Rachel Parent and other lame anti-GMO arguments

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Photo from CBC
Photo from CBC

Last year, 14 year old Rachel Parent was in the unenviable situation of being in the same room as Kevin O’Leary (click here for video). Parent did a commendable job speaking on national TV. I cannot pretend that I would have had half her poise and composure in the same situation.

However, I take issue with her anti-GMO arguments. To be fair, I don’t think that these arguments are unique to Parent alone – they are arguments common to the anti-GMO movement in general. But I am picking on Parent because she was going head-to-head with O’Leary. You really have to bring the big guns when debating the right-wing nutbars, and I don’t think that the arguments currently in vogue with the anti-GMO movement are doing that at all.

As O’Leary said in the video, if you want GMO labelling so bad then fine, have it – but you won’t have convinced anybody that GMOs are bad. And even if Golden Rice had to be consumed in massive amounts in order to get adequate amounts of vitamin A, that’s still better than having no vitamin A at all.

How are anti-GMOers responding to these arguments? Not very effectively. 

“Should we be messing with Mother Nature?”

“What about the potential long-term risks to health?”

Personally, I believe that the above two arguments are really important issues, and either one would dissuade me from supporting GMOs. But these arguments make no sense if you’re not already converted. This is a problem if we hope to attract/convert new allies and grow as a movement. 

A GMOer would hear those arguments and immediately label you as as an unscientific technophobe hippie. We are not any of those things (although maybe just the hippie part), so why are we eagerly reinforcing these labels? The refrains of “Health! Health! Mother Nature!” clearly do not work with people who do not already agree with you.

Of course, GMOs are bad for your health because many of them are engineered specifically to be pesticide dependent, and pesticides are bad for your health and the general environment. And just to stretch it a bit further, GMOs also poses a risk to biodiversity, which is harmful to the environment, and environmental degradation is bad for human health.

But aside from pesticides and the loss of biodiversity, anti-GMO activists have to be honest with themselves – GMOs have been consumed for decades with no solid evidence that they cause harm once consumed. I’ve probably consumed tons of GMOs by now and I can’t prove that my health has suffered as a result. Aside from a few studies, the scientific community is far from reaching even partial consensus on the harms of GMOs to human health. And when it comes to science, it’s the wider consensus that counts – not a couple of studies here and there. Activists need to understand this. Activists are not the authority on health issues – scientists are. If you want to argue using science, you gotta make sure the science is behind you. In this case it’s not, so you shouldn’t try to convince someone like O’Leary by telling him GMOs are bad for human health. 

Same goes for the Mother Nature argument. Some people are fully on board with messing with Mother Nature. Gasping in shock and clasping your hands to your heart is not going to be a convincing response.

The real reason why Golden Rice should be rejected is not because they have minuscule amounts of Vitamin A — an argument like that is just asking Syngenta (the developer of Golden Rice) to keep tinkering until they have rice with higher vitamin A content. An argument like that doesn’t get to the core of the issue. 

Even if Golden Rice did have adequate amounts of vitamin A, it still wouldn’t be a solution for the world’s poor. According to The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, Golden Rice is targeted at “the poor whose diets are based mainly on rice or other carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor calorie sources“. As the Board itself implies, these people are deficient in a wide variety of essential nutrients because they mostly eat only rice. Who in their right minds looks at someone who is lacking in many different nutrients and then says they will solve the problem by only supplying vitamin A? People consuming such a diet could still suffer or die from a host of other vitamin and mineral deficiencies (but hey – at least they won’t go blind!). Even O’Leary should’ve seen the flaw in this logic.

The only reason why impoverished populations would only eat rice and little else is because they lack access to a variety of healthy foods. Convincing the poor that they need to rely on GM technology is clearly just self-promotion from the GM industry . In fact, Golden Rice was not designed to help the poor at all. It was first developed to be marketed in developed countries. When the market for that died, Golden Rice was then foisted off onto developing countries so that it could be spun into the poster child for GMOs Save Poor People.

