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Ready for Better GMOs?

Population growth isn’t the apocalyptic problem Malthusian greens once spent so much time making it out to be, but even though growth rates are slowing down, feeding our planet’s billions remains one of the biggest challenges for humanity. That task becomes even harder when you consider that our warming planet and its changing climate are going to create new challenges for farmers. Threats to food security are proliferating even as the demands placed on our agricultural system grow along with the global population.

But there’s hope yet, as scientists are continuing to refine the techniques by which they can genetically modify crops to make them hardier, less reliant on pesticides, and capable of producing higher yields. But as the WSJ reports, we’re looking at GMO 2.0, as companies are developing ways to do more than genetically modify. Now, we’re genetically editing:

Gene editing is different from the genetic modifications that Monsanto and other companies pioneered in the 1980s.

Gene editing allows scientists to make changes to a plant’s already-existing DNA with the same precision that word-processing programs can edit text, scientists say. In the crop-seed business, genetic modification up to this point mainly has involved inserting new genes from bacteria or another plant. That difference can mean a shorter review by U.S. regulatory agencies for gene-edited crops. […]

Dr. Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, said gene editing could help corn plants thrive in dry conditions, or produce tastier bell peppers. “It’s a breakthrough technology,” he said. “It’s going to create just a wave of innovation.”

We’ve continued to refine our understanding of genomes, and that knowledge, coupled with advances in computing, is now creating new opportunities for us to make the best possible versions of the food crops on which we rely.

Greens will invariably decry the “unnatural” aspects of these “GEOs”, just as they did with GMOs, and they’ll be able to sway certain sections of the public. But those Luddite concerns ignore the fact that we’ve been working to create better versions of our food since we started planting crops those many thousands of years ago. Gene editing is a far cry from selective breeding to be sure, but it’s still a variation on the same basic concept: human ingenuity adapting nature to better serve our needs.

These new editing techniques will undoubtedly be subject to the same scientific scrutiny that GMOs have been over the past few decades, but thus far research has shown genetically modified crops to be perfectly safe for human consumption. That’s good news, because we’re going to need every trick in the book if we want to not just feed every human on our planet, but help them thrive (with tastier peppers, even) as well.

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  • Fat_Man

    “our warming planet and its changing climate are going to create new challenges for farmers.”

    Like longer growing seasons, and more plant food in the air? Oh, the horrors.

    • Andrew Allison

      You beat me to it!

    • Tom

      Well, and drought, and changing weather conditions and climatic patterns that will create opportunities in some areas while destroying them in others.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Wow, really? And since this has NEVER happened before in human history, how can we prepare for it?

        • WeGotta

          Preparedness list:
          -Diversify types of crops eaten
          -Incentivize small farms
          -Support strong local economies
          -Have back up plan

          • f1b0nacc1

            How about not interfering in free markets, which would let people (instead of self-appointed ‘wise men’) decide what would be best? I suspect that would go a long way to making both of us happy.

            As for your suggestions, might I ask how you would intend to make those things happen? I am not being snarky here, I am genuinely interested….

          • WeGotta

            I’m not sure free markets even exist.
            How free can they be in an economy designed around the idea of infinite growth and debt as the means of monetary creation?
            Such a system significantly favors the energy industry, central banks and huge multinational corporations at its very inception.

            I prefer the minimum of interference from regulation but also would fight hard for regulations that make sense since I’d never trust or even expect that a business should follow the ethical or moral principles of society.

            Using tax money to pay misinformation professionals to combat misinformation with different misinformation sounds stupid, is extremely suspect and seems destined to fail.

            What to do? Hundreds of options. Just incentivize thousands of people to become small farmers.

            Here’s one way:
            Instead of the fed giving interest free bonds to huge banks who use it to generate exponential debt which they then sell to us, why not give a million dollar loan to a thousand small farmers?

            There’s thousands of young people who just need land. Cities could give them land which doesn’t have a purpose thus removing maintenance costs for the city as well as generating taxable business exchange from the new farms.
            Study after study shows that these sorts of things (common areas, farmers markets, localization of food) are powerful economic compounders.

