I’m going to try to keep this as simple as possible, which may or may not serve this complicated debate.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the various types of seeds humans have been using in agriculture for a long time. I hope that helped to explain why GMO seeds are set apart from heirloom or hybridized seeds. Basically, GMOs are made in a laboratory by extracting a desirable gene from one organism and splicing it into the genes of another, unrelated organism with the hopes that the receiving organism with display some of the desired traits of the other.
After some reading (and I’m sure I could do more), and much real-life observation, it is clear that this type of product is controversial, and for several reasons. I believe that those who promote and support the continued production of GMO crops have honorable goals. For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has an entire manifesto on the subject. According to GMA, GMOs are proven safe, they help “protect the environment,” they keep food prices affordable, and they help feed the world’s hungry. Pretty great stuff, right?
Let’s address that first point, about GMO safety. Some people fear that GMO food products are “toxic” and could be wildly unsafe to consume. There have been very few studies done that prove any kind of animal toxicity from GMOs with the exception of this one, which was prompted dismissed by critics despite another food safety official speaking up in defense of the study. One of the major problems here is that most toxicity studies have been funded by GMO companies themselves, which always brings into question the biases of the research. It appears that there has simply not been enough well-conducted and replicated studies done by non-GMO funded scientists. However, a good number of people (myself included) have been consuming foodstuffs that contain ingredients from GMOs for as many as 20 years, and there have not seemed to be any obvious effects- though this is a shaky argument if you ask me.
The “protect the environment” claim comes from the fact that GMOs are being designed to use less/fewer pesticide/s, and are allowing farmers to use more environmentally friendly planning techniques. Monsanto, for instance, sells products that are designed to “protect” farmers’ yields, which theoretically help them to get the most from the land. I see that this could help maximize agricultural areas so that we can maintain the conservation of wildlife areas, although I frankly doubt that this is one of Monsanto’s goals.
I digress- Monsanto helps, lets say, corn growers protect their yield by developing and selling corn seed with the ability to develop a specific protein from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, which, when eaten by a common corn pest such as the corn earworm, binds to the guts of the pest, preventing it from eating and eventually killing it. This technology helps farmers protect their yield while preventing them from having to spray a ton of pesticides on their crops. So, the scientists at companies such as Monsanto and its affiliates are looking to create seed with the traits that will allow fewer insecticide and pesticide sprayings as well as creating drought resistance. They are working under the paradigm that monoculture and industrial food production is the only way forward. When you accept these assumptions, GMO corn makes sense. I do not accept the assumption that further industrialization is the way forward, and so we have arrived at one of the main philosophical disagreements.
The supposed increase in yield helps keep the prices of cash crops low. That may be so, but most cash crops such as corn are also some of the most subsidized products in the United States. The GMA claims that the reduction of the use of pesitcides and insecticizes help keep the prices of GMO products lower, which also might be true, but hardly outweighs the impact of government help.
And here’s where I have to point out the thing that people seem to miss all the time. Yes, there are GMO fruits and vegetables, but the lack of demand and popularity of those products make them a much rarer scene in the marketplace compared to the cash crop products. The GMO fruits and veggies are typically bought and used by fast food chains. GMOs are not, generally, the fruits and vegetables we find at the grocery store but rather appear in the processed foods we eat.
Let’s return to corn, since its the easiest product to trace. The variety of corn that is developed as a GMO is not the sweet corn you eat on a cob. It’s the hard, high-glucose, practically inedible variety that is used in the production of corn syrup, which, as we know, can go into just about anything. It’s a very common sweetener in highly processed foods, which make up 70% of our diets. I eat processed foods. I’ve eaten corn syrup derived from GMO corn. But I have to point out that the “food” that people are referring to as being more affordable thanks to GMOs is really highly processed foods that are benefiting from the ridiculously low prices of GMO corn thanks to government stipends. Considering that the high amount of processed foods we eat as Americans have been found to make us unhealthier, are the GMOs really that inexpensive?
As to the helping feed the world’s hungry thing, all I have to say is that there is a reason that Dr. Vandana Shiva does her work, and it’s not because GMO companies helped to feed the starving children in her native India. In fact, I believe one of the main reasons GMOs should be controversial is because the companies that sell them have- from the humanitarian perspective- behaved badly. Here’s another, more subtle look at the issue. According the the capitalist/business, paradigm, however, GMO companies such as Monsanto have really just been protecting their business.
And this is what is all really comes down to, if you ask me. It’s just another case of takers vs. leavers. The concept of takers and leavers comes from Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel, Ishmael, which explains how the western perception that we (humans) are the result of evolution and that it is our duty to achieve complete control and dominion over nature has led to our current environmental and population crisis. Takers are people who believe that the only way to survive is to achieve compete control- most likely through technology. Leavers are people (typically of the non-first world development persuasion) who believe that human beings are still evolving, and that we belong to the world as an organism just like the rest. Guess which one I am…
So. GMOs are a large, sticky issue. It’s helpful to understand the workings, benefits and consequences of our industrial food system as a whole in order to better understand this one issue. But, again, for me it boils down to this: do you think technology will save us?
National Geographic– be wary. I am not convinced that NG’s reporting is complete unbiased these days.