using the technology to feed more people and at a fraction of the cost, for example. On the other hand, it seems that those who oppose the use of GMOs do so, in general, on one or both of the following grounds or claims:

(1) GMOs have (or will have) disastrous, unintended side-effects on humans and/or the environment, consequences which outweigh any good that they do

(2) GMOs are an unethical subversion of the natural order

To those who identify themselves primarily with the first claim outlined above: Suppose Dr. Curt Connors experienced no side effects when he combined human DNA with reptile DNA. Suppose he went on to help countess thousands of amputees regrow lost limbs. In this scenario, would his science be ethical?

To those opponents who primarily identify with the second claim, an observation: you must believe that there is some inherent logic in the universe that we cannot determine, create, or re-write but to which we must submit.

Joel Salatin, in arguing against the use of GMOs, makes the following point: just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This is a point on which those on both sides of the controversy must agree. What remains to be determined is what makes something ethical: is it the effects of an act or something intrinsic to the act itself?

One final observation that may illuminate the debate, and one that will appeal to those familiar with The Lord of the Rings: a striking similar set of questions, issues, and parallels surround the Ring of Power. There were those who sought to use it out of a desire to do good, and yet the story is clear in its condemnation of so doing. But what the author of the story (Tolkien) doesn’t necessary answer is why? Listening to the lyrics in the film clip which precedes today’s post, they touch on a theme present in the GMO debate: an irresistible, alluring, seductive power. Does Sinatra sing metaphorically of certain forms of science? And–if so–unlike the beguiled narrator of those lyrics, can we resist? Do we want to?

“Witchcraft”, Sy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh
Those fingers in my hair
That sly come hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
It’s witchcraft
And I’ve got no defense for it
The heat is too intense for it
What good would common sense for it do?Cause it’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft
And although, I know, it’s strictly tabooWhen you arouse the need in me
My heart says yes indeed in me
Proceed with what your leading me toIt’s such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn’t switch
Cause there’s no nicer witch than you

2 replies
  1. Sheri Rop
    Sheri Rop says:

    Great post, Jeff and really good questions. I want to vote Yes! to the “natural order” question. Even without the obvious religious reasons for the belief in a natural order, there is the obvious and sad history of the law of unintended consequences. There is so much we don’t understand and deep humility and great restraint are the only sensible ways to approach using our immense technical power.

    You suggest that both sides in this debate would agree with Joel Salatin, that “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” That’s where I think you’re wrong. I challenge you to find a case in history in which science/technology was permanently limited or controlled because of fear, wisdom, or humility. Oh we (humans) might fuss around for a while–make laws or self-police, but eventually some great “pioneer” breaks through the resistance and unleashes a new horror. The hubris of those that see unlimited wealth and power available through technology always wins out.

    Obviously it’s no secret here which side I stand on, and so a few more not-unbiased comments: I really like the image and witch metaphor. Monsanto, although certainly not the only entity promoting GM, is a perfect poster child for evil. If it weren’t such an accurate characterization you’d almost think it was a too-easy target. They start out making Agent Orange. (It’s the obvious introduction to the story–“OK–we got the characterization–we know who the bad guy is.”) They move on to genetic modification, creating life forms that 1) have to be purchased from them, over and over and over and over AND 2) require other inputs (Roundup and others) that, happily for Monsanto, also have to be purchased from them, over and over and over . . . you get the idea. Then 3) they put their life from out there, where it inadvertently (but clearly not unexpectedly) infects someone else’s field. It trespasses! Upon which event they sue the victim of trespass for theft. And win! This story, this picture, is entirely accurate, and seems to be all anyone really needs to know to assess the situation. If the whole GM enterprise has already done this much damage, what under heaven do we think the rest of the story will look like? It seems beyond naive to me to think that there’s a happy ending anywhere in sight. There’s a literary truth here that’s also an ethical truth–the ascendance of evil never results in a happy ending to the story.

    Two other brief points: One of the most damaging effects of GMO corn and soy is the ever-increasing quantities of glyphosate (Roundup) that need to be applied. This proven carcinogen and hormone disruptor destroys the soil, leaches into the water and eventually ends up in all our bodies. Along the way it creates super-weeds that are immune to herbicides.

    Also, the idea that we need GM crops to feed the world has been promoted by all the companies that will get even richer if it’s true, but is unsupported by the facts. First of all, field corn and soy, by acreage the most predominant GM crops, are not food at all. You can’t eat them. They’re merely the raw materials for the industrial factory farms and the industrial food processing complex. These inedible raw materials (GM corn and soy) require and enable other huge conglomerates to make many more billions turning these into food-like products to provide calories but neither real food not health for the world.