            I say it’s time to tax junk food. I don’t eat it yet I help pay for it to exist.
            The problems stemming from addiction should be paid for by the users.

          • ——————————

            Your idea is cutesy, but not practical.
            Small farms can’t make enough profit to sustain a lifestyle…not unless you want food prices to go through the roof. It is the economies of scale that have made food as cheap as it is. Small farms are extinct for a reason.
            I wish it were different. I like the idea of smaller businesses, especially farms, but the efficiencies and economy of large-scale farming brings us cheap, affordable food, and allows us so much extra that we can feed many others around the world….

          • WeGotta

            Gimme a break.
            So it’s “practical” to grow heavily subsidized, fossil fuel guzzling, Wall Street manipulated, unpopular, government pushed, gene edited, round up ready, petroleum fertilized crops for processing into chemicals which must then be manufactured into food like items which then need to be wrapped in plastic which is then wrapped in boxes and shipped 1000’s of miles through a series of ships and trucks on rails and highways so that Americans can get diabetes from eating too much of it?

            But a few small farms close to your house growing dozens of different plants and animals using regenerative agriculture to produce healthy food is not practical?

            Always entertaining to meet people who think science is powerful enough to safely alter the DNA of our food but not so powerful to figure out how we can grow healthy food in ways that add value to a community rather than stripping it away.

          • ——————————

            What is being done is what is practical…what you are suggesting is emotional and immature. You’ve been watching too much Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser…unfortunately.
            As I said…you can’t make enough to earn a living and be competitive in the market place. You would have to sell your product at greatly inflated prices. If your way was the most practical and profitable, it would be done that way…do you actually think you are more agriculturally ingenious than the American agricultural industry?
            Now agriculture is done as you suggest it should be in 3rd-world countries…lots of small growers toiling away in fields without fertilizers and chemicals and selling their low-yield product in markets…and we know how well that works out for them….

            …But you know better than the American agricultural industry, so I suggest you get yourself a little acreage and have at it. Come back to TAI in a few years and let us know how it’s working out for you…we’ll still be here….

            You go get’em tiger!

          • WeGotta

            Gee. I’m glad I met the authority on practicality, the sultan of markets and the professor of all things impossible.
            How lucky of me.

            The truth will be hard for those farmers I get my food from. It’s sad really.
            They thought they had a good business model all this time.
            It’ll be a shock to hear that ………………. doesn’t think it works.

            Hopefully they can switch to growing junk food chemicals before it’s too late.

            Double stuffed Oreos? Ingenious!

          • ——————————

            Like I said…go get a little acreage and have at it…since you and your other idealistic, hippie compatriots have a better idea on how to feed the US and the rest of the world, go for it! I am sure your idea will raise agricultural productivity, and the average life expectancy….

            I guess the last 100+ years of agribusiness and agriscience is not as savvy as WeGotta…wow, who knew!

          • WeGotta

            Yes sir!
            I’m gonna get right on it.

            Acreage, check.
            Hippies, check.
            Feed the world, check.

            Wow. I’m so glad I met some stranger online!
            Here I thought I was already happy eating healthy food from the abundant small community farms that already exist.
            Here I thought the local farmers I can talk to actually shared my values about healthy food and how to grow it. Damn my eyes for tricking me all this time.

            I guess those stupid hippies don’t really care about me like those multinational billion dollar agribusinesses.

            I’m sure every dollar I give them is used to better my life and protect those things I care about most.

            Who needs ideals anyway?

          • WeGotta

            I think I need your direct phone number.

            My local plumber doesn’t seem to get it. I told him that he needs to fix the toilets for the world and not just his city but he must be some hippie idealist or something. He says he’ll just worry about his neighbors. What a selfish bastard to ignore the last 100+ years of plumbing science and business.

