Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Response to Skeptico: Must Pay for GM Seeds?


At Skeptico's blog, he has a post: Must Pay for GM Seeds?

I read this post and despair at the smug confidence of nerds who probably never worked on a farm or studied agricultural economics.

Historically (and presently), farmers have been driven off the land, resulting in consolidation and eventual corporate ownership of farmland. There is a conflict between these pressures and the farmer's own ideas of the way they'd like to live and work. In most cultures, a farm represented sufficient resources and food security to raise a family, with surplus for markets. In the US, this was the basis of the Jeffersonian economic policy (which had the added benefit of omitting landlords.)

Forcing farmers off the land has been done directly (via enclosure acts) and indirectly by taxation and market pressures leading to foreclosure/bankruptcy. Farmers are forced to enter the market system to pay taxes. There, they must compete with other farmers in production of commodities. The prices of commodities are continually pushed downwards by increasing productivity of capital-intensive technology.

Farmers have always disliked this vise of economic pressure, and wished for freedom to simply farm and raise their families. Many years ago, they resented hybrid seed because it increased the pressures: if you didn't buy it, you couldn't survive at the now-lowered price of the commodity and you had to buy it year after year because it didn't come true from seed. That meant you had to finance the seed and its increased fertilizer, which made you more prone to bankruptcy in a bad year. The one good thing about hybrid seed was that there WAS competition, because the technology was developed and dispersed by state and federal research without patents. Indeed, when you look at Plant Patent law, it excludes patents on plants propagated by seed partly to keep seed prices low.

GM seed is generally patented. Most GM seed at this time is a monopoly: there's very little competition. And when you get a monopoly in a chain of production, generally the monopolistic link is able to profit at the expense of most of the other links by being a price maker. This means farmers make less profit, even as they are producing more. In addition, the greater investment for the seed, herbicide, and fertilizer for the crop makes farming even riskier. Corporations owning dispersed and varied farmlands can self-insure, but it is costly and difficult for small farmers. This tends to drive more land out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of agribusiness.

GM seed is only the latest of many technological pressures on farmers, but perhaps the most monopolistic pressure since the railroad shipping and grain elevator monopolies.

Now that I've given you a little background, let's look at Skeptico's statements again.

"Note the wording, farmers must pay for GM seeds year after year, rather than save seeds. Must. Apparently they have no choice. Which is funny, because I didn’t think that farmers were compelled to use GM seeds."

Yes, they are compelled by the stark choice of GM or bankruptcy. Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM. Unless their productivity can keep up, they will go bankrupt.

"But I’m willing to accept I might be missing something here, so please tell me exactly what I am missing – why would farmers continue to pay for GM seeds if doing so reduced their overall profits and/or increases their debt?"

Does that answer your question? Saving seeds would reduce their income because commodity prices drop. And debt (an investment) is not so much a problem as the uncertainty (risk) that a crop may fail and thus bankrupt the farmer. It's a racheting process that has been driving farmers off the land for more than a century in the US, and that is going on worldwide today.

So the farmer's opposition to GM seed comes partly from this latest of a long set of severe, inescapable pressures. They feel like they're in a nightmarish, involuntary game of musical chairs: every round, more farmers are driven out of their independent way of life. The solution would have to be a systemic solution, not just prohibition of GM seed. All the latter would do is buy some time. In Europe and Japan, they've adopted both systematic and anti-GM solutions to protect their farmers.

Destruction of crop genetic diversity is also a side effect of a capitalist system of industrialization of agriculture, and not specific to GM. GM is merely the latest competition with heirlooms, landraces and other reservoirs of genetic diversity.

The major problem that I perceive with GM is safety. Modern commodification of food conceals sources while ensuring widespread exposure. Remember the recent melamine contamination of pet food? That was traced quickly because it killed quickly. Say that some GM food had a thalidomide-like effect, that took close to a year to show? And that it was present in a widespread food such as soy or wheat? Or that it had an even slower to detect hormonal or carcinogenic effect? Do we really want to test GM foods on entire populations first? How costly would it be to expose the entire population to some unforseen harm that, say, caused improper development in children due to hormonal interference? How much testing should GM foods undergo before they are tested on the population at large? This question makes the European and Japanese anti-GM positions look much more reasonable.

9 comments:

Jeremy said...

I think many - if not most - of the arguments you make against Skeptico are consistent libertarian arguments, actually, when libertarian premises are taken to their natural conclusions.

Great post!

Ivo Cerckel said...

1.
“Say that some GM food had a thalidomide-like effect, that took close to a year to show?”

Yeah, you don’t like libertarianism?

Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey knew of the effects of thalidomide since 1938.

Thalidomide was marketed since 1957.

Kelsey started working for the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) only in 1960.

She nevertheless received a presidential award from US Of A president Kennedy for having saved the US of A from thalidomide.

