GMO Food

Why Not Genetically Modified Organic Crops?

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Slate is running a timid article asking, "Could Frankenfoods be good for the environment?" Damned right they are!  As I have argued:

Although organic farmers refuse to see it, switching to genetically enhanced crops would go a long way toward accomplishing their avowed goals of restoring their land and helping the natural environment.

Now, comes the Slate article reviewing a new book, Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by two University of California, Davis agricultural experts, Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. And it looks a like a very interesting book indeed. According the the UC Davis press release the authors:

…assert that genetically engineered, organically grown crops offer a one-two punch for boosting food production in an environmentally conscious way. The husband and wife point out that the process of genetic engineering can contribute to the development of improved seeds that organic farmers can use…

"Unnecessarily pitting GE [genetically engineered] and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms," Ronald said. "Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the impact of ecologically oriented farming practices will likely remain small. Despite tremendous growth in the last 15 years, organic farming is still less than 3 percent of all U.S. agriculture.

"Genetic engineering enables us to introduce critically important traits into crop plants—traits such as resistance to disease and insects or tolerance for environmental stresses like flood, droughts, cold, heat and salty water and soils," she said. "It has been very difficult to develop these traits in crops through conventional breeding."

The Slate article closes:

Given the potential of these products to reduce the environmental impact of farming, it's ironic that traditional advocates for sustainable agriculture have led a successful campaign to blacklist GMOs irrespective of their applications. At the very least, they might treat them as legitimate ethical and scientific matters deserving of a fair public hearing.

Well, yes. 

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  1. These studies that prove that previously undesired processes are actually good things, need to be exported to other countries willing to take chances for the good of their people. Actually, they should be offered to companies to use in other countries if people here aren’t willing to accept them because they’re “teh evil.” Lots of countries in Africa who might want better crop yields to compete with us, since all we do is fuck with the pricing that hurts those countries the most.

    …something something free market….

  2. Well Ron. Some very shrill idiots don’t like genitically modified foods. They have a louder voice than you so I’m going with them.

  3. it’s ironic that traditional advocates for sustainable agriculture have led a successful campaign to blacklist GMOs

    No irony at all. It’s entirely consistent if you adopt the mindset that man is defiling Mother Nature with his dirty “people tricks” , like chemicals and GMOs.

    These people think of man as some malevolent deus who fucks with nature too much, rather than thinking of man as part of nature.

  4. Well, there’s still the whole issue of not owning GMO seeds, merely being licensed to grow them for one generation. Even if it’s not environmentally damaging, the fact that seeds are patented and farmers can’t save them without risking jail time is enough to turn me off of the GMO industry and stick with organic.

  5. These people think of man as some malevolent deus who fucks with nature too much, rather than thinking of man as part of nature.

    Well said.

    Someone the other day, I think it was here, said something along the lines of “Oh, so you’re against GM foods. How does it feel to be for millions of people starving to death in Africa?” That was another keeper.

  6. Organic is a trade name or brand that was a free market development. People freely pay more for that brand. Why do people think trying to backdoor things onto that brand is free market progress?

    Organic has to mean sustainable. If someone has a patent on your seeds, it is not sustainable. You can modify what organic means, but that is diluting the very successful brand.

    Grow your GE seeds without pesticides and herbicides, great. But come up with your own marketing term and see if the free market accepts it. But of course, GE producers want to market their seeds in secret. How can you have a free market when you don’t know what you are buying?

    It always comes down to GE producers wanting to not label their stuff. Why not? If something can’t sell without fraud, then it deserves no place in the market. That is the free market.

  7. “How does it feel to be for millions of people starving to death in Africa?” That was another keeper.”

    Obama just compensated for that by alowing Federal dollars to support aborting African fetuses.

  8. “Someone the other day, I think it was here, said something along the lines of “Oh, so you’re against GM foods.”

    Worse yet, are the morns at my local co-op grocery store. They used to sell Seeds of Change organic seeds for yeasr, but this year they when with another brand. Why? They said because Seeds of Change is now owned Monsanto and Monsanto is a big evil corporation. And while I didn’t say it, I thought — how are you going to get Monsanto to produce even more organic seeds if you’re unwilling to reward them when they do?

