Making friends with Frankenfood: What critics, supporters miss in conversation over GMOs

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 or rid my body of disease because the only diet I’ve come to believe in is a holistic one in which 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 also advocate for a simpler way of life in general—less unnecessary technology and more focus on family and community—it’s not surprising that a lot of us have also spurned the introduction of GMO’s to farms across America.

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 products, demands for labeling of GM foods and the publication of countless articles, pamphlets, websites and blog posts a real and worthy one?

GMO activists, who encourage hostility toward any biological product whose DNA has been altered in the lab, are concerned about the effects these new crop strains and animal breeds might have on the health of our bodies, our agricultural systems and our environment. Anti-GMO concerns include whether genetically modified food is safe to consume, whether GM plants and animals will escape the farms where they’re introduced to infiltrate other habitats or pastures, and whether seeds modified and sterilized are ethical to sell to farmers, among other things. The most vocal are convinced that GM foods cannot be trusted and they advocate for costly labeling practices and laws against making and growing GMO’s—and they are sometimes violent about their demands.

I believe it’s a wholly 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; we are greatly indebted to those who have had the foresight and courage to put tough questions to our nation’s top scientists and nutritional experts in the past. 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 some have called “the climate skeptics of the left,” aren’t asking enough questions—and many of them don’t seem to want to hear about the well-researched, widely documented answers to those questions.

It’s the steadfast 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 tech-addled society into fingers-in-the-ears dogmatists. To many, 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 GMO’s 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. We humans have been slipping our fingers into the genomes of other organisms for thousands 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 while developing his theory 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 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. Uproar may have been scarce in part because the changes humans were causing in their animals and plants were subtle; they happened over time, ploddingly, from one generation to the next. The owner of an orchard could create a new strain of apple trees in his or her lifetime, but what cause would the arborist have had to speculate on the innate weirdness of what they were doing? Apples to apples.

Anytime we’ve chosen to hybridize a plant or animal by crossbreeding it with another, the morphological and behavioral changes we observe as a result first occurred at the DNA level. If we can do this type of tinkering with no grand ethical, doomsaying qualms, what prevents us from approaching with the same removed calm the more direct process of transferring genes between organisms in the lab? Indeed, at the macro level there is arguably more room for unanticipated results using old-fashioned breeeding; when knitting whole genomes together, we are playing a much less predictable game than when giving a plant an additional bit of genetic material to allow it to produce a specific trait, such as a pest-repellant toxin.

Granted, there are some key differences between lab techniques and traditional ones. Nature allows for the sexual pairing and consequent progeny of different dog breeds, lettuces, apples etc., because they are so closely related to begin with. We didn’t “force” anything there. But I don’t agree that just because breeding seems more natural means we should abandon altogether the more technologically sophisticated techniques we have now. 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 natives suffer nutritional deficiencies—what they’re saying may sound overambitious or scary, but hold on a minute before hopping on the anti-GMO bandwagon.

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 (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 that simple, universal alphabet.

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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 plants from different evolutionary lines 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.

Some anti-GMO activists claim that bug control via GMOs is one of the major problems with GMOs—when you engineer plants to produce their own natural pesticide, you end up killing bees and butterflies along with the unwelcome bacteria and beetles. Others claim that because some GMOs are proprietary and don’t produce viable seeds, their nutritional value to helpful insects dries up and thus, the bees die from malnourishment. If certain GMO crops can be implicated in the disappearance of bee colonies, then I say that’s a very good reason to oppose the cultivation of those specific GMO’s.

Precautions should be taken and are being taken to restrict GMOs used in some areas until we know more; even so, researchers are divided on the role that GMOs play, if any, on bee health. Even if there were considerable proof that GMOs were a threat to bees, does this mean we should oppose all GMOs on principle because of it? The bees and butterflies need advocates, they need protecting, but most of all they need help from scientists and horticulturalists to determine how best to protect them. That does not mean we should be damning all GM products.

Meanwhile, the panic ignited by anti-GMO activists may be causing more damage to human children than it is to any of the fuzzy, buzzy insects in your backyard. Golden rice, a strain of rice developed by scientists to help boost vitamin A levels and other nutrients in the diets of severely malnourished children, have been the target of multiple attacks and misinformation campaigns—a minority of protestors have burned whole fields of rice as inflammatory acts against genetically engineered food, as babies go blind and die in the background.

All this consternation, and yet nothing about the process of creating and cultivating GMOs need be inherently alarming or menacing if adequate precautions are taken to test GM products and introduce them with vigilance and care. Three separate government bodies regulate the production and implementation of GMOs—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 grows in her backyard. You could suggest (and many do) that the scientists behind these efforts, and the people in these agencies, and the environmental reporters and science journalists and everyone else involved in informing the public about GM products are unprincipled and corrupt shills for Monsanto working in a giant, silent conspiracy, but I’d say that you were, in a word, wrong.

Of course GMO’s are not risk free, and of course we need to proceed with utmost care and caution—none of the scientists I know think otherwise. As Doug Lauffenburger, head of the bioengineering department at MIT once told me, “The relative 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 where we focus our concerns regarding GMOs, and how we advocate for or against them. Things are rarely as simple as they seem—as with human beings, human products are a complicated blend of positive and negative, possibly helpful and possibly harmful properties.

So who gets to talk about these things, and what should they be talking about? I believe in the principles of our democracy and I believe anyone who wants to have a say should join the conversation. But I urge advocates one way or the other to do extensive research before forming for-or-against opinions, and once formed, to be judicious about how they characterize both their views and the values of the other side.

Let’s talk about real concerns—the relationship between GMO’s and the protection of wildlife, or economic questions surrounding production and sale of GM products, including the question of whether it’s fair to sell seeds to farmers that they can’t save back and must re-purchase every year. And let’s talk about the opportunities—the genesis and release of bacteria that might remediate oil spills or clean up harmful chemicals, or goat milk that cures disease or bioluminescent plants to light up cities, instead of getting hysterical when it turns out that for much of our lives, most of our processed and some of our unprocessed food has contained GMOs. Indeed, the eating of genetically modified organisms probably shouldn’t even be on our list of major concerns.

As the Genetic Literacy Project 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.”

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 advocating blind acceptance of the environmental and nutritional benefits of GMOs—but I do hope we will begin to adopt an attitude of caution and respect when discussing GMOs and judging how they should be utilized (or not).

While some of us are keenly invested and some are just starting to navigate the issues, all of us can choose to weigh the facts for their scientific and ethical integrity, not our own kneejerk biases. This goes for activists on both sides of the debate; extremism exists within the communication efforts of our scientists and science writers 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.

Emily Ruppel is a PhD student in rhetoric of science at the University of Pittsburgh; prior to her doctoral work, she studied poetry at Bellarmine University and science writing at MIT. She has served as Web Editor for The BioLogos Foundation and as Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation. 

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