Permaculture and GMOs

UK’s leading Permaculture author Patrick Whitefield posted an interesting tweet the other day:

to which I replied:

It seems a strange argument- how does one define “need” in this case? A new technology that can save large losses from disease seems something certainly desirable- and ultimately we may well need it to make farming more efficient. Even if we do not currently “need” GE spuds, the technology has many other applications and developing countries where food security is not so, well, secure, really do need such improvements for their farmers.

One specific but quite different application of the technology is of course Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice. With hundreds of thousands of vitamin-A deficient children becoming blind each year, and half of them dying within a year, this rice would indisputably be meeting a very urgent need which other methods are clearly not meeting. To claim otherwise is “just noise.”

Genetic engineering does have significant advantages over traditional breeding methods- new blight resistant varieties can be turned around in just one growing season as opposed to 10-15 years, keeping ahead of the blight’s own evolution. Either way, we are on a tread-mill, always striving to keep at least one step ahead of Nature who would starve us as soon as look at us. Moreover, a wider choice of tools surely leads to more resilience- just as the permaculture principle of “multiple sources” would advise.

You may as well say we don’t “need” computers since the postal service does an admiral job, or we don’t need buses and trains since the humble horse can carry us to Tipperary just as well. On the face of it is just seems like an excuse to undermine a technology which is somewhat arbitrarily the subject of a vitriolic environmentalist campaign. The clue comes in the last paragraph of the linked article:

Ultimately, the array of techniques currently in practice among commercial growers to prevent potato blight makes the need for a GM solution appear redundant and potentially reckless, especially when considering the broader implications of resistance, pesticide-use, and corporate ownership of our food systems.

Ah yes, playing the “corporate ownership of the food system” card- which rather conveniently serves to cover up the absence of any actual argument against GMOs in the article, even if some growers do find Sarpos preferable.

I challenged Patrick that his opposition was ideological, and he didn’t really have any argument. He disputed this- “For me this is not a matter of ideology but of practicality, of weighing pros and cons.”- and went on to make a point:

Again, this seems an odd argument- as if a solution cannot be used if it works really well, because if it works too well it won’t work very well. If you get my drift… In my view, this is just a concealed concession to fears of Pandora’s Box: we should not trust technology. We are too clever for our own good. No good in fact will come of this, since we just shouldn’t be meddlin’ in what we don’t really understand. That is what I mean by ideology- the misanthropy that underpins much environmentalism, including permaculture, that basically would shake its head in dismay at the Knowing Ape and say: People just ain’t no good.

In the real world there are actual farmers who know about these things, and have well known techniques to help slow the evolution of pest resistance, for example by planting corn refuges. As with so many issues raised in objection to GMOs, this is a farm management issue, not a plant breeding issue.

In fact, although resistance is an inevitable result of any kind of pest control method- that ol’ treadmill again- the reality is far more interesting. It turns out that the unintended consequences of for example of Bt corn in the US are of the beneficial kind- is so successful that it can actually provide a refuge for non-transgenic varieties. The halo effect is best known in the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, credited with saving the Organic Papaya industry which was being devastated by ringspot virus- again, traditional methods had proved unable to solve the problem, so there an indisputable (but not undisputed) need:

In the case of the Hawaiian papaya, scientists planted an “island” of nontransgenic variety in an “ocean” of transgenic papaya as a means of securing the nontransgenic variety. The specially modified traits of GM crops helped to kill off pests, control water intake and provide a sort of refuge for non-modified crops in nearby acres.

Patrick responded to this:

Open-mindedness is a very welcome quality in this highly politicized and ideological issue. For Patrick Whitefield to even claim this is big bananas in permaculture world, since he is one of the top writers for the UK Permaculture Magazine, which has taken an overtly activist position against GMOs, and regularly fetes Indian ideologue Vandana Shiva .

(For an must-read in-depth look at what Vandana Shiva really stands for see this article by Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi.)

Most bizarrly though, Patrick ended the exchange by saying that it was me who is closed-minded!

I suggested to Patrick that he write an article on GMOs for the magazine, arguing for an open-minded approach. This I think would be rather a stretch- but one can live in hope.

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12 Comments

  1. Resistance to Bt is a talking point from the organic industry that I hear all the time regarding genetically engineered crops. Recent study though confounds that intuitive thought:

    http://mediarelations.cornell.edu/2014/03/04/predators-delay-pest-resistance-to-bt-crops/

    Study here:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0090366

    Reply
  2. A great post Graham!

