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Views on GMOs shifting: What we fight about when we fight about genetic engineering

| May 22, 2014

In the spring of 1987 in Tulelake, a tiny California farming town four miles from the Oregon border, a small band of scientists wearing yellow Tyvek suits and respirators paced across a field spraying potato plants from handheld dispensers. Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency perched on ladders above and checked air monitors to make sure the contents of the dispensers weren’t spreading beyond the field’s boundaries. Nearby, journalists eagerly took notes and snapped photos of this eerie scene, which would become national news — this was the world’s first field experiment of a controversial new technology: genetically modified organisms.

Benign Beginnings

The organism in the Tulelake test was a modified version of the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, or ice-minus. In preparation for Tulelake, Lindow’s team conducted dozens of safety experiments, first for the National Institutes of Health, which regulated all genetic engineering at the time, and later for the EPA. These tests examined, for example, how ice-minus might affect local flora and whether the wind could carry it into the environment. In Smithsonian, science journalist Stephen S. Hall wrote at the time: “No test or data suggested the bacteria were capable of causing disease in people, animals or plants beyond its well-established host range.”

The Fight Begins

Despite the good intentions and low risks, environmentalists were wary of ice-minus and blocked the field tests through four years of protest and litigation, prompting congressional hearings and more safety tests. The lawsuits were spearheaded by the most prominent genetic-engineering skeptic of the era, the political activist Jeremy Rifkin. Lindow’s experiments were thorough, but no test could rule out all potential problems. Rifkin didn’t see the point in accepting even a sliver of uncertainty.

The argument fit into a common pattern for new technologies, which is a difference of opinion on how to assess risk. The scientific perspective is that if tests say the risk is low, it’s reasonable to proceed. It’s impossible to rule out all possible negative outcomes; to require it would mean halting all scientific and technological progress. Consumer advocates are typically much more leery of any potential risk – though both sides always want to minimize possible dangers.

Both sides have their points. Without the long and dangerous history of chemical rocket propellant research, space exploration would be impossible. Then again, ask the residents of Three Mile Island how they feel about “acceptable levels of risk.”

Ice-minus never went commercial. But nearly 30 years later the fight over GMOs continues. There’s growing scientific consensus on the technology’s safety, but skepticism has deepened and GMO crops have been ripped out of fields from the United Kingdom to the Philippines. Some scientists and journalists involved in the debate say it has become increasingly polarized, with one extreme asserting that the technology will save the world and the other claiming the opposite.

What We Fight About When We Fight About GMOs

Why have GMOs captured the collective imagination? They aren’t our only high-tech agricultural approach, or anywhere near as pressing a concern as climate change. Still, it’s this specific technology that has struck a nerve. Concern continues to grow over our modern globalized and industrialized agricultural system, from the impact of factory farming and monocultures to food safety. There are broader questions, too. Should seeds be patented? Is it good or bad to have multinational corporations own vital swaths of the food supply Climate change and a skyrocketing global population give these conversations a sense of urgency.

Related article:  Making the case for sustainability in 'industrial agriculture'

One reason it has been easy to talk about GMOs this way is because they are treated as a monolithic category, says Amy Harmon, a reporter at the New York Times who has written extensively about the technology and its social implications. This is partly because people don’t trust Monsanto, which has cast a shadow on modern GMOs. In many minds, GMOs equal Monsanto, and Monsanto equals evil.

With the right applications and the right risk assessments, technology isn’t the antithesis of sustainability — it can help build an ecologically based agriculture, too, says Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “We really need to consider the three pillars of sustainable agriculture, which are social, economic, and environmental,” she says. “We must ask how we can reduce harmful inputs into the environment, how we can help rural communities thrive, how farms can make a profit, how we can conserve soil and water. And I think that this obsession with how seeds are developed is really a big distraction.”

A Shift In Perspective?

Despite the gridlock in the GMO debate, which in many ways is still deeply polarized, there are hints that it may be easing. “I do think there is a middle ground emerging,” says Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent at Mother Jones and a GMO critic. “Debating this one technology into the ground — I don’t think it’s that fruitful. There are way, way bigger problems and I think the proper debate is where GMOs fit in to the way we address the bigger problems.”

Perhaps these small movements will give way to a more interesting conversation. Despite differences in opinions on the specifics, the scientists and journalists that Modern Farmer spoke with want to move in the same direction — towards addressing regulatory holes, streamlining the assessment of GMOs and tackling a failing patent system that stymies research. Wherever the conversation leads, how will we look back on today’s agricultural debates in 30 years? Which of our talking points will still be in rotation and which will be relics like the Tyvek suits and respirators of Tulelake?

Read the full, original article: The First GMO Field Tests

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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