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Luddites, biotechnology and the future

14 October 2013

Luddites - fighting progress since 1812.

Luddites – fighting progress since 1812.

It’s early morning. A thick fog is wrapping the cobbled narrow street in a translucent cotton, softening the appearance of grimy buildings and filth-ridden gutters. A group of people are quickly but quietly moving up the street towards a big red-bricked building. They stop in front of a wide double door, built from pale solid wood. One of the men raises an axe and smashes the door open. The mob storms the building and starts destroying the delicate machinery inside. Soon, only splinters and bent and distorted lengths of steel remains where once stood one of the finest examples of technological progress made in over 200 years: the automated power loom. The Luddites have struck again.

In hindsight, it might seem a bit foolish to have tried to stop the progress of industrialisation by chopping up some old machinery with an axe, but humans aren’t exactly rational creatures (see The limbic society) and tend to react emotionally to most situations.

Yet another example of hysteria over reason.

Yet another example of hysteria over reason.

Cue present day. A field of golden wheat, swaying slowly in the soft wind. The early morning sun has just touched the top of a hill on the other side of the valley. A group of people are quickly but quietly positioning themselves along the downwind edge of the field. On a given signal, they set fire to the tall dry grassy strands. The fire spreads rapidly, engulfing the wheat. Soon, only scorched earth and charred stumps remains where once stood one of the most technologically advanced feats in the history of mankind: the genetically modified organism or GMO.

GMO – a quick background

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon) genetically modified into a fantail pigeon by means of artificial selection.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon) genetically modified into a fantail pigeon by means of artificial selection.

Now, about GMO: even though biotechnology is a fairly modern concept, the process of genetically modifying organisms to suit our needs and fancies is nothing new. We’ve been doing it ever since we cultivated the grey wolf some 10,000 years ago. But we’ve been forced to do it old-school: look for traits that we think would be of benefit to us (if not the organism itself) and select upon them. Over years, decades, centuries and millennia we have managed to create a wide range of unnatural beasts and abnormal crops, all by using controlled breeding.

What’s different now is that we for the first time have access to the genome itself. Instead of looking for how genes express themselves in the form of their parent organism’s plumage, colour or size, we can now modify them directly, either by borrowing traits from other organisms or by tweaking the genes themselves. By injecting the new genes into our target organism (on egg cell level) we can then increase an animal’s resistance to certain pathogens or increase the yield of a crop. This would then reduce the need to use antibiotics or fertilisers and would therefore help produce higher quality food for less money.


As hinted in the introduction, people aren’t all that keen on genetically modified organisms. The reasons for this seem to group together in four different arguments: terrorism, religion/ethics, invasion and health.

We should probably worry more about naturally occurring pathogens than synthetic ones.

We should probably worry more about naturally occurring pathogens than synthetic ones.

I’ll start with terrorism. With biotechnology we have the possibility to create new and previously unknown biological weapons and disperse them on the enemy. The population in that country would then quickly get infected and perish from this synthetic superbug.

While this is a theoretical possibility, it’s not really a practical one. It would be much easier to just use an existing virus or bacteria than to create a new one. And even then, the lack of control over how the disease will spread makes bio-terrorism even more uncontrollable than nuclear terrorism. So in short, yes, it would be possible but it could as easily turn on you and your family as on your enemy.

Yeah, that sure does look like natural variations of the grey wolf and not like some unnatural genetically modified frankendogs**.

Yeah, that sure does look like natural variations of the grey wolf and not like some unnatural genetically modified frankendogs**.

Next up is religious and ethical arguments. I won’t bother with the former – not a lot is allowed according to most monotheistic religions anyway, including banking, pork chops and alcohol consumption – but I will have to say something on the latter. From an ethical point of view, biotechnology is indistinguishable our current breeding programmes. We alter nature to fit our needs, with little or no concern of the welfare of the organisms themselves. Lately, we do seem to have started to care more about animal welfare (although mainly pets), which is of course a Good Thing, but regardless, bioengineered organisms should fall under the same regulations as any other creature. Which it does and all should therefore be catered for*.

The effect of the Japanese vine kudzu, let loose in Georgia, USA.

The effect of the Japanese vine kudzu, let loose in Georgia, USA.

