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 V.23 No.10 | March 6 - 12, 2014 

Food for Thought

Common Ground in the GMO Debate?

Let’s at least use our inside voices

Stephen D. Melkisethian via flickr

The debate on GM food has gotten interesting of late, in that both sides seem to be having their moments of speaking rather than shouting. I recently noted an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at the popular environmental news blog grist.org, which goes some way toward defining a common ground between two usually battling sides. It began with a series of posts by food writer Nathanael Johnson in which he dissected, in impressively neutral and skeptical fashion, most of the argument for or against GM food. Johnson came to the conclusion that GMOs are neither as scary as many GM food haters claim, nor as world-saving as claimed by supporters of GM food. In an attempt to put the discussion to bed, he wrote, in what he thought was the series' capstone, "The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low."

Nathanael Johnson
Courtesy of grist.org
Nathanael Johnson

Suddenly, folks on both sides of the issue had a beef with Johnson. Mother Jones food columnist (and former Grist food writer) Tom Philpott, a longtime critic of GM food, argued that GMOs do matter because they are a load-bearing pillar of a misguided agriculture system. Meanwhile, Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, responded that GMOs matter because they can, and already do, benefit people and the environment, not just corporations and factory farms.

Naam and Philpotts’ arguments are not mutually exclusive. If Naam is right and GM crops can be a force for good, it does not derail Philpott’s assessment of how GMOs have impacted agriculture to date. If Philpott is right, and GMOs have done little more than boost yields of corn and soy while selling more chemicals, it doesn’t mean that the technology shows no promise. If they’re both right, their arguments could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides on the playing field that Johnson leveled. I believe the conversation can continue, respectfully and productively, if some basic compromises are made among people on both sides of the issue.

Skeptics of GM food should come to grips with the fact that the act of genetic manipulation is in itself not unholy. As it is, few GMO haters would refuse medicine made with assistance from GM bacteria, like insulin or a blood clot-thinner used to treat a stroke. As GMOs have proven useful in medicine, they could also be useful in agriculture.

By the same token, proponents of GM foods should remember that for most skeptics, the bare act of genetic manipulation isn't even the issue. It's the process by which the technology has been rolled out that's pissing them off. In many ways, the script is playing out according to old fears, and there seems to be little public recourse available.

The epitome of this power imbalance, of course, is Monsanto, which is simultaneously the world's largest biotech corporation, seed company, organic seed company and one of the world's largest pesticide companies. That's a ridiculous concentration of power. A profitable concentration, if you're on board, as genetically modified corn and soy covers about half of all US cropland. But given that we already grow way more corn and soy than we should, how is this a good thing?

If they’re both right, their arguments could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides on the playing field that Johnson leveled. I believe the conversation can continue, respectfully and productively, if some basic compromises are made among people on both sides of the issue.

There are more confidence-inspiring processes available. For instance, the Rainbow papaya in Hawaii is an example of a GM food that resulted from a collaboration between farmers and a university to solve a serious problem. An outbreak of ringspot virus was destroying Hawaii's small papaya industry. A resistant papaya was engineered, and the problem appears to have been solved with little evident downside.

There is now an effort underway to use genetic modification to save Florida's orange orchards, which are threatened by the greening virus. Bananas and chocolate, as well as other beloved and economically important crops, are susceptible to viruses as well, with many agricultural regions having already lost their ability to produce these crops. GMO haters might want to do a gut check by asking themselves if they would forgo GM chocolate if it was the last chocolate on earth.

And those who believe that all GM skeptics are being paranoid should remember that there is nothing inherently safe about introducing GM plants to people and the environment. If not tested and regulated appropriately, there will be problems. As the way has been paved by a corporate-led rush to create and perfect the most profitable biotech seeds, this process has led to a suspect product.

The rollout of GM foods has been awkward and wrong-footed since it began in 1994, with the first GMO food ever to be commercially licensed in the US: the slow-ripening Flavr Savr tomato. Its creators at Calgene, Inc. had sought to use a process called antisense knockdown to shut down certain genes, and the Flavr Savr was approved according to this understanding. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, meanwhile, was awarded to a team that figured out that in addition to the antisense knockdown, something entirely different was happening in that tomato as well, a process that is now known as RNA interference.

The Flavr Savr was pulled from the market, not because it was operating via a previously unknown pathway, but because it was too mushy. It turns out the world didn't need another sucky supermarket tomato, yet we all took a risk, in a sense, on a tomato that was approved before anyone knew what was going on. That's a horrible risk versus return.

Red flags and all, skeptics need to face the fact that our species' walk down the GMO trail is inevitable. And Naam is likely correct when he argues that biotech could prove a valuable tool when dealing with some important human and environmental problems.

After Philpott's and Naam's rebukes of his "GMOs don't matter" conclusion, Johnson posted a response of his own, beneath the headline: "OK, GMOs matter—but the noisy fight over them is a distraction."

He acknowledges that there are problems with GM foods, but thinks they have been overblown and are solvable. He believes they have potential, though it's barely been proven.

"There's an entire industry pushing the argument that GMOs are the solution. I agree with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development that GMOs could be part of the solution, but we shouldn't let the hype distract us from all the other ideas out there."

The battle over GM food has become a proxy for a philosophical debate about the appropriate places of science and capitalism and their powerful union in our lives. This is an important, ongoing discussion to be having. But it's a separate discussion, even if GM crops offer many cases in point.

The potential benefits and risks of GM food lie in the processes by which this neutral technology is deployed. So let us focus on these processes themselves, as part of figuring out how best to solve the problems that most need solving.

 

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