Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were introduced commercially for agriculture in the United States in the mid 1990s, and they have been adopted by most farmers here. Nevertheless, anti-GMO activists and entrepreneurs have called for labeling of foods made from GMOs or for their outright ban. Among the numerous reasons for opposition is that GMOs are products of science, not nature, and therefore they pose health risks. However, agriculture is by definition the manipulation of nature to meet the desired ends of people.
GMOs are made by inserting a foreign gene into a plant or animal with the goal of conferring properties that have some agricultural benefit. At present, only GM plants have entered our food supply. In the United States, commonly used GM corn and soybean varieties contain a bacterial gene that confers resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed under the brand name Roundup. Roundup kills weeds but not the GM crop. Other GM corn, soybean and cotton varieties produce a bacterial protein called Cry with insecticide activity that lessens the need for application of toxic chemicals that pollute the soil and groundwater.
The creation of GMOs is indeed sophisticated, but in fact agriculture is a high-tech revolution in progress that began 10,000 years ago.
To put GMOs in perspective, that beautiful organically grown heirloom tomato is a biologically distorted, genetically engineered product of human innovation derived from a small, hard, poisonous fruit created by nature. Virtually everything in your garden is the result of many hundreds of years of genetic tinkering through breeding, resulting in organisms that bear little resemblance to the native species, and which would not exist without human intervention.
It is amusing that the now popular “Paleo” (or Paleolithic) diet advocates eating food that did exist in the Paleolithic area, and that would be unrecognizable by our ancestors of that time.
There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that foods derived from GMOs are safe. Reports from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that no adverse health effects attributed to GMOs have been documented in the human population. Moreover, they conclude that GMOs reduce the application of insecticides, the most dangerous herbicides and overall have fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GMO crops produced conventionally.
The anti-GMO movement paints a very different and dark picture of the health and environmental impacts of GMOs. The claims are wide ranging and mostly untrue. Cries that GMOs cause cancer, diseases associated with inflammation, result in punctured gastrointestinal tracts of children or incited the suicides of 250,000 Indian farmers are unfounded.
Scores of independent studies support the conclusion that GMOs are safe, contradictory to the oft-repeated claim that risk assessment is primarily carried out by GM seed producers.
The actual risks associated with GMO strategies are founded in current farming practices, not in the GMOs per se. These include the inevitable evolution of Roundup-resistant weeds and of insects no longer bothered by the Cry protein. Also, the modification of corn and soybean perpetuates the severe lack of crop diversity in U.S. agriculture.
Adopting the transformational technologies of agriculture ended the nomadic life of following the food supply in a seasonal rhythm, allowing people to settle into stable and complex social groups culminating in cities and nation states. Food surpluses freed people to engage in other specialized tasks that contribute to society.
Consequently, most of us, at least in the Western world, eat food produced by others. We have handed over control of the most basic human need to strangers. According to agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the recent call by an Indian parliamentary panel to discontinue field trials of GM crops in the name of health concerns is really driven by fears of having the country’s food security in the hands of multinational corporate strangers.
Although GM foods have been shown to be safe, the anti-GMO movement is symptomatic of a growing interest in taking control of the food we eat. Agribusiness has not acknowledged this, and has only taken steps to increase distrust.
Last November, Proposition 37 in California requiring labeling of grocery products containing GM foods was defeated due primarily to a $46 million campaign by Monsanto, DuPont and other companies to oppose it. Rather than make the case in terms of health and safety, agribusiness mostly argued that labeling would incur additional costs to the consumer. The demand for transparency is unlikely to go away so, for crying out loud, just label it.
Over time, agricultural advances result in population increases, and new innovations will be needed to yield even more food without a proportional increase in land commitment. However, not every good idea needs to be high tech.
Results of a nine-year study carried out at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm showed that relatively simple changes to farm management practices can reduce reliance on toxic and energy-intensive chemicals without decreasing crop 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 modified practices reduced herbicide and chemical fertilizer usage by 85 percent and 100 percent, respectively, and diminished freshwater contamination by a whopping 99.5 percent. Decreased agrichemical application also slows the development of herbicide-resistant weeds because it reduces the evolutionary selection pressure that favors them.
As long as food is produced by strangers, consumers must be in control of their relationship with suppliers. To do this, they must be educated, and advocate for solutions that promote public health, recognizing that many of them will involve new technologies. Agribusinesses are motivated by profit, and informed consumers ensure that good health is the most profitable product.
Mark R. O’Brian is a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo.