I want to continue addressing GMOs in what I hope is a diplomatic fashion. In my last post I wrote about what genetically engineered food is and that it is most likely generally safe for people to eat, but not regulated or tested as rigorously as it should be.
The next pressing issue is whether GMO-associated practices help or hurt us and the environment. Evidently scientists are in agreement that insect-resistant plants have drastically reduced the use of more toxic insecticides. Insect-resistant corn, for instance, produces a substance called Bt, a natural insecticide originally produced by a particular bacterium that organic farmers have been using forever. This will be all very well and good until insects evolve resistance to Bt.
The situation is somewhat similar for the herbicide-resistant soybeans. While growing this crop has dramatically increased the use of herbicide, Roundup is a relatively safe, biodegradable herbicide. Unfortunately, weeds have increasingly quickly been evolving resistance to Roundup as a result. The next step would be for scientists to develop soybeans resistant to a more toxic herbicide, and the vicious cycle starts again.
I think that generally sums up the primary ecological dilemma of current genetically engineered crops. It’s just not sustainable the way it’s currently done.
The economic dilemma is what bothers me more. I don’t know what the general public knows about the corporation Monsanto, but I think that people interested in food and food science probably get tired of hearing about how evil Monsanto is.
Monsanto is the biggest baddest biotechnology company out there. They’ve patented a bunch of GE crops as well as the herbicide Roundup that is obviously meant to be sprayed on the Roundup Ready soybeans. Monsanto pushes its products on farmers and consumers just like any other business out there. Some critics have gone as far as to say that Monsanto is attempting to monopolize our food system using biotechnology. I can’t say for sure whether that’s an exaggeration or not, but they certainly monopolize the GMO seeds. Patents on these seeds allow Monsanto and others like it to consolidate power.
Passionate proponents of GE food and members of the biotech industry have claimed that this is the way to ensure the continual feeding of the world. They say that scientists will engineer crops to feed the hungry and provide limited nutrients to the malnourished. I’m not saying this isn’t possible; I’d love to believe that it is. The truth is, though, that so far GMOs have mostly benefited the companies selling them, and certainly have not made a dent towards ending world hunger.
It seems like the problem we have with the biotech industry is the same problem we have with the food industry encouraging obesity. The food and biotech companies both inevitably care about making money than about human or animal health or the environment. And the solution is also similar, I believe. The government needs to step in and make it easier for people to make the choice that is the best for their health and the most consistent with their values. I think that includes requiring labels for genetically engineered foods, but if we’re going to do that then we ought to have labels for about a zillion unsavory farming and processing practices and ingredients. It also means reforming agriculture in such a way as to promote health and ecological sustainability over corporate interests.
I think genetic engineering of food has enormous potential. This potential won’t be realized with the current industry model.
To end, here are two quotes I’ve found in my research on GMOs that I think are well put:
“…we shouldn’t stop just because there are unknowns. Every technology has unknowns. We just have to be as thoughtful as we can.” Margaret Smith, plant breeder at Cornell University
“You can accept that GM is safe–the narrow scientific issue–without accepting that it’s a good idea for the American food system, or has contributed much of value.”- Michael Pollan, author of best-sellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Cooked, and Food Rules
I got most of my information from the wonderful yet very long series on genetically modified food written by Nathanael Johnson found here. If you want more details I suggest you read it, or pick the posts that most interest you.
Now I really want your thoughts on this one: how do you feel about GMOs? Did my posts inform you or change your opinion at all?