Jon Entine is an American science writer. He is the founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit that educates the public about the revolution in biomedicine and agricultural biotechnology. He was formerly a fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California, Davis, the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and at the American Enterprise Institute. After working as a network news writer, producer and executive for NBC News and ABC News from 1974-1994, Entine moved into scholarly research and print journalism. Entine has written seven books, four on genetics and chemical risk, and is a contributing columnist to multiple newspapers and magazines.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It is not uncommon to invoke the Beckerian claim that free competition between economic firms tends to evacuate racial discrimination in that those of firms which are basing recruitment on race rather than on work efficiency are allegedly disadvantaged with respect to their competitors. Does this line of thought capture the actual functioning of market economies—in America and elsewhere?
Jon Entine: I think it depends on what you want in a competition. If it’s purely an IQ competition, then, you’d want the highest IQ people to win. If it’s a competition, like an athletic one, for the fastest runner, the person could be a total jerk and not be particularly smart, but if they’re the fastest runner, they’re going to win. Now, in a complex society, the leaders who emerge are going to have a whole suite of qualities, not just intelligence, not just drive, personality characteristics like sociability. And so, you’re going be wanting many factors, many qualities, in leaders, besides just naked intelligence, if that even exists. And anytime you introduce a qualifying factor like race, it distorts the analysis. Now, you could argue that you want race as a factor because lack of racial diversity leads to a misperception of how the world really is. So you can make an argument for it. But there’s no question that if you only have the tallest people, or you only have the smartest people, or you only have some special factor that you tease out, you’re going to leave out other, potentially hugely important, leadership and achievement qualities. So, I think it’s potentially dangerous that race be used as a factor if it’s over-exaggerated and it ends up discriminating against people who otherwise would be better able to perform in that situation.
Grégoire Canlorbe: While it has encountered periods of obscurantist and literalist remnants such as the burning of Maimonides’s work in the 13th century, Judaism—since, at least, the times of the Jewish community of Alexandria—has been carrying within it Hellenizing principles such as the rationalization of the Torah, and such as the pursuit of knowledge through personal doubt and the confrontation of opinions. Has Islam gone down a similar route (towards interpretation and free inquiry) since the intellectual bubbling of Andalusia under Muslim rule?
Jon Entine: I think that many historical populations go through times of sophistication and then, fall into a retrograde period. It happened to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. You can actually see that trend in Judaism during the Middle Ages, when Jews actually became very obscurantist and adopted a lot of mystical beliefs, and were thought of as very irrational. Now, they oddly were very literate, but they were literate in a mystical kind of way; the read Jewish religious works but little else. The Christian enlightenment actually preceded the Jewish enlightenment by about a hundred years because Jews were caught into this mystical trap. But historically, Jews have always been a very literate culture. Islam has had a much different history. It arose in the first millennial period. Muslims were by and large quite well educated in the early years of Islam. But over the centuries, they’ve been back and forth between kind of a nomadic anti-intellectual history and one of intellectual inspiration. There was a period between the 8th and 14th centuries when Islam was very dominant in Northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula, and at one point reaching to the area around Barcelona. The Muslims called their Caliphate and homeland Al Andalus. Their cities were great centers of Islamic learning, and the great libraries of the world were Islamic. Medicine advanced dramatically during this period. The period is sometimes referred to as the “Ornament of History,” as for the most part, Jews and Christians lived mostly safely and in harmony with their Islamic neighbors. The dominant intellectual group, the doctors, the legal positions of that time and the great intellectual thinkers were mostly Muslim. It is one of the only periods of tolerance among the three Abrahamic religions in history. But the rise of the Christian kingdoms ultimately crushed Muslim strongholds, and Islam never really recovered from there. There’s never a Muslim society that performed at the level of Asian societies or European societies since the collapse of that era. So, there are definitely different traditions among different groups based on their cultural experiences.
Grégoire Canlorbe: As a fine connoisseur of chemophobia you cannot ignore the climate of mistrust surrounding the glyphosate. Why do you judge glyphosate and GMO farming to be far more sustainable, actually, than organic farming? What do you reply to the claim that the proponents of glyphosate should be ready to drink a glass wine of the latter if, truly, they think and intend to show that this product is half toxic as salt?
Jon Entine: Glyphosate was a product discovered literally by mistake in the 1970s, and it’s been used mostly as an herbicide. It has some other properties, including cancer control, and there are numerous studies about its potential use in that area, but it’s not been exploited Scientists found that it has an ability to kill weeds inexpensively at modes toxic levels. It’s toxicity is about equivalent to salt; it’s quite mild, not carcinogenic based on thousands of studies, and has little to no environmental footprint. It’s quite a remarkable chemical concoction. Scientists in the 1980s figured out how to make commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, that tolerant to glyphosate. In other words, if you sprayed those crops, Herbicide-tolerant glyphosate, originally developed and marketed as Roundup by Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, was one of two products that were the first out of the gate when GMO crops were introduced in the 1990s. The other major commodity products were engineered to include a natural bacterium, actually used even today by organic farmers, that made them resistant to many harmful insects. Those were the first two GMO products out of the gate, and they were enormously successful. They became the target of anti-GMO activists for many years, even though both of those were found extremely effective and safe.