            Next up I’m gonna see how I can get my dry cleaners to clean the world’s laundry and check how we can get the world’s children to the day care next door.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The notion that markets are organized around the principle of ‘infinite growth’ is a popular one among folks on the left (please note, I am NOT calling you a ‘Lefty’, a very different thing to my mind…there is nothing wrong with being on the left, as much as I might disagree with it) but it doesn’t necessarily have much currency in reality. Certainly the notion of using debt as a means of monetary creation misrepresents (again, not necessarily deliberately) what really goes on in money markets. There is little doubt that these are principles that are operative in things like the stock market (which is, after all, designed as a method of raising money, and thus presumes growth as a fundamental basis for its operation), but the economy as a whole is a much bigger thing than merely one aspect of the larger free market.

            You discuss “using tax money to pay misinformation professionals…” (I will avoid a complete quote), this isn’t entirely clear to me, just what are you saying? I don’t want to put words in your mouth…could you please clarify?

            As pointed out below, small farmers are fantastically inefficient in terms of producing food at anything even close to a reasonable price. While one might object to large agribusinesses on principle (I don’t share this view, but it certainly isn’t beyond the pale), the consequences of it would be significantly higher food prices, something that would punish lower income individuals the most. The rich will simply be able to avoid the consequences of this policy, something that I don’t think is what you intend. Even if I were to grant the efficacy of such a proposal, a million dollar loan to a thousand small farmers would have very little effect, other than saddling these would-be farmers with a staggering debt…again, something that I don’t think you intend.

            As for those ‘thousands of young people who just need land”, who are they and what do they need the land for? Cities do possess land that they could distribute, but most of the land that they own isn’t going to be useful for very much other than real-estate development….what do they /need/ it for? Urban farms are quaint, but hardly viable business options. I am prepared to be proven wrong though…surely there are some cities out there that are in a position to try this, I have no objection to this taking place as long as it is a loan, not simply a giveaway to favored groups (a recipe for corruption). One must wonder, if such an idea was so favorable, why has it not been tried on any significant scale? Would you care to share links to some of those studies that demonstrate the efficacy of these proposals? Please note that I am looking for real studies, not simply puff pieces from advocacy groups. As I have said, I am willing to be convinced….

            We will differ on junk food taxes. Junk food exists because people are willing to pay for it (they are called consumers, I believe), and if people were not willing to do so, the product would cease to exist. One can argue that the externalities from such foods impose social costs, but that can be said about pretty much anything, and I don’t hold with taxing things as a punitive measure. If you don’t like junk food, don’t eat it…I notice you don’t (good for you)…but how can you seriously argue that those who choose differently should be punished? Are you seriously arguing that non-criminal behavior that you don’t approve of is something that should be actively punished? Who, precisely, gets to choose what behaviors (again, NON-criminal behaviors, I think we can agree that criminal behavior is an entirely different matter) should be discouraged or punished. Do we stop with junk food or do we have other ‘bad stuff’ that needs to be extirpated?

          • WeGotta

            Why even make comments about “the left”? What is the point of pointing it out?
            Our economy is set up and operated by those who benefit the most from it’s set up and operation.
            The government regulatory agencies who’s job it is to protect us from those that would use their position for gain has become part of their operation.

            Those are true statements. Evidence abounds to support the statements.
            There is no need to bring up what some fictional group of people (like “the left”) think about the situation unless your intent is to distract from reality.

