Many decades ago I wanted to be a researcher for a forestry company like Weyerhauser. I wanted to find new ways to use what trees provided, to make new products that might help us save some of those beautiful forests. Kind of a conflict of interest, I guess, to work for a forestry company that specialized in clearcutting whole forests but looking for ways to cut (pun intended) the amount of clearcutting….
While working towards a degree in forest management at Texas A&M University, a degree which I never have used (it looks pretty hanging on the wall, though!), I did gain an appreciation for how research is done, and I’m a big proponent of peer-reviewed research published in respectable (i.e., well-established) journals.
Conflict of interest…. Peer-reviewed research….
That brings me to Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO).
According to Wikipedia (and yes, I do like Wikipedia both because I am a volunteer editor there myself and because Wikipedia requires valid sources and citations rather than opinions):
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. The term GMO is very close to the technical legal term, ‘living modified organism,’ defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, ‘any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology’).”
When I was working towards my Bachelor of Science, in 1975 the world population was a little over four billion. To put that into a time perspective:
AD 1 – 200 million
1000 – 265 million
1955 (when I was born) – 2.756 billion
1975 – 4.068 billion
2000 – 6.070 billion
2015 – 7.324 billion
My interest in biotechnology increased significantly in 1984 when Dr. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), “Father of the Green Revolution,” agreed to teach and do his research at my alma mater, Texas A&M University. Dr. Borlaug had used biotechnology techniques to increase worldwide food production, particularly in Mexico, Pakistan, and India. For his contributions to increasing the world’s food supply, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He continued teaching and doing research at Texas A&M right up until his death in 2009 at the age of 95.
Borlaug’s work to increase crop yields was, in his view, a means to curb deforestation, a view with led to the “Borlaug Hypothesis,” that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland.
“Assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.” (Angelsen, A., and D. Kaimowitz. 2001. “The Role of Agricultural Technologies in Tropical Deforestation.” Agricultural Technologies and Tropical Deforestation at the Wayback Machine (archived September 29, 2005). CABI Publishing, New York.
That’s all well and good, but Borlaug’s work has resulted in a big-time industry in genetically modified organisms, ultimately dumping much of the GMO criticism directly on Dr. Borlaug.
According to Wikipedia:
“Throughout his years of research, Borlaug’s programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects. Borlaug’s work has been criticized for bringing large-scale monoculture, input-intensive farming techniques to countries that had previously relied on subsistence farming. These farming techniques reap large profits for U.S. agribusiness and agrochemical corporations such as Monsanto Company and have been criticized for widening social inequality in the countries owing to uneven food distribution while forcing a capitalist agenda of U.S. corporations onto countries that had undergone land reform.
“Other concerns of his critics and critics of biotechnology in general include: that the construction of roads in populated third-world areas could lead to the destruction of wilderness; the crossing of genetic barriers; the inability of crops to fulfill all nutritional requirements; the decreased biodiversity from planting a small number of varieties; the environmental and economic effects of inorganic fertilizer and pesticides; the amount of herbicide sprayed on fields of herbicide-resistant crops.
“Borlaug dismissed most claims of critics, but did take certain concerns seriously. He stated that his work has been “a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia”. Of environmental lobbyists he stated, “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”.
So we are back to Monsanto. I’m not naïve enough to think that Monsanto doesn’t want money, and they think they have found a way to make significant amounts of it. I’m also not naïve enough to think that companies (and extraordinarily rich people) are going to do the right thing just because. Life doesn’t work that way, which is why governments need to step in to control things.
Unfortunately, governments throughout history have been shown to be corrupt. In the United States today, courtesy of the United States Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision, corporations are people and are free to buy as many politicians and governments as they can afford.
I’m all for Monsanto making money off of its GMOs, and I’m all for those GMOs being used to solve world food, health, and housing problems. In order for me to have confidence in their work and their research, though, I need to continue to see that work and research published in peer-reviewed publications.
The main reason is that many corporations sponsor academic research, so the academic researcher might have a desire to make the research conform to the needs or wants of the corporation. That’s where the peer review comes in. Well-respected, peer-reviewed publications send research out to other people for review, and the researcher doesn’t have a choice as to which people the publication sends the research to. Sure, the researcher can advocate for specific people, but the publication editors may or may not choose those people.
When I worked at Texas A&M University from 1983-1987, I worked for the Department of Chemistry, the College of Science, the University Press, and the TAMU NMR Newsletter, all under the tutelage of Dr. Bernard Shapiro, a foremost researcher in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance. Dr. Shapiro often got requests from various publications throughout the world (Science, Magnetic Resonance in Chemistry, Journal of the American Chemical Society, Journal of Chemistry, Journal of Magnetic Resonance, et al.) to review research, and I had the pleasure of compiling his comments and sending them off to the publications.
- as long as human population growth increases out of control,
- as long as men are not willing to put a condom on it,
- as long as women are not willing to take a pill the day after,
- as long as Republican politicians continue to try to control a woman’s right to choose,
- as long as we have selfish people like the Duggars, and
- as long as we have peer-reviewed research,
I’m going to go with Monsanto on this one so that at least no one has to starve to death.
I will continue to watch the situation, though, and continue to read peer-reviewed research in established publications rather than listen to sound bites or reading sound bite Internet memes.
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