Invasive species. Now this is a big one. It’s well-known that the introduction of foreign species into existing ecosystems is usually less than favourable for native species, like when the European rabbits were planted in Australia or the Japanese kudzu-vine spread into the wild in USA. The threat that a genetically enhanced organism lets itself loose and out-competes the wild fauna or flora is a real one. So far – even though several GMOs have managed to spread in the wild – nothing like this has happened. But we need to monitor the situation carefully and make sure we don’t inadvertently create a species that will become a pest. (There are safeguards in place, like suicide-genes and such, but if life and evolution has taught us anything it’s that things constantly change. The suicide genes might devolve, or lose their efficiency for a number of reasons. It would be foolhardy to rely solely on emergency shutdown mechanisms.)

Ok, good. I'm glad we're keeping this discussion free from emotionally loaded propaganda and deliberate misinformation.

Ok, good. I’m glad we’re keeping this discussion free from emotionally loaded propaganda and deliberate misinformation.

And finally health. This is the argument most widely used against GMOs, and especially GMO crops. It has been stated by activist groups that GMO food could be bad for your health, either directly or through long-term exposure. A plausible mechanism for how that could possibly work has yet to be suggested. Especially since GMO food chemically is no different from other food.

Also, we have been using GMO food for 30 odd years now and no apparent epidemic of related health problems has been detected.

The only possible mechanism for harming human beings would be to deliberately introduce a gene that produces some kind of toxin. And even then it would have to be produced in high enough concentrations to harm us, which would mean precious energy that could have been used to increase the yield would have to be reallocated for expensive toxin production. The resulting crop would perform very poorly in the fields compared to other, non-toxic, varieties.


Although there are issues with genetically modified organisms, they’re mainly to do with the potential threat of creating new pest species that could potentially harm the local ecosystems. However, in that scenario, it’s worthwhile to remember that GMOs rarely turn out to be the super-organisms that everyone fear. Even if sporting a modified gene here and an enhanced gene there, they rarely perform better in the wild than the species with a few million years of evolutionary adaptation under their belt.

You might question – and rightfully so – what the point of GMO crops is, if they don’t perform any better than the regular selected crops. Actually, they sometimes do, but we’re still in the process of trying to figure this biotechnology thing out. We have managed to produce crops that express some beneficial traits, but it has not been as easy as we’ve hoped. The potentials are promising but getting there might take some time. But obviously, this should warrant more research to be done, not less.

Good food is just good food, regardless of what technology was used to modify the genes.

Good food is just good food, regardless of what technology was used to modify the genes.

And when it comes to health concerns, we need to remember there’s no magical ‘natural’ substance or medium. Just because a gene has been modified by us and not nature, it doesn’t make the organism somehow completely foreign and less natural. It’s still the same chemicals as in non-GMOs, and the GMO crops still contain all the regular stuff like dietary fibers, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Or as the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation would have it:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

So to conclude this – all too long – post: GMO food is no more dangerous to eat than food from crops refined through selective breeding. And frankly, if you’re worried about what’s in your food, you could do worse than focusing on what could really harm you: refined sugar. But that’s another story.

* Unless of course you don’t have any faith in our authorities competence or good intentions. In which case it’s a different issue all together.

** For the record, I’ve been lucky enough to have owned a couple of Great Danes and they’re lovely dogs. Not frankenesque at all.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 October 2013 17:21

    I like this. I know NOTHING about GMO foods, other than people seem VERY UPSET about them. I like that you are always so rational about things. It’s a good way to be. You’re good people, Andreas.

    (Is this post going to make the Luddites angry and come after you with torches? I wouldn’t like that at all.)


    • 14 October 2013 17:34

      I’m glad I appear rational. I had to de-rant this post quite a lot. No one wants to read rants on the internet, after all. Hmm, what’s that? They do? Goddammit.

      Yes, I expect to be targeted by angry villagers any minute now. *looks out the window* Aaany minute.


  2. 14 October 2013 17:43

    I am not avidly for or against GMO’s, but certainly hear a lot about them. Living in Minnesota, a lot of people support anything that improves yields, and the backlash against GMO’s helps the niche farmers sell their crops. One thing you didn’t mention is the economic control the companies that develop the GMO’s have. They have gone to a lot of expense creating their product, and are entitled to profit from the customers that want those products, but there is some evidence indicating farmers, particularly in third world countries, are being pressured to shift to these new seeds, potentially increasing their annual costs. On the other hand, some farmers who would like to use GMO’s are being prevented from doing so by governmental restrictions. It is another case of science, industry and government in a tangle of interests. It would be interesting to know where public opinion will be one hundred years from now.


