You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr

The debate over a piece of technology being evil or not can be quite a contentious issue. Be it the loom that threatened jobs or a weapon that threatens lives it’s really the user who commits the foul. Technology is just a tool and we should be wary about misplacing our contention. Genetic modification (GMO) of organisms is technology that has been particularly demonized and misunderstood. This “anti-GMO” attitude appears to be especially prevalent amongst vegan practitioners. I too not only ran amongst anti-GMO activists but assisted their efforts and campaigns. My train of thinking was that this was so unnatural and complex that no amount of human hubris could quell the apocalyptic fears.

In my own fledgling efforts of critical thinking, one of the first logical errors I had to contend with was the appeal to nature. The word “natural” is assumed to be the “normal” state and that quickly becomes problematic and is the basis for many bad arguments in and around veganism. So GMO is seen as this synthetic process that is so foreign to our world that it threatens to completely ruin it. It’s a particular concern for vegans because they rely so heavily on plant foods. Well, actually everybody does but for vegans a “plant-based diet” is more of a mission statement. The thing is though, once you start parsing out the details of what plants we eat and how they get to our table, the issue of GMO technology becomes not much an issue afterall. The biggest complaints over GMO usually revolve around how it’s wielded by “BigAg” corporations. And you know what, that’s is a completely valid concern but let’s not throw the compost out with the recyclables.

Is it fair to be “anti-GMO” or even “pro-GMO”? Can such a swath be cut from the field of scientific endeavor? I think when the subject of GMO comes up, in reality people are assuming it is part and parcel with its application. A distinction should be made between the big mean scary corporations who are trying to rule the world and their tool to do that. That’s something that I think everybody on both sides of this issue can agree upon. I don’t think science denial is ever a healthy way to approach an issue. It’s a form of anti-intellectualism that hinders progress towards solutions we cannot even start to dream about. It’s science that opens up those opportunities and we should encourage and foster such exploration.

Now to get a little crazy here I might even argue that GM technology could actually be a boon for vegans! Imagine a carrot imbued with B12 or lettuce with omega 3[1], it would make being vegan that much easier. Vegans are fully aware of how the “standard American diet” revolves around the consumption of animal foods. Even in that diet there are shortfalls in nutrition that are accommodated for with supplementation like vitamin D in milk, iodine in salt and fluoride in the water. Imagine if GM foods were developed to compensate for the nutritional imbalances of the vegan diet. We could have our nutrition supplementation and eat it too!

Now I can hear a bunch of vegan gasping for such a horrific scenario. How could you consider even eating such a lab created monster?! I might blame the black and white B-movie monster movies for instilling such a fear of science. Don’t kid yourselves, the plants we’re used to seeing in the produce markets were created and cultivated by humans. In fact they were “genetically modified” but instead of using technology to target a specific gene we used hybridization generation after generation to get the delicious plants we rely on in our diet today. The “natural” versions of those plants we commonly eat would be quite unpalatable.

The further irony is that we’ve imposed so many regulations and restrictions on the use of this technology that only “BigAg” corporations like Monsanto or Syngenta can afford to overcome those obstacles. We’re taking the science out of the hands of the people and handing it over to rich and powerful corporations to have free reign. If we’re really interested in combating the Powers That Be we should stop the fear mongering that actually plays into their hands. Let’s allow for such innovations to flourish by rationally addressing the issue without resorting to specious rhetoric or GM straw men.

Perhaps the real reasons vegans are deathly afraid of GM technology is the plantae version of technological singularity where plants will achieve sentience and rise up against us. Now, that would be a moral conundrum for vegans for sure. Having to wrestle that strong-armed tomato into my mouth would be no fun. Unless they start wailing the tune of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, then it’s ON!….NOM NOM!

If you are infected with the death grip fear of GM technology try putting that aside for a bit and check out the following:

That’s just a few sources I’ve recently discovered. If you have your own please feel free to share in the comments.

[1] Here’s a realworld example of EPA rich oil comparable to fish made from GM yeast.

9 comments to You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr

  • theevilchemist

    One such application of GMO that is already beneficial to vegans is microbial rennet that has been modified with the gene from a calf to produce rennet. While some vegans might argue it is an animal derived product b/c the gene was taken from an animal, I don’t see the virtue in this purism.

    You do not have to harm animals to utilize a gene, anymore than you would combing a cat. Moreover, you only need to implant and replicate that gene once and you will never have to extract a calf gene again, so long as you keep feeding the microbes.

  • Good point, I’m fine with GM rennet. What about casein?! Could we GM up a batch of super gooey vegan cheese finally?! (Daiya is good but still not identical to the cow stuff)

  • Hello Dave,
    I’m really glad you’ve found Biofortified to be a good resource 🙂 We try to provide a balance of science and commentary that so far seems to be working pretty well to stir up discussion. Feel free to stop by anytime.

    Evil Chemist, I totally agree! I’d love to have more vegetarian labeled cheese. Dave, I’d never thought of making vegan cheese with gm ingredients but I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t be possible. What a cool idea! I wonder if you could even get different flavors imparted into the cheese by adding herbs to the bacterial culture… Got me thinking.

  • Sean

    I imagine we could find plenty of other examples of GMOs that vegans and vegetarians should appreciate. What about replacing the use of insulin from various livestock animals with insulin from various species of yeast, plant, and bacteria that have been engineered to produce human insulin?

  • Anastasia, thanks for maintaining that resource!

    Stretchy vegan cheese (which is made so by casein I believe) is the holy grail for vegan food. Cheese pizza has been the downfall of many vegan diets. If you could GM a vegan cheese equivalent you would be a millionaire. Of course with the cost associated with GM that might put you a few billion into the red, eh? 😉

    Cargill creates breakthrough for dairy-free analogue cheese production with Lygomme™ ACH Optimum functional system
    and THAT will be a topic for another post.

  • Sean, good one. My sister who is diabetic benefits from the synthetic faster acting form of insulin called Humalog. When she was first diagnosed she was in pig insulin. Even as somebody who advocates on behalf of animal interests I have to admit I wouldn’t ask her not to use insulin but I damn glad that’s now a non-issue.

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