            I reject outright your claims about efficiency and small farms. There are so many falsities built into such a statement that it’s ridiculous.
            1. Efficient by what measure? Absolute bushels per acre? Why on earth would that be the number one goal of a nation’s food supply? Are we running low on food?
            What if a 5% sacrifice in “efficiency” leads to cleaner water?
            What if a 7% sacrifice in “efficiency” allows for a reduction in pesticide use?
            What if getting 4% more “efficiency” means the soil won’t last more than 10 years?
            What if getting 2% less “efficiency” means a million Americans have a job?
            2. How was it measured? What things were included and which were ignored?
            Did you take into account the costs of our “defense” budget when you were figuring out how efficient is our agriculture? We can’t have modern agriculture without all that oil. Don’t forget to include all those things that keep the oil flowing when you are doing your calculations. Don’t forget all the machinery and maintenance. Don’t forget all the infrastructure that is absolutely needed for such operations. Don’t forget the fertilizer and poisons. They must be mined and manufactured and shipped and applied.
            Did you take into account the actual use of the crop? How is it fair to only count bushels of corn per acre but ignore the fact that most of the corn grown is not eaten as corn?
            Did you include all the steps between harvest and actual “food” in the supermarket? There’s shipping and processing and shipping and wrapping and boxing and shipping again.
            Did you include the disposal of all the waste? The plastic in the oceans? The dumpsters of day old junk food behind the supermarkets?
            Is making millions of plastic bottles filled with yoo hoo in a very “efficient” way automatically a good thing for Americans? Wouldn’t it be “more efficient” to not make it in the first place?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Lets start with the first point…the ‘left’ (i.e. those in the academic-entertainment-political-industrial complex….grin… who agitate for those positions typically associated with socialism or neo-marxism) certainly do represent a cohesive entity, or at least a collection of cohesive entities flying in formation. There is nothing sinister about this, it is entirely natural and normal for fellow travellers to …. well, travel together. I would argue that Leftists, on the other hand, represent an entirely different sort of animal, but I will freely concede that this is something of a value judgement. YMMV and all that…

            Moving on to the idea that government (and whatever other ‘powers that be’ you wish to refer to) represent some sort of conspiracy of the well off, I suppose if I had more time (I don’t), I would point out that there are things such as regulatory capture which explain the process you describe quite neatly. This is why I am something of a libertarian, I believe that the less government power there is, the less likely that it will be captured and coopted. Even if I agreed with your assessment (I don’t, it requires more of an overt conspiracy than I find likely…I tend to think that there are more common interests than you do, and this tends to explain the behavior that you – and I! – decry), nothing short of reeducation camps and a dictatorship of the chosen (and who would choose them?) is likely to change matters. The complete failure of any number ‘people’s revolutions’ to produce anything but misery and body counts leads me to conclude that even hoping for the chosen to rule better than merely the rich and powerful is likely to be a sucker bet.

            Now, to return to your questions:

            1) Given the fact that Western (really American, but lets keep it generous) agriculture feeds not only the West, but most of the rest of the world as well, lowering yields would have an immediate and devastating impact on much of the rest of the world. Now if we want to ignore the rest of the world, that is fine, but remember that food prices are at historic lows largely because our productivity is so high. Lower it, and prices will rise and the ones who will be most seriously affected are the poor. The rich can easily adjust, but the poor don’t have much in the way of margin of error, so they will suffer serious negative externalitities. Now, I am not foolish enough to believe that “productivity uber alles” is necessarily a positive thing, but the tradeoffs you describe are typically not ‘5% vs cleaner water’ but more like 30-40%. When you (deliberately or otherwise) misstate the real costs involved, you undermine the basis of your entirely reasonable initial suggestion. Even so, why not let such tradeoffs be explored. Property rights are a great way to do that, but when the government steps in and interferes (i.e. distorts) markets, they undermine those price signals that allow trade-offs to happen. Remember, you were the one who pointed to regulatory capture as a serious problem….what makes you think that giving the government MORE power to regulate is going to work out well? As a final point, what happens when people making free choices REJECT your policy preferences? Are you willing to defer to that?

            2) Your second question is an excellent one, and fortunately we have an opportunity to explore the historical record. The sort of agriculture that I endorse was implemented both in the developed world and the underdeveloped one, and in the later case, we saw it implemented in numerous countries with different social, political, and economic systems. India, for instance, adopted the Bourlag model almost in toto, and has become a net agricultural exporter as a result. This absolutely involved greater energy consumption (estimates are about a 1-1 1/2% overall increase) associated with transportation and other agricultural chemicals (the latter of which make much more heavy use of natural gas these days), but lets be generous and agree on 2%. Even if it were 5%, we are still talking about a fairly modest change for a very large growth increment in the GDP, and a massive reduction in hunger and suffering. As for all of those nasty infrastructure things….these produce jobs and thus add to the economy. Surely this is a good thing? As a minor point, do you think that a ‘locally sourced’ economy would be bereft of costs? Non-mechanized agriculture is massively labor-intensive, and it isn’t fun labor either. Mao was a great lover of this approach during the Cultural Revolution….is that your preferred model?

