Re: Glowing Grass

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Mon Jul 10 2000 - 02:33:25 MDT

On Sun, Jul 09, 2000 at 08:49:00PM -0500, Randy Smith wrote:
> So I figure they have already given this some thought, and since their PR
> countermoves so far have been negligible (considering the bankroll they have
> at their disposal), I think they must see the growing feeding frenzy in the
> media as too powerful to stop. Perhaps they fear being demonized and losing
> even more. The media needs to bring eyeballs to the page/screen. It appears
> that GE is too easy a target to pass up.

The media tend to mirror public perceptions, with a spin towards
pessimism ("bad news is good news").

The major problem with industrial GE is the same as with mature
molecular nanotechnology; it relies on replicators. Replicators are
intrinsically frightening because they force people to confront issues
(like exponential growth) that most of us aren't educated to understand.
You can hear lingering echoes of the 19th century germ hysteria in it
as well -- and _that_ hysteria had a rational basis: back then, when the
germ theory of sepsis was just getting established in the general culture,
bacterial disease killed more people than heart disease or cancer.

(Note that I'm not trying to excuse anti-GM fear-mongering; rather, I'm
trying to understand its roots as a first step towards deciding the best
mechanism for fighting it. To combat a bad meme you _don't_ accuse its
carriers of being hysterical, or deny their assertions -- people will just
think you're covering up something nasty. Rather, you need to understand
the low-level motivation behind it and dig the ground out from under their
feet. The goal isn't to convert anti-GM activists, it's to convince the
much larger silent majority that the anti-GM activists are _wrong_.)

Note also that it helps to be aware of the real hazards of
industrialization of GM technology. These include things like antibiotic
resistance transfer between species -- which has actually happened. (The
gene for one variety of penicillinase was tagged as a marker onto another
couple of desired genes implanted into a crop plant; the idea was that
if the gene complex was transferred to soil bacteria, it would show up
by simply plating the bacteria on agar containing ampicillin. While this
is indisputably a workable gene tracer, it strikes me that encouraging
antibiotic resistance in the wild is a _bad_ thing. Newer techniques
have rendered this one obsolete, but it's illustrative of what I'd
characterise as the real risks of GM; procedures which are not in the public
interest engaged in due to a lack of oversight and strategic vision.

The main reason for anti-GM hysteria in Europe is cross-over from general
distrust of agrobusiness. In the past decade, the industrialisation of
agriculture and food distribution in the EU has resulted in most consumers
being a long supply chain away from the stuff that goes into a meal. When
I was a child (thirty years ago), farmer's markets and greengrocers were
the main sources of food (along with butchers for cuts of meat). Today,
80% of food is sold via supermarkets, and a large proportion of it is
pre-processed. This sort of cultural change, coupled with a highly
competitive food industry that sometimes cuts corners -- including
essential corners relating to food hygeine -- caused a general distrust
in the community. The British BSE crisis massively aggravated this; in
psychological terms it did for the food industry in Europe what Three
Mile Island and Chernobyl did for the nuclear industry. (It served notice
that the people working in the industry are fallible, and that lives
depend on them.)

GM foods just came along at precisely the wrong time; when consumer
confidence in food safety was at its lowest ebb for decades. The question
seems to me to be, therefore, how to (a) stop new scare stories gathering
attention (where there's no substance behind the scare), and (b) how to
demonstrate the very real benefits of this new technology.

Like, the difference between an adequate diet and starvation for a billion
or three people over the next couple of decades ...

-- Charlie

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