A problem began to develop with glyphosate, though: many weeds developed a tolerance to it. Just because that’s what happens. Evolution is evolution. And if you keep spraying weeds with a certain kind of weed killer, mutations eventually happens that allow the weed to survive. And after a few years, you have a whole bunch of weeds that aren’t being killed by glyphosate. So, we had this explosion of weed problems by 2010 or so. It was a real issue, although weed resistance is a fact of nature with non GMO-based weed killers as well. But the issue put conventional agriculture and genetic engineering on the defensive, absolutely. And then, a controversial study came out in 2015 by a sub-agency of the United Nations called IARC—International Agency for Research on Cancer—and it concluded that glyphosate might cause problems for applicators, people who apply glyphosate, and that they could be subject to one specific kind of cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. IARC was a relatively obscure agency before that finding. And its conclusions were contradicted by every other major regulatory and research organization in the world, 16 other international agencies from WHO itself, two other WHO sub-agencies, the European Food Safety Authority, the German Food Safety Authority, the Royal Academy in London, the United States EPA, and academies in Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. All concluded that there was no convincing evidence that glyphosate causes cancer, and none recommended a ban So, you had one agency that said it might cause cancer under limited circumstances. They didn’t say it affected humans when traces were in our food. And all the other agencies said that IARC was promoting bad science, and that they mishandled the data. And they also accused it of being politically motivated. In fact, the main IARC scientist drafted its report secretly joined the litigation team that sued Monsanto. But because IARC was linked to WHO, even though it was a sub-agency not WHO itself, its conclusions were widely publicized, especially by anti-GMO activists. It scared a lot of people and has led to a lot of lawsuits. And there have now been legal cases in the US in which juries rejected the evidence that shows that glyphosate is not harmful. But juries can do whatever they want. Plenty of people are convicted or found innocent, independent of what the evidence really shows. And, basically, Monsanto, now Bayer, was found guilty in multiple court cases of claims that it caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a number of workers who handled it.
So, basically, many people are now scared of glyphosate and politicians respond to public opinion, not science. There are moves afoot to ban it, even though it’s the most successful and one of the least toxic herbicides one can use. It’s still in wide use. But over time, I think it will be phased out. And farmers are very upset about that. I think most farmers believe it’s extremely safe. Scientists overwhelmingly believe it’s safe. The myth that glyphosate is dangerous has been kept alive, and it’s really part of the ongoing war that exist about what kind of food system we want to have. Yet, there is no herbicide alternative in the organic world that is as safe as glyphosate. They’re all as or more harmful. Many natural applications suffocate beneficial insects. So, we have a choice.
At some point, we can force farmers to abandon it, have less yield and kill more beneficial insects, or we can keep it, use it appropriately, follow guidelines that are endorsed by every major science organization in the world, from Health Canada to the European Food Safety Authority, and maintain a robust agricultural system. I think that all those people who are so ideological on agriculture and who despise biotechnology, in essence, are modern Luddites. They so reject modern technology that they will sacrifice our food supply for their ideological purism.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The fight against greenhouse gas emissions is most often put on an equal footing with that against nuclear power—as well as with the fight against GMOs and advanced agricultural technologies. Do you think that biotechnology and nuclear industry, on the contrary, should be jointly put at the service of depollution? That GMOs and nuclear technology are actually good for the climate?
Jon Entine: Well, I think organic farming is based on principles that are 100-150 years old, and I can’t think of any technology that we embrace today that’s 100 or 150 years old and believe that somehow it’s the cutting way to do things. If you want agriculture to be sustainable; you need to have the most cutting edge and wisest practices. Organic farming promotes soil health, and that’s an emulatable goal. But there are so many other aspects to organic farming that are just outdated. There’s the belief that anything that’s natural is better—that if we put natural chemicals on plants, they’re going to be healthier. But organic farming uses copper sulfate, for instance, which is carcinogenic to humans and very dangerous: it kills beneficial insects. That’s clearly something that we wouldn’t want to use if we had alternatives. Biotechnology, GMO farming, can be used inappropriately too, but it also offers many potential advantages because you can use weed killers that are focused specifically on weeds and preserve the crops and don’t require tilling, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So, from a purely carbon preserving point of view, conventional farming using biotech seeds is much better than organic farming. Organic farming is also about 40 percent less yield efficient. You’re going to have to clear cut forests to get the same kind of yield globally that you can get in farming, using conventional means with GMOs. We can’t afford, environmentally, to give up any more of our land to farming or urbanization. The newer gene-edited crops are designed to use fewer and fewer chemicals, and in some cases no chemicals. We are on the verge of developing crops that naturally create nitrogen to fertilize the soil without chemicals. We need fertilized soil to get the kind of yields that are appropriate for an industrial society. But nitrogen can cause all kinds of environmental problems. But gene editing is in the position to address those kinds of things. So, I guess the real question should be: “Why don’t we have a farming system that is based on sustainable principles rather than choosing organic and pitting it against conventional or GMO farming?” We should pick the best elements from each system, and that should be the goal rather than ideologically proposing that either GMOs or organic is the best way to go.