    I think this issue of “not needing” one technology or another is hugely important. It is precisely because of choosing techs that we “didn’t really need” that helped humanity to get where it is today. In a way this line of thinking is as conservative as it gets. These days we actually have the luxury of choosing techs that would improve our lives but we decide not to do so because of values and beliefs.

    What if this issue was framed in a different manner? Fine, we don’t need GM but what if the productivity rise would help to save the rainforests from more inefficient practices?

    Reply
    • Good point Lauri! Do we need Sarpos? do we even need potatoes- after all we seemed to get on *fine* for millennia (in Europe) before they were brought over from S America, then they got blight which just shows what a terrible mistake it all was! Of course we need to experiment and try new things- in a general way we do indeed *need* to do this. The more you think about it the more curious an idea it seems to be. One person’s choice is after all another’s need.

      Reply
  3. Great piece Graham. Over the years I’ve lost count of the times I’ve attempted to make the distinction between the existence of a tool and the purpose to which it is put. On a recent FB page I was much criticised for not being against fracking as opposed to being against the over-use of fossil fuels (I have still more faith in renewables than many) and put forward that fracking was a very good thing when used to create viable geothermal heat sources even if one was ‘against’ shale gas. When I was a design student I had to ‘defend’ concrete which was apparantly an immoral material. As an energy campaigner and environmental activist I had to ‘defend’ plastics and incinerators – once when sat around an open camp fire! In my local town of Bucfastleigh, over 80% were against using an old quarry site to process and recycle incinerator bottom ash yet the local ‘against’ campaign could not seem to identify which ‘toxic’ materials were actually more prevalent in the ash than in the existing soil – and so it goes on. The arguments that are sometimes critical of the politics of Big Ag and their control of food suply are often valid yet, as you say, they cloud what really amounts to a new Luddism that threatens the use of rational language and thus a rational politics.

    Reply
  4. I am getting increasingly tired of a small shouty bunch telling me what I “need”. Or trying to tell a world-class potato breeder what he needs: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/nature/fewer-pesticides-farming-with-gmos/

    To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does. By inserting a specific fungus-defeating gene into a tasty potato, for example, De Jong knows he could offer farmers a product that requires fewer pesticides.

    “We want to make food production truly sustainable,” De Jong says, “and right now I cannot pretend that it is.”

    The Catholic Church also thinks we don’t “need” stem cells. But many paralyzed and diabetic folks might disagree with that.

    But who elected these people to be enviro Pope? If they don’t want to use stem cells or GMOs, fine. But you don’t have the right to keep them from others.

    Reply
  5. Fiona Gilsenan

     /  April 27, 2014

    mem_somerville, I’m with you about the enviro Pope and his/her group of Cardinals. I was thinking the same thing about Raj Patel trying to challenge Pamela Ronald about Via Campesina at the recent ‘debate’ with Pollan. Her response was, sounds great, so what? If a group of famers prefers to do things the harder, more labour-intensive, less productive way, fine. Just don’t insist that everyone has to do it that way.

    Reply
  6. Wishy

     /  May 8, 2014

    Hi Graham and all, I think its always good to reflect and be critical. I am a landscaper (with background on farms, nurseries, orchards, who has almost finished a degree in Sustainable Development and so have a good understanding of broader sustainability issues. My studies are somewhat depressing as the problems for society are many and whilst there are solutions, they are largely ignored as the system seems rigged (not necessarily on purpose) to fail. Feeling somewhat disheartened by it all I find permaculture a positive idea as it can be carried out individually, which is probably why I am drawn to the idea. On a broader urban scale I wonder if this could be a positive achievable solution to sustainability issues (by no means a silver bullet, but a positive contribution), but I may well become one of the bright enthusiasts you lament, not yet jaded. haha.

    I thought I would look at the critique before I take the plunge into courses, and there seems there is a lot of critique coming from your page (not implying your alone), so I am very keen to hear your thoughts on a couple of things if possible or direction to a blog entry that has covered them.

    I would agree with you that permaculture for commercial growing on a large scale seems appropriate, however, what are your thoughts on small scale urban permaculture? Were there any positives in your time as a permaculture advocate? Was there a defining turning point in your direction? Would you recommend against learning permaculture techniques, or more so, recommending not to take it as gospel?

    Relating more closely to your article and comments, whilst GMO’s may be proven to be effective, have they been extensively proven not to have any adverse effects? From what I’ve read, there are scientists who don’t believe they have and are concerned, urging caution when tinkering with nature, however, it seems GMO crops have been rolled out quite quickly (need to make a profit). I can’t help but think about the disastrous effects of tinkering with nature when foreign species were introduced in Australia to solve problems, which ultimately led to far greater problems in the end. Totally different situation but there are some similarities. I am not a luddite either, I think science and technology are a way forward, but I also think they can be a way back, and that its risky playing around too much with things we may not have fully grasped. That being said, if GMO’s don’t inadvertently degrade other natural systems I’m all for them.