            Your point on fertilizers and poisons (I assume you mean pesticides and herbicides) is certainly well taken, but unless you are willing to lose a whole lot of productivity (and we aren’t talking about 5%, we are talking about 50% or more…once again, take a look at the evolution of agriculture in both India and the Far East since 1960 as a good example of this), you are unlikely to see much change.

            Your point on corn is an excellent one, and I am no apologist for the massive subsidies that lead to the growth of the High Fructose Corn Sugar industry or the enviromental whackos who helped create the rationalization for biofuels. I repeat, I want to end market distortions that require massive overproduction of crops like corn, but you seem to ignore that they are there because of government involvement in the first place. This wasn’t a matter of evil agricorps (many of which only exist because the government doesn’t enforce its own anti-trust laws) tricked the virtuous DOA into imposing these policies, the policies were created by the DOA at the behest of the EPA, and they led to a result predicted by the opponents of such policies at the time.

            Once again, you point to waste as if I am somehow defending it, and I am not. On the other hand, ‘waste’ is often in the eye of the beholder. Fast food isn’t something I personally think of as a hugely desirable thing, but to a busy family without the time to spend hours preparing such things, it is a godsend. I personally enjoy a roast duck on a bed of rice pilaf, which many would consider a hugely wasteful way to get calories. It is, more than anything else, a question of priorities, and what is liberty if it isn’t an imperative to acknowledge (and respect!) those differing priorities. I believe liberty comes first, and it is in fact waste that often makes the pursuit of liberty possible. I don’t know how much you have traveled, but I have spent significant time in places without much waste (substance agriculture encourages a great deal of thriftiness, though not always by choice) and I assure you there is very little liberty there.

            3) Of course there are tax breaks and subsidies (and yes, by the way I did remove them from my calculations….) and if anything they REDUCE, rather than increase efficiency. The use of corn in biofuels and for HFCS is fantastically wasteful, and this is a clear side-effect of regulatory behavior. In fact you pointed that out yourself!

            I happen to live in the mid-west, which has a suitable climate for growing, excellent soil, adequate water, and a large number of capable food producers. I am also fortunate enough to be quite friendly with a number of restauranteurs who are quite active in the local food movement, so I do have some understanding of what you are proposing. It is a wonderful dream for the well-off who can afford to ship in the nice extras that cannot be locally sourced, and who don’t have to eat the locally sourced foods ALL the time. For everyone else, it is a drab, dreary existence. Local farmer’s markets are wonderfully quaint and even useful, but they are a luxury of a rich society that has a functioning agricultural system, they are not the backbone of such a system. If you want to go back to the mid 19th century, more luck to you, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that isn’t what you are proposing. Well, for everyone except the rich, that is….

          • WeGotta

            I love hearing from strangers how my actual life experiences didn’t really happen the way I thought.

            I’ll try not to fool myself again. I need to transport backwards in time so I can follow my dream and escape this drab, dreary life where fancy farmer’s markets are for rich people only.

          • WeGotta

            Here is my quote:
            Using tax money to pay misinformation professionals to combat misinformation with different misinformation sounds stupid, is extremely suspect and seems destined to fail.

            The government says their good good buddies are being hurt by “misinformation” about gmo. People don’t seem to want to buy it.

            So what’s their plan? Why, to hire professional marketers to concoct marketing schemes in order to make us choose gmo rather than non-gmo.

            Which professional marketers will they choose? Will it be the same ones who get us to buy more junk food when too much junk food is already the biggest killer of Americans?

            And how do those PR firms and ad agencies get people to buy things they didn’t want to buy in the first place? Misinformation maybe?
            Unless you want to argue that all advertising is scientific fact?

