Sometimes it surprises me that I’m not an anti-GMO activist.
Demographically, I fit the bill: I’m a left-leaning middle-class American woman with a bone to pick about the way my country eats. I’ve published articles about the salutary effects of sustainable/local/organic farming, I’m a member of Kentucky Community Farm Alliance, and I subscribe to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm share. I am chronically skeptical when my friends and family declare that this or that paper-snowflake diet is going to slim me down, increase my energy, and rid my body of disease, because the only diet I’ve come to believe in is a holistic one where vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy are sourced from small-scale farmers whose chickens weren’t confined to cages and whose cows lived lives of roaming, grassful dignity.
Because many of us locavores campaigning for compassion and accountability in the way we plan our meals are also advocates of a simpler way of life in general—less unnecessary technology, more focus on family and community—it’s not surprising to me that a lot of us have also spurned the introduction of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) to farms across America. But is this aversion a kneejerk reaction based on too-limited understanding of what GMO’s are, or is the growing fear that has inspired rallies, unlawful destruction of GM-seeded fields, demands for labeling of GM products and the publication of countless articles, pamphlets, websites and blog posts a real and worthy one?
The anti-GMO activists among us, who encourage attitudes of hostility toward foods whose DNA has been altered in the lab, are concerned about the effects that the engineering of these new crop strains and animal breeds will have on the health of our bodies, our agricultural systems, and our environment. Religious protestors decry genetic modification as a flagrant attempt at “playing God” (some secular protestors say so, too).
Anti-GMO concerns include whether genetically modified food is safe to consume, both now and in the long run. Activists also worry that GM plants and animals will “escape” the farms where they’re introduced to infiltrate other habitats or pastures. They want to know whether we can be sure that snipping or inserting a gene here or there to, say, make citrus trees pest-resistant, isn’t going to give us cancer when we drink that particular brand of orange juice.
I believe it’s an entirely decent and responsible thing for organizations and individuals to promote awareness of what’s being grown on America’s farms, which we, its citizens, ultimately feed our children—and I’m thrilled that so many have had the foresight to put tough questions to our nation’s top scientists and nutritional experts.
The problem I have with the anti-GMO movement is not that its members are asking questions. On the contrary. My problem is that GMO opponents, who have been called “the Climate Skeptics of the Left,” don’t seem to want to hear any of the well-researched, widely documented answers to those questions.
It’s the staunch unwillingness to believe genetic modification could have any positive effects on our food and environment whatsoever that, in my opinion, has transformed its campaigners from conscientious cynics helping heal our techno-addled society into shrill, shouting, fingers-in-the-ears dogmatists.
I know that these might seem harsh words, and that my cautiously pro-GMO stance might appear antithetical to what I’ve written previously. The fact that there’s any dissonance at all is due in part to the informational rift that’s been created between GM-anythings and the general public.
Allow me to explain.
Genetically modified organisms already abound on organic farms. They line the shelves of our local Whole Foods Markets and arrive packed in good clean dirt with semi-weekly farm-share boxes. In fact, you’ve been eating engineered foods your entire life—and unless you have some kind of grave gastrointestinal trouble or gustatorially compromising food allergies, you’ve probably enjoyed the experience.
The fact is, we humans have been slipping our fingers into the genomes of other organisms for thousands, if not millions, of years. The same manipulations that over centuries of trial and error have made your dog docile and your cat, well, depends on the cat—selective breeding—are as wholly “unnatural” within the plant and animal kingdoms as the more refined technologies we now have in the lab.
It was actually this very observation—the way human preferences could affect the temperament, behavior, morphology, and diet of their pets and livestock—that led to some of Darwin’s key insights on the mechanism of evolution. There seemed to him a vast difference between what humans do to alter their animals and what occurs in nature to shape species into different kinds. As evolutionary biologist and writer Dennis Venema describes, “[Darwin noticed that] rather than a breeder choosing which individuals to mate, the ability of different variants to reproduce in a given natural setting would allow some to reproduce at a greater rate than others. Since their traits would be heritable, this would drive changes in traits over time in the population experiencing ‘natural selection,’ a term Darwin coined as an analogy to human, or artificial, selection.”
If the writers, thinkers, and activists of Darwin’s time were consequently concerned about the effect selective breeding might have on the health of affected species and their consumers, these concerns didn’t make much of a dent on the scientific and social literature of the time. This noticeable lack of uproar likely results (in part) from the fact that the changes humans were causing in the animals and plants they surrounded themselves with were subtle; they happened over time, ploddingly, from one generation to the next. It was possible to create a new strain of apple trees in one’s lifetime, but what cause would the arborist have had to speculate on the innate weirdness of what he or she was doing?
Anytime we’ve chosen to hybridize a plant or animal by cross-breeding it with another, the morphological and behavioral changes we observe as a result first occurred at the DNA level. For instance: once upon a time, somebody saw that it might be useful to combine a horse with a donkey, and did so. The outcome may have been cantankerous and obstinate, but nobody I know refuses to acknowledge this “product” as viable and useful in its own right, nor have they written essays condemning the moral underpinnings of the making of the mule.
