Controversy over genetically modified crops has been heating up as questions concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) multiply; Are they safe for consumer consumption? Do they have broader unforeseen ecological consequences?
The political discussion of GMOs is focusing on whether these crops should be accompanied with labels identifying them as genetically engineered. Numerous anti-GMO groups have emerged including Non-GMO Project, Just Label It, and the Institute for Responsible Technology, which warn of the potential health risks of GMO consumption, citing dozens of countries that require labeling of genetically modified crops.
Last November, California voters nearly passed a labeling requirement with Proposition 37. The pro-labeling forces achieved 48.6 percent of the total vote and say they will try again on future ballots. Whole Foods intends to sell products derived from genetic modification techniques with GMO labels.
What then, are the health risks or concerns involved in GMO consumption? Is labeling grocery products “GMO” a valid policy?
What exactly is a GMO?
Humans have been genetically modifying crops since the advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. The process was initially blind and slow – early humans had little understanding of genetics, cross-pollination and artificial selection processes, but knew what they wanted to achieve; larger crop yields, larger fruit, pest and weed reduction – anything to increase agricultural output.
Take such common vegetables as broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower – they all can trace their roots (pun intended) back to a single plant. Through crop hybridization and natural mutagenic principles, several similar kinds of vegetables emerged. It was not until the mid-19th century that Gregor Mendel examined the genetic traits of pea plants that the idea of genetics emerged. But his work was confined to intra-species alleles and the phenotypic expressions of particular genetic loci. While farmers had more tools for hybridization, any genetic effect on crops proved cumbersome.
By the latter half of the 20th century, the kind of genetic modification we are concerned with finally emerged. Genetic modification is the artificial processes of insertion, mutation and deletion of genes in organisms and more often than not focuses on transgenic genes – the introduction of desirable genes from one organism to another. For instance, the Winter Flounder, a native fish of the Northwestern Atlantic, possesses a specific gene that protects against frigid temperatures. This “antifreeze” gene was isolated and inserted into tomatoes to protect them from frostbite.
Are GMOs safe?
In a word, yes, but that should be qualified. The safety of genetically engineered crops is only as safe as their genetic modification. The “flounder/tomato” is a safe modification. The Winter Flounder is an edible, delicious and highly commercialized fish.
If, however, a gene from the Foxglove plant, which contains a natural, poisonous toxin called digitoxin, were inserted into the same tomato plant, there could be problems. In other words, lumping all GMOs into the same category is not the best idea.
But don’t let that scare you – there are numerous studies that demonstrate GMOs are perfectly healthy. So far, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the European Union and several other research organizations have provided scientific analyses detailing the safety of GMOs.
Some of the research also suggests GMOs may actually be healthier than non-genetically modified crops. Take, for instance, a transgenic potato that contains a gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, which provides the potato with an endotoxin safe for human consumption but deadly to the Colorado Potato Beetle, a pest routinely responsible for online casino potato yield reduction. While the gene was at first successful, consumer fears over GMOs led to the strand being discontinued after only five years. Agriculturalists substituted transgenic potatoes for the pesticide imidacloprid, a pesticide that is adverse to developing mammalian brains.
If GMO’s are safe, why is there so much anti-GMO sentiment?
There are several reasons for this. For starters, the term “genetically-modified food” simply sounds terrible. Some hold that mutations, in and of themselves, are unnatural and therefore undesirable. The fact that eating is an everyday event, a deeply personal experience, exacerbates this concern and people want to know why the food supply is being manipulated.
Another reason for these fears involves who is behind GMOs and GMO research. Looking at the groups that provided funding to defeat Proposition 37 is like looking at a who’s who of environmentalist bêtes noirs. GMO financiers include Dupont, Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Dow Chemical, with Monsanto topping the list. The thinking goes that any political issue supported by Monsanto can never be a good thing.
To a large extent, Monsanto’s public opprobrium is well-founded. The company often is involved in litigation with small farmers who unknowingly use their patented seeds – the most recent case going all the way to the Supreme Court. The patenting of genetically modified plants has allowed the company to monopolize entire crops, both nationally and internationally. Monsanto controls 90% of the soybean production worldwide, not to mention numerous other crops. The company even has been linked to illegal child labor practices in India.
Currently, Monsanto spends about $6 million dollars every year for lobbying in the United States and gives generously to both parties; in 2012, Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell received $23,000 and $14,000, respectively.
Despite the many reasons to dislike Monsanto, it is important not to confuse the company with the process of genetic modification – the two are distinct. Monsanto’s litigious efforts and corporate practices are social and political problems that demand social and political answers; the health and safety of GMOs is a scientific question requiring sound scientific answers. Any policy argument for or against the health risks of GMOs must be couched in scientific analysis.
Is labeling genetically modified food good public policy?
The answer to this question remains unclear, as it goes beyond the scientific analysis of whether GMOs are healthy or not. The question of labeling store-purchased food is fundamentally different because it is concerned with consumer information and the right to know the process behind the foods we eat.
This argument does have some merit; all manufactured foods today already contain a list of ingredients. If you have a right to know that a can of Coke contains some calcium, should you not also have a right to know that the potato you are eating contains a genetic sequence responsible for an endotoxin harmful to potato bugs? Every fast food restaurant in California now lists in bold letters the calorie count for menu items – why not also label GMOs?
On the other hand, people will not purchase GMOs simply because it says GMO, and that may well turn into a problem. Public disdain for the genetically modified potato gave rise to increased use of pesticides, an unhealthier alternative both for human consumption and the environment. World population increases in the next century will require novel and innovative agricultural techniques to keep pace and climate change will require sturdy, resilient plants. These problems may be solved through GMO research and implementation.
Once more, it is important to emphasize the vast majority of scientific research indicates genetically modified food is safe for human consumption. While there may be valid arguments as to labeling foods with a GMO tag, without scientific evidence to the contrary, no one can argue GMOs are inherently, categorically harmful.
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