            So, the government will hire professional misinformation peddlers in order to combat misinformation.

            Seems like if we don’t buy something they want us to buy, we need education against “misinformation” but if we do buy something they want us to buy, then the misinformation is working just fine.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Ah! The GMO boogeyman….

            So the folks who encourage the development and use of GMOs are evil manipulators, and those who oppose them are of course pure of heart and would never stoop to misinformation or manipulation/

            Sorry, there you have lost me. I appreciate your courtesy in your reply, but I don’t bother with this sort of silliness.


          • WeGotta

            Ah! The time in the conversation where you make up stuff and throw insults.
            Didn’t take long to get there either. How efficient!

            You read
            “In order to to counter claims of alleged misinformation which could ‘harm science’, our government is paying professional misinformation artists to use misinformation against all of us (using our money) when in fact those same professional misinformation artists also use misinformation in ways that actually harms Americans”

            and heard
            “GMO is scary! Be afraid of it!!!
            The folks who encourage the development and use of GMOs are evil!!!! THEY MANIPULATE!
            I think all those who oppose GMO are angels. Those brave warriors would never do VILE EVIL MANIPULATING things like the gmo monster.”

          • WeGotta

            A tax on junk food is not punitive. People should be forced to pay for the consequences of their own choices.

            Why should I help pay for your triple bypass that was needed only because you chose to eat food known to cause heart disease?

            Why should I have to pay for the cleanup of all the plastic trash from all the over packaged junk food that litters the streets?

            There should be no laws against junk food or drugs. But, people who choose to take them should pay for the consequences of their own actions.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Do you seriously suggest that a ‘pay for your pleasures’ tax rate wouldn’t be punitive? The clear tone of your question implies a punitive bent…

            More to the point however, where does it stop? Do we tax people who don’t exercise enough? Who indulge in risky hobbies? Who eat meat? Do we simply appoint a commisar of healthy living to investigate such things?

            Are you seriously suggesting that we give the government the right to control these aspects of our lives without considering the possibility for abuse? You point out that government is corrupt and dominated by nefarious powers…do you want to give them such control?

          • WeGotta

            Nope. None of that stuff.
            We just talk to economic experts and they pretty much explain the best ways to do it.

            It’s not just me and you pounding out federal policy on the comments section.

        • Tom

          Good question. Have you considered it?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Since we as a species are a fairly adaptable lot, I am not terribly worried. Now if AGW was real, that would be a different matter, but as it isn’t, I am not too concerned….

      • Blackbeard

        Average temperatures vary by about 50 degrees between the arctic and the tropics and humans live successfully in both. If you believe the various climate models the outer limit of what might happen by 2100 is 4 or 5 degrees. Do you really think we couldn’t adapt to that?

        • Tom

          We could. I’m not so sure about the crops, particularly if the anti-GMO boys and girls get their way more often. Also, it might mean having to abandon current agricultural infrastructure and shifting it elsewhere–and while the US and Europe can easily do so, other countries will not be as able to adjust.

      • Jim__L

        Drought is about how much water is in the air, not how much CO2 (or heat) is in the air. Jungles and deserts are both very hot places.

    • rpabate

      Exactly my thought. I assume the writer is unaware that greenhouse growers pump warm CO2 into their greenhouses to both increase yields and reduce water usage. Most plants thrive in an environment of about 1,000 ppm of CO2 while also requiring less water.

      • Fat_Man

        A warmer world is a healthier, wealthier, and happier world.

  • WeGotta

    How is feeding billions of fictional people in the future “one of the biggest challenges for humanity”?

    We treat our bodies poorly, we treat each other poorly, we treat our fellow biological life poorly.
    There are much bigger problems right now!
    Maybe our fictional problems go away when we all get our sh!t together today.

    Oh wait. Let’s just pray to science so we don’t have to do anything ourselves.
    Have faith brothers and sisters! Lord technology our savior will deliver us from our stupidity and greed.
    Help feed those people Geebus Mother Omniscient.

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