Saturday, 28 February 2015

There's been an error

Apparently some people thought I was anti-GMO. Not so.

I don't know enough to be opposed to genetic modification as such. I'm an enthusiastic student of soil biology but I know sod all about the various GM techniques.

Even if I did though, GM technology is surely in its infancy and nature is extremely diverse, so there could easily be future GMOs that might be beneficial. Lipsey was probably right to include GM as a potential general purpose technology, consistent with his 4 criteria:
  • It is a single, recognisable generic technology
  • Initially has much scope for improvement but comes to be widely used across the economy
  • Has many different uses
  • Creates many spillover effects 
Its still early days but GM is off to a bad start, or as Lipsey might say it "initially has much scope for improvement". Market data suggest that the herbicide resistance trick is not good for farmers or consumers.
  • Switching to roundup ready plants was a bad move for North American farmers: international panel data shows non-GM systems have increased productivity faster and are much less pesticide intensive. 
  • Consumers are increasingly switching to organic foods in preference to GMO, with 14% CAGRs expected in organic food in the USA.
Consumers have no real need to differentiate between a GMO and the way it's grown. They know GMOs are drenched in pesticides are trying to avoid them, pushing for labeling etc.

Suppliers of version 1 GMOs have a lucrative business to protect though, so they naturally want to push back on this consumer resistance. They also have massive resources to share with supporters.

The support crew includes lobbyists and biologists who worry (among other things) that public concerns with the current version will hinder or block future GM technologies. One obvious way to address public concerns would be to show there is actually a complete and transparent assurance system in place. But this argument doesn't work, because there isn't one. That's why people are concerned.

Which leaves a choice: either agree that a complete and transparent assurance system should be created, or deny that one is needed.

If I was an investor in new GM technology I'd strongly advocate for agreement rather than denial. Even if I didn't care that human rights and ethics demand fit-for-purpose oversight systems, it'd be better for my own business if the GM brand wasn't mired down in controversy.

Unfortunately the support crew is in denial. That doesn't help investors in new GM and it doesn't help consumers. It only helps delay the "scope for improvement" the sector needs to get on with.


  1. Hi John
    I argue and so does the Dutch Government advisory committee called COGEM for roughly the same as you: the GM controversy is a symptom of fundamental distrust in the innovation system and government choices in how to regulate these plant* products.
    I mean to emphasise "innovation system", because those who even engage the trust argument marginalise it as mistrust of multinational corporations. But it isn't that simple. The public sector is increasingly under pressure to secure its intellectual property which they inevitably license to companies anyway. So it is the emphasis on research for private gain (or at least selfish gain by the public sector) that is a driving force in public mistrust. If the public sector was equally engaged in research for benefit by all stakeholders rather than those stakeholders who would pay for the outcome, I think this technology would finally get the hearing it deserved.
    And that in my opinion is why agroecology is the undervalued little brother of the biotechnology options available. Most innovation in agroecology does not produce strong IP claims and thus does not benefit a concentrated market. However, it has the potential to raise incomes of all kinds of farmers (rich and poor, monoculture and subsistence) who will pay back the public investment through taxes on their income or by demanding less support for food and health care from the state.

    *The GM controversy is mainly on GM crop plants. This isn't because of the biological differences between plants and all other forms of life, but because these products are regulated differently and people and the environment are exposed to them differently than to say GM microbes used to produce batches of therapeutics in contained fermenters.

  2. Just to expand on my footnote above. "so there could easily be future GMOs that might be beneficial." There already are. The vast majority of GMOs are produced in laboratories making fundamental contributions to our knowledge in genetics. They just never leave the laboratory (alive). The next largest class of GMOs are those used to make enzymes and other biomaterials and medicines which are purified away from the organism that made them. The smallest but most visible class of GMO are the few commercialised GM crop plants. It is sad and wrong that they have become synonymous with the "GM debate". This both artificially raises their value and importance and that of the sector making them. It is truly unfortunate that these products are the poster organisms of GM because they put the future of this technology at risk.

  3. Thanks Jack. Lots of new information here for me.

    But it does reinforce the basic question which is whether the new tech GM investors/developers realise how badly the old tech folks are dragging them down, ruining the brand?