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Demons Haunt Los Angeles

In 1997, the late Carl Sagan published a book titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” It is an eloquent paen to the power of science and critical thinking to free humans from the demons of darkness and superstition. In it, he described one of his greatest fears:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues… when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

That day may be upon us.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Los Angeles City Council voted in late October to draft an ordinance that would prohibit the sale or planting of GM seeds and plants.

One individual in Los Angeles who has not taken leave of his senses, Bob Goldberg, a member of the National Academy of Science and a professor at UCLA, has pointed out that “The impact will be zero…” because there are currently no “GMO” crops grown anywhere in LA County “other than in research laboratories” and that “genetically modified crops are no different from those that farmers have been selectively breeding for centuries, and they pose no added health risk.”

While Goldberg is correct that, for the moment, the practical impact of this ignorant posturing would be nil, the symbolic impact of the political leaders of Los Angeles slamming the door on the technology that offers some of the best (if not the only) hope of producing improved, drought tolerant crops, or rescuing California’s wine and citrus industries from exotic pests and diseases, is disappointing.

The City Council asserts their action is necessary “in the absence of State or Federal action”, and because of

various concerns regarding the use of GM products, including but not limited to the safety of consumption of GM foods, as well as the threat GM crops pose to the survival of non-GM crops and biodiversity in general. GMOs have also been linked to colony collapse disorder. In response to these concerns, more than 60 countries around the world have imposed significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GM products…

Where do you start, when everything somebody thinks they know is wrong?

On the alleged failure of the federal government to act, there has been a coordinated, multi-agency national policy in place since 1986. It involves USDA, EPA and FDA, each tasked with their own responsibilities as well as a requirement to consult and coordinate with their sister agencies. Read, and weep for the trees.

On the safety of GM products, scientists around the world are more united in their recognition of the safety of crops improved through biotechnology than they are on the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

On GM crops and biodiversity – biotech improved seeds change farming in ways that dramatically reduce the risks to beneficial insects and non-target species of both plants and animals. Please note this peer reviewed publication documenting an 18% reduction in the environmental impacts of agriculture thanks to biotech improved seeds. This means that the very seeds LA wishes to ban, in fact, reduce dramatically the negative impacts on biodiversity of the single human activity more destructive of biodiversity than any other, which happens to be… agriculture!

As for linking GM crops to CCD – there is not a shred of evidence anywhere ever, ever. This claim is nothing but blue-sky made up nonsense. Don’t take my word for it – here’s a history recap on CCD, what the USDA experts have found, and a drill down from an independent and highly respected beekeeping blogger.

As for the argumentum ad populum that “more than 60 countries around the world have imposed significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GM products…” – this is an unpersuasive argument that would take us places no decent human should want to go.

The facts are against the LA City Council in each and every particular as the LA Times has noted. But as cognitive psychology has begun to clarify for us, sharing facts in an effort to persuade somebody in the grip of a hallucinatory ideology can, ironically, serve to reinforce their mistaken beliefs. In the end, it’s really about values, not facts.

Ok, here are some values-relevant points to consider. Of the 18 million farmers growing biotech improved seeds around the world, the kind of seed the LA City Council wants to ban, 17 million of them are small holders in developing countries. These are the folks who have benefitted most, empowered by the environmental improvements and economic uplift delivered by crops improved through biotechnology. The kind of folks the LA City Council claims to be concerned about.

It’s about the environment, right? Well, here’s something for the LA City Council to chew on: in their opposition to biotech improved crops, so called “environmental” groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have adopted the most anti-environmental positions in their history, for which history is already  judging them harshly.

It will no doubt cause some heads to explode, but the facts show that the biotech companies producing the seeds the LA City Council seeks to ban are at the vanguard in bringing to life the vision for the future Rachel Carson told us we must follow when she charted her preferred path for the future in the last chapter of “Silent Spring”

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available… All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing – entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists – all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.”

The action of the LA City Council may have been well-intentioned, but it may have been nothing more than shameless pandering to the superstitions of uninformed constituents misled by unscrupulous special interests. In either case, it fails every test of science, economics, environmental health and common sense. It is actions like this that led Mark Twain to observe that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”


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