If Syngenta cared so much about vitamin A deficiency in children, why aren’t they advocating for impoverished children to have access to a variety of fruits and vegetables? Wouldn’t that be an entirely obvious and WAY less costly solution – and one that is an actual solution to malnutrition? No respectable nutritionist would make supplements (which Golden Rice effectively is) their first choice in rectifying nutrient deficiencies – it is always optimal to get what your body needs from a diet containing a variety of healthy foods. A single medium carrot provides over 200% of the daily value of Vitamin A – along with a whole host of other nutrients. I didn’t need to spend millions of dollars on genetic engineers to figure that out.

Here’s where the money used to invent Golden Rice could’ve been better spent:

  1. Vitamin A capsules (again, not a nutritionist’s first choice), which are cheaper to produce than GMOs and which, unlike GMOs, don’t require inventing
  2. Purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables for the poor. This is way cheaper than engineering Golden Rice. If bought locally, it would have the additional benefit of stimulating the local economy.
  3. Giving fruits and vegetable seeds to the poor. Non-GMO seeds are ridiculously cheap, can be reused year after year after year, and again, don’t require inventing.

All of these solutions are drastically cheaper and more effective in curing malnutrition than Golden Rice. The only reason why Golden Rice would be posited as a solution is because of 1) a self-promoting GMO industry and 2) a baseless insistence on using high-tech solutions because technology is shiny.

It makes no sense to pilot Golden Rice in places like the Philippines for example, when the Philippines is a major world producer of mangoes, which are extremely high in Vitamin A. There is already plenty of vitamin A in the Philippines – it’s just that the poor probably don’t have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables that contain it. Without addressing this socioeconomic aspect of the problem, Golden Rice proponents cannot pretend to offer a solution.

Saying that we need Golden Rice in order to save vitamin A-deficient children is thus a gross misunderstanding of the underlying problems. It reveals a pitiably simplistic thinking process that assumes technology can solve all our problems, regardless of what the problem actually is. This isn’t about nitpicking a brave young activist’s arguments. It’s about what we as movement need to do to eliminate GMOs forever. Let’s start by not preaching to the choir.

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Alex Tse writes when no one's looking. She believes in the true meaning of hipster and she'd like it if you became her vegan cupcake friend. Find her on the internetz @alexnotangry and http://alexnotangry.wordpress.com.

4 thoughts on “Rachel Parent and other lame anti-GMO arguments”

  1. But pro-labelling anti-GMO people don’t need to persuade anybody of anything if they can get the labelling. The European experience, and polling results, make it pretty clear that most people don’t really want to eat GM food. Label it and the anti-GM battle is already won; they just won’t be financially viable. That’s why the companies are fighting so hard for it to not happen.

    Golden rice, incidentally, while it’s well known to not have much beta carotene in it, is actually useless for a completely different reason: It won’t grow well most places because it’s just one strain of rice. You’d need a “Golden” variant of all the thousands of localized strains of rice before it could have a major impact. And this is just the specific variant of the general problem with GM crops: Only a very few very simple changes have ever been successful, specifically the ones involving herbicide resistance and pesticide secretion, both of which are pretty problematic because of the specific things they happen to do. Nobody’s ever gotten either especially nutritious or high yield varieties of anything off the drawing board and the test greenhouse and into production.

    1. Yes there are definitely issues with how lab tech works in the real world. Any dabbling gardener or organic farmer will tell you that you can’t pretend to make up Nature’s rules. You spray the pesticides, you plant the monocrops, and there’s gonna be a backlash.

      Even though it’s so crucial and important, I usually don’t use that argument against anti-GMOers because they may not find it convincing if they don’t understand the intricacies of the delicate ecosystem. They take it for granted that we can make nature do anything we want with our technology. It’s a real shame they don’t realize that organic methods can achieve everything they’re striving for with GMOs, and more!

  2. I can’t stand processed food and only want real food the way it was orginally made by God. Changing the process only has exposed us to disease as the nutrition is all gone.

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