Bullshit? A Rebuttal

Though my last post was focused around genetically engineered seeds, I recently saw something that disturbed me to the point of wanting to refute and discuss this same topic again. The famous magicians Penn & Teller have a TV show called "Bullshit!". On the show they assert their opinion on different controversial matters. Often the show is informative and entertaining. However, their episode on genetically engineered (GE) foods was far below par.

The magicians support the use of GE seeds for one sole reason: it will end world hunger. They use starvation statistics from Africa to back up their point that many people in the world do not get enough to eat. Therefore, they (and many others) believe that if we can increase food production, there will be enough food to feed many, if not all, the hungry mouths around the world. That's where GE seeds come in. GE seeds are made to be able to grow in harsh conditions where soil normally couldn't support growth. GE seeds are also often made to withstand herbicides allowing them to grow freely without weeds and insects hindering them. Ideally, GE seeds have the potential to produce large amounts food.

The first flaw in this episode of "Bullshit!" is when the magicians imply that GE food is a new, up and coming technology. They juxtapose, what they call, "Green Peace assholes" protesting GE companies, with dying kids in Africa; implying that groups like Green Peace are hampering a new technology that could end starvation. Here is what's wrong with that picture: GE seeds are not new, they have been in use for the past two decades. Today, 80% of corn and corn products are from GE seeds as well as over 90% of soy, over 60% of tomatoes, and 70% of general processed foods from soda to soup. Therefore, if GE seed use can end world hunger and a overwhelming majority of our produce is already made GE... shouldn't there have been a dent in world hunger by now, at least a little? The truth is quite the contray. Starvation rates dropped dramtically BEFORE the use of GE seeds from 1970 to 1990. But now that food production has turned to GE seed use, starvation rates have stagnated [1].

A vital mistake the magicians make is assuming that companies who make and distribute GE food actually want to help starving people. They assume people are naturally kind-hearted and as long as there is enough food, no one will starve. That is historically incorrect. The fact is, there has been plenty of food even before GE seeds. But poor, starving people can't pay for corn, tomatoes, etc. Starving people would have to get it for free. Yet, distributing food freely and equaly is "socialism" and simply not profitable for companies. That is how you get half of Americans at obese weight levels while people starve to death in other countries.

The answer to starvation is not to make more and more food because that food is going to go to people who can pay for it and who, frankly, don't even need it anyway. For a male of average height to maintain a weight of over 300 pounds, he would have to eat up to 3,000 calories per day. Knowing that a man of that description (which also describes 30% of Americans) could survive on not even 2,000 calories, he could feed a child every single day on the amount of food he consumes just for himself. The hunger problem is not in amounts of food, it's in distribution of that food - it will go to the highest bidder everytime. GE seeds could be helpful, but only in the hands of people not out for profit.

Since we have just reviewed reasons why GE food is not the answer to ending world hunger, the question becomes, why bother using GE at all? There are documented negative effects of GE seeds including health risks to humans and degradation of soil for future crops. So, again, if it is not helping world hunger and is in fact harmful, what really is "bullshit" here?


Mauigirl said...

Great points. In Africa, starvation is much more a result of political instability and ineptitude and poverty, not lack of food. Plus a lot of food that is grown in the U.S. goes to industrial uses (corn for ethanol for instance) that could be used to help starving people. To your point, there is no political or economic will to solve the problems of feeding the third world.

Jayna said...

Yes, I agree completely. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

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