GMO culture war – is there a middle ground?

Recently, a reporter from Grist, one of the country’s premiere environmental magazines, finished a sixth month series on GMOs. He used the series to investigate the truth about GMOs outside of the two opposing narratives that are usually circulated. On one hand you have the pro-GMO people, who see GMOs are a feat of human ingenuity and technology/science that will save agriculture as we know it and go a long way to address starvation and hunger across the globe. On the other hand, the anti-GMO people, who see GMOs as a symptom of corporate control of our food system and the unsustainability of modern agriculture, not to mention a health risk.

His wrap-up piece, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters” caused a huge stir, from both sides of the debate. He concluded that the cultural debate actually misses the mark. Since it talks about GMOs in a broad sense, it doesn’t allow for discussion of individual GMO plants or organisms. He argues there’s a difference between engineering rice to feed starving people and engineering corn to feed pigs in a nation that already eats too much meat. (I need to read the series to see how he feels about genetically engineered animals, like salmon.)

I haven’t read all of the pieces in the series (though I probably will start to go through them). And Civil Eats also addressed his piece on their site, with a compelling rebuttal. In particular, that essay addresses what agricultural priorities should be if we are trying to envision a sustainable future. And points out rightfully that the companies involved in GMO technology are also the ones that poisoned us with Agent Orange, etc. The writer acknowledges that the debate does obscure the technological innovations that do need to occur in order to move toward sustainability. 

For me, the GMO issue primarily comes down to the issue of transparency. If I believed that as a nation we could keep corporations accountable to make decisions in the public interest, it would be one thing. But we can’t, and we know that much of the scientific research being done about GMOs (all types) is controlled by parties with a financial interest. We need third party research that’s independent. That encourages human innovation and scientific development, but with an eye toward sustainability. That researches the health and environmental effects of these plants. And we need a system that errs on the side of caution, not risk, when it comes to public health. 

While I don’t agree with him entirely – I think we need to avoid adopting a flippant attitude about GMOs – Nathanael Johnson’s Grist piece is food for thought and encourages us to dig through the hype for what’s actually true when we talk about GMOs.

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    I also think that there needs to be discussions of what we’re trying to achieve with GMOs. I’ve not read his piece but I’m assuming the rice he’s referring to is “golden rice” which is vitamin a enriched. It was ostensibly developed to combat that deficiency in the third world but, when you look closer, it’s really just a ploy for good PR because you’d have to eat a HUGE amount of it to get any measurable benefit. Other GMO crops, whether or not they are themselves safe, are otherwise problematic for reasons such as:

    1. The biotech company owns the seeds. You can’t save seed and must purchase new seed, at whatever price they set, each year. Plus, there’s something frightening about patenting life.

    2. The reasoning behind the modification. We aren’t seeing GMOs that make food more nutritious or beneficial. Instead, the modifications are things like Roundup resistant corn and soy (modified to be able to dump tons of toxic chemicals on them…chemicals that are causing a massive increase in birth defects in places like Argentina), or modifying salmon and the like just to grow bigger and faster…and eat the same GMO corn we’re growing as a monoculture across the land.

    I don’t mind the theoretical idea of genetic engineering. When we cross breeds naturally, through things like grafting, cross polination, etc, we are doing the same thing. What worries me is, as you said, the lack of transparency and a government complicit in doing what these companies want, with as little regulatory oversight and mandatory testing as possible.