How can she be credited for having saved the US of A from thalidomide since 1957?

Yes, anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism make sense, at least to thalidomide monsters like myself.


2.
Thalidomide was definitely known in the year 1938 and [its] defects were noted in Phoenix, AZ (USA) in a medical journal that year. It was known as a cure for Hanson’s Disease and made by [Richardson]-Merrill Co. in [Cincinnati], OH (USA). I don’t know what action was taken, but a young female doctor named Frances Oldham Kersey (or Kelsey) recognized its dangers. Theodore, Princeton, WV/USA
(reaction under From The Times April 4, 2008 Thalidomide: 50 years on victims unite to seek more compensation Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article3671815.ece

Kelsey was the lady who in 1960 only joined the US of A Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).

Once there, she further delayed thalidomide’s approval (thalidomide was marketed since 1957)
and was given a Presidential award by US of A president Kennedy for that delay.

Wikipedia says
that Kelsey is credited SINCE NINETEEN THIRTY-EIGHT with her interest in teratogens - that is, drugs that cause congenital malformations,
that 1938 was the date of the creation of the FDA,
and that Kelsey managed to be appointed there in 1960
+
As a result of her blocking American approval of thalidomide, Kelsey was awarded the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy,[becoming the second woman to receive that award
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Oldham_Kelsey

Thalidomide was marketed since 1957.

Kelsey was only appointed in the FDA in 1960.

How can she get (all) the credit for having ‘saved’ the US of A from it?


3.
The whistle on the thalidomide drug was blown at a congress of neurologists on 30 April - 1st May 1960 in Duesseldorf. (1)

Gruenenthal, the manufacturer in nearby Aachen, cannot possibly argue it didn’t know that.
Gruenenthal only withdrew thalidomide from Europe on 27 November 1961.

In September 1961,
that’s more than sixteen months after the Duesseldorf congress of neurologists,
Richardson-Merrill made an application in US of A to allow thalidomide there.
This application was only withdrawn in 1962. (2)

And then Gruenenthal comes arguing that outside Ireland and a few other countries where it sold the drug directly, it can refuse compensation because this would be the responsibility of the licence holders. (3)

Should Gruenenthal not have informed its licence holders about the harmful effects of the drug?


4.
We are always told that thalidomide had not been tested,
or at least that it has not been tested on humans,
AND THAT
if it had been tested on humans,
then BLAHBLAHBLAH …

But thalidomide has been tested in REAL LIFE by inter alia Dr Kelsey in 1938 and some neurologists at the congress of neurologists held on 30 April - 1st May 1960 in Duesseldorf.

Kelsey and these neurologists assembled in Duesseldorf found out that thalidomide led to serious birth defects in the babies.

Gruenenthal, the manufacturer of thalidomide, knew that. Guv’mint also.

But that did prevent the Gruenental from (continuing to) marketing it.

Ivo Cerckel
ivocerckel AT siquijor DOT ws

NOTES

(1)
Chronik des Conterganfalls
Tragödie - Katastrophe - Skandal?
http://www.wdr.de/themen/gesundheit/pharmazie/contergan/chronik.jhtml?rubrikenstyle=contergan
30. April/1. Mai 1960:
Auf einem Neurologen-Kongress in Düsseldorf berichtet der Neurologe Ralf Voss über die Nervenschädigungen, die seinen
Beobachtungen zufolge durch Thalidomid verursacht werden. Die Forschungsabteilung von Grünenthal versucht daraufhin, die Nervenschädigungen an Ratten zu reproduzieren - ohne Erfolg. Grünenthal-Forschungsleiter Mückter schließt daraus, dass es sich um besondere Situationen handelt, für die Contergan nur selten als Ursache infrage kommt.
+
27. November 1961:
Die Firma Grünenthal kündigt in einem Telegramm an das Düsseldorfer Innenministerium an, ihre Thalidomid-Präparate im In- und Ausland sofort aus dem Handel zu nehmen.
+
30. November 1961:
Eine Sachverständigen-Kommission, die das NRW-Innenministerium eingerufen hat, kommt zusammen. Die Experten erklären es für wahrscheinlich, dass Thalidomid Missbildungen hervorruft.Das amerikanische Arzneimittelunternehmen informiert Richardson-Merrill die US-Gesundheitsbehörde über die Ereignisse in Deutschland und zieht vier Monate später seinen Antrag auf Zulassung von Thalidomid zurück

(2)
Wie Amerika vor der Contergan-Katastrophe bewahrt wurde
Von Martina Lenzen-Schulte
http://www.faz.net/s/Rub7F74ED2FDF2B439794CC2D664921E7FF/Doc~EAF 04FB1B60CD4F83A586AA2D7BB84170~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html

(3)
“Outside Ireland and a few other countries where Grunenthal sold the drug directly it has refused compensation, arguing it is the responsibility of the licence holders.”
( Thalidomide victims in new compensation call
By Andrew Jack in London
Financial Times April 3 2008 03:00 | Last updated: April 3 2008 03:00
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6c825e5c-0117-11dd-a0c5-000077b07658.html

Elzair said...

