Opening Remarks of Michael R. Dimock, President, Roots of Change
SXSW Panel GMO 2.0 Beyond Monsanto
There has been a powerful rejection of GMOs by millions of people for legitimate reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the safety of the food. I have two basic points. One related to the social context in which gene-editing agriculture companies operate and the other related to the historic uses of GMOs and whether they relate to the essential challenges of our time.
First, science and resulting technologies exist within a system of beliefs and thinking that shape how they will be applied. The United States was founded on principles designed to impede the concentration of power and wealth in order to avoid tyranny. We have separation of government powers, inheritance taxes, regulations and oversight, etc.
As the late great cosmologist Stephen Hawking said, and which was quoted in the last paragraph of his NY Times obituary today, genetically engineered viruses are an existential threat to the planet. So obviously gene editing is an extremely powerful tool, which, if used irresponsibly or without concern for the common good, could cause great harm. It could allow forms of tranny over agriculture, meaning food, the most basic human need.
The current paradigm for FDA and USDA oversight and regulation is fraught with problems. It allows for the fox to guard the hen house. People flowing from private sector jobs where they promote GMO products into government jobs where they are meant to regulate them. At the same time, as the media has revealed, some scientists on both sides of the debate have lost credibility because there is evidence they are paid shills.
As the unending series of scandals like Volkswagen cheating on emissions, Wells Fargo on accounts, in the White House with the president’s family doing business deals while governing, it is clear that greed trumps ethics and morals much of the time.
Clearly, government and corporations have much trust building to do. With this loss of trust in the great pillars of our society, one would hope that science would be the way to resolve the debate underway over GMOs.
But let’s look at the second problem, which relates to whether the preponderance of science behind GMOs is being used for regenerative and truly sustainable agriculture.
As the earlier panel today on gene editing clarified, the big-ticket items of GMO 1.0 were flawed because they did not address the fundamental problem of industrial agriculture, which is monoculture. Agriculture must not be framed as an assembly line where the goal is to maximize efficiency by minimizing diversity in plants and animals. That is dangerous, short-term thinking. Nature abhors and resists monocultures. Nature seeks diversity and revels in mutation, which fuel adaptation and evolution. Round Up ready crops, the primary global use of GMOs, were conceived as silver bullets that support monocultures. But Round Up ready seed has led to super weeds and forced a move to more toxic substances. At the same time, monoculture has also made it nearly impossible in some places for farmers to buy non-GMO seeds, so they cannot supply buyers seeking GMO-free crops.
The question thus remains: will GMO 2.0 continue to prop up monoculture, in which farmers become dependent on seed and chemical companies? Or will GMO 2.0 enable a more diverse, flavorful, nutrition- and soil-enhancing, climate-healing, water-economizing and toxic-minimizing approach that does not make farmers dependent on, or victimized by, companies that own all the patents and chemicals and, therefore, hold all the economic and political power.
In conclusion, to win the support of the mass majority of the public for GMOs, I would submit we would need a fully transparent scientific process where patents don’t protect research results from review by other scientists, where the regulatory regime is free from the influence of companies that may be putting profit before people and where GMO products are not conceived as bullets meant to prop up monocultures that ultimately fail, but are instead about poly-cultures that build farm and ecological resilience.