  9. And while I didn’t say it, I thought — how are you going to get Monsanto to produce even more organic seeds if you’re unwilling to reward them when they do?

    Not for nothing, but how do you expect people to reexamine their assumptions if you don’t point out that they’re being silly?

    Obama just compensated for that by allowing Federal dollars to support aborting African fetuses.

    Fetus meat is, I imagine, very nutritious. Ask your local Planned Parenthood.

  10. martyred_cars: I assume this means that you don’t eat products made from hybrid corn either? No seed saving there.

    Patrick: See my column on “Organic Law.”

    Also see my column, “Food Stamp,” where I reported on how some organic farmers tried to use an Oregon referendum (not the free market) to impose labeling on other farmers.

  11. Expect Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak to be ostacized by the “green” movement.

  12. ostacized – ostacized – sheesh!

  13. What I find ridiculous is that a truck carrying seed can pass by my property, and if a stray seed should happen to blow off the truck bed and populate my field, I could be sued by Monsanto for copyright infringement. Since when is nature doing what nature is designed to do considered theft? I have serious issues with the idea that life can be copyrighted. While I agree that the fruits of an individual’s labor are of value, and that that individual has a right to capitalize on their labor, I shudder at the idea that something out of human control, such as life, could be patented and copyrighted. Should certain animals be patented, now that we have the legal precedent? What happens if/when those animals reproduce or interact with other animals? Is the copyright infringed upon? How long before we patent cells necessary to the health of humans? Or human DNA? Do libertarians want everything to someday be owned? Is that the dream? Where does it stop?

  14. Since from the dawn of time plants have been genetic engineered from natural selection sideways dna moves viruses etc. So in that being the case all GMO food is is a sped up selection process. so IMHO That seed and food if grown organically is ORGANIC. It is no different form any other strain or varity.

  15. There’s one way in which GMOs are good for the environment that hasn’t been mentioned much at all, even in pro-GMO arguments, so I think I’ll outline it here.

    That is herbicide tolerant crops and no-till agriculture. “No-till agriculture” has been advocated by agricultural experts for many years as a means of avoiding soil erosion and building healthy soil structure. But it comes with a number of problems. Without tillage, it is difficult to control weeds, which are usually otherwise plowed under before planting. As a result, no-till is generally practiced in combination with the use of heavy herbicide application. In addition, the herbicides used must specifically target pest-plants, but not harm the crops. The class of herbicides that can be use used is generally highly toxic, and one type might nto eliminate all weeds, so you mgiht have to spray with multiple different compounds. This tends to limit use of no-till practices for various reasons. The organic alternative (of course) is to hand-weed your crop. But most organic farmers don’t do this anyway because it’s far cheaper to till under weeds.

    There are however some low-toxicity herbicides out there, like Roundup. Roundup (glyphsate) is a non-toxic herbicide that you can find in the hardware store, which doesn’t require special handling. This is the kind of stuff you use to kill grass growing through cracks in your driveway. It also breaks down rapidly in the environment. The problem with Roundup is that it kills any kind of plantlife. It doesn’t specifically target certain kinds of plant. So you wouldn’t want to spray it on your crop in mid-growing season.

    Enter Roundup-Ready GMOs. They’re engineered to tolerate glyphosate so they won’t die when it’s applied. This allows farmers to plant Roundup-Ready soybeans, then spray with glyphosate to get rid of weeds, thus getting rid of all the weeds but not your crop. This makes practicing no-till farming vastly cheaper and easier for millions of farmers. Thus making it possible to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health.

    Basically, the opposition to herbicide tolerant GMOs is actually holding up adoption of a sustainable agricultural practice, rather than promoting it. Organic in this case is actuallyencouraging people to do things that are less sustainable in the long run than a judicious mixture of GMOs, conventional farming techniques and traditional (organic) practices.

  16. Since from the dawn of time plants have been genetic engineered from natural selection sideways dna moves viruses etc. So in that being the case all GMO food is is a sped up selection process. so IMHO That seed and food if grown organically is ORGANIC. It is no different form any other strain or varity.

