For those of you who don't know Penn & Teller, they are a pair of hilarious magicians who have a program on Showtime called... well... Bullshit. It's similar to Mythbusters, in that Penn & Teller inject a healthy amount of skepticism into commonly held social myths: bottled water, feng shui, profanity, etc. Just like The Amazing Randi, they show that sometimes it takes an illusionist to expose how people who want money or power frequently deceive us. However, sometimes they themselves are guilty of bullshit.
Dear Penn & Teller,
I do enjoy your show, Bullshit. I like how you aren't afraid to tackle some pretty controversial topics, and you have made me rethink a few of my own beliefs.
However, on the episode Eat This, where you bashed organic foods and praised genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I believe you have made some serious factual errors. I feel you were blinded by your notorious hatred of hippies, and admiration for Norman Borlaug, and have forgotten some basic concepts of economics and biology.
Firstly, most of your praise for GMOs is based on the idea that without GMOs, millions of people will starve. This is a belief held mostly be people in the GMO industry, and not supported by any evidence. There's lots of hand waving and hyperbole, but no actual data. In fact, most hard evidence says that genetically modified crops actually DECREASE food production! Therefore, there is good reason to think that proliferation of GMOs will make people poorer, widen social inequality, and promote starvation.
Lets assume for a minute that the hippies are completely wrong that GMOs may damage the genetic makeup of the biosphere. Lets ignore the fact that Monsanto's Roundup-Ready soybeans has already cross bred with wild plants to make Roundup-resistant strains of superweeds. Lets ignore the fact that this cross-pollination has similarly infected the crops of organic farmers, ruining their profits because they can no longer sell the crops as organic. Lets also ignore the fact that Dr Terry Lomax lied when she said that GMO vegetables do not contain genes from animals.
In fact, lets ignore the hippies and all the science, and just focus on the economics.
In the modern world, people do not starve for lack of technology. They are not dying because of a global lack of food, they are dying because of socioeconomic policies. Producing more food may solve the problem, but in other situations it may make the problem worse.
Take the famous Ethiopia famine of the early 80s. Yes, there was a severe drought... but did these people die because of a lack of rainfall, or because the country was embroiled in a civil war? In such a world, food equals power. The government was not about to give its poor, starving citizens food, when it would more effectively be used to feed its soldiers, bribe the right people, and stay in power. Frankly, it was not in the government's best interests for it to keep its own citizens alive. That is the single biggest reason why so many people suffered.
This is similar to the famine in Somalia in the 90s. Somali warlords attacked American soldiers and Red Cross workers because they dared to distribute food to the hungry. We were yet again unable to comprehend how food equaled power in that situation, which was a major factor in the escalating tension with the warlords, which led to the horrors portrayed in Black Hawk Down.
Lets also not forget that the WHO recently came out with a report that says that within a few years, more 3rd world people will be dying from obesity than from starvation.
But just for argument's sake, lets assume that I'm completely wrong about everything mentioned above, and all the sources I linked to are total bullshit. Even so, GMOs still cause more problems than they solve.
In your program, you bashed Greenpeace for convincing the government of Zambia to not accept a donation of GMO corn during the 2002 famine. In this case, the hippies got it right. But not for environmental reasons; for economic reasons.
Lets analyze the situation for a moment... suppose you are the leader of a country, concerned about hunger in your citizenry. Should you accept a large supply of food from a foreign government? Even if it was GMO-free, absolutely not!
Think about it... what effect would that have on your economy? The flood of free grain into the country would devastate the farmers in the country! How on earth could they sell their crops, when somebody else is giving it away for free? No... any charity worth its salt knows it needs to purchase foods locally to stop a famine. Even if the farmers jack up the price, you're still injecting much needed capital into their economy.
And for the record, in the 2002 Zambia famine, the UN was able to replace every grain of the GMO crops it rejected with non-GMO crops... most of which was purchased in Zambia with donations from Europe. This is a classic case of where the right solution to starvation was not food; but rather engaging the economic system that didn't want to distribute food to the hungry. By injecting cash into that system, you did not disrupt local power structures (much), which made the food distribution run more smoothly.
Now, lets assume again for argument's sake that I'm completely wrong about that as well. Let's assume the laws of supply and demand are also bullshit, and everybody always prospers. That still leaves the huge problem that most GMO seeds are terminator seeds.
What are terminator seeds? Well, Monsanto spent a lot of money to make those GMO soybean seeds resistant to Round-up... they deserve to make a profit, but their business model was not about reasonable profit, but about maximizing revenue. So they invented something very very dangerous: a terminator seed.
Simply put, terminator seeds are designed to grow plants that do not have the ability to reproduce! All the seeds on the crops are sterile. Therefore, you have to pay Monsanto every year for the privilege of growing their crops.
