Its a common axiom among some people interested in food that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a bad idea. This sentiment ranges in intensity from those who think organic food is simply more nutritious to people who believe GMOs are destined to destroy the human race. Much like Brittany’s post about local food, I think this opinion might need a closer look. The following is by no means the whole discussion on GMOs, but hopefully it will raise some questions and lead to some good discussion.
I think the biggest reason people mistakenly demonize GMOs has nothing to do with the crops themselves, but rather the companies that produce them. The predatory nature of companies like Monsanto has been lamented by farmers and activists around them globe. Perhaps these business practices could be a topic of another post (or five or six posts!), but they really have nothing to do with the product.
It is also likely that the incredible rise in the popularity organic foods might have led some to dislike or distrust genetically engineered (GE) foods. The logic here seems valid at first glance: organic food is better, so GE food must be worse! But a closer look reveals several inconsistencies. Consider the Bt pesticide. Bt is a bacterium that has insecticidal properties but is considered safe for humans. Because Bt is naturally occurring, it can be used on organic crops without risk of losing organic certification. Not long ago, scientist discovered a way to insert genetic information from Bt into the genome of certain crops like corn and cotton. These “Bt crops” produce the same insecticide as the Bt bacterium and have been very successful since becoming available in 1996. Bt crops cannot be considered organic because of this genetic modification. So which is really better? Humans are still ingesting the Bt byproducts that have been proven safe (even the Europeans use Bt as a pesticide!), but the Bt crops do not require the additional environmental burdens of using water and burning fossil fuels that are required for pesticide application.
So what are the legitimate reasons for distrusting GMOs? The obvious one is safety. Genetics is still a relatively new field of study and we’re learning more and more each year. How can we possibly ensure that messing with nature in this way won’t have negative consequences? This is the major reason for Europe’s reluctance to use GMOs. Considering the food scares such as Mad Cow Disease in Europe during the 1990’s, they were understandably skittish towards the prospect of adding these untested “frankenfoods” to their food supply. However, it has now been almost twenty years since these products for been on the market and the doomsday predictions have yet to come to fruition. Because of this, uneasiness towards GMOs is waning, even in Europe. This is not to say that GE foods are and will always be safe. As with any new branch of science, we must be very careful not to rush any new crop to market without extensive testing. The question then becomes a simple one: is it worth the risk?
What many food activists have been reluctant to admit is the possibility that we might need GMOs. We need to be realistic about the problems we’re facing as the global population surges past 7 billion. The fact is, GMO foods have steadily increased crop yields over the last 20 years and the implications of new research point to even greater production. The most promising of these new research initiatives is the development of drought-resistance GE crops which could be used to increase crop yields in drought-stricken regions such as Sub-Saharen Africa and reduce the fresh water cost of agriculture. Other interesting research is being done to bolster the nutrient profile of some crops in order to target deficiencies.
The battle for and against GMOs rages on. Unfortunately, you cannot look at this situation in a vacuum; many other factors – such as economic globalization and food sovereignty – contribute to this battle besides the GMOs themselves. While these things should be considered, we can’t afford to ignore the potential of these innovative crops.