Is the Outrage Over GMO Overblown?
In case you missed it, there'd an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at Grist.org. 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.
The epitome of this power imbalance is Monsanto, which is simultaneously the world’s largest biotech seed company, organic seed company, and one of the world’s largest pesticide companies. That’s a ridiculous concentration of power. A profitable concentration, if you’re on board, as genetically modified corn and soy covers about half of all U.S. cropland. But given we already grow far more corn and soy than we should, how is this a good thing?
The Rainbow papaya in Hawaii is an example of a GM food that resulted from a more confidence-inspiring process: a collaboration between farmers and a university, to solve a serious problem. An outbreak of ringspot virus was destroying Hawaii’s small papaya industry. A resistant papaya was engineered, and the problem appears to have been solved with little evident downside.
There is now an effort underway to use genetic modification to save Florida’s orange orchards, which are threatened by the greening virus. Bananas and chocolate, as well as other beloved and economically important crops, are susceptible to viruses as well, with many agricultural regions having already lost their ability to produce these crops. GMO haters might want to do a gut check by asking themselves if they would forgo GM chocolate if it was the last chocolate on earth.
Those who believe all GM skeptics are being paranoid should remember that there is nothing inherently safe about introducing GM plants into people and the environment. If not tested and regulated appropriately, there will be problems. As the way has been paved by a corporate-led rush to create and perfect the most profitable biotech seeds, this process has not inspired confidencein the product.
The rollout of GM foods has been awkward and wrong-footed since it began in 1994, with the first GMO food ever to be commercially licensed: the slow-ripening Flavr Savr tomato. Its creators at Calgene had sought to use a process called antisense knockdown to shut down certain genes, and the Flavr Savr was approved according to this understanding. The 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, meanwhile, was awarded to a team that figured out that in addition to the antisense knockdown, something entirely different was happening in that tomato as well, a process now known as RNA interference.
The Flavr Savr was pulled from the market, not because it was operating via a previously unknown pathway, but because it was too mushy. It turns out the world didn’t need another sucky supermarket tomato, yet we all took a risk, in a sense, on a tomato that was approved before anyone knew what was going on. That’s a horrible risk vs return.
Red flags and all, skeptics need to face the fact that our species’ walk down the GMO trail is inevitable. Naam is likely correct when he argues that biotech could prove a valuable tool to have in the chest when dealing with some important human and environmental problems.
After Philpott’s and Naam’s rebuke of his “GMOs don’t matter” conclusion, Johnson posted a response of his own, beneath the headline: “OK, GMOs matter, but the noisy fight over them is a distraction.”
He acknowledges that there are problems with GM foods, but thinks they have been overblown, and are solvable. He believes they have potential, though it’s barely been proven.
“There’s an entire industry pushing the argument that GMOs are the solution. I agree with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development that GMOs could be part of the solution, but we shouldn’t let the hype distract us from all the other ideas out there.”
The battle over GM food has become a proxy for a philosophical debate about the appropriate places of science and capitalism, and their powerful union in our lives. This is an important, ongoing discussion to be having. But it’s a separate discussion, even if GM crops offer many cases in point.
The potential benefits and risks of GM food lie in the processes by which this neutral technology is deployed. So let's focus on these processes, as part of focusing on how best to solve the problems that most need solving.