The Ongoing GMO Debate

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The Ongoing GMO Debate

A Protest against Genetic Modification

A Protest against Genetic Modification

A Protest against Genetic Modification

A Protest against Genetic Modification

Sarah Gooderham, Editor-in-chief

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The term “genetically modified organisms,” known more commonly as GMOs, is perhaps the most visceral term pertaining to what many refer to as the broken food system.  Many care deeply and passionately about this issue, but few actually know what GMOs are, whether or not they are inherently dangerous, and why some argue should still be avoided; at least, until fundamental changes are made to the current food system.

Genetic modification dates back to 1973, when the process was completed successfully for the first time.  Essentially, genetic modification occurs when one or more desirable genes from an organism are isolated and spliced into the genome of another organism.  The desirable genes would then be expressed in the genetically modified organism, giving it new traits.  These traits can include anything from drought resistance, to insulin production, and even pesticide resistance.

Based on this information, there appears to be nothing to suggest that GMOs are harmful to human health in any way.  Indeed, possibly the most comprehensive study done about the effects of GMO’s on livestock, where 100 billions animals were sampled over a period of more than 15 years, revealed that there were virtually no adverse side-effects to feeding livestock GMO feed over non-GMO feed.  Even Mark Lynas, who helped start the anti-GMO movement in the 90s, explained in an interview with the Genetic Literacy Project, “The GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. … You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”

According to Nature, advocates claim that GM crops have increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed. Critics question their environmental, social and economic impacts.

Additionally according to Nature; Herbicide-resistant GM crops are less damaging to the environment than conventional crops grown at industrial scale. A study by PG Economics, a consulting firm in Dorchester, UK, found that the introduction of herbicide-tolerant cotton saved 15.5 million kilograms of herbicide between 1996 and 2011, a 6.1% reduction from what would have been used on conventional cotton. And GM crop technology delivered an 8.9% improvement to the environmental impact quotient — a measure that considers factors such as pesticide toxicity to wildlife — said Graham Brookes, co-director of PG Economics and a co-author of the industry-funded study, which many scientists consider to be among the field’s most extensive and authoritative assessments of environmental impacts.

The first high profile anti-GMO movement took place in the late 1990s, after Ciba Seeds (now Novartis Seeds) and Mycogen Seeds introduced the first Bt corn hybrids.  In 1999, a study was released claiming that the Bt corn was poisonous to monarch butterflies.  “When the little [monarch butterfly] caterpillars ate leaves dusted with GM pollen, half of them died within four days; much more than those exposed to non-GM pollen,” reported Wendy Zukerman on her podcast “Science Vs.”  “Scientists…went about trying to replicate these findings, and they did.  That corn was eventually taken off the market.”   

However, this incident has become symbolic of the non-GMO movement; the official symbol of the Non-GMO Project is that of a monarch butterfly landing on a blade of grass.  Many continue to distrust GMOs across the board, according to Zukerman.  “There was another study done in 2004 that exposed two groups of caterpillars to pollen from Bt corn varieties, ones that are still on the market…They found that caterpillars exposed to the Bt varieties were less likely to reach adulthood…that might be concerning, except for the fact that the researchers who actually did the study said in their own paper that only a fraction of the butterfly population would be affected by this, and they ultimately concluded that, quote, ‘It is likely that Bt corn will not affect the sustainability of monarch butterfly populations in North America.’” These cases involving monarch butterfly deaths were followed by studies showing that monarch butterfly populations were in fact slightly declining, but that there was no correlation between this and the adoption of GM crops.  However, by the time of these studies, many were already convinced beyond doubt that GM foods are bad across the board.

In the end, this was an example of mind over matter; many who were mildly anti-GMO to begin with became extremely against the technology when something as precious as monarch butterflies could have been at risk, never mind that the toxic varieties were taken off the market and other studies revealed nothing that would cause harm to the butterfly populations.  This incident sparked fires in the hearts of activists which often blinded them from the facts.  Meanwhile, GMO supporters criticize the anti-GM movement over incidents like this, where the group has latched on to an event that is not necessarily representative of the real reason GM foods may be bad.

Golden Rice is another modified food that has caused a stir in recent years.  The rice was created to help solve the global problem of nutrient deficiencies; chiefly, Vitamin A deficiency.  This ailment causes 250,000 to 500,000 children in the developing world to go blind each year, and leads to the deaths of 2-3 million people each year, according to the Genetic Literacy Project.  Golden Rice contains a gene that produces beta-Carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, which would help prevent these cases of blindness and death.  This is an example of how GM foods can be beneficial.  However, the organization Greenpeace and its allies succeeded in preventing the introduction of this non-commercial product based on the “flimsy claim that it may pose ‘environmental and health risks,’” in the words of the Genetic Literacy Project.  “As if 250 million children with vitamin A deficiency is not itself a ‘health risk.’”

Unfortunately, rather than being a success story about the abilities of GM foods to help a population in need, Golden Rice is an example of how genetically modified foods that could be beneficial have been thwarted by misinformation.  Organizations like Greenpeace, which oftentime promote fear and ignorance in order to achieve their political goals, argue that any GM food poses too many risks.  Although there was no indication that Golden Rice would do anything aside from help nourish an undernourished population, the misinformation spread by organizations like Greenpeace struck fear in the hearts of enough people to prevent the distribution and consumption of Golden Rice.

In response, more than one hundred Nobel science laureates wrote and signed a letter asking Greenpeace to halt its anti-Golden Rice campaigns.  Greenpeace responded with a letter denying their involvement in such campaigns, and instead explained the reasons for which they remain against any form of genetic modification.

Their main arguments involve preserving the natural, unmodified ecosystem, and preventing corporations from controlling markets and hurting farmers in order to make a profit.  While this last goal can be considered amiable, Greenpeace’s actions and the way in which they have mislead the public makes them, in many ways, just as bad as the corporations they are trying to stop.  Their tactics make sense; it’s easier to get people to care about a movement if they think it will directly affect their health and the health of their children than it is to convince them to help out some farmers they don’t know or care about.

There are real reasons to be skeptical of genetically modified foods, but they are not the reasons that one generally thinks of. For instance, many believe that GM foods are inherently unhealthy, and there is not substantial evidence to support this claim.  However, there is one very legitimate reason to questions genetic modification: the corporations that have taken up the practice, namely Monsanto.  Unlike the Golden Rice initiative, which was was a non-corporate project meant to help malnourished populations, companies such as Monsanto have modified seeds to be resistant to Roundup, a pesticide made by Monsanto.  They own patents for all of their ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds, as they are called.  These patents allow Monsanto to make farmers’ lives miserable by accusing them of violating patents when they have not, suing them for cleaning their own seeds even if those seeds are not GM Monsanto seeds, and preventing them from buying any genetically modified varieties if they do not cooperate, as explained in the 2008 film Food, Inc..  Genetic modification for the sake of helping others free of cost is not the problem.  Genetic modification for the sake of financial gain and at the expense of hard-working farmers the world over is the problem.  Roundup-Ready crops can be found in most of the food eaten by Americans today, according to Food Inc..  While there is no evidence to support the notion that GM foods are inherently unhealthy, there is clear evidence to show that the corporations that control GM foods are unhealthy for the prosperity of farmers.

The debate about genetic modification will continue for years to come as the world scrambles to find a way to feed the ever-growing population.   Though there are many different opinions and sides to this issue, the most important idea for a consumer to remember is that every dollar spent is like a vote.  Therefore, every dollar spent on a food item containing genetically modified ingredients is a vote for companies like Monsanto.  As a member of society, it is the duty of every person to remain informed about these issues, and to make responsible decisions based on that information so each person can help make the change they want to see in the world.