Should We Fear the GMO?

Photo source: AP.


Few debates in the realm of agricultural development are more challenging (and aggravating) than that surrounding genetically engineered crops. Largely, the debate has been reduced into “point-counterpoint” style argumentation—should GMO foods be labeled?  Are GMOs detrimental to human health and/or the environment? Are GMOs the economic answer for agricultural and food security growth throughout the developing world? You likely have your own answers to some of these questions, with reasonable explanations for why you fall down on one side or the other.

My key frustrations with the GMO debate derive from an overwhelming  “us versus them” mentality in which “my team” has to win, even if the “other team” has some good ideas or points. As Jonathan Foley once said, “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.” This is a nuanced issue, but the politicization of GMOs often results in emotionally-charged, ideologically-hard lined discussion. I certainly have my own biases, and generally am more in favor of traditional crossbreeding techniques than genetically engineering (GE) crops or animals. And I understand why GMOs are scary—there are many areas of uncertainty or of potential negative impact in their use. But fear alone should not be the driving reason behind opposing their use. In my time working and debating at The World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, IA, and over the course of my studies at the Josef Korbel School, three key “fears” surrounding GMO use arise again and again

1. Fear of environmental impact.
Remember Gregor Mendel and his pea plants? While he methodically selected for genetic robustness in his crops, he was not a genetic engineer in today’s sense of the term. GE or GMO crops, “are plants or animal created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology” which cannot otherwise occur naturally or through traditional crossbreeding techniques. This leads to philosophical questions about our role in modifying nature—do we get to play God(s)?—and if these modifications pose true threats to our environment and our health.

Apart from potential existential crises caused by considering our role in modifying (or not modifying) nature, GMOs do pose a threat to naturally-occurring flora and fauna, as their introduction to stable ecosystems can result in outcrossing or loss of biodiversity. For instance, many GMOs are created to be weed- or pest- resistant. Introduction of these resistant crops may lead “the [natural] development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses.” Biodiversity loss is a complex issue in and of itself, but increased GMO is one of the many drivers that leads to “the displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars,” either through farmer selection to grow GMOs, by GMO cross-pollination, or by market- and price-based marketing and consumer decisions to prefer GMO products over traditional cultivars.

For many fearful of GMOs’ environmental impact, the use of pesticides and fertilizers necessary to maintaining healthy GMO crops is the most alarming. Although many biotech firms maintain that their product lines both effectively control weeds and decrease the overall use of pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful chemicals, studies show that GMO technology has risen since the wide-spread availability and use of GMO crops. (This impact has been most studied on RoundUp Ready crops). When considered in the context of general problems with commercial agriculture—labor codes or lack thereof, poor safety precautions for workers, environmental regulations to monitor and control agrichemical run-off into waterways—there are a number of negative impacts on environmental and human health inevitable with increased use of GMOs.

2. Fear of health impact.
Many of the environmental fears dovetail with fears about GMOs’ impact on human health. (We’ll side-step the issue of animal health for the time being, as the implications for animal well-being warrant their own nuanced debate). The World Health Organization determines the safety of GM foods by investigating “(a) direct health effects (toxicity);  (b) tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity); (c) specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties; (d) the stability of the inserted gene; (e) nutritional effects associated with genetic modification; and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.” GMOs which are currently on the market have passed these investigations, and are currently deemed safe for human consumption. However, rigorous scientific studies have produced mixed results on whether GMO foods are safe for humans: “some have vindicated no safety differences between GE and non-GE varieties, while others have demonstrated potential harm.” This ambiguity among the scientific community about the safety of GM products (and about the best methods to test for safety) has led to fears about ingesting GM foods. Caution in this instance is sound, but I find myself wondering why consumers are eager to trust science to make us more healthy through pharmaceuticals, innovative surgeries, and other medical means, but not through directly modifying our food sources.

3. Fear of dependency or economic oppression.
Part of the argument in favor of GMO use is the promise of increased crop yield through minimizing pestilence and maximizing the amount of crop grown per acre or hectare. This has clear positive impacts for farmers, especially for smallholders with small amounts of land and resources. By growing more of a crop, farmers are able to maximize their economic gain, to reinvest in the farm, and to purchase necessities for their family like schooling, food, health care, clothes, and shelter upgrades. This can also result in an increase stock of food at local, national, and regional levels, allowing consumers access to more food and allowing governments more security in protecting national food stocks against the vicissitudes of the international commodities market. These impacts of GMO use seem relatively positive. Poor farmers can grow more, make more money, and potentially generate more food for their fellow man.

In the context of human and economic development, fear of GMOs is based on a fear of creating dependency on GMO crop inputs and the multinational agribusiness firms which purvey them. Agribusiness firms which sell GMOs and their associated products—seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.)—often carry strict patents and intellectual property protections which necessitate annual rebuying of seed (and the fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide made specifically to complement and support the seed), or the payment of a technology royalty to the company to continue using patented seeds. (As an aside, not all GMO seeds are sterile, although the technology to create sterile seeds exists. Many so-called “facts” about GMO seeds are actually more myth than reality, as Dan Charles’ article outlines.) Given the protections on seed technology and their relatively high level of enforcement, many fear that a dependency on agribusiness firms and their wares will outweigh the potentially positive outcomes of GMO use for farmers.

These fears exist for legitimate reasons, and I am truly concerned about GMOs’ impact on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, and on the environment. But we know these risks, and in identifying an ill we have the power to alleviate or eliminate that ill. As with any technological breakthrough, we should exercise an abundance of caution in how it is woven into the fabric of society. GMO use has resulted in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, to increased crop yields and increases in farmer livelihoods, and to more abundant food stocks in countries once depending on imports for the majority of their food. And what’s more, each GMO presents its own unique case, making it dangerous to declare all GMOs safe or unsafe. For each positive outcome GMOs have brought, there are hidden risks and obvious costs. But the moment we allow our fear of the unknown to deter scientific advancements—advancements with life-saving capabilities for huge numbers of people in the developed and developing world—is the moment that we give up on developing a better global food system, and a less-hungry world.

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