Lately, I’ve been asked about my feelings on GM (genetically modified) foods a couple of times. Many folks see them as “franken-foods” or as an example of man playing god, and are trying to avoid them for those purposes. The counter argument is that GM foods are a way to increase crop yields, decrease pesticide use, and feed the world.
What do I think? Well, I’ve done a lot of research about the subject of GM foods, since I conduct a Science, Technology and Society project about them as required by the state of Connecticut for my 10th grade Biology classes. I should note that as a teacher, I never tell my students where I stand on the issue. I don’t want them to think like me just because they like me, and I don’t want them to disagree with me just because they don’t like me. I want my students to do as I have done, educate themeselves about the issue and make their own decisions. I’ve read both sides of the arguments, and here’s what I see as the most important points, which I have divided into pro’s and con’s.
Pro-GM Food Arguments:
- Increase in Crop Yield. More food is able to be grown on smaller acreage, due to a variety of gene modifications. Usually, these modifications allow the plants to grow more closely together than their un-modified counterparts. Corn is an example of a crop that is modified in this way, and Michael Pollan describes this type of modification extensively in Omnivore’s Dilemma.
- Decrease in Pesticide Use. Some plants are able to produce their own pesticides, and therefore do not need to be sprayed. BT corn is an example. BT stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a kind of bacteria that produces a chemical that is toxic to some moths, butterflies, flies, and beetles. BT corn has been modified to contain the gene that produces this toxin, and therefore produces its own pesticide to protect against these insects, especially the corn borer.
- Increase in Nutrition. Some plants produce a more nutritious food. “Golden Rice” is an example, and it has been modified to contain β-carotene to help populations avoid deficiency. Deficiency in β-carotene (also known as provitamin A) has been linked to blindness, immune deficiency, and death, especially in small children.
- Herbicide Resistance. Some plants are resistant to herbicides, which allows farmers to spray herbicide on the whole field without the risk of killing off the crop with the weeds. “Roundup Ready” soy is an example of a crop that is unaffected by the herbicide “Roundup.”
Con-GM Food Arguments:
- Decrease in Biodiversity. Many farmers that grow GM foods plant only one variety, known as monoculture. In ecosystems, there are many different kinds of plants, and within a species, there is diversity. For example, think of the lone flower you may see in winter. This bloom represents biodiversity within that species, and if for some reason, the flowers that bloomed at the normal time were not able to produce seeds, this winter blooming flower (and others like it) may be able to carry on the species. So, if an insect infestation, drought, flood, or other natural occurance attacks monoculture, there isn’t that biodiversity to protect it and the whole crop can be lost, with devastating effects. Therefore, GM crops need more fertilizer, more herbicide, and more pesticides to protect them. Argentina has been having all sorts of problems caused by the GM monoculture.
- Herbicide-Resistant Weeds. Since crops like “Roundup Ready” soy can be sprayed with herbicide without risk of killing the crop, they are sprayed more often, which can lead to the evolution of “Super Weeds.” A weed that is not killed off by herbicide has a genetic advantage, and will repopulate a field with its resistant offspring. Eventually, the herbicide will not kill off the weeds, as they will have evolved to survive it. (Survival of the fittest…) This phenomenon is seen throughout the natural world, and it also seen with antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Pesticide-Resistant Insects. The same is true for “Super Bugs” that can become resistant to the pesticides produced by crops such as BT corn, thriving in BT corn fields without the competition of non-resistant insects. These insects of course can travel to corn that is not GM as well.
- Risk of Allergic Reaction. Since it is not required that GM foods be labeled as such, most people do not know that they’re consuming them. When a gene is taken from one plant, such as soy, and inserted into another, such as corn, there is a risk to people who consume these foods without knowing their contents. While the FDA conducts safety testing, there have been cases where genes that were not approved for human consumption have slipped into the food chain, which happened with Starlink corn. If we don’t know what genes our foods contain, how are those of us with allergies supposed to avoid them?
- Contamination of non-GM Crops. Since plants like corn are wind pollinated, they are susceptible to fertilization from any nearby (or even not-so-nearby) plant. There have been cases of organic corn becoming fertilized with GM pollen, making it a GM food. There are all sorts of legal issues here, and it is very difficult to control wind-pollination. There have even been cases of GM crops crossing with wild plants.
- Patents. Companies that produce GM crops are able to patent their creations. That means farmers must purchase seed every year, instead of collecting seeds from their crops, or face legal action. Some companies have even gone so far as to insert a “terminator” gene, that will not allow for germination of the next generation’s seeds, forcing farmers to buy seeds every year. Of course, there is no use for a terminator gene in the natural world, as that would lead to the extinction of a species. These patents serve the purpose of making more money for the agro-conglomerates that own them, not the farmers that grow the crops.
- Poor Regulation. As I mentioned earlier, GM crops are not required to be labeled in the US. People do not know if they are consuming GM crops, which brings concerns about allergies and consumers’ rights in general. It would be impossible to test all food on the market for the presence of GM genes, and the only option for most people to avoid GM food is to buy organic. However, organic foods are often more expensive and don’t offer the variety that many American consumers are looking for.
Based on all of the research I’ve done, I’m still torn on my feelings about GM crops. I certainly cannot avoid them in their entirety, as it’s imposible to know if most foods have been modified since they’re not labeled. Also, humans have been modifying plants for thousands of years, whether it was a conscious effort or not, since the beginnings of agriculture. Genetic modification changes the process, but I’m not entirely sure that a plant that contains genes from another plant is bad by itself. Its just DNA and proteins, and as long as you’re not allergic to those proteins, you’re pretty safe consuming GM foods. But the effects of the GM industry on our agriculture, society, and legal system cannot be ignored. And I can’t deny the positive effects that crops like Golden Rice can have in the devloping world.
After years of thought and discussion with students, colleagues, and friends, I have come to the following conclusions:
- I don’t know anybody who is starving. So the arguments that do work for the developing world do not work here. We waste so much food in the US, to modify crops to produce higher yields is ridiculous. Let’s use what we have before we make more.
- I can’t avoid eating GM foods, but I will do my best to support small, local farmers that I know and respect. But I’m not going to skip certain foods just because they may or may not be GM.
- I have a strong dislike for the GM food industry and what it does to our country. I will do my best to avoid supporting them by not planting GM seeds and always choosing local, non GM foods when available and avoiding processed foods. I don’t buy that many processed foods, and I cook from scratch a lot of the time, but when I do buy processed I try to buy organic.
- I will continue to educate myself on this issue, so that I can continue to make informed decisions and continue to effectively encourage my students to make their own decisions.
As with most environmental issues (and other areas of my life, too!), this is not a black-and-white issue, not combine vs. horse-drawn wagon. There are many shades of gray, and being an informed consumer allows you to see the different aspects of the issue. I would encourage everyone to become educated about their own food choices.