I'm taking an undergrad class about food this term. As an autodidact, it's good to measure self-knowledge against good old-fashioned learning, see how they align – and like any person who spends time obsessively reading about a topic, it all becomes a question of bandwidth, there are big blank areas of knowledge and then there are things I really know a lot about.
A recent class was a forum about genetically modified organisms or GMO. Despite my slightly crunchy affiliation with the Farmer's Market and a steadfast believer in the organic standards as they exist currently (which doesn't allow for GMOs), I can be generally regarded as pro-GMO. Yes, Monsanto is an evil, aggressive, morally bankrupt institution – If they were someone in my social circle, I might call them out for suing growers whose fields cross-pollinate with their precious protected roundup seed and say, “Dick move, Monsanto”. I can pine for a day when University or foundation research made things like seed improvement available for the public good while I wait out the Ayn Rand, hyper-individualism to either produce things like polio vaccines or die away.
Then the discussion about GMO's turned to the terminator gene. The terminator gene is a concept where people think it is possible to insert a sequence of of genes so that an organism never reaches the seed stage; plants won't be able to reproduce, saving Monsanto the trouble of litigating seed savers, because there will be no seed to save. Setting aside this is practical for basil or broccoli, plants that are trimmed to force the energy into stems and leaves, but we actually grow some plants, corn, soy, wheat FOR THEIR SEED.
Okay, fine, whatever because people believe that technology is so insidious that GMOs will produce a crop with seeds that just won't reproduce. And this is totally evil, just like certain hybrids we've been using for 100 years or navel oranges and seedless watermelon. But wait, straight from the worn trope of do we control technology or does technology control us, the terminator gene will escape and crossbreed/pollinate/infect other crops regardless of Kingdom, phylum, class, it will get all hasta la vista on everything from brassicas to grasses, to prunus, to bovine and everything will DIE! Ironically, of course, except the terminator gene itself, whose drive to live will defeat the known laws of biology to stay alive in a new host.
This is bad science fiction, light on the science, heavy on the fiction – Like if Picard and Troi land on the planet devoid of organisms to investigate what happened to the colony. Troi uses her natural and trained powers to deduce “something is wrong”, we will know this because she monotonously states, “Something is wrong”, perhaps qualifying it first with “I sense”. She is after all, an empath, as well as prone to making the most obvious observation. Before the second commercial break, both she and Picard are stricken by this terminator gene, and only Data and his not as functional as an iphone (only bigger) tricorder can undo the damage by the third break. Maybe Joss Wedon, who masterfully subverts cliches, could have have pulled it off if the crew of Serenity landed on the same planet, but who knows.
Yet something we would not tolerate on a Star Trek episode is a subject we need to pay attention to because it is being talked about by serious people like Vandana Shiva, so adults in a college classroom have to talk about something as real and as frightening as a monster under a bed. Get the torches and pitchforks.
Or separate the technology from the business practices. I wish people could talk about food biotechnology like they do with biotech advances in medicine. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to hate Monsanto, that have nothing to do with GMOs. As matter of fact, most of the time when people complain about GMOs, they are really complaining about the way Monsanto practices business. This technology, so full of promise, is in its infancy – if we were to have looked a surgery in the Civil War, with infections and death rates, we would have banned it instead of allowing it to evolved into a lifesaving and life improving wonder.