    That is the case that would be made to consumers. But why won’t GMO companies make this argument? They refuse to allow consumers to choose. They want to patent their product, but horn in on other people’s trademarks.

    I don’t care what you sell in the supermarket, just label it. A simple one sentence idea that seems to take pages to respond to by those that don’t want to label GMO foods.

    Grow your plants and market them honestly in the free market. Sounds like there are plenty of people on this site that would buy them.

  17. “how are you going to get Monsanto to produce even more organic seeds if you’re unwilling to reward them when they do?”

    The answer is, they don’t want Monsanto to produce more organic seeds. They want Monsanto to go out of business. And I suppose, for every micro-region of the world to have its own co-op producing just enough organic seeds to feed the local population, or something like that.

  18. What I find ridiculous is that a truck carrying seed can pass by my property, and if a stray seed should happen to blow off the truck bed and populate my field, I could be sued by Monsanto for copyright infringement.

    No you can’t. You’re talking about Percy Schmeiser. What Mr. Schmeiser did was spray his field with Roundup, killing off all the plants that weren’t Roundup-Ready, and then collect the seeds from the remainder, and plant them the next year.

    In other words, he deliberately selected for herbicide tolerant plants. His crop was 96% Roundup-Ready according to tests.

    What’s even more ridiculous is that he was deliberately planting roundup-tolerant crops and spraying with roundup, while simultaneously claiming that his organic certification was being threatened by “contamination”. The guy was basically trying to scam the system so he could use GMOs without anyone noticing.

  19. There are several good, sensible reasons that genetically-engineered organisms don’t belong in agriculture, or in the world. Other comments have touched on the intellectual property issues and I won’t repeat those. More importantly to me, and I would hope to you, is that GE crops are qualitatively different than anything produced by nature or by selective breeding. They contain combinations of genes that have never been vetted in the old and very thorough process of natural selection.

    We have enough troubles with animals and plants that have been removed from their natural habitat and introduced to new ones by humans, e.g. kudzu, Asian tiger mosquito, zebra mussel, Dutch Elm disease. Now imagine introducing an organism to nature that not only didn’t evolve “here,” it didn’t evolve ANYwhere. It is arrogant to assume the unknown consequences are minor or harmless. All we can know is that if it turns out to be a mistake, it’ll be a self-replicating one.

  20. It is arrogant to assume the unknown consequences are minor or harmless. All we can know is that if it turns out to be a mistake, it’ll be a self-replicating one.

    I’m going to assume you don’t know any genetics. The gene splicing they are doing is incredibly minor stuff, for incredibly minor (genetically) changes. And it’s targeted. Tons of changes occur in nature all the time, but they are random, so theoretically they are even more “dangerous”.

    The risk of your hypothetical happening is incredibly low.

  21. Episiarch,

    You’re right! The greatest threat to Earth today is uncontrolled mutation. We need to put a stop to it.

    Incidentally, I love GM foods and think anti-GM people should consider offering themselves up as inventory for Soylent Corporation.

  22. Re “Why not just label GE seeds and let customers make their choice?”; Pam Ronald addressed this on her own blog last week.

    http://pamelaronald.blogspot.com/2009/01/to-label-or-not-to-label.html

    Plenty of other interesting reading there…eg, on plant scientists and “not palling around with terrorists.”

  23. More importantly to me, and I would hope to you, is that GE crops are qualitatively different than anything produced by nature or by selective breeding. They contain combinations of genes that have never been vetted in the old and very thorough process of natural selection.

    Wrong dipshit. Substantial parts of the human genome were put there by viruses. The natural process is for virulant microbes to kill off large parts of a population leaving only those members of the population that tolerate the microbes or even assimulate DNA from the microbes.

    Try Google sometime.

  24. I’m still looking for soy milk that claims it is made exclusively WITH GM soy. I’d pay a premium for that because I care about the environment.

  25. GE crops are qualitatively different than anything produced by nature or by selective breeding.

    Numerous scientific organizations with actual experitise in genetics have stated otherwise.

