Something New to be Afraid Of

I’m sure other people have already thought to be afraid of this, but it’s new for me. I was thinking about genetically modified foods the other day, comparing them to newer, faster computers. It’s not the end consumers who benefit most from either technology; in the case of computers it’s the software and OS developers who win. For genetically modified foods, it’s the farmers and the big agricultural companies who benefit the most.

Sure the end users may benefit indirectly from having more awesome small-shop applications to try (modern power-hungry operating systems are packed with features that make creating robust applications simpler) or less pesticides on the food (plants can be modified to fight back agains pests), but for the most part people are not getting much of a perceptible lift.

Sometimes the practices of the big agribusiness companies like Monsanto don’t even help the farmers. They have now created versions of their big-selling products that don’t reproduce. That is to say, a farmer can’t keep some of his crop from one year to use as seed the next. He must go back to the big seed factory each year if he wants to grow crops that have the other benefits that make his farm profitable. (My information on this is actually a few years old; I don’t know what has happened since, so I might be totally wrong. That happens fairly often.)

I promised at the start that I would give you a new source of fear, and I’m a man of my word. Here’s the scenario: Farmers grow crops that can’t be used as seed. Then Something Happens, and the agri-giants are unable to create seed crops, either. It could be something as simple as bankruptcy or a corporate move to manipulate seed prices. It could be some sort of genetically engineered snafu if you want to Fear the Machine while you’re at it. Whatever mechanism you want to invoke, suddenly all these high-tech seeds that the farmers were counting on are not there. In their place – nothing. As winter comes farmers are reaping a record harvest they can’t replant, and they already know that there are not enough seeds for spring. Not nearly enough. Then what?

To make the story scarier, it would be best to wait until the agricultural giants are more entrenched in developing countries as well, but even if it happened now it would be something to worry about. Worrying is one of the things I do best.

8 thoughts on “Something New to be Afraid Of

  1. You should think about turning this idea into a script. With “Food, Inc” pretty popular out there and a TED video on Genetically Modified Foods, it might be a good topic for a studio disaster movie. If they put a volcano in Hollywood, the might be interested in some new form of devastation. Just gotta find a way to get the special effects in there :P

    How’re things goin?

  2. The scary thing is, last I heard, the genetically modified crops weren’t even being designed to resist pests — rather, they were designed to resist harsh herbicides that would kill everything except the genetically modified plants. Thus, there would actually be more and nastier chemicals applied to fields than is currently the case. Yikes.

    In actual practice, even without genetically modified crops, current crops are hybrids whose seeds generally can’t be used to grow the next generation of crops.

    • The wikipedia entry says that Monsanto & al. has pledged not to use the technology commercially, so I guess we can ratchet down the Fear-o-Meter a bit.

      Oh, well. I’ll try to come up with something new to be afraid of to fill the void.

      This could still be used as a near-future calamity tale. I imagine the main character being charged with combing the globe for seeds while third-world subsistence farmers suddenly discover they have something we desperately need. Important in a story like that would be NOT making it a ‘corporations are evil’ story.

    • One note I thought was rather amusing – people worried that the sterility gene could get loose in the wild.

      Of all the wacky genes people are mucking with (glow-in-the-dark bunnies?), a gene that specifically does not reproduce seems like a pretty low risk.

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