Last month, comedian Russell Brand gave his YouTube subscribers a 17-minute talk about Bill Gates’ plot to take control of the global food supply and force-feed the world’s genetically modified (GMO) crops. in development. Relying mostly on anti-GMO superstar Vandana Shiva, Brand unsurprisingly has just about everything wrong.
Last week, Stacy Malkan, co-founder and editor-in-chief of US Right to Know (USRTK), made more or less the same argument as Brand in a long story: “Bill Gates has sweeping plans to change our diets. What’s on the menu? ”Posted on the anti-GMO group website.  The only difference between the two is that Malkan, a seasoned organic industry public relations expert, knows the subject better and tells a more compelling story. Because the arguments used by Malkan circulate widely on the Internet, they deserve to be refuted in detail. Let’s take a look at some of its key points.
The “techno-food manufacturers”
Much like a good thriller, there are always villains that are easy to spot in the USRTK narratives; in years past, the sworn enemy has been Coca Cola, Monsanto and even the entire food industry. This time it was Gates, investing his billions in technologies capable of fighting hunger and climate change:
For techno-food manufacturers, hunger and climate change are problems to be solved thanks to data and engineering. The basic ingredients of their groundbreaking plan: the genetic engineering – and patenting – of everything from seeds and animals for food, to microbes in the soil, to the processes we use to make food. Local food cultures and traditional diets could disappear as food production moves indoors to labs that grow fake meat and ultra-processed foods. “
Data and engineering solve many problems. For example, Malkan wrote his article on a computer made from patented technology instead of a typewriter. This allowed him to reach a mass audience with just a few keystrokes. Why should we be humbled by Gates’ intellectual property (IP) claims on food technology, but not by Dell’s patents on his laptops?
Rhetorical questions aside, Malkan has never really explained why patents are harmful. There are interesting arguments against intellectual property, but they have nothing to do with the USRTK’s claim that the technology that intellectual property protects is inherently harmful.
The anti-GMO movement has claimed for decades that GM crops destroy local food crops, but this has always been a myth. Different regions of the world use genetic engineering to improve their local cuisine. Hawaii is growing virus resistant papaya; Bangladesh produces insect resistant eggplant; Nigeria cultivates cowpea with the same trait. African researchers use gene editing to save the continent’s staple crops, benefiting millions of people.
All of this work is done because farmers and consumers need solutions to practical problems. No one is forcing developing countries to use this technology.
Ginkgo Bioworks, a Gates-backed start-up that manufactures “custom organisms,” has just been made public in a $ 17.5 billion deal. The company uses its “cell programming” technology to genetically modify aromas and fragrances in commercial strains of yeast and modified bacteria to create “natural” ingredients, including vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and flavors for ultra-processed foods.
This is not a bad thing. If it weren’t for synthetic biology, we would be forced to use older industrial techniques to make these products or cultivate the plants that produce their ingredients. Either approach takes a toll on the environment. Depending on where you live, there is a good chance that there are organic products in your grocery store. contain one or more of those fermented ingredients, by the way.
The eco-benefits of biotechnology
Gates believes that “genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides, in the right doses – not soil-intensive organic farming – are essential for reducing carbon emissions.”
He is right. Research over the past two decades has shown that transgenic crops and the weedkiller glyphosate – the USRTK’s favorite scarecrow – have dramatically reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and halted the expansion of farmland in the world. I still insist: these gains would not have been possible if the farmers had refused to use these products. Like always, the client is king in economy. This is why activist groups are trying to ban pesticides and biotechnology products through the legal system; they cannot convince producers to abandon useful tools.
Recent science shows that chemical-intensive industrial agriculture is a key driver of climate change, soil erosion and the global decline of insects.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Regarding the production and transport of energy, contribution of agriculture to climate change is quite low. Moreover, the very technologies attacked by Malkan help address these issues, and it’s easy to see why. Chemicals that reduce carbon emissions and erosion caused by tillage; technologies that allow more production on less land preserve biodiversity. These are real problems; there are no magic bullets. But demonizing modern agriculture is not a solution.
“Unpredictable” gene editing
Gene editing techniques, and in particular CRISPR, are efficient but unpredictable. Studies show that the CRISPR process can create unexpected mutations, including DNA damage and other off-target effects.
Compared to what? Traditional plant and animal breeding is much less precise and predictable than gene editing, according to a team of geneticists. written in Nature in 2019:
To put this in perspective, a study of whole genome sequence data from 2,703 individual cattle in the 1000 Bull Genomes project revealed over 86.5 million differences (variants) between different breeds of cattle. These variants included 2.5 million insertions and deletions of one or more base pairs of DNA and 84 million single nucleotide variants, where one of the four nucleotides making up DNA (A, C, G , T) had been replaced by another one.
Bottom line: every plant and animal we eat has mutated DNA. Editing genes simply gives us more control over their number and location in the organism’s genome.
Intellectual but silly
The anti-GMO movement has a small list of intellectuals which gives an appearance of credibility to its arguments. Nassim Taleb is one of the stars. Why does his opinion matter? According to Malkan:
One of the world’s foremost experts on probability and uncertainty, Nassim Taleb, has addressed this question: What could possibly go wrong with GMOs? – for a 2014 article… The authors analyzed GMOs in the context of what they called a “non-naive” view of the precautionary principle. They concluded: “GMOs represent a public risk of global harm” and should be subject to “severe limits”.
Taleb has a lot of great ideas to offer; I highly recommend his books. But on biotechnology, he is a perfect example of his “intellectual but silly” (IYI) concept in action. “The IYI pathologizes others to do things that it does not understand without ever realizing that it is its understanding that may be limited,” he wrote in Skin in the game.
Given his ignorance of the subject, it’s no surprise that Taleb was toasted by real experts for posting this article. Among their criticisms was the fact that “GMO” is a nebulous category. Trying to rank and rate a wide variety of products based on a meaningless definition doesn’t tell us anything about the safety of any of them.
That’s why regulators carry out case-by-case risk assessments of new crop characteristics, such as science philosopher Giovanni Tagliabue explained in response to Taleb’s “study”. Malkan’s relentless need to obsess over the processes that produced these traits simply reveals his ignorance of the relevant science.
This is ultimately why his story of Bill Gates’ “radical plans” for our food system is unfounded. And that usefully explains why the USRTK and its anti-GMO crusader colleagues are on the fast lane to obscurity. I’m not tied to USRTK, sorry. Here is a profile of the group.