I love food. I love looking at it, smelling it, watching it prepared, eating it, sharing it, and whatever other acceptable actions one can take with food. It’s the best thing in the world. Seriously, where would we be without food? Entire cultures are built around and identified by it. It’s only natural that my love for food would lead to a love for any technology designed to make it easier to obtain and, in some cases, healthier.
The most (in)famous of those technologies is genetically modified organisms or GMOs. More accurate terms would be genetically engineered or transgenic, but GMO is what most people use, so I use it too. I won’t go into great detail explaining how they’re made because I imagine anyone reading this already knows, but for the uninitiated I’ll give a quick summary.
A GMO is produced when a gene (or genes) responsible for a specific trait in one organism is inserted into the genome of an unrelated organism. The goal is for the second organism to express that trait. This can be used to increase yield, protect against certain pests, or provide resistance to herbicides. There’s a long list of traits being used and researched, and I encourage anyone unfamiliar with all the work being done to look it up. It’s fascinating the things being done right now.
Like all new technologies, GMOs are being met with resistance. While there are legitimate concerns, they are no different than the ones directed at conventional foods. In fact, safety assessment of GMOs is significantly more rigorous than that of conventional or organic foods. Conventional assessment simply relies on the history of a food’s consumption – we’ve always eaten it, therefore it’s safe – while GMO testing requires years of research and attempts to predict and plan for any future effects they may have on health and the environment.
All the extensive testing and all the potential for good makes me wonder how anyone could oppose such an awesome technology. I know that misinformation and fear of corporations play a role, but that doesn’t explain why those at the top who’ve been publicly corrected on misunderstandings (I’m trying real fucking hard to be civil.) continue to oppose transgenic crops. This is why I’ve come up with ten questions for the anti-GMO crowd that I’ve never seen answered. Maybe some light could be shed on the movement if they offered up some responses.
1. Why would farmers plant money-saving GMOs just to drench their crops in expensive pesticides?
GMOs benefit farmers, and ultimately consumers, by saving money. When a crop like Bt corn is planted, the need to spray for earworms disappears. This means that farmers don’t have to spend money on insecticides or the fuel required to apply them to the fields. Roundup Ready crops save money in a different way by increasing yields that would otherwise be reduced because some of the product would be killed by the glyphosate.
One of the more popular arguments against GMOs is that they’ve resulted in increased pesticide use. While this is demonstrably wrong, it’s also illogical.
When I say this argument is illogical, I don’t mean it in the sense of ignoring data. It makes perfect sense when one faces cognitive dissonance. Narratives must be preserved for the sake of sanity.
No, the illogical part comes in trying to find a reason why any farmer would waste money drenching (and that’s the word they use) their crops with pesticides. Basically, the entire point of GMOs is to save money. It doesn’t make sense for a farmer to blow that new-found cash on unnecessary spraying.
This becomes an especially confusing argument when one takes into consideration how expensive pesticides are. A 2.5 gallon jug of Roundup costs at least $100. I shop at Lowe’s, so I spend almost $200 per jug. That’s just for around the house. It doesn’t take much to realize that farmers need a lot more than the rest of us, and while I’m sure they get some sort of discount, they’re still spending a shit load of money on this stuff. It would be a waste to drench their crops with it.
Anti-GMOers must think farmers, the public, or both are stupid. That really says more about them than anyone else.
2. Why is GMO DNA considered potentially more dangerous than the DNA of conventional crops?
DNA is complex. Really complex. A lot of great sci-fi is born out of wondering what miracles can be achieved by manipulating it. There’s also a great many horror stories. Unfortunately, the general public’s ignorance of how DNA works means some people have a hard time discerning truth from fiction. Throw in a few words like transposon or codon, and some will be mesmerized. They’ll be no more informed, but most of us tend to trust the guy spouting off college words.
[Just between us, I hate big words. I only use them when I absolutely have no other choice. I think that’s the biggest problem with communicating science to the public, but that’s a topic for another day.]
One of the fears associated with GMOs is horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In simplest terms, the DNA from GMOs will contaminate other plants, our gut bacteria, and even us by inserting its own genes into other genomes and passing along its genetically engineered traits. It sounds crazy, but HGT does happen in nature albeit rarely. It’s usually caused by some sort of parasite like a virus. This could be a legitimate fear if there was something inherently different about the ways DNA from genetically engineered crops and conventional crops works.
DNA is DNA. There’s no reason for anyone to suspect that GMOs will be more likely to laterally transfer traits that already exist in nature any more readily than the organisms who originally possessed them. No one has ever developed insecticidal properties from eating cabbage, so why would Bt corn or Roundup Ready soy be any riskier. This also leaves the biotech opponents with the unenviable task of finding a GMO-specific biological mechanism that would insert DNA into our cells or let it enter into our bloodstreams.
3. Why is it acceptable for organic products to forego labels detailing the chemical or nuclear mutagenesis used in their production while demanding GMO carries such labels?