    As far as fracking, the world has water shortage issues on the horizon, and there have been reports of fracking polluting water tables. Who knows to what extent? Reducing CO2 emissions at the risk of polluting water tables does not seem the ideal solution… I suppose if we have GMO plants that can grow in contaminated water…

    Anyways, very interesting to read everybody’s comments. I have been exposed to the darker side of permaculture!

    Cheers,

    Chris
    Bright-Eyed Budding Permaculturist :)

    Reply
    • Hi Chris maybe you could enlighten me as to what exactly “permaculture” is? :) See my main post on this The Cult of Perma.

      I…have a good understanding of broader sustainability issues

      maybe you could also define what “sustainability” is? Is it where everything has to stay the same and never change? I would suggest that the whole way “sustainability issues/studies” are taught is heavily politically biased.

      My studies are somewhat depressing

      I’m sorry to hear that Chris. Sounds like you need to read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. And keep reading my blog! I aim to cheer people up :)

      In a nutshell, “solutions” (again, a misnomer- it is really a continual process of innovation) must be more intensive- that is nuclear power and GMOs- while permaculture is an ultra-conservative philosophy which advocates extensive approaches whcih require far more space and are much less efficient. But you cannot meet the needs of modern populations with Medieval technology, which is why “permaculture” will always be an idea, a fantasy and not a practice. Practitioners use the supermarket and cars and computers and LOVE to fly. The movement is not radical, it is ultra-conservative and traditionalist.

      Solutions are not “designed to fail”- in many cases they are simply obstructed/stopped/banned by extremist reactionary Greens.

      Was there a defining turning point in your direction?

      there were many but seeing peak oil wither in the face of innovation (fracking) was a major one.

      Would you recommend against learning permaculture techniques, or more so, recommending not to take it as gospel?

      There is no such thing as “permaculture techniques”- the closest you would get is as I say, extensive and low-yielding systems such as Organics and agro-ecology. It is not that these are bad in and on themselves if you do them yourself, but they are not “solutions” to the challenge of feeding the world, and it is a dangerous political ideology to believe or claim that they are.

      GMO’s may be proven to be effective, have they been extensively proven not to have any adverse effects?

      Yes. More precisely, they have no deleterious effects that farming in general does not have. GMOs are a plant breeding method, and all farming involves some adverse affects, as does all technology. Whatever you do, and whatever you call it, it will have adverse effects. The issue is always the same: do the costs outweigh the benefits? New technologies must always be more intensive (especially energy and food) otherwise the answer will be “no”.

      urging caution when tinkering with nature,

      The entire Green movement, going back to Rachel Carson and beyond, is based on this Precautionary approach. This is the whole problem. Human technology has obviously been spectacularly successful, but are becoming the victim of their own success, not because of adverse consequences in the field as it were, but because the affluence gained has spawned powerful anti-modernist and misanthropic movements which thrive on scare-mongering.

      when foreign species were introduced in Australia to solve problems, which ultimately led to far greater problems in the end

      Invasive species are a huge problem – this is one of the issues Linda Chalker-Scott takes with permaculture, which tends to take a pseudo-scientific approach to this, especially Holmgren. (see The Cult of Perma post linked above.)

      if GMO’s don’t inadvertently degrade other natural systems I’m all for them.

      Great! Good luck trying to persuade you permaculture friends of though!

      re fracking- of over a million fracked wells in the US barely a handful have been found to contaminate water supplies, which can be 1-2 kms above where the shale is. There is a vocal and well-funded opposition movement because NIMBY. Just like the anti-nuclear and anti-GMO movement they rely on scare-mongering. Flaming faucets have proved a very successful campaigning image but they are a lie.

      Activists lie Chris. All the time.

      Reply
      • Wishy

         /  May 8, 2014

        Thanks for the response. Well, I don’t have a great understanding of permaculture as I mentioned, I’m only new to it, but as I understand it, its a way of harvesting resources in way that works with nature with less impact.

        Sustainability could have many meanings as people misuse the term, for example sustainable growth., but is generally used as a broad term to address the many practices humans are involved in that simply are not sustainable. Surely that makes sense without forcing me to substitute the word. An example, a study in 2010 by Spoolman and Miller estimated we would need 1.5 planets to sustain our current consumption… with rising consumption levels in virtually all countries this presents a serious problem, and efficiency doesn’t lead to less consumption, it usually leads to greater consumption (Jevon’s Paradox).

