Should People Fear or Embrace GMOs?

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist for the coming year, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Should people fear or embrace GMOs?
At the Edible Institute in Manhattan this month, a proponent of labeling food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) took aim at the keynote speaker, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Why, she asked, in his most recent column, did he advise food-reform advocates to stop worrying so much about GMOs? He answered the question with a question: If suddenly all the GMOs disappear, how is the food system really that different or better than the one we have?

It was strange to hear that from Mr. Bittman, a champion of small farms and all things sustainable. Over the years, GMOs—plants and animals whose DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory—have become shorthand for everything that foodies love to hate about the industrial food system. Bittman’s approach signals that at last the conversation about GMOs is evolving into a more nuanced and productive discussion.

For years, all you had to do was say “GMOs” and I would stop listening. It was one of those debates that was utterly predictable. On one side were what I call the “slippery slope-ists” who argued that the science of genetically modifying crops was too new for us to truly understand the risks, and the companies selling the patented seeds were using them as a way to solidify their stranglehold on American agriculture. On the other side were the “tech-can-save-the-world-ers,” who claimed that without GMOs, we would be unable to feed the world’s growing population. (The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth.) Both sides were fear-mongering, and it was impossible to know who was right.

The fear of playing god with what we eat is natural, of course. There is something creepy about putting a pig gene in a plant or using a virus to change the way a plant or animal behaves. But plenty of things make us skittish. (I, for one, don’t really understand aerodynamics, yet I regularly get on planes.) New Yorker writer Michael Specter argued persuasively in a 2010 TED Talk that this science denialism will hinder human progress.

Indeed, a clear look at the evidence shows that genetically modified (GM) foods are not dangerous to human health. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, none of which found any risks from GM crops. Some have even argued that genetic engineering may be safer than traditional crossbreeding because it is more controlled. When scientists make a genetically modified crop, they add one or several genes that contain instructions to make a specific protein. Traditional methods mix or mutate many genes, some of which are not well understood. Scientists have successfully developed bananas that resist Xanthomonas wilt disease that has ruined millions of acres of banana crops in East Africa. In Florida, growers are rushing to develop a plant that can fight off citrus greening that now threatens the state’s orange groves.  

These successes don’t mean that we should blindly accept genetically modified foods. To date, many of the crops that have been genetically modified are commodities that have been altered so that they can be sprayed with powerful herbicides such as glyphosate, popularly marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. About 95 percent of soybean and cotton, and more than 85 percent of corn, are planted with GM varieties designed to resist herbicides. Weeds, as they are wont to do, however, have learned how to resist glyphosate. According to one 2012 study, nearly half of all U.S. farmers surveyed said they had glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011. Companies such as Monsanto also allegedly have used patented seeds to bully farmers, and there is evidence that GM seeds contaminate organic fields.

If the food movement has proved anything, it is that consumers want to know more about where their food comes from and how it is made. To that end, the campaign to label GM foods is important; this month Vermont became the first state to make GM labeling the law.

Just knowing that something contains genetically modified ingredients isn’t enough. What we really want to know is that GM food is safe for the environment and for human health. For that, we need more testing and regulation. The Environmental Protection Agency should investigate how and if the use of GM crops is endangering the land. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, currently considers all genetically modified crops GRAS, or Generally Recognized As Safe—which, clearly, the American public does not. The FDA should scrutinize GM crops the same way it does new drugs. These efforts would increase consumer trust in the food system (a win for GM skeptics) and, in theory, help feed the world (a win for proponents of GM food). It would also, once and for all, end the ugly food fight over genetically modified food.

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