UPDATE: Monsanto has recently abandoned the biological terminator seed technology. Instead, they are using legal contracts to mandate terminator seeds. In effect, you don't "buy" seeds from Monsanto anymore, you "rent" them. It is illegal for you to harvest seeds that you grew yourself, and re-plant them the following year. According to Food Inc., Monsanto has bankrupted many a small farmer just from suspicion that they are re-using seeds!
Take a moment to think about that... all of civilization is built on the concept of agriculture. You grow plants with seeds, those plants produce more seeds. We eat some of the seeds, we save others for future growing seasons. If there is a bad crop next year, we don't have to worry: we can plant the seeds from 2 years ago and still survive.
Terminator seeds fundamentally change all of that. Now these extremely poor and uneducated farmers not only have to worry about growing enough food, but also about global shifts in grain production and market costs. If they do not sell their crops for a large enough profit, they will die next year.
Think about it harder: they will starve not if its a bad growing season, but if they cannot make a good enough profit. It is very possible that farmers growing GMO foods will starve the year after a bumper crop! Too much supply, price goes down, and they cannot make enough money to buy more Monsanto seeds next year.
I'm sorry... but any system that punishes a farmer for growing too much food in a hungry country is 100% bullshit.
And god forbid some goody goody decides to dump a million bushels of corn on their market to help prevent starvation... that flood of produce will drive prices even further south. Who benefits? Large land owners who kick the poor farmers off their land when they cannot pay their Monsanto debts.
By every possible measure, GMOs are a very very very bad idea...
I believe the most diplomatic way to say this is that GMOs are very new technology, and have an inherent risk that is difficult to determine. So unless the benefits significantly outweigh the risks, we should skip GMOs entirely. As you can see, the benefits do not outweigh the risks, even if 90% of my criticisms are bullshit.
I believe that the future is not in GMOs, but in normal crops that use GMO research techniques to speed up the age-old art of plant husbandry. This system has been dubbed super organics, and shows much more promise than GMOs.
Super organics use genetic engineering to analyze what two plants need to cross-breed in order to produce the plant that you desire. For example, you analyze the genes of a tiny carrot that can grow in near desert conditions, and a big fat carrot that gives high yields. After some intensive genetic testing, you know how you need to cross-breed them to make a high-yield desert carrot. Then you use standard breeding techniques to produce the desirable offspring.
Same result, lower risk, no terminator seeds, and far fewer side effects. GMO researchers should take their genetic expertise to the super organics camp... then everybody wins.
Next time you want to take on a scientific issue, you really should avoid framing it as a grudge match between corporate shills and wacky hippies. The shills in nice suits will win every time, no matter who is right. You should at least try to get scientists on both sides of the debate... unless, of course, you have an agenda or something.
And if you do have an agenda... well... that's bullshit.
Just for the record, if you intend to worship Normal Borlaug as if he were Mother Teresa, then you should prepare yourself for some disappointment... just like the disappointment you caused others to feel when you exposed Mother Teresa as less than saintly.
Norman's work could very well have severe unintended side effects. His focus on intensive monoculture could lead to a situation vastly worse than the Irish potato famine.
Remember, the potato famine occurred because the Irish planted mostly one variety of potato. The potato blight, unfortunately, also attacked that exact same strain of potato. Because of the lack of biodiversity in the Irish food crops, an entire nation was soon starving.
Instead of planting barley, oats, turnips, potatoes, and keeping their population in check, the Irish instead presciently took Norman's advice and used nothing but the best food technology available. The British landowners encouraged maximum potato production, as opposed to mixing it with subsistence farming, because more potatoes meant more profit. When the famine happened and the Irish couldn't pay their bills, the English forced them off the land. What did they care about the death of a few Irishmen?
Now... imagine a world where half of the world's food is based on one or two genetically engineered species. What would happen if a bacteria, or insect, or herb, evolved into an incredibly destructive GMO crop killer? Every plant has its nemesis, and we have no idea what the GMO nemesis would be, how bad it would strike, or when.
Its not like we could switch back to standard wheat, corn, and soybeans... no. The farmland is so polluted with Roundup that only a GMO could survive being planted. And Monsanto will need a few more years to come up with a blight-resistant strain. Hopefully the poor can go without food until then.
By focusing on a narrow number of very specific high-yield species, Norman could be setting us up for another such famine... however, the Borlaug famine would be worldwide, and cause hundreds of millions of deaths. Remember all those lives he saved? Well, he might one day be responsible for twice that number of deaths.
Norman is focused too hard on one minor tactical problem with world hunger -- namely boosting crop yields -- and ignoring the more strategic problems of politics, society, economics, infrastructure, and overpopulation.
Norman has done some great work, and deserves his Nobel Prize, but on this issue he is just dead wrong. And if he doesn't change his methods, a lot of poor people may wind up just dead.
And that's bullshit.