    The use of GE to modify plants represents a significant advance in plant science, building on centuries of human involvement in the genetic modification of crop species. It allows for the transfer into a plant of specific, characterized genes under known regulatory control. The precision of this technology coupled with the knowledge of the specific nature of the manipulated genetic information make the risks of unintended consequences of this type of gene transfer comparable to the random mixing of genes that occurs during classical breeding (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2004).

    The rapid adoption of the first generation of these crops, made tolerant to certain pests or herbicides, underscores the benefits that can accrue to users. Early data indicate that some farmers have realized reduced pesticide use, increased crop yield and facilitated weed control leading to a reduced need for soil tillage (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride 2000; Huang et al. 2005; Toenniessen et al. 2003; Qaim and Zilberman 2003; Fawcett and Towery 2002). Such advances complement other sustainable agricultural practices and can lead to significant environmental benefits, such as decreased soil erosion and a reduced use of synthetic pesticides.

  26. More …

    Amrican Society for Cell Biology

    The ASCB has a strong commitment to educating the public about science in general and the science of cell biology and genetics in particular. We believe that better public education will help allay many unfounded fears of non-existent dangers associated with genetic modification of food sources. We recommend investments in resources in supporting such educational efforts.

    The ASCB believes it is important to protect research with GM crops from unnecessary restriction. This research could have far-reaching benefits for human health. In view of the current regulatory controls with regard to GM products, it is critical to avoid legislation that would slow the development of this important technology.

  27. More …

    American Society for Microbiology

    In recent months public understanding of biotechnology has been challenged by controversy concerning genetically modified organisms. The public has been confronted with charges and counter charges regarding the risks and benefits associated with using biotechnology to produce quality food in quantity. Since biotechnology enables well characterized genes to be transferred from one organism to another with greater precision and predictability than is possible using traditional breeding procedures, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.

    Nothing in life is totally free of risk. However, to minimize risk it is important to rely on fact rather than on fear, and the ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. Rather, plant varieties created with biotechnology are grown more efficiently and economically than traditional crops. This eventually should result in a more nutritious product at less cost to the consumer as well as to reduced pesticide use and greater environmental protection.

  28. You can hate Monsanto without being anti-corporatist. They’re kind of assholes.

    Hilight:

    In 1998 Monsanto’s patented seeds infected and pollenated farmland, established for forty years, owned by Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto Canada sued the seventy year old farmer for ‘stealing’ their patented seeds. This high profile case, Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, went to the Supreme Court level. Monsanto sued an independent farmer, Percy Schmeiser, for patent infringement for growing genetically modified Roundup-resistant canola. The 1998 case was portrayed in the media as a classic David and Goliath confrontation. This cross pollination destroyed Schmeiser’s forty years worth of carefully grown fields.

    Or:

    A UK government report shows that 67 chemicals, including Agent Orange derivatives, dioxins and PCBs exclusively made by Monsanto, are leaking from one unlined porous quarry that was not authorized to take chemical wastes. It emerged that the groundwater has been polluted since the 1970s.

    As a good capitalist and a proponent of GM in general, fuck Monsanto. I want them to go out of business is as spectacular a fashion as possible to discourage other companies from trying their bullshit.

  29. Ben | January 30, 2009, 3:23pm | #
    What I find ridiculous is that a truck carrying seed can pass by my property, and if a stray seed should happen to blow off the truck bed and populate my field, I could be sued by Monsanto for copyright infringement. Since when is nature doing what nature is designed to do considered theft?… Do libertarians want everything to someday be owned? Is that the dream? Where does it stop?

    Land grant universities breed their own crop varieties, and give legal protection to their work. Are they just as evil as Monsanto? What incentive is there for further seed variety research if those that do it can’t recoup their investment?

    As Hazel Meade said, GMOs give us no till, and no till saves tons of soil, though at the cost of additional chemicals. Overall it is a significant benefit.

  30. “Enter Roundup-Ready GMOs…Thus making it possible to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health.”

    And they shall pound their plowshares into herbicide sprayers-ah.

  31. Christian Brown:

    As I’ve explained above, Percy Schmeiser was deliberately spraying his fields with Roundup to select for Roundup-Ready canola. It was no accident that his fields tested >96% Roundup-ready canola.

