Conversations with a Liberal about GMOs

By: George Noga – December 1, 2013
       Recently I spent a week on the Hawaiian isle of Kauai. My visit coincided with a major political brouhaha about genetically modified organisms or “GMOs”. The residents were up in arms against agricultural interests that produce GMO seeds (mostly corn) there. In response, the local government passed a sweeping new law placing  restrictions on GMOs. Opposition is not restricted to Kauai as there are anti-GMO laws pending in several US states and Europeans’ loathing of GMOs borders on hysteria.
“GMOs are mentioned in the Bible – Genesis 30:25-43.”
       Genetic engineering is timeless. Selective breeding was practiced on corn at the dawn of human agriculture 10,000 years ago.  It is mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 30:25-43).  If you own a dog, it is safe to say it has gone through extensive genetic modifications. Circa 1973 man acquired the technology to modify DNA directly rather than via breeding. Since that time there have been many thousands of GMOs and in the subsequent 40 years not one person anywhere on the planet has experienced an ill effect – even a bellyache – from GMOs.
       While in Kauai I had the opportunity to talk with a liberal opponent of GMOs. The conversation went something like the following:
MLLG (Me): I don’t understand why you are so opposed to GMOs. They produce much more food more safely on significantly less land thus benefiting both humanity and the environment.
LIBERAL: I am against big corporations profiting from GMOs. If GMOs are that good, why are there still so many people in the world starving?
MLLG: The short answer is that  hunger today is primarily due to logistics and government interference. Surely GMOs have vastly alleviated hunger; India has become an exporter of rice.
MLLG: Even with the prices companies charge for GMO seeds, farmers in third world nations come out way ahead in the long run. They willingly spend their own money in a free market because their calculus is they will benefit at the prices they are paying. Fifteen million small farmers owning only  a few acres each in developing nations buy and plant GMO seeds.
LIBERAL: It is not right that big companies profit; in particular granting corporations patents on life forms is objectionable as it forces people to pay year after year for the same seeds. Moreover, large corporations take legal action against small farmers who copy the seeds.
MLLG: If businesses did not protect their patents they would go out of business and there  never again would be new life-saving GMO products created and everyone would be worse off.
LIBERAL: It is simply obscene and unacceptable for giant multinational corporations to go after small third world farmers struggling to get by.
MLLG: Isn’t copying the seeds without a patent the same as stealing?
LIBERAL: No, because the corporations acquired the patents unjustly; patents on plants, animals or genes must not be granted; these should be owned in common by all of humanity.
MLLG: You seem to hate bigness; are you aware GM crops are subject to hyper regulation? Because of the cost and complexity imposed by governments, only large multinational companies can afford to comply. Furthermore, small companies grow into  big companies only if they benefit a great many people by providing products they value and voluntarily purchase. Incidentally, do you also hate bigness in government? Never mind that – it was just rhetorical.
LIBERAL: It is not right for anyone to profit from something so basic as DNA or life forms; the technology should be posted on the internet or otherwise be placed in the public domain.
MLLG: It costs an enormous amount to research, test and produce successful GM crops. There are huge costs to comply with government rules and the Cartagena  Protocol on Biosafety. Without the profit motive, patents and patent enforcement, how could GMO technology exist?
LIBERAL: Governments or universities (with government grants) could do the job.
MLLG: Name anything government does well or a product produced by a university?
LIBERAL: Governments build good roads and bridges.
MLLG: Actually, governments contract with private for-profit companies to build these things.
MLLG: One final question: I know you also believe climate change poses an existential threat to humanity and you contemptuously dismiss those who disagree as being opposed to science. Given that situation, your opposition to biotechnology seems irreconcilable with your stance on climate. Your opposition to GMOs doesn’t appear to be based on science but on ideology and politics because  of your animus and antipathy toward free markets and private enterprise.
LIBERAL: I fail to see the connection.