If we can do this type of tinkering on a macro level with no grand ethical, doomsaying qualms, what prevents us from approaching with the same removed calm the more direct process of transferring helpful genes between organisms in the lab? Indeed, at the macro level there is arguably more room for unanticipated results; when knitting whole genomes together, as with the horse and donkey, we are playing a much less predictable game than when, say, giving a plant an additional bit of genetic material to allow it to produce a specific pest-repellant toxin.
When scientists talk about changing the world through genetic engineering—creating faster-growing, drought-resistant and disease-free food, or vitamin-rich crops in areas where residents suffer nutritional deficiencies—what they’re saying may sound ambitious, but it really isn’t that revolutionary.
We lucky members of the living world, so different in size, appearance, lifestyle, and needs, are all built with a staggering sameness. It’s not the stuff of our genetic code that makes us different—the human genome is no more profound than the genomes of yeast and rice (indeed, depending on how you choose to measure such things, both can be argued to possess more genetic information than we do). All creatures great and small are formed from the exact same building blocks: four types of nucleic acids, which scientists have nicknamed “A,” “C,” “T,” and “G,” code for everything living, breathing, swimming, and photosynthesizing on earth. To our knowledge, not a single carbon-based organism possesses a single letter of genetic information beyond this simple, universal "alphabet.”
This grand monotony is what makes genetic engineering possible, and practical. Crossing a firefly with a fern to make electricity-free reading lamps would be utterly impossible if both organisms were as fundamentally different as they look. Modifications made in the lab are simply swifter and have a larger array of conceivable uses than what we can create through artificial selection. It’s frankly a lot harder to try to produce battle-fortified citrus fruit by forcing two different types of plants to have sex than it is to insert a gene from the genome that can help in among the genes of the plant that needs helping. (This all comes, of course, after the failure of the more conventional method of bug control via pesticide monsoon.)
Nothing about this process need be inherently alarming or menacing if adequate precautions are taken to test GM products and introduce them with vigilance and care. Considering there are three separate government bodies regulating the production and implementation of GMO’s—the EPA to evaluate them for environmental safety, the USDA to determine whether they’re safe to grow, and the FDA to test whether they’re safe to eat—GM foods get far more safeguarding attention than the novel fruits and vegetables your local farmer invents in her backyard.
I’m not saying GMO’s are risk free—as Doug Lauffenburger, head of the biological engineering department at MIT once told me, “The amount of potential a new technology has for improving our lives and the world around us is directly proportional to the potential it has for doing harm.” So, small investment = small potential risk, small potential gain. Big investment = big potential risk, big potential gain.
We need to be more careful of where we’re focusing our main concerns regarding GMO’s. Indeed, the eating of genetically modified organisms probably shouldn’t even be on the list—and if it is, it should way far down there, with, perhaps, cell-phone cancer. As The Genetic Literacy Project’s John Entine has written, “…every major scientific regulatory oversight body in the world, including the National Academies of Science and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, has concluded that genetically modified foods pose no harm not also found in conventional or organic foods… Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation.”
Instead of unjustly labeling GMO’s as dietary hazards and aberrations of God’s design for earthly creatures, I would urge GMO activists to focus on real concerns—for instance, economic scenarios surrounding production and sale of GMO products, including the question of whether it’s fair to sell seeds to farmers that they can’t “save back,” and thus must re-purchase every year. There are also ecological implications, and these, to me, are far more relevant for a time in which invasive species and habitat loss have caused the extinction of thousands of species (that we know of—and many more we don’t)—how might we handle the introduction of organisms that are “too successful” and could invade neighboring ecosystems? How do we keep battle-steeled plants from harming helpful visitors, like bees, when they express a toxin designed for parasites?
Once we can accept that the consumption of engineered foods is no more menacing than quaffing a glass of hybrid apple juice, will high-yield, hardy crops be as far as we’re willing to go with genetically engineered organisms? Will we allow the genesis and release of bacteria that can remediate oil spills and clean up harmful chemicals, or which can catalyze green fuel from unwanted algae vats? How about goat milk that cures disease, or houseplants to read by?
Closer to home, how should we feel about modifying the human organism to grow stronger and smarter and fight disease more effectively? Gene-based therapies have already been introduced to combat cancer and counter the effects of diabetes (bioengineered insulin is taken every day by diabetics—some of whom no doubt oppose genetic engineering of crops for food). Few GMO opponents I know would refuse genetically engineered therapies should their child contract juvenile diabetes—why do some people seem to respond more cheerfully when we’re injecting, rather than digesting, GM products?
As a fellow American conscious of the impact we have on our food systems and that our food systems have on us, and as a proponent of joyful and responsible eating and living in the 21st century—I am not writing to advocate blind acceptance of the environmental and nutritional benefits inherent to GMO’s. I’m merely advising an attitude of cautious respect for their potential to positively influence the health of our bodies, our communities, and our environment.
When we have doubts about the safety or necessity of the new foodstuffs and therapies modern biology—or any other field of science—brings us, then let us take those concerns to experts from all sides of the conversation, and weigh the facts in reference to their scientific integrity, not our own emotional biases. This goes for the questions posed by both proponents and opponents of particularly controversial ideas; extremism exists within the communication efforts of our scientists as well as those of our grassroots leaders. Let us search through the fray for those voices who educate with humility and a passion for understanding, even when the facts don’t seem to point to their own convictions. We all might be surprised by what we learn.