Yes We Have No Bananas

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Another beautiful thing we might lose without (increasingly embattled) genetically modified foods: the banana. The cover story of the Jan. 18 New Scientist (not apparently available free on the Web, alas) reports that because of the staggering lack of genetic diversity in the sexless banana, it is uniquely vulnerable to rising fungal diseases. Thus, we could face extinction-level plagues against the yellow treat in the next few decades. GM-type biotech to create new varieties of banana resistant to the common fungi is, the story concludes, "the only hope for the banana. Without it…we may even see the extinction of the banana as both a lifesaver for hungry and impoverished Africans and as the most popular product on the world's supermarket shelves."

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  1. Don’t get me wrong, I eat genetic modification for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (actually, we all do), but is this banana thing for real?

    I’d want to be very sure the threat is real before it is used to defend GM; it would be a shame if pro-GMers got caught using environmentalist-esque scare tactics.

    Godamn, I love bananas. I propose “they” find a way to make them continue to ripen as they do on a tree after they’ve been plucked.

  2. To all it may concern,

    Rest assured, the folks here at the McDonalds Genetically Modified Foods Division (GMFD) are going to do all we can to save the precious Banana from extinction. In fact, the McDonalds Corporation’s top scientists are hard at work creating the genetic coding that would not only save the Banana, but also make its skin as tough as Kevlar yet remain peel able.
    I will keep all of the fine readers of Reason’s “Hit & Run” updated on the progress of this exciting product development.

    The Hamburglar
    V.P. genetically modified foods
    The McDonalds Corporation

  3. Two points:

    1) the vulnerability of crops to various pests and blights is increased astronomically by concentrating members of a single species on huge monoculture plantations, and by killing off the pests’ natural enemies up the food chain with pesticides; and

    2) the only thing necessary to “embattle” GMOs completely out of existence is to cease the anti-market monopolies otherwise known as patents. Without the monopoly profits extracted through patents, the cost of research could not nearly be paid for by free market returns (assuming that the government R&D tit is likewise cut off).

    2b), I guess: without various food libel laws and USDA restrictions on labelling GMOs, people would buy a lot less of them.

    As usual, “progressives” don’t realize how friendly a genuine free market is to their values.

  4. Kevin,

    My apologies if I sounded like I was talking down to you about patent law. Sadly, a lot of people don’t realize that patents are time-limited. Clearly you’re not one of them.

    I think the overall rationale for the patent system is a good one: generally, the time-limited monopoly to the inventor’s employer makes society better off than if the invention wasn’t made. It appears you would take the opposite view. Reasonable small-l libertarians can disagree on this point.

    If you’re opposed to GMO foods, though, I have to strongly disagree. As you allude to, the gene for Bt protein (an insecticidal protein from the Bt bacterium) Monsanto put into corn has been used by organic farmers for decades, in the form of the Bt bacterium. Why is the Bt gene and protein acceptable for organic farmers but not for Monsanto?

    As for reducing the effectiveness of the Bt protein by selecting for insects that can survive eating it, don’t organic farmers cause the same result? Especially if organic farming is to grow its market share, which is something many people who oppose GMO foods would like to see happen, “indiscriminate overuse” would seem to be as likely for organic farmers as for Monsanto’s customers.

    Since these reasons seem flimsy, may I ask why you would be overjoyed for the “frankenfoods industry” to go belly-up?

  5. Raymund:

    No offense taken–I didn’t perceive your comments that way at all. As for the justification of patents as an encouragement to R&D, I’ve got a printout somewhere of a report presented by F.M. Scherer, I think, at an FTC hearing. He presented a survey showing that something like 84% of all new technologies would have been developed without patents, just for the sake of staying competitive in terms either of product quality or productive efficiency. In most cases, the short-term profits resulting from being the first on the market are enough incentive to develop new products.

    The only industry in which a majority of products would not have been developed w/o patents was drugs–and here I suspect some self-reporting problems. After all, over half of Big Pharma R&D is paid for by taxpayers, and some of the biggest cash cows (AZT, I think, among them) was developed entirely at taxpayer expense. And I would support doing away with the FDA approval process, which is probably the source of the major share of development costs.

    I strongly oppose GMOs, but I’m willing to live and let live–so long as the state doesn’t subsidize them, or criminalize the market flow of information through food libel laws or label restrictions. I believe the free market would end the problem–but if not, it’s your choice.

    On the Bt issue, the difference is that the use of genetically-spliced Bt uses it on a far larger and more indiscriminate scale, drastically increasing the risk of insect resistance–the same process that led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic farmers generally apply Bt in very limited quantities, where signs of actual insect infestation have been spotted.

  6. Kevin,

    Patent monopolies are only temporary. For example, a lot of Monsanto’s insect-resistant corn, cotton, etc. will go off-patent in, I’m guessing, the 2010-2015 time frame. At that point they become public domain.

    Patents also aren’t a guarantee the patent owner will make enough money to justify the research that went into the patent.

    Lastly, I doubt that, for example, Monsanto gets much of its r&d funding from the government tit. I don’t know the details, but we could probably find Monsanto’s latest annual report on the web.

  7. Raymund:

    No matter how temporary patents are, they’re a morally illegitimate monopoly, in violation of the free market, for as long as they exist. And the period is quite long in relation to the effective lifetime of technology. In the case of the Bt-spliced plants, for example, Monsanto officials have admitted that it will probably lose its effectiveness in a decade or so–a result of increasing insect resistance in response to indiscriminate overuse. That’s why organic farmers are so pissed–Monsanto has as much as admitted that it’s ruining something that has been an effective tool for a long time. But not to worry, they say; they’ll come up with something new by that time–something new, under patent, and consequently hugely expensive.

    Patents may not be a SUFFICIENT condition for monopoly profits in the frankenfoods industry, true. But they’re a NECESSARY condition. My orignal point was that it would simply be impossible to make a profit on this technology without the patent. If it still goes belly-up DESPITE the monopoly price, I’m overjoyed.

  8. Save your seeds, and you will be liable for a lawsuit, which we will win, especially if we find even one plant in your field that is a hybrid of accidental cross-pollination with our genetically-modified products.

    Oh, and help us feed the world by buying our Terminator seeds. We guarantee that you’ll be our loyal annual customers, guaranteed.

    Sig Heil!

  9. Save your seeds, and you will be liable for a lawsuit, which we will win, especially if we find even one plant in your field that is a hybrid of accidental cross-pollination with our genetically-modified products.

    Oh, and help us feed the world by buying our Terminator seeds. We guarantee that you’ll be our loyal annual customers, guaranteed.

    Sig Heil!

  10. Save your seeds, and you will be liable for a lawsuit, which we will win, especially if we find even one plant in your field that is a hybrid of accidental cross-pollination with our genetically-modified products.

    Oh, and help us feed the world by buying our Terminator seeds. We guarantee that you’ll be our loyal annual customers, guaranteed.

    Sieg Heil!

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