    He then planted the crop the next year without paying for the license, or decertifying himself as Organic. He knew what he was doing. He was intentionally trying to use GMO crops without having to lose his organic certification or pay for the license.

    That’s why the Canadian Supreme court upheld his conviction.

  32. Thanks for the great thread everyone. We appreciate your comments. Enjoy the book!

  33. The affects of these GM food is still unknown. Only time will tell, and if GM food continues to be disguised, as these large food conglomerates want then their effects will never be truly known.

    It is less of a health issue to me then an ethical one anyway. There is something very nefarious in an pesitcide company purchasing seeds companies and then gentically modifying those seeds for mass distribution to work with their own products. Biodiversity has been a stabilizer and force of momentum for life, and to replace the variety of seeds in this world with a single company’s stock (which is the way it is heading) seems nonsensical.

    All I want is transparency. Most people are completly unaware that they ingest copious amounts of GM’s through high fructose corn syrup, and other garabage that passes for food. Through the efforts of food marketers and big industry, we are clueless, misinformed, confused and getting unhealthier. I would like the option to make an informed decision without having to get a minor in biology to understand labels etc.

    Why wont the FDA do their fracking job?

    As an aside, land grant universities did not patent life first, a corporation did. If they didnt legally protect their work now, some corp. would just come & steal it.

    “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance – the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” – Alex Carey

  34. Ludicrous to suggest that organic crops have been limited by not using Genetic Alteration. Give me a break. First, seed has been genetically bred forever. Secondly this Genetic Engineering has just begun and there are problems.

  35. “As an aside, land grant universities did not patent life first, a corporation did. If they didnt legally protect their work now, some corp. would just come & steal it.”

    The point is, they’re doing it now. I know because I grow and sell certified (and legally protected seed) for such an institution.

  36. One of the reasons why these boards are so annoying is the tone that some people take on them. When you call someone else’s comments/thoughts ludicrous, dipshit etc, it does not make your point any more valid or interesting, nor does make you sound more intelligent. Don’t you have a friends/family if you just want to hear the sound of your own voice?

    If a company is patenting a product (such as seed) they seek to control the distribution of such product. The nature of this such product disperses easy, out of human control, and then crosses with other unpatented “product”. The courts have deemed that any presence of patented products is said company’s property. This is what is so disturbing to me. What is to stop a company from modifying a product with a gene to “dominate” all others that are not owned by respective company, identified by some genetic marker. How would we know? Seems to me, if it is a corp.’s goal to protect its shareholders interests and market share, this would be a very sound approach to make sure yours is the only available product on the market.

    My main point is, I have zero trust for company’s who avoid and obstruct public debate about such an important issue such a genetic engineering and quietly introduce such product into the marketplace. If it is so safe and beneficial, why all the stacking of research (funding of educational facilities), and policy makers (executive of food industry working in government agencies)?

    I am interested in the debate about health & environmental benefits of genetic engineering with respect to food (I do not claim to be a scientist), but again, I err on the side of not accepting what these corporations, with obvious conflicts of interests, espouse to regarding the safety of their products. I EXPECT MY GOVERNMENT TO AS WELL. Many government agencies are in existence as a result of industry lying and injuring the public and public good in some manner.

  37. When you call someone else’s comments/thoughts ludicrous, dipshit etc, it does not make your point any more valid or interesting, . ..

    If you come here often enough, you will “come to realize that some people deserve to be called a dipshit.

    However, thanks for your thoughtful post.

    On the other hand, you do seem to be conflating two separate problems: “Whether or not GMO are safe” versus Whether or not the US Intellectual Property regime is legitimate”.

  38. ostacized – ostacized – sheesh!

    Ostrich Sized!!!!!

    Other than the issue of whether or not a particular seed can be saved for sowing the next year, there is no conflict between organic farming and GM crops, as far as I see it.

    They contain combinations of genes that have never been vetted in the old and very thorough process of natural selection.

    Wrong dipshit. Substantial parts of the human genome were put there by viruses. The natural process is for virulant microbes to kill off large parts of a population leaving only those members of the population that tolerate the microbes or even assimulate DNA from the microbes.