The campaign against GM technology means not only misleading the public about GMOs but also putting out misinformation about organic as well. One of the most common misconceptions is that organic farmers don’t use pesticides. They do, and in some cases their use far exceeds that of other farmer. But that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is the hypocritical push to label food that may have genetically modified ingredients.
There’s only one reason to demand a label on GMOs. The organic fanatics want to scare the unwitting public into buying their overpriced kale. Friends Stephan at We Love GMOs and Vaccines and Amanda at The Farmer’s Daughter have written complementary articles on the National Organic Action Plan and their attempts to vilify genetic engineering and increase demand for organic through very shady business practices. I won’t go into that here, but the articles are well worth the read.
Why would I call the push to label GMOs hypocritical, you might ask? Currently organic products carry a label that offers no information other than the fact that the product met USDA standards to call itself such. There’s no mention of how specific traits in organic seeds are developed. This should create a problem for those who eat organic and support GMO labeling initiatives. Oddly, no one seems to care that radiation and various chemicals are used to create random mutations in plant DNA. Well, it would be odd if Big Organ didn’t mislead its consumers about all the not so pretty things that go on behind the curtain.
Genetic engineering targets one or two predetermined genes, and those are the only ones affected. We know what traits will come from this because those traits were specifically selected. Nuclear mutagenesis blasts the whole genome with radiation, changing unknown numbers of genes and hoping for something beneficial to result. This doesn’t mean mutagenesis is bad. It does mean that there’s a higher but still minute risk of negative consequences associated with this breeding technique than with genetic engineering. But higher risk is higher risk, and it should give one pause when noticing that organic proponents never mention this scattershot approach to modification.
4. What sense does it make to demand more testing while protest groups like GreenPeace destroy test crops?
One of the more common arguments I see is that GMOs need more testing. Of course, this is usually code for “no amount of testing is good enough, so we’re just going to keep moving the goalposts.” I agree that more testing needs to be done. I don’t think we should ever stop testing any of our food, but there comes a point that we have to accept that it’s safe for consumption.
Nothing in life is 100% safe. Hell, under the right conditions, even oxygen is poisonous. The point is that it’s okay and perfectly reasonable to be only 99.9% certain that something is safe. This demand of absolute certainty is no different than that of religious zealots who think uncertainty about the first 10−43 seconds of the universe means we don’t know enough to declare there was probably a Big Bang. By the way, 10−43 is a decimal followed by 42 zeroes and a one. That time period is what’s known as the Planck Epoch.
None of this matters though because protesters and activists who demand all this testing keep destroying the test crops. They’ve destroyed wheat crops in England and Australia and a golden rice crop in the Philippines. Again,it’s perfectly reasonable to want extensive testing. I get it. New technology can be scary. What I don’t get is why actively stand in the way of that testing?
This brings me to my next question…
5. Why stand opposed to biofortified crops?
It’s one thing to be against pesticides or perceived corporate greed. It’s something else entirely to deny the sick their much needed medicine. Medicine is exactly what golden rice is intended to be.
Every year, half a million people go blind from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Most of those people are children in underdeveloped countries. Not only do they lose their sight, but lack of vitamin A has negative effects on the immune system and makes sufferers more susceptible to diseases like malaria. While vitamin supplements and various other forms of medical care are being provided where necessary, the efforts simply aren’t enough.
Enter golden rice.
Golden rice, GR from here on out, has been genetically modified to produce beta carotene in its grains. Beta carotene acts a precursor to vitamin A. When it’s eaten, beta carotene is broken down by enzymes to form what’s known as retinol which is a form of vitamin A. Sounds like it’d be a brilliant way to supplement a much needed nutrient in countries where rice is a staple, right?
Well, unfortunately for the sick, blind kids in poor countries, anti-GMO activists are doing their damnedest to block the usage of GR. Not only have they destroyed test crops, but activists are actively disseminating lies and misinformation about the rice. Most of the falsehoods are typical anti-GMO talking points – just pseudoscience and general idiocy – but two stick out to to me.
The first of those is that GR isn’t the solution to VAD. This isn’t a lie in the normal sense. It’s more of a red herring. No one thinks that GR is the solution to the problem. No one. It’s meant to be implemented alongside other efforts to combat malnutrition and poverty.
Yes, poverty. This brings me to the second lie that sticks out to me. Opponents of GR claim it’s just a way for biotech corporations to make GMOs look less scary while squeezing out the organic market. The technology being used to produce GR has been licensed for free, and GR itself is open source. Anyone can experiment with it, and the seeds will be given to farmers for free. For free! Syngenta, the GR donors, won’t see a cent from it. That anyone can oppose this is mind-boggling. It’s a brilliant example of how dogmatic, unreasonable, and completely selfish the anti-GMO fanatics can be. (Another friend and co-conspirator, Kavin Senapathy [name drop!] recently wrote about the myth of organic altruism here.) There’s absolutely no rational reason to box out golden rice.
Come back tomorrow for the second half of this two-part series.