By Mark O’Brian
On Election Day, Californians will vote on Proposition 37 to decide whether grocery products made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labeled as such. The outcome of that vote could influence national policy.
Proponents generally believe that food from GMOs poses health risks. Opposition to labeling is financed by agri-businesses that supply GMOs and the food producers and distributors that use them.
Little is as fundamental to human health as food, and so it is not surprising that passions run high. However, polarization of an issue can limit meaningful discussion, and the combatants may not consider or even recognize solutions that are in the public’s best interest.
Results of a nine-year study were published last month showing that relatively simple changes to farm practices can reduce reliance on toxic and energy-intensive chemicals without decreasing yields or profit. Rather than the usual two-year crop rotation between soybean and corn, three- and four-year rotations were carried out that included legumes, combined with occasional livestock manure fertilization.
These practices reduced herbicide and chemical fertilizer usage more than 85 percent each, resulting in a 200-fold decrease in groundwater contamination. Decreased chemical application also slows development of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Yet, who in the GMO war will champion or even notice these findings? Agribusiness has no motive to study farming practices that lessen the need for their products. But will the anti-GMO movement embrace farming practices that improve public health if they are not organic, local or use GMOs? Food advocacy groups can be most effective in shaping public policy by taking a broad view of solutions to food safety and security.
The manipulation and alteration of food traits has always been cutting-edge technology since the inception of agriculture 10,000 years ago. That beautiful organically grown heirloom tomato is a biologically distorted, genetically engineered form of the small, hard, poisonous fruit created by nature.
Virtually everything in your garden is the result of many hundreds of years of genetic tinkering by humans through breeding, resulting in organisms that bear little resemblance to the natural species.
While GMOs have been shown to be safe, Monsanto and DuPont are not spending millions of dollars to oppose Proposition 37 as a public service. If a plurality of voters is wary of a safe product, then the burden lies with businesses and their affiliates to provide meaningful educational resources, not advertising blitzes that do not allay concerns.
The best outcome will be the formulation of public policy based on ballots cast by well-informed voters.
Mark O’Brian is a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo.