Close your eyes and think about genetically modified crops. Now what do you see? Green fields of lush, pest-resistant, hardy crops? A ghoulish cast hovering above insidious kodachrome orbs they call GM tomatoes? Hordes of protestors in t-shirts and Converse sneakers? Hungry children being fed? A Pandora’s Box?
Applaud or curse, the U.S. allows the planting of GM crops, while many countries do not. It also doesn’t mandate labeling of genetically modified food, as do Europe and many other countries. These circumstances have, experts agree, allowed food made with genetically engineered ingredients to be included in approximately 70% of food in typical grocery stores.
It has also allowed the public to be relatively unaware of the increasingly prominent role of GM food in the typical American diet. A poll by The Washington Post showed that some 60% of respondents believed they had never eaten genetically modified food, which seems remarkably unlikely given their prevalence.
With the recent FDA approval of animal products from cloned animals, however, a lot of people are sitting up and suddenly listening. While 46% of people in the above poll opposed food from genetically modified crops, 60% were uncomfortable with the idea of products from cloned animals. Only 22% said they were comfortable with the option of cloned animal products.
We thought we’d take a closer look at some of the issues and arguments being bantered about.
For a lot of people, the specter of GM foods looms so insidiously because of the unknown dimension of this technology and what can happen to it (and its consumers) in the real world. The question of regulation and testing is a hot button issue across the globe. Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “Lots and lots of people — virtually the entire population — could be exposed to genetically engineered foods, and yet we have only a handful of studies in the peer-reviewed literature addressing their safety. The question is, do we assume the technology is safe based on an argument that it’s just a minor extension of traditional breeding, or do we prove it? The scientist in me wants to prove it’s safe.”
The FDA, for its part, asserts that GM foodstuffs are the most highly regulated food products in the country with a system of individual consultations with companies that apply to grow and market their GM crops. The process, which takes several months, involves not only the FDA but the EPA and Department of Agriculture.
The concern of many here revolves around the process of inserting a gene from another organism, whether it be animal or plant, into another. Though you may think you’re buying a carton of grape tomatoes, what if the engineering process for it used, say, fish, to which you have a dangerous allergy?
According to the FDA, most food allergies can be traced to a handful of foods, including wheat, fish, eggs, shellfish, cow’s milk, tree nuts, and legumes (peanuts and soybeans in particular). If a food product contains a gene from one of the common allergy sources, the company must say so on the label “unless it can show that the protein produced by the added gene does not make the food cause allergies” through animal studies. We imagine this reassurance results in varying levels of comfort, especially if you’re allergic to pineapple.
One of the selling points of GM crops is their engineered pest and disease resistance. It’s an appealing argument: the end of chemical pesticide and herbicide use. Yet, the specter of evolving tolerance looms. What if bugs or bacteria develop a tolerance for the engineered insecticide or bacterial resistance? What consequences are there in the long run from using antibiotic genes in crops that will be eaten by humans and foraging animals as well as livestock?
Small Farms versus Large Biotech Firms
Because GM seeds are more expensive, some critics say that small farmers won’t be able to afford them and won’t be able to compete with larger, industrial farms. Still others argue that creating a system that makes farmers dependent on biotech firms for seeds each year (GM crops are now engineered to create sterile seeds that cannot be used for the following year’s crops.) puts too much power in the hands of biotech firms.
On the flip side of this coin, others argue that small farmers will save money by not having to purchase expensive pesticides and herbicides. Plants can also be engineered to work within a wider variety of conditions, including the ability to grow in saltier soil or to resist frost by incorporating an antifreeze gene. (Yum!)
Food for the Poor
A common argument for GM crops is the ability to engineer crops that can grow in any environment, in denser conditions and with added engineered nutrients that will “go farther” in feeding a population.
Critics argue that the use of GM crops only makes poorer countries beholden to rich corporations and doesn’t solve the problems of distribution and power, which many see as the central causes of poverty and starvation across the globe.
A couple weeks ago news about Norway’s “doomsday vault” hit the presses. The vault, which is carved into the side of a mountain on a remote island north of Norway’s mainland, will preserve a representative cross-section of the world’s crop seeds in case of a global catastrophe. Though the vault’s plans were made public more than a year ago, it was back in the news after receiving its first shipment of seeds.
Clearly, preserving the world’s plant diversity is important stuff. But should we really just be locking away the remnants of the biodiversity nature developed over millions of years? Other seed preservation organizations argue that an ample number of hardy, nutrient-rich, naturally pest-resistant crop species exist within so-called “heirloom” and indigenous varieties that evolved with a region’s variations of climate, pests and diseases. For instance, the National Research Council asserts that reinstituting Africa’s “lost crops,” including indigenous fruit trees, could help alleviate hunger and environmental devastation caused by the toll of conventional agricultural development.
Do we understand the impact of national or even global crop “monoculture,” particularly when the crops are laboratory creations with little “test” time in the complexities of the real world?
It’s a lot to digest – or not. Industry specialists on both sides of the debate suggest that consumers who wish to avoid GM products look for the “100% organic” label on the groceries they buy. Foods with this label legally must not contain GM ingredients. As for those customers who support GM food development, they will likely be able to take advantage of an increase in those products during the next several years.
O.K., you got us here. We’ll come clean and admit we’re more than a bit skeptical (surprise, surprise), but we want to hear from you. What’s your take on GMO? Give us your perspectives.