“How easy it is to follow our thoughts instead of our senses.”
Frank Herbert

Children of Dune

Matt Mullenweg on GMO’s


Matt on GMO’s a comment about a pro-GMO article. I commented on it and am reposting the comment here:

If that is scientific then it would seem that science is broken … and science doesn’t seem to know it.

Science has a clear view on one aspect of climate change: the past. Scientific community is able to study effects of our past actions on the present state of climate and ecosystems. It has much less to say and even less paths-of-action to offer about how to meet and act on the climate change front (and some of what little it has to offer is ecologically even more dangerous).

GMO’s are a relatively new scientific domain. Science and scientists have no way to scientifically say much about the effects of GMO’s because there is little evidence to observe and research. In a generation or two (or ten), assuming of course that GMO’s proliferate, we may have a body of evidence with which scientists can work and draw conclusions about the effects of GMO’s.

Saying that GMO’s are safe / healthy / ecological is speculative and wishful thinking … not scientific. GMO’s are an experiment … and should be treated and presented as such. It is one thing to tell a farmer that we have developed a genetically modified plant that is pest resistant. It is another thing to tell a farmer that we have developed a GM plant that is pest resistant but that we don’t yet know its effects on human health, on soil fertility or on a wider ecosystem.

What about inquiring into why the pests are there in the first place? What if the proliferation of pests is an indication that the ecosystem is out of balance and it needs to be treated. What if that is a signal for us to change our relationship with land and ecology? The GMO intervention, regardless of its biological merit, represents an attitude of manipulating, controlling and overpowering.

That attitude also treats weeds as “pests” … but what makes them weeds is the fact that they are growing where we don’t want them to grow or we want to grow something else. A different view of weeds is that they serve two complementary and valuable functions. First they are indicating that the soil ecology is out of balance… there is too little or too much of something(s) … looking at weeds can tell a knowledgeable about the condition of soil and the life in it. Second they are, by growing in those conditions, working to create a healthier soil ecology by adding missing elements and removing excesses.

It gets even more interesting when you learn that some of those weeds are edible and much more nutritious then cultivated foods. In my climate, at this time of year (early spring) there is still very little cultivated food and what is available comes from greenhouses. However I can go outside and pick a salad from 4 or 5 different “weeds” that are growing abundantly … without me having to plant a single plant.

That shift in attitude toward “weeds” represents a shift away from a deeply rooted underlying mentality of control, manipulation and subversion of nature (and ourselves!) to our will, towards a mentality of co-creation. Working with nature rather then dominating it.

There is scientific evidence that we have been mistreating our soils for a long time. A long time ago someone realized that plowing fields resulted in better yields (the “scientific explanation” was that plants have little mouths and the broken up soil is easier for them to eat). Over the years it became clear that the initial improvement was a short term effect … that the yields did not improve the same way year after year … they actually got worst. So we invented more and more technological interventions to increase yields. Modern agriculture is this stack of interventions … one technological patch on top of another … leading up to petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides … and now that those are failing we are applying more force in the form of genetic modification.

Since then (but fairly recently) microbiology has revealed that plants get their nutrition in chemical exchanges with life in the soil (fungi, bacteria, etc … there is an entire living food chain in soils.). Microbiology also teaches us that every time we plow our soils we injure the life in it. Most agricultural cycles are therefor cycles of soil fertility depletion … and whatever we are giving back (such as cow manure is some of my neighbors do) is not enough … or even causing further destruction of soil life (as is the case with petro-chemical fertilizers).

We are doing something similar to ourselves. I recall that you once posted about research into bacteria. It turns out that our excess technological intervention in our own ecosystem (a living bacterial pool) via antibiotics have left us bacteriologically deficient. Your post linked to a long research paper which, if I remember correctly, stated that because of a drastic increase in c-section, births there is a generation of human beings which are bacteriologically deficient because they have been deprived of exposure to bacteria that takes place during vaginal birth. A technological solution was of course promised … someone will develop a magic pill filled with missing bacteria. Another approach would be to inquire why we are drifting away from natural birth, is that a direction we want to go and if not can we change course?

I worry about GMO not so much because of genetic modification (for which we have little evidence either way) but because of the underlying attitude that leads to simplistic manipulation of complex ecosystems which we are just beginning to grasp. If scientific truth is inherently temporary (science is a process of constantly challenging our theories and replacing them with better ones) … why do we like to treat it as permanent with “truths” such as “GMO’s are safe” or “plowing increases yields” or “antibiotics are god”. Doing so is scientifically wrong!

… and there are other expressions to the GMO story that are worth addressing. A social one … for example: thecompanies that are lading the way in GMO’s are also working to lock in their discoveries with patents. They are trying to take over one of the most obvious commons resource we have been gifted with … nature and food. There are places (like here in Romania) where they are also actively working to pass legislation that will outlaw traditional seed saving and trading. They are working to create a world where it would be illegal for me to save seeds from my own tomatoes and grow tomatoes from them next year. They want to force everyone to buy seeds from them … and those seeds cannot be saved because they have been genetically modified not to grow from second generation seeds AND they (the seeds) are patented and “legally” owned by their producers.

There are other solutions to care for the health and livelihood of peasants in poor countries. Solutions that come with long term vision of human, social and ecological well (and inter)being. A mono-culture crop of a genetically modified plant is one of the poorest technological solutions that mankind has to offer.

… for more on the systemic faults in science I recommend Rupert Sheldrake and The Science Delusion:

… for more on the transformation from a story of controlling and manipulating nature (and ourselves) to a story of interbeing I recommend Charles Eisenstein and Sacred Economics:

“In our journey of separation, we have developed amazing creative tools of technology and culture that would never have existed had we not departed from our original wholeness. Now it remains to recover that wholeness and bring it to a new realm, to create with nanotechnology and social media things of the same life, beauty, and soul that the old masters created with adzes and song. Let us insist on nothing less. For what purpose have our forebears sacrificed, if not to create a beautiful world?”

I also believe that there are interesting examples of how these worlds come together in the ecosystem that makes and is WordPress … but I think I’ll stop here.

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