        As far as sustainable development -this would be in regards to moving towards a civilisation that isn’t on a suicidal trajectory. Staying the same, which you suggested, sounds like business as usual, and suicidal trajectory. I’m not sure peak oil has withered, more so been put off a little longer. Shale etc are finite resources too. As far as politically biased, sure there is an element of learning about political ideologies, but I wouldn’t say its necessarily bias, just presents the ideologies. I would offer that this comment and your comments about “Greens” seems a little politically influenced and polarised if I’m honest, and you seem to have made assumptions about sustainability discourse as far as its ideology and as far as not changing etc… A little like the accusations on permaculturists who don’t know what they are talking about … Sustainability, the push towards a sustainable society is in fact completely about change, and in a positive way… However you seem to think these positive suggestions for change are the problem…

        I have read a little from Ridley, it reminds me of Lomberg’s writings, which I find as naive as you probably find environmentalist types. They certainly advocate for business as usual… Essentially, to dumb it right down to basics is, that a circle can be divided infinitely, which is true, but this does not make it infinite. The Earth is not infinite and why Ridley’s and Lomberg’s views are fantasy and definitely what big business wants to hear. You certainly seem to have been won over by their misplaced positions. And to be honest, all of a sudden I am less inclined to listen to your position on anything if you are basing your world view on these type of guys.

        If we’re suggesting books I would suggest… The first is a fairly good summary of many ‘sustainability’ issues we face and the second is one of the most encompassing books about the worlds problems I’ve read. Both offer positive soloti…. innovation.

        Lester R. Brown. ‘Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization’

        http://www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4

        and Richard Heinberg. ‘The End of Growth’

        http://richardheinberg.com/bookshelf/the-end-of-growth-book

        As far as nuclear, I also think it may be necessary, however, if we can avoid the risks using renewables (new innovations happening all the time), we should head this way… I am aware majority of energy experts think this is not feasible at this point.

        My comment ‘designed to fail’ was not talking about solutions or should I say paths we could take, (do we really want to get into semantics about the word ‘solution’?)… but rather a system where self-interested multi-national corps have too much power. I’m not an advocate for the free market because I think it is led to a market that isn’t really all that free at all. How are consumers meant to make environmental choices in their lives when they are bombarded by the corporate media.

        I agree, I don’t think permaculture designs would work on a large scale, however, I do think if everyone were harvesting energy, water and some food from their homes this would lessen food security, water scarcity and energy issues. I did also say I didn’t think this was a silver bullet solution.

        As far as the precautionary approach, when scientists, not just ‘greenies’, I’m talking climatologists and biologists for example, are telling us natural systems that we are reliant on are buckling, I think anything outside a precautionary approach is foolish. The stakes are too high.

        The presumption about my “permaculture friends” which I’m yet to gain and their views on GMO, you seem to have stereotyped them, and I find it a little odd your judgement on all permaculturists.

        As far as tracking, I will need to do more research. Whilst I don’t dispute that activists don’t lie, to think those with the power, and extreme profit to make from tracking are truth telling angels is a little naive.

        I don’t know much about permaculture specifically, and is why I wanted to hear a different perspective from the glowing positivity about it (which makes me skeptical), but I have researched these other areas we have been discussing for many years and I think the view that its all going swimmingly and we will somehow solve all these issues using band-aid solutions with a reliance that technology will save the day is just plain lunacy if I’m honest. Lets just keep stoking that runaway train. To be honest, the ‘Eco-pragmatist’ title really doesn’t seem to fit at all. Eco-gambler fits better. I don’t mean to come across as insulting, whilst you may have some salient points about permaculture, I really think your living on another planet in terms of some of your other views, which leads me to think maybe I’ll try this permaculture thing! So thanks for that!

        Cheers!

        Chris

        Reply
        • generally used as a broad term to address the many practices humans are involved in that simply are not sustainable

          Chris, nothing is “sustainable”. Nothing. The concept of “sustainability” which I note you have not defined (I did not expect you to!) is used as a political smokescreen to block certain technologies that offend a certain elitist aesthetic. This class does not object to technology that they like to use like airplanes or computers. Do you think computers are “sustainable” ? If not, do you think they should be phased out or banned?

          a study in 2010 by Spoolman and Miller estimated we would need 1.5 planets to sustain our current consumption

          Here is one good critique of this kind of analysis which drives doomer thinking. Growth does not rely on simply digging deeper holes and extracting stuff, like draining a bucket. Innovation means increasing complexity. GMOs are a great example of this- they allow us to get more for less- surely the best definition of sustainability? ie they are a qualitative improvement, not just “business as ususal”. In fact “BAU” is not very useful, since continual innovation IS BAU- which means constant change. This is also true of natural systems, so what you call BAU is really a better model for copying nature than PC- ironic isn’t it! See Botkin for unravelling these myths.