In the US, this was the basis of the Jeffersonian economic policy (which had the added benefit of omitting landlords.)

and the added detriment (maybe not to us, but in general) of fostering Manifest Destiny.

Farmers are forced to enter the market system to pay taxes.

You mean they have to pay taxes like everyone else?

Farmers have always disliked this vise of economic pressure, and wished for freedom to simply farm and raise their families.

You think? I would love to be able to study interesting things and play with my cat (and soon my baby sister) all day as well, but due to the iniquities of the capitalist system, I will soon have to go out in the world and get a job to support myself. Boo-hoo-hoo!

Unless their productivity can keep up, they will go bankrupt.
Isn't increased productivity a good thing?

more farmers are driven out of their independent way of life.

Independent? Did you read chapter 7 of the Conservative Nanny State? How do massive agricultural subsidies, army protection from Injuns, etc. classify as 'independent'?

The major problem that I perceive with GM is safety. Quite frankly, I find the safety concerns to be vastly overblown. I think with the rapid accumulation of knowledge since the beginning of genome mapping, we could likely avoid some obvious pitfalls.

Mike said...

Is there anyone paying attention who is still surprised by things like this? Libertarians, almost to a man (since almost all of them are men), are so morally defective that they feel it's ok to attack the weak. Some of them actually seem to enjoy doing it.
They are NEVER in a position to feel the effects of their ridiculous policies, and so have no problem telling others to suffer.
I've given up on dealing with them. I've had too many of them just rant on and on about how great they are, how anyone who isn't one of them is a "socialist", how they're experts at everything relevant (especially when they show NO knowledge of the subject other than bumper sticker slogans), and how anyone who says anything bad about them is de facto lying. Must be nice to invent reality as you go along.
Anyway, thanks for the info.

Mike Huben said...

Skeptico responded here: a sad attempt at a rebuttal.

I've answered it here. Here's the text:

You see it a lot in skeptics, convinced that their opponents are idiots, they get lazy and sloppy and start to use the same bullshit tactics as the creationists and woomeisters. They spend the majority of their argument on criticism of posters and pretending to authority and expertise they don't have, using third grade tactics. That doesn't work so well when confronted by another skeptic (myself.)

Skeptico obviously has little expertise in this field: he doesn't even know the basics of hybrid seed as Dunc points out. I was an undergraduate plant breeding major at Cornell, and I'm a hobby plant breeder even now 35 years later.

Look at Skeptico's response to me: he starts with whining that he's not going to the extreme length of signing up for a free blogger account. Sounds like a professional victim to me.

Next he attempts the "no you are" third grade tactic of responding with a paraphrase: "I read this post and despair..."

He calls my point that farmers want to continue in their business and raise their families "cartoonish": what does he think ordinary people want to do? Does he perhaps think farmers instead are bent on universal domination?

Skeptico then relies on rewriting my sentences that he quotes to make strawmen that he can knock down. I wrote "Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM." He rewrites this as "I think you’re saying that GM had made food prices drop." For gosh sake, if you must adopt creationist tactics, at least have the sense not to put your rewrite next to the actual quote! Even creationists know that strawmen are more convincing that way.

Then, like any good creationist refuting evolution, he makes a litany (list) of purported errors. And like most such creationist lists, he's hoping one will stick.
1) Strawman based on his rewrite except for "I’m sure it’s true that GM hasn’t (yet) resulted in significantly higher productivity or lower costs." Yet lower costs (especially in reduced petroleum usage) are precisely the sales pitch used in Roundup-Ready crops. So tell us how you're so sure, Mr. Skeptico: quote your source. Or were you just making things up?
2) Low food prices: yes, we are in the middle of a price spike, probably due to the near-doubling of petroleum costs. However, I found a graph of soybean prices over the past 25 years that shows prices rather constant (when you look past the normal variation) BEFORE you take inflation into account. Take inflation into account, and the price has dropped significantly over 25 years. So where did you get your information, Mr. Skeptico? Or did you really expect us to be fooled by a price spike?
3) Sure, people would view low food prices as nice. But there are other things people view as nice also, and confining your view to only one set of benefits is stupid.
4) Farmers care about commodity prices because they MUST sell in the market: we have set up our economy to force this. Other nations, such as EU nations and Japan have elaborate relief systems to protect their farmers from those pressures. Maybe free-market uber alles ideologues demand farmers deal the way other businesses do, but farming is an exceptional sort of business.
5) Misses the point entirely: farmers are opposed to GM because the introduction of a monopolistic chokepoint in the chain of sales means that the farmer's profits will be siphoned off at that chokepoint. This has happened historically over and over to farmers with railroads, grain elevators, milk wholesalers, etc. Farmers would not be opposed to GM if it was non-monopolistic in nature.

