The depredations of the multinational agricultural corporation Monsanto are rightly condemned by many. Monsanto is a prominent example of a crony corporation – a company that bolsters its market dominance not through honest competition and innovation, but through the persistent use of the political and legal system to enforce its preferences against its competitors and customers. Most outrageous is Monsanto’s stretching of patents beyond all conceivable limits – attempting to patent genes and life forms and to forcibly destroy the crops of farmers who replant seeds from crops originally obtained from Monsanto.
Yet because Monsanto is one of the world’s leading producers of genetically modified crops, campaigners who oppose all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) often use Monsanto as the poster child for the problems with GMOs as a whole. The March Against Monsanto, which took place in cities worldwide in late May of 2013, is the most recent prominent example of this conflation. The blanket condemnation of GMOs because of Monsanto’s misbehavior is deeply fallacious. The policy of a particular company does not serve to discredit an entire class of products, just because that company produces those products – even if it could be granted that the company’s actions result in its own products being more harmful than they would otherwise be.
GMOs, in conventional usage, are any life forms which have been altered through techniques more advanced than the kind of selective breeding which has existed for millennia. In fact, the only material distinction between genetic engineering and selective breeding is in the degree to which the procedure is targeted toward specific features of an organism. Whereas selective breeding is largely based on observation of the organism’s phenotype, genetic engineering relies on more precise manipulation of the organism’s DNA. Because of its ability to more closely focus on specific desirable or undesirable attributes, genetic engineering is less subject to unintended consequences than a solely macroscopic approach. Issues of a particular company’s abuse of the political system and its attempts to render the patent system ever more draconian do not constitute an argument against GMOs or the techniques used to create them.
Consider that Monsanto’s behavior is not unique; similar depredations are found throughout the status quo of crony corporatism, where many large firms thrive not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of political pull and institutionalized coercion. Walt Disney Corporation has made similar outrageous (and successful) attempts to extend the intellectual-property system solely for its own benefit. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act was primarily motivated by Disney’s lobbying to prevent the character of Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain. Yet are all films, and all animated characters, evil or wrong because of Disney’s manipulation of the legal system instead of competing fairly and honestly on the market? Surely, to condemn films on the basis of Disney’s behavior would be absurd.
Consider, likewise, Apple Corporation, which has attempted to sue its competitors’ products out of existence and to patent the rectangle with rounded corners – a geometric shape which is no less basic an idea in mathematics than a trapezoid or an octagon. Are all smartphones, tablet computers, MP3 players, and online music services – including those of Apple’s competitors – wrong and evil solely because of Apple’s unethical use of the legal system to squelch competition? Surely not! EA Games, until May 2013, embedded crushingly restrictive digital-rights management (DRM) into its products, requiring a continuous Internet connection (and de facto continual monitoring of the user by EA) for some games to be playable at all. Are all computer games and video games evil and wrong because of EA’s intrusive anti-consumer practices? Should they all be banned in favor of only those games that use pre-1950s-era technology – e.g., board games and other table-top games? If the reader does not support the wholesale abolition, or even the limitation, of films, consumer electronics, and games as a result of the misbehavior of prominent makers of these products, then what rationale can there possibly be for viewing GMOs differently?
Indeed, the loathing of all GMOs stems from a more fundamental fallacy, for which any criticism of Monsanto only provides convenient cover. That fallacy is the assumption that “the natural” – i.e., anything not affected by human technology, or, more realistically, human technology of sufficiently recent origin – is somehow optimal for human purposes or simply for its own sake. While it is logically conceivable that some genetic modifications to organisms could render them more harmful than they would otherwise be (though there has never been any evidence of such harms arising despite the trillions of servings of genetically modified foods consumed to date), the condemnation of all genetic modifications using techniques from the last 60 years is far more sweeping than this. Such condemnation is not and cannot be scientific; rather, it is an outgrowth of the indiscriminate anti-technology agenda of the anti-GMO campaigners. A scientific approach, based on experimentation, empirical observation, and the immense knowledge thus far amassed regarding chemistry and biology, might conceivably give rise to a sophisticated classification of GMOs based on gradations of safety, safe uses, unsafe uses, and possible yet-unknown risks. The anti-GMO campaigners’ approach, on the other hand, can simply be summarized as “Nature good – human technology bad” – not scientific or discerning at all.
The reverence for purportedly unaltered “nature” completely ignores the vicious, cruel, appallingly wasteful (not even to mention suboptimal) conditions of any environment untouched by human influence. After all, 99.9% of all species that ever existed are extinct – the vast majority from causes that arose long before human beings evolved. The plants and animals that primitive hunter-gatherers consumed did not evolve with the intention of providing optimal nutrition for man; they simply happened to be around, attainable for humans, and nutritious enough that humans did not die right away after consuming them – and some humans (the ones that were not poisoned, or killed hunting, or murdered by their fellow men) managed to survive to reproductive age by eating these “natural” foods. Just because the primitive “paleo” diet of our ancestors enabled them to survive long enough to trigger the chain of events that led to us, does not render their lives, or their diets, ideal for emulation in every aspect. We can do better. We must do better – if protection of large numbers of human beings from famine, drought, pests, and prohibitive costs of food is to be considered a moral priority in the least. By depriving human beings of the increased abundance, resilience, and nutritional content that only the genetic modification of foods can provide, anti-GMO campaigners would sentence millions – perhaps billions – of humans to the miserable subsistence conditions and tragically early deaths of their primeval forebears, of whom the Earth could support only a few million without human agricultural interventions.
We do not need to like Monsanto in order to embrace the life-saving, life-enhancing potential of GMOs. We need to consider the technology involved in GMOs on its own terms, imagining how we would view it if it could be delivered by economic arrangements we would prefer. As a libertarian individualist, I advocate for a world in which GMOs could be produced by thousands of competing firms, each fairly trying to win the business of consumers through the creation of superior products which add value to people’s lives. If you are justifiably concerned about the practices of Monsanto, consider working toward a world like that, instead of a world where the promise of GMOs is denied to the billions who currently owe their very existences to human technology and ingenuity.