    • 14 October 2013 19:02

      Yes, the economic dimension is indeed rather complex. The idea of being able to licence a living organism is nothing new, but it increasingly feels like legislation is becoming more and more outdated.

      As to multinational companies forcing poor farmers in pre-industrial countries buying expensive new breeds of crops – that’s very similar to how they’ve been pushing inorganic commercial fertilisers in the past. So that might have less to do with GMO and more with the way international capitalism works. In the end – and not to sound too much like a socialist – the rich people tend to get richer and the poor poorer.


  3. 15 October 2013 00:33

    I don’t know a damn thing about GMO products and had never heard of them until now – or if I had, I ignored it. Why? Too much thinking involved – and currently, I have other things I need to concentrate on. But kudzu – THAT I know about and yes, it is extremely invasive and annoying.

    And there you have it – my two cents – on the subject at hand. You’re welcome.


    • 15 October 2013 05:41

      Ah. Then you know first-hand the negative effects of the introduction of an alien species in an ecosystem. Hopefully we will manage to avoid similar problems with GMOs.


  4. 20 October 2013 23:47

    In the U.S., it’s generally left up to the company making a new food or drug to test it, then the FDA rubber stamps it. That’s what the “deregulation” of the last few decades has been.

    So, the evidence of allergies & such that might be attributed to GMOs is anecdotal, probably because there hasn’t been much actual testing.


    • 21 October 2013 05:33

      I don’t care more for multinational food companies than what they care for me, which I’m sure is very little indeed. And the thought of them faking test results for their own benefits isn’t particularly incredible. I’m sure such things go on all the time. Money talks, in the end.

      But I’m still struggling with what particular mechanism a person could become allergic to food that is chemically identical to some other food. How would the body know? Unless it is allergic to what’s already in ‘regular’ food. It can’t be some kind of magical essence of life thing, surely?

      Also, not all GMO is the fruit of some giant multinational. Golden rice was developed by a small research team in order to stop children from dying – or losing their sight – from vitamin A deficiency. It’s provided at a non-profit basis by the creators/funders to farmers who want to use it. Even so, it’s still being banned in most countries.


      • 21 October 2013 16:08

        Since everything is a chemical, you might have to explain what “chemically identical” means. If something is created to, say, produce an insecticide that wasn’t there before, or to be immune to a herbicide, how can it be “chemically identical”?


        • 24 October 2013 08:53

          Sorry for the delay, I’m travelling abroad and only rarely have wifi.

          I believe I expressed myself poorly. What I meant to say was that there are the same organic natural chemicals present in GMO as in non-GMO crops. If we alter some genes to get a plant produce more of a certain protein to help its resistance to insects or increase the vitamin A content in its seeds, we don’t really add any foreign chemical compounds to the mix, we only adjust the relative abundance of naturally occurring substances. But I guess it could be an idea to list what substances have been boosted to aid if someone where to be allergic to a certain protein. On the other hand, who knows what exact protein one is allergic to? It’s usually on a more crude level of saying one is allergic to peanuts or kiwi, not which component of peanuts or kiwis that is the trigger. Either way, no apparent epidemic outbreak of allergic reactions to GMO food has been recorded for the last 30 years.

          (Side note: I don’t really care for trying to get crops more resistant to herbicides. I think that’s a bad idea, as it would increase the amount of expensive chemicals that the farmer would have to spray onto the crops. Also, increasing the concentration of herbicides is a sure way of forcing resistant weeds to evolve. It’s a lose-lose situation. But I also don’t think that one bad application of a technology should ban it from use forever.)


  5. 20 October 2013 23:52

    Oh, I just noticed:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for the people setting fire to the field to be on the UPwind side?


    • 21 October 2013 05:36

      You know, as I was writing the post, I had to stop and look that up. Apparently, ‘upwind’ means against the direction of the wind, so they would have to start the fire downwind for it to spread into the field. But I could be wrong. I’m no sailor after all, and certainly no GMO field burning Luddite.


      • 21 October 2013 16:05

        Yes, they would have to start the fire downwind of themselves. That’s where the field would have to be: downwind of them. They would be upwind of the field. It’s analogous to a river: upstream or downstream.


  6. 4 November 2013 16:49

    This is very informative and really, just what I needed to read. I’ve been hearing a lot about GMOs but can’t say that I understood it. Much.


    • 4 November 2013 19:37

      Thank you! Glad I could be of assistance.

      GMO is a rather complicated subject, really. And there’s much misinformation in circulation, so I’m not surprised it’s sometimes misunderstood.



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