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Is the Outrage Over GMO Overblown?

Skeptics of GM food need to understand that genetic manipulation isn't an unholy act.

In case you missed it, there'd an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at It began with a  series of posts by Nathaneal Johnson in which he dissected, in impressively neutral and skeptical fashion, most of the argument for or against GM food that you’ve ever heard. Johnson’s posts managed to draw attention and respect from voices on all sides of the issue. By way of his quest to take no side, he managed to get on a lot of peoples’ good sides. The comment section was, at times, somewhat civil and well-behaved, no minor feat among GMO pundits.

After six months of researching and posting, Johnson found GMOs to be neither as scary as many GM food haters claim, nor as world-saving as claimed by supporters of GM food. In an attempt to put the discussion to bed, he wrote, in what he thought was the series’ capstone, “The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs, is that the stakes are so low.”

All of a sudden, folks respectfully had beef with Johnson. Two responses were published at Grist, one by Mother Jones food columnist (and former Grist food writer) Tom Philpott, a longtime critic of GM food, and one by Ramez Naam, author of  The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

Philpott argued that GMOs do matter, because they are a load-bearing pillar of a misguided agriculture system. Naam wrote that GMOs matter because they benefit people and the environment, not just corporations and factory farms.

According to Philpott, most GMOs have been used to sell pesticides and herbicides. He called the vast majority of GMOs currently on the market, “an appendage of the pesticide industry, which has dominated the technology from the start.”

Naam, who supports GM food, and is also a proponent of “sensible labeling,”  wrote that GM crops have more impact in poor countries than rich ones. He discussed genetically modified Bt cotton in India as an example of how GM crops can help boost the income of small farmers.

While Philpott and Naam inhabit opposing camps on the GMO issue, their arguments are not mutually exclusive. If Naam is right and GM crops can be a force for good, it does not derail Philpott’s assessment of how GMOs have impacted agriculture to date. If Philpott is right, and GMOs have done little more than boost yields of corn and soy while selling more chemicals, it doesn’t mean that the technology shows no promise.

If they’re both right, their arguments could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides, on the playing field that Johnson leveled. 

My take on all this is that the conversation can continue, respectfully and productively, if some basic compromises are made among people on both sides of the issue.

Skeptics of GM food should come to grips with the fact that the act of genetic manipulation is itself not unholy. Few GMO haters would refuse medicine made with assistance from GM bacteria, like insulin, or a blood clot thinner used to treat a stroke. As GMOs have proven useful in medicine, they could also be useful in agriculture.

By the same token, proponents of GM foods should remember that for most skeptics of GM food, the bare act of genetic manipulation isn’t even the issue. It’s the process by which the technology has been rolled out that’s pissing them off. In many ways, the script is playing out according to old fears, and there seems little public recourse available.

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