    Try Google sometime.

    Well, your response here is pretty much tangential. The “never been vetted” thing is true on its face. Now, that doesn’t make the seeds “qualitatively” different in any meaningful sense. The argument is that there may be unintended consequences to certain modifications. This is a legitimate point to make that libertarians are fond of making in other arenas.

  39. If you come here often enough, you will “come to realize that some people deserve to be called a dipshit.

    It’s true, short fat bastard frequently deserves to be called a dipshit.

    ;^)

    Short fat, googling is one thing. Thinking another. Your response to Slacking at work only demonstrated that you have trouble with the thinking part.

  40. Scientists, of course, recognize the unintended consequences issue and attempt to quantify and minimize it.

    In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that hybridization between crop plants and their wild relatives is the rule, as opposed to being an exception. Moreover, population genetic theory has shown us that the likelihood of establishment and rate of spread of an allele are governed primarily by the strength of selection, as opposed to the migration rate. Thus, even if crop ? wild hybridization is a rare occurrence, a moderately advantageous transgene would be expected to spread quickly following its escape. Although increased individual fitness does not necessarily translate into increased invasiveness, fitness remains the best predictor of allelic spread. Thus, the fitness effects of a gene in the wild are a far more important consideration than the overall rate of gene flow (see also Hails & Morley, 2005).

    With this in mind, it seems that efforts to assess the risks associated with transgene escape should be primarily directed at quantifying the costs and benefits associated with a given transgene, as well as investigating the possibility that it might provide recipient individuals with unintended (i.e. pleiotropic) benefits. Such work should, of course, be based on direct estimates of fitness, as indirect estimates (such as disease incidence in the case of white mold resistance in sunflower; Burke & Rieseberg, 2003) may not be reliable. Adding to the difficulty of this sort of work is the fact that fitness costs and benefits are likely to vary across environments, taxa, genes, and even insertion events (e.g. Jackson et al., 2004). Indeed, research to date show that the effects of transgenes can be highly variable, indicating a clear need to replicate studies across space and time, and to consider the risks and benefits of GM on a case-by-case basis.
    New Phytologist
    Volume 170, Issue 3, Pages 429-443

  41. Neu Mejican:
    There can and have been escape of conventionall cross-bred crops into the wild, which have in fact produced weeds.

    The point is that the risks should be evaluated according to the nature of the organism, not according to the method by which it was produced.

    Whether the gene was added by recombinant DNA technology, or by cross breeding, has no bearing on what effect it will have in the environment.

  42. It’s true, short fat bastard frequently deserves to be called a dipshit.

    I prefer dickhead.

  43. . . . . demonstrated that you have trouble with the thinking part.

    Remember children, never posted when pissed at someone else.

  44. Hazel,

    Whether the gene was added by recombinant DNA technology, or by cross breeding, has no bearing on what effect it will have in the environment.

    True enough, but it does have a bearing on the methods for studying that impact (e.g., GM crops are easier to study in many ways).

  45. “Since from the dawn of time plants have been genetic engineered from natural selection sideways dna moves viruses etc. So in that being the case all GMO food is is a sped up selection process. so IMHO That seed and food if grown organically is ORGANIC. It is no different form any other strain or varity.”

    “That is the case that would be made to consumers. But why won’t GMO companies make this argument?”

    The glaring truth is that not enough people understand genetics. It is taught in secondary school by teachers who do not understand it and the grand crescendo harped upon at the end of each lecture is the resounding insinuation that we have no clue what we are doing and that the world is going to become overrun with evil cloning.
    I don’t even see the argument between GE and organic as being something that can be considered ying or yang. It is like saying that a baby born from a carefully selected egg fertilized in a petri dish cannot be raised on pesticide free food.
    GE crops have a better chance at a greater desirable yield on less land, leaving more room for habitat. And, because of GE, the use of weed killers and pesticides may come to an end as desired crops are created to be naturally resistant.
    As for copyrights…I aliken it to the music industry and the fuss that has been made in the past over “home-taping”. In the future, GE will be able to be accomplished in one’s kitchen with a kit. It will be a non-issue.

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