There are several current debates that have the potential to limit the boundaries of scientific discovery. Stem cell research and manipulations of the human genome are a few that come to mind. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are another. These topics have in common a potential for enormous benefit to the health and wellbeing of our society, but also unknown outcomes that are potentially harmful to us all—if not now, then certainly in future generations. Like most debates, the answer to the question of GMOs is not a simple one.
In favor of GMOs are agricultural, humanitarian, and pharmaceutical solutions just waiting to be uncovered by agricultural biotechnology. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and new super viruses are just a few threats against which modern medicine needs to use all available resources. Because GMO crops can, in some cases, increase crop yields, they can mean the difference between life and death in wet or dry regions where traditional varieties may fail. GMO crops can increase the nutritional content of foods to eliminate deficiencies causing blindness, birth defects, and other maladies across the globe. The use of genetically modified crops does not have one purpose, one format, or one application.
The blanket “yay” or “nay” belies the vastness of the technology and the varied application of its use.
However, in this country, the use of GMO crops in farming ties into a larger debate about monolithic agriculture, the disappearance of crop diversity, and the negative environmental impact that “big ag” has on the globe. The reason why GMO crops contribute to the disappearance of variety in global agriculture is because they are a successful tool for farmers and are used in place of traditional, varied seeds collected and selected by individual farmers or seed purveyors. With huge payoffs and consistency promised by GMO seeds, who can blame farmers for using all tools available in their constantly risky endeavor? When Monsanto develops a strain of corn that requires less pesticide use and has higher yields, farmers understandably use them. However, the use of pesticide-resistant GMO seed varieties have increased the use of herbicides since their inception. Increasing discomfort with the use of Roundup in the global food supply has become linked to a fear of GMOs, because those most widely used are “Round-up Ready” seeds that encourage the use of this controversial substance (more on this in a separate post).
We don’t know if there are long-term health effects from humans consuming GMO crops. However, we do know some of the impacts of reduced crop diversity. When many farmers use the same GMO seeds, not only do we lose potentially delicious, healthy, or disease fighting plants that may have been harvested instead of the singular GMO variety, but as a food system we are left vulnerable. If a disease or pest strikes one particular strain that is grown in many farms across the country, the farming economy and our food supply could be damaged in one singular blow.
The gains of GMO crops may have enormous impacts in countries that have traditionally had poor agricultural yields and devastating consequences in the form of malnutrition and disease. The use of golden rice, a GMO variety that includes vitamin A, could prevent blindness in many developing countries around the globe, yet its widespread use has not been approved. However, education and innovation in the form of alternative irrigation techniques and equipment improvements may also be successful tools to increase yields in struggling regions of the world. Additionally, certain ancient grains could thrive in their original environments if global demand would encourage their production. Such alternatives would avoid the unknown consequences of swapping ancient crops for GMO varieties.
The use of GMO crops in commodity farming in the United States mostly increases the profitability of large-scale farm operations. Financial support for the farming of commodity crops already leaves out small growers and fruit and vegetable producers. I do not advocate for an end to financial assistance to farmers. What has been pointed out by many politicians, farmers, and passionate foodies is the lack of financial assistance for farmers growing healthy food for humans.
The Co-op supports local farmers for many reasons. Local farms often grow heirloom crop varieties, practice responsible pest management techniques, crop rotations, and view their operations as a chance to grow healthy food for their community. Many small farms can’t make it, however, and it is understandable that the appeal of GMOs is widespread.
The GMO issue is also about how willing we are as consumers and members of a democratic society to use our voices and our dollars to support what matters. We cannot separate the cost of our food from the environmental, economic, and human impact required to create that which we purchase and consume. GMOs have a place in scientific exploration, in solving the disasters in food production that have already—and will continue to be—caused by climate change, and in helping to feed the world’s growing population. However, I do not think that GMO corn and soybeans are in any way necessary to meet those ends. Nor do I think that the lack of regulation around the use of GMOs is acceptable. There is a huge difference between drought resistance or color selection and adding genes from a fish to change the color of a tomato for visual appeal.
Unlike medical treatments, which must be proven safe for human use before public use, the practice of approving food additives and ingredients in this country follows the rule safe until proven otherwise. This is scary all the time, but never more so than with GMOs, because we hardly understand the long-term impacts of genetic modifications in any application, yet we are experimenting on the population through our food supply. To be clear, all studies to this point have found GMOs in food to be safe. I believe these findings and also believe that the current use of GMOs in soybean oil (for example) is fine for my health (soybean oil is somewhat ubiquitous in processed foods). Yet I don’t feel comfortable, as the capabilities of genetic modifications expand and get more adventurous, giving blanket approval to genetic modification throughout the food supply without increased regulations and transparency for consumers.