I think nuclear energy and biotechnology are two of the most important tools to fight climate change. Nuclear energy is the only advanced technology we have right now in the energy sector that directly reduces carbon emissions to zero, with limited consequences. If you look at a lot of the renewable energies, they all have other consequences.
Wind towers chop up birds, and hydropower plants dam up rivers and cause mass death among fish. Nuclear energy, if it’s handled properly, especially the latest generation, is an essential tool in fighting climate change. And we’re naive to think that we could, through alternative energy alone, meet the challenge of reducing our carbon footprint. And GMOs and gene-edited crops do the same thing. If we have no till agriculture where carbon is not released, we can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint. If we don’t have to clear cut forests to grow organic food, we dramatically cut carbon. If we don’t have cows, which burp methane gas, which is 20 times more carbon toxic than carbon itself, then—and we need those cows to generate fertilizer for agriculture or organics, and if we don’t have those, we are very much in a better position to fight climate change. So, if we move in the direction of regenerative agriculture, organic agriculture, it will be a disaster in the long run. We need a mix of technologies in agriculture that are respectful of the cultural traditions of various communities, but also are sustainable. Otherwise, we’re courting long-term climate change disaster.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You openly distrust idiosyncratic ideological screens in investment decisions—and believe that such way of proceeding is more likely to harm people and the environment. Which sociopolitical system in the broad sense is the most immune to the siren voices of “socially responsible” investing?
Jon Entine: I’m all for a system that encourages investments in socially or environmentally progressive activities, but if you become totally focused on systems that don’t have an economic return, they ultimately can’t survive over time. The socially responsible investing movement, the problem with that is twofold: one, the values that it promoted were very ideological. So, for instance, it determined among most social investment professionals that defense spending was something that should be avoided. I imagine that if people hadn’t invested in defensive weapons, we could have lost World War II. So, I don’t see avoiding defensive weaponry or protective weaponry necessarily as something that’s not socially responsible; it’s too blunt an idea. So, it’s really concerning that we’re going to develop an investing system based on people’s whims and their ideology. You could have a Muslim investing system, which is competing with a Jewish investing system, which is competing with a Christian one, each one thinking that their particular values are superior. And there are in fact Muslim and Christiana and Jewish social investing funds. It’s pandering as it does not influence behavior; it’s a money-making gimmick by those who sell the funds. So, I think it’s best in investing to try to get the best return that we can and empower individuals and organizations to use their money in socially responsible ways. But I think rigging the system so that certain kinds of activities are rewarded, and there’s not the economic incentives to provide checks and balances within the system, is a prescription for economic inefficiency.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Many expect neuro-augmentation and genetic manipulation to allow Homo sapiens—through the taking over of their own biological evolution and the abandonment of the random processes of natural selection—to achieve the Cartesian project to render humans “the masters and possessors of nature.” Is transhumanism a reasonable dream?
Jon Entine: I think it’s reasonable to think that we’re going to change our human genome. We’re already able to do that in small ways. We’re already able to make micro-changes in the genome, and I think, over time, there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to rid ourselves of certain genetic disorders. Huntington’s disease would be one good example, as we know it’s linked to one gene. But the human genome is very complex. Human behavior and our chemical and genetic makeup are extremely complex. So, the fact that we can manipulate genes doesn’t mean we can manipulate them precisely. There always are consequences. Removing one gene or a suite of genes could have unintended consequences. I think, ultimately, over time, we are going to harness the genome and use it to develop many therapies that don’t exist now. Whether we can develop the superhuman Sapiens Sapiens, I think that that’s probably not necessarily in the cards. But I do think that we will make a lot of progress in coming decades in fighting many diseases that now seem out of the reach of the medical community.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add anything else?
Jon Entine: I have nothing else, no. Thank you for the interview.
“The interview was updated and condensed on August 20th”
Jon Entine is executive director/founder of the Genetic Literacy Project www.geneticliteracyproject.org
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