    Second, over and over in many places across the globe, the predicted and much-touted gains in production have not materialized, often to the devastation of poor farmers who have bought (literally) into the idea.

    Third, the industrial agriculture system that’s supposed to save the world of the future is actually impoverishing the future to increase production today. A system that requires vast inputs and destroys soil is, by definition, not sustainable. Small-scale, adaptable, individualized farming, based on local knowledge, on the understanding of particular places on the earth and a respect for the eternally renewing patterns of nature are the only things that can really feed the world of the future.

    What you’re working on — preserving and re-valuing the heritage breeds of meat animals–is exactly the kind of action that moves us toward healthy and sustainable food and farming. I applaud you for it! Each of these breeds represent the wisdom of generations of localized knowledge and the careful attention of good husbandry that has always characterized the best of farming practice. This stands in start contrast to the breeds developed for efficient factory farming which are designed to create, not an animal adapted to it’s natural environment, but an animal distorted to fit an efficient mechanistic process.

    Finally, another poem. Always Wendell Berry says it best:

    Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

    by Wendell Berry

    Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
    vacation with pay. Want more
    of everything ready-made. Be afraid
    to know your neighbors and to die.

    And you will have a window in your head.
    Not even your future will be a mystery
    any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
    and shut away in a little drawer.

    When they want you to buy something
    they will call you. When they want you
    to die for profit they will let you know.
    So, friends, every day do something
    that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
    Love the world. Work for nothing.
    Take all that you have and be poor.
    Love someone who does not deserve it.

    Denounce the government and embrace
    the flag. Hope to live in that free
    republic for which it stands.
    Give your approval to all you cannot
    understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
    has not encountered he has not destroyed.

    Ask the questions that have no answers.
    Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
    Say that your main crop is the forest
    that you did not plant,
    that you will not live to harvest.

    Say that the leaves are harvested
    when they have rotted into the mold.
    Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
    Put your faith in the two inches of humus
    that will build under the trees
    every thousand years.

    Listen to carrion — put your ear
    close, and hear the faint chattering
    of the songs that are to come.
    Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
    Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
    though you have considered all the facts.
    So long as women do not go cheap
    for power, please women more than men.

    Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
    a woman satisfied to bear a child?
    Will this disturb the sleep
    of a woman near to giving birth?

    Go with your love to the fields.
    Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
    in her lap. Swear allegiance
    to what is nighest your thoughts.

    As soon as the generals and the politicos
    can predict the motions of your mind,
    lose it. Leave it as a sign
    to mark the false trail, the way
    you didn’t go.

    Be like the fox
    who makes more tracks than necessary,
    some in the wrong direction.
    Practice resurrection.

  2. Jeff Duba
    Jeff Duba says:


    My wife has been encouraging me to read more Wendell Berry (we have a copy of his Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community), so I appreciate your concluding quote.

    You’ve raised issues with GMOs that were not touched on in “‘Cause It’s Witchcraft”:

    (1) the point that GMOs are not a sustainable model of agriculture (in precisely the same way that a ponzi scheme is not a viable business model)
    (2) the apparent injustice of creating a patented biological entity that, uncontrolled by the parent company, finds its way into neighboring farms who are then threatened with lawsuits for using an unasked-for patented life form

    The most difficult challenge you’ve raised is to provide a historical case for when out of fear, wisdom, or humility we’ve checked science or technology. Here you make a compelling argument for the force of greed, hubris, and the lust for power.

    My first response: only law can provide the necessary check to these potent forces. Listening to the three-part series on the life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, Roosevelt–through legislation and executive power–combats monopolies and trusts. This is a case of wisdom checking technology if one considers monopolies and trusts as an example of an economic/business form of technology.

    My next thought, in contrast, is that one cannot legislate against motives. One can legislate against the formation of monopolies; one cannot legislate against greed, hubris, or the lust for power. I submit that those same individuals behind the creation of the monopolies of the early 1900s were successful in re-organizing and creating another institution which allowed them to achieve the wealth that they had sought through monopolies, that of the creation of the Federal Reserve and its use of fractional banking.

    I find encouragement in the following two thoughts, one a principle and the other an appeal to the nature of man:

    (1) the principle that all unsustainable systems eventually fail (tragically, they seem to fail to the detriment of the many)
    (2) individuals have a free-will; they can choose to extricate themselves–by degrees and to a substantial degree–from the system (“The Matrix,” if you will). In other words, we can “build an ark”.

    On this final point, I make the following observation: heritage meats–like heirloom vegetables–are referred to as an “ark of taste”. But the analogy doesn’t end there. They are also an “ark of biodiversity” and an “ark of sustainable agriculture”. And so I conclude with the following quote. It comes from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings:

    “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. There are other forces at work in this world besides the will of evil…And that is an encouraging thought.” (Gandalf)

    To view:


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