Editors' Note: This is the first in a series of columns exploring trending topics and issues in the popular science community.
By Hannah Jane DeCiutiis
Austin’s food scene is kind of magical. We have an abundance of tacos and junk food (hello, Gourdough’s) but we also have the sort of crunchy health food ethos that makes us proud to be one of the fittest cities in the nation. Health-conscious restaurants often use descriptors like “non-MSG” and “locally sourced” to explain their approach to food. The newcomer buzzword to the health world is “non-GMO.”
From local joints like Casa de Luz and Counter Culture to chains like Chipotle, the anti-GMO movement is becoming synonymous with the push for organic, pesticide-free agriculture.
Speaking to this push for organic, wholesome food, many will condemn GMOs as unsafe, unhealthy, and bad for the environment. Restaurants launch campaigns against GMOs, but when pressed, few people can accurately explain in their own words why they feel the way they do. The idea of someone reaching in and screwing with the food supply in a way we can’t visibly see feels, well, icky.
Let me begin by clearing up one thing about genetically modified organisms (GMOs): everything in the standard American diet is genetically modified. It is unlikely that you will find a single food crop today – plant or animal – that hasn’t been artificially selected and manipulated to grow bigger, sweeter, seedless, or with higher yield. Few plants that humans cultivate today would ever be viable in the wild, and it’s because we’ve been choosing the biggest, juiciest plants for hundreds of years.
What people now refer to as GMOs are organisms that are modified in a lab. By simply recombining DNA differently, or even “pasting” DNA from other species, we can improve the instructions for the way a food plant grows. Using rDNA (recombinant DNA) is not the same thing as injecting a growth hormone or spraying a chemical onto a plant. By removing the need for antibiotics or chemicals to induce growth, GMOs — in theory — are an excellent response to the desire for organic foods.
Horror movies like “Splice” and “The Fly” — which depict the aftermath of genetic experiments gone wrong — make genetics seem like a terrifying mad science ordeal wherein scientists have no way of predicting what will happen. This simply isn’t true; when scientists study a gene that determines growth size, they can be fairly sure about what that gene will do in another, similar structure. Mistakes will be made, but the beauty of science is that you can study food safety for as long as necessary before a product goes to market — not unlike the development of processed foods such as soda and enriched white bread. However, many of the same people who decry GMOs will eat processed meats and cheeses, fructose-filled treats and snacks that are chock-full of preservatives with no complaints.
A recent study of 100 billion animals eating GM feed for more than 18 years turned up rather anticlimactic results: nothing happened. The overall health trends of the animals showed no noticeable difference than from before 1996 — or rather, before genetic modification as we now know it became a viable agricultural technique.
The potential benefit of GMOs is tremendous. Nutrient-filled crops can drastically improve the nutrition of the countries that need it most. Golden rice, a strain of rice that has been field tested in the Philippines for several years, was proven to successfully increase vitamin A intake in an area where vitamin A deficiency kills thousands of children per year.
Does this mean we should leave GMO development alone? Absolutely not. There are issues with GMOs that scientists, policy makers and corporations should be held accountable for. Plants that are grown to be resistant to herbicides (in order to kill off other invasive plant species) are actually increasing herbicide use — in particular, Monsanto’s Round Up, which is ultimately poisoning the groundwater in areas where it is applied and creating “superweeds” that invade other species.
The concern that GMOs could harm biodiversity is also valid. GM crops reinforce homogeneity, and without proper buffer zones, could disrupt surrounding ecosystems.
Beyond the environmental impacts GMOs have, the political and economic effects in the United States are disturbing to say the least. In contrast to Europe, where countries are under strict regulation regarding the growth and sale of GMO crops, the United States has lax policies which have allowed the quality of research and the public image of GMOs to suffer in favor of a few big-ag companies.
Monsanto, lovingly referred to by its many detractors as “the world’s most evil corporation,” routinely bullies farmers into patent infringement lawsuits. Monsanto was also the top donor to the campaign voting “no” on California’s Proposition 37, which would require all GM foods to be labeled as such. The proposition was defeated in 2012. GM foods can be incredible things, but taking away freedom of choice in the food industry is not the way to instill trust in consumers.
GMOs aren’t perfect, but neither were many revolutionary technologies when they were first developed. There are potential harms, and we should be fully aware of what those harms are and how to stop them. To do that, we need to switch the conversation from “stop GMOs” to “how can we make GMOs better?”
If we keep corporations and policymakers accountable for the safe and responsible use of GMOs, and allow researchers the time and support they need to fully develop this technology, there are tremendous benefits to reap.