Tuesday, June 09, 2009

White book: genetically modified crops

Sorry, this blog may be silent for one week.

The Biology Center of the Czech Academy of Sciences has published
The White Book on Genetically Modified Crops (PDF, click).
On 98 pages, Prof František Sehnal, Prof Jaroslav Drobník, and their collaborators summarize and analyze the EU policies concerning GM crops and evaluate the results of their 30+ research papers that happen to show no negative health or environmental impact.

(If you're growing something, the biggest risk of GMO seeds is that they may be patented.)

Their goal is not to promote GM crops themselves but rather the rational thinking in policymaking - which happens to mean that the obsolete, excessively strict, 20-year-old EU policies should be weakened. The wise introductory page 3/98 of their booklet should be read in many other contexts, especially in climate science, and let me reproduce it here:
The history of major human discoveries shows that fundamentalist ideology, ignorance, and greed often suppress the truth, but only for a certain period of time. This book was prepared with the desire to shorten the period of false apprehension of GM crops in Europe.
The booklet summarizes the opinions of pretty much all Czech experts on the subject. New EU rules to estimate the risk of GM crops should be completed by Spring 2010 so it's time for all the responsible people to read similar booklets. Stavros Dimas, the EU environment commissioner and a big GMO hater, has already received a copy.

I am afraid that Dimas prefers a different kind of letters from those green weeds who don't need to send 30+ papers or 98 pages of a summary written by leading biologists of a country: an anti-technological attitude of loud morons is more important for him.

Most farmers are not afraid of GM crops.

Among other things, the Czech biologists argue that
  1. decisions shouldn't contradict existing evidence
  2. results rather than methods of breeding should be the key criteria
  3. the precautionary principle should be replaced by costs-and-benefits analyses in all sectors of agriculture
  4. pluses and minuses of all new proposals as well as the old methods they replace (which often include pesticides) should be counted
  5. economic considerations should play a role, too
  6. if individual EU countries are allowed to strengthen and extend some bans, they should also be allowed to loosen them
Concerning the last point, Czechia would benefit from Amflora potatoes (siblings of BASF videotapes that are good to produce environmentally friendly plastic materials). Many people hold ultraconservative, or reactionary opinions about new plants.

But we shouldn't forget that even ordinary potatoes themselves are a result of recent innovation of the European agriculture. Modern subspecies of potatoes were cultivated in Chile roughly 10,000 years ago but imported to Europe in 1536.

Today, genetically modified plants constitute 10% of the market and if you believe that Charles Darwin was right, they're whopping 100% of the market. ;-) The GMO policymaking depends almost exclusively on experts in the U.S. while it is largely determined by ordinary people, democracy, and Greenpeace in Europe. For example, Nicolas Sarkozy needed the green votes to win and he only knew two algorithms how to achieve the goal. It would be too hard to sacrifice nuclear energy in France (a nuclear superpower) - so the GMO plants had to go in the country. ;-)

Farmers, oversupply, and green religious sentiments

Some farmers say that it's stupid to make plants more efficient and resilient if we have enough of them. Well, one year ago, we were on the edge of a serious food shortage. These farmers also reveal a seemingly wise sentiment coming from somewhere in between Christianity and green fundamentalism. They say that Nature can never give us more stuff without punishing us. Well, it actually can and it does.

There exists no conservation law for the amount of useful products that people produce - and in some sense, the "anomaly" or violation of this law is measured by the GDP growth which (after integration) has been positive during nearly all decades of the last 600 years, as well as most other periods of the human history. ;-)

You Are My Master (Musical: Dracula, music by K. Svoboda). A top Czech singer, Ms Lucie Bílá, loved Count Dracula despite his being a vampire. So I suppose she has no problems with GMOs, either.

One can only argue that there is (almost) no free lunch if there exists an (approximate) conservation law for the given quantity. That's not the case of GMO which are a textbook example of progress that is capable to violate such laws. Economics is not a zero-sum game. Technological breakthroughs are among the factors that make the sum positive, much like market pressures that lead the players to replace less efficient products and approaches by more efficient ones.

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