          …a circle can be divided infinitely…

          this is the fundamental misconception about “infinite growth”. Resources are not fixed by size like a pie but are constantly enlarged by innovation (and as Ridley explains through specialization and trade). You are asking my opinion Chris, so I am giving it- do read Ridley and Lomborg (and his predecessor Julian Simon) carefully. They are only considered heretical because what they are saying is so counter to the Green Religion of Limits that has gripped the post-modern mind. In reality, what they say is based on the evidence of history: if the Greens were correct, we would have collapsed thousands of years ago. Think about it: ALL human technology increases carrying capacity. This is what makes us uniquely human. If you think this is bad or problematic because it is “only temporary” then give up your computer and clothes and go live off nuts and berries. ALL innovation is “only temporary”. There is no static Garden of Eden, sorry!

          I do think if everyone were harvesting energy, water and some food from their homes this would lessen food security, water scarcity and energy issues.

          can you show me some data of this this actually, really in reality happening? I have been looking for years but have never found any. I hope to realise you are talking to someone who very much leads what would be considered the “permaculture dream” to many, I supply all my own firewood from coppice (sustainable!) live in self-built cabin and have spring and rainwater collection systems, and grow some of my onw food. I lived off-grid for 10 years.

          I’m talking climatologists and biologists for example, are telling us natural systems that we are reliant on are buckling

          citations? maybe you are referring to the likes of Paul Ehrlich who has made a life-long career of telling us we are Doomed.

          Brown and Heinberg are ideologues, not scientists. They make their money the same way Ehrlich does (although Ehrlich at least does have a respectable scientific career in addition, not true of these guys). Heinberg is a joke. Brown is ofcourse one of Lomborg’s main targets in The Skeptical Environmentalist. Hell, even I started to make a career as a doomer! I was hugely influenced by Heinberg in my Peak Oil days. Chris, I am not sure you are actually reading the links I am giving you- I know all this stuff! I lived and breathed it for years. No disrespect, but I could articulate your Limits/doom story far better than are doing here, indeed I did for many years. The problem is, reality does not support the narrative.

          The presumption about my “permaculture friends” which I’m yet to gain and their views on GMO, you seem to have stereotyped them, and I find it a little odd your judgement on all permaculturists.

          It is not a presumption Chris! Read the Cult of Perma post- Hemenway’s quote at the top actually defines PC as “anti-GMO” which is increasingly true. UK PC Mag actively campaigns against GMOs (see my comments below the line). I would LOVE to see PC even marginally open or shift its position on GMOs, so please prove me wrong! Again, it is you who are presumptuous- I have been debating these issues with the PC movement for years. Patrick Whitefield will never give even a half-way balanced view on GMOs not because there are other things he would rather write about but because the magazine and the movement for which he writes and of which he is a leader is categorically opposed.

          to think those with the power, and extreme profit to make from tracking are truth telling angels is a little naive.

          you mean Greenpeace? the antifracking movement? This is why I always reference peer-reviewed independent studies. Chris you are dangerously close here to playing the “scientists are shills for Big Business” card.

          maybe I’ll try this permaculture thing!

          what is permaculture, Chris?

          Reply
  7. gilbert fritz

     /  October 29, 2014

    Well, Malabar spinach ( a leafy green) has more vitamin A in it then golden rice. Seems simpler to distribute seeds of this plant ( which grows like a weed in hot climates) rather then coming up with a whole new kind of rice. That way farmers can keep growing the same rice they have before, with a side of cooked greens! Just seems less complicated to me.

    Reply
    • Brilliant idea! You are obviously much smarter than the world’s agronomists. Another Mary Antoinette- Basically, “let them eat spinach”. If it grows like a weed, why don’t they have it already? Why indeed is there a VAD epidemic anyways? NGOs have been working extensively in these afflicted areas promoting your solutions – home vegetable gardens- as well as distributeing VA supplements and other programms for decades, but the problem persits. How could that be? Because they are so poor they have nothing at all, and with a health problem like this -quite unknown in the West- whole communities are debilitated further. For the people who actually suffer from VAD, there is little to eat except rice for much of the year, leafy greens are perishable and land may not be available. Gilbert, if there was a simple solution, the problem would not be there in the first place- something apparently impossible for privileged rich white westerners to understand.

      Reply

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