So Skeptico, perhaps you should develop a little humility and do the work to learn the subject before you spout off. Oh, and take care to actually answer what's been written, rather than create strawmen.

Glen said...

skeptico comes across as agriculturally challenged and you come across as economically challenged; I call that a draw. You *both* could use a little more humility when reaching outside your domain. IMHO, that is. :-)

I'm never going to convince you that you're misunderstanding how monopoly pricing works so I won't bother trying. But maybe we can make some progress on your concern that GM is risky in the Michael Crichton sense. To wit: The alternative to GM isn't that crops never change, it's that new strains are developed through older techniques such as hybridization. It seems to me that GM is an *improvement* over the prior methods with regard to risk because with GM you can make smaller, more isolated changes. Fewer changes in the genetic code for your crop means fewer chances of unwanted side-effects. True?

Even the issue of scale has its upsides - it amounts to the strategy of "put all your eggs in one basket *and watch that basket*" The fact that thousands of farmers are using the same strain means problems specific to that strain are likely to be found quickly. It means we have big economies of scale on finding and fixing problems, not just on increasing productivity. Seems like a good thing, does it not?

Mike Huben said...

Glen writes:
skeptico comes across as agriculturally challenged and you come across as economically challenged; I call that a draw. You *both* could use a little more humility when reaching outside your domain. IMHO, that is. :-)

And what is your expertise that gives you the remotest credibility either as impartial or an expert?

I'm never going to convince you that you're misunderstanding how monopoly pricing works...

We've been arguing for more than a decade, and you've seldom impressed me with your understanding of anything. But you're really good at parroting libertarian economic ideology.

The alternative to GM isn't that crops never change, it's that new strains are developed through older techniques such as hybridization.

There are at least two other alternatives to the UNREGULATED MONOPOLY GM that is represented by RoundupReady crops and others. First, GM can be regulated for safety: environmental, ecological, medical, and commercial (such as labelling.) Second, GM can be developed in non-monopolistic manners by eliminating patentability or other means (such as regulated monopoly, coop ownership, etc.)

It seems to me that GM is an *improvement* over the prior methods with regard to risk because with GM you can make smaller, more isolated changes.

No, you can't make any smaller changes. The improvement from GM is the ability to exchange DNA between organisms no matter their relationship. The amount transferred can be quite large: getting it small and precise is difficult.

Fewer changes in the genetic code for your crop means fewer chances of unwanted side-effects. True?

No. Crossing two very different strains of beans will mean a lot of changes, but is likely not to have harmful side effects. Putting genes from other species in may very well add harmful allergens or toxins.

Even the issue of scale has its upsides - it amounts to the strategy of "put all your eggs in one basket *and watch that basket*" The fact that thousands of farmers are using the same strain means problems specific to that strain are likely to be found quickly.

And that's exactly what happened when more than 1/3 of the US corn crop came down with Southern corn leaf blight in 1970. Quick isn't necessarily good.

It means we have big economies of scale on finding and fixing problems, not just on increasing productivity. Seems like a good thing, does it not?

It means that when we have a disaster, it may be so big that we will not be resilient. In addition, in these sorts of disasters they are enabled precisely because of the scale: it enabled rapid transmission across a huge swath of the country, whereas if the susceptible corn was less frequent, the spread may not have occurred.

And I doubt you'd accept your own argument for government mandated vaccination (which has huge safety regulation.)

that-xmas said...

Just following up on your comment...

I don't think you understand the older technologies involved with crop modification and why GM is a much better method of crop modification.

Hybridization isn't a matter of simply mating two different types of beans. The older methods of crop modification involve all sorts of things that would make your head spin. There is crude mutation methods, using chemicals or radiation to damage the genetic structure of plants. You cross your fingers and hope you get something good. My favorite technique is taking the DNA from one thing, mixing it with gold molecules and blasting it into the cells of the plant you want to change.

http://www.nal.usda.gov/pgdic/Probe/v2n2/particle.html

Genetic Modification, aiming to change a few specific genes, would appear to be much safer than the older, non-regulated, methods.

Mike Huben said...

that-xmas, I do understand both methods rather well: I am a plant breeder (currently a hobby, but I was an undergraduate plant breeding major cat Cornell.) I've followed the development of the new technologies avidly, though I haven't tried them myself.

Hybridization is BY DEFINITION simply crossing two things. Your other examples are methods of inducing variation.

GM is better for some reasons, and not for others. If it could be done with surgical precision, it would be a better tool (but usually it's not.) But even using good tools, you can make bad products: GM doesn't protect you from that, and there are classes of problems (such as addition of allergens) that can easily be worse for GM.