Taking a look at the benefits of GMOs
Having lived in Ithaca for the better part of three years, I’ve noticed that people here are a lot more into the natural foods scene than people back home in Connecticut. A large part of it is the benefit of having an expansive network of farms at your back door, but even Wegmans has a huge natural food section to cater to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, non-allergenic and other diets. I think Wegmans’s (and Ithaca’s) dedication to making sure people know what’s in their food for medical purposes is wonderful. However, I have to draw the line at GMO labeling because it goes beyond health and safety into the realm of fear mongering and misinformation.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their DNA tweaked in some fashion. Technically speaking, everything alive today is genetically modified through evolution: Even the most “natural” of organically grown corn is a lot different than the grain it came from. However, the term is generally applied to organisms that have had their genome artificially tampered with, such as by removing, adding or duplicating a gene that either already exists in that organism or has been transplanted from another organism’s genome. Transgenic organisms are all GMOs, but not all GMOs are transgenic.
The problem then resides in people interpreting the modification as malicious tampering that goes against nature and creates “Frankenfoods,” as anti-GMO activists call foods containing GMOs. Part of this begins with the arbitrary designation of “natural” and to a lesser extent “organic.” Lots of things are “natural” that we don’t eat, like arsenic and bumblebees; similarly, the word organic just means carbon-based, so things like formaldehyde and methanol fall under that category. Thus, the terms “natural” and “organic” are not indicative of the edibility of the item.
The throwing around of these arbitrary terms then evolves into a fear that things that have been genetically tweaked are unfit for consumption because they’ve been tinkered with. In Nature’s special on GMOs in May 2013, some of the controversial crops were Bt crops, which include corn and cotton. These were developed to contain a toxin from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which wards off bollworms and other insects. While there is a toxin in these crops, it was specifically chosen to target insects, not humans; it would be a bit daft to engineer our food to kill us. The addition of this compound reduces the amount of pesticides used on the crop, therefore reducing the amount of potentially harmful products we’re consuming.
Along these lines comes the development of food that has been improved upon nutritiously, which further debunks the idea that these foods cannot be eaten or are not as good as their “natural” relatives. The Nature special discussed several advances in genetic modification for nutrition, such as Golden Rice, a strain of rice packed with beta-carotene, which can help alleviate vitamin A deficiency in East Asia. A group at the Queensland Institute of Technology is working to give bananas not only essential nutrients but also resistance to a fungal wilt to fight malnutrition in Africa. Furthermore, in 2008, American researchers presented a potential solution to peanut allergies by turning off the genes that code for two of the more allergenic proteins without sacrificing traditional peanut appearance or function.
Perhaps it’s my background as a biology minor, but this seems pretty straightforward to me: Scientists are working with what they have to create something better. How is this different than breeding two strains of tomato to get a better fruit? The only difference is the amount of control: Plant breeding gives general control, while genetic modification gives pinpoint control.
So why is there so much fear surrounding GMOs? It comes down to bad science and worse fact checking. Like the anti-vaccine movement, one “study” falls into undiscerning hands and like any good wildfire wreaks havoc quickly and irreparably. Unlike the anti-vaccine movement, companies and even governments are now falling victim to the misinformation and the vocal dissent by labeling their foods as non-GMO. As Discover blogger Keith Kloor points out in his March 5 post “The Right to Be Manipulated,” at best this is a scare tactic utilized as a marketing gimmick. It’s like how a label saying “non-fat” implies that that particular food is somehow good for you and anything else without that label is full of fat and horrible for you. Even SmartBalance, the butter substitute, is using the tactic, despite the fact that butter substitute is very obviously processed and therefore not all that “natural.”
Part of the distrust of GMOs comes from the distrust of the companies that produce them, namely Monsanto, and I can understand that. Monsanto bans the replanting of seeds grown from their plants under patent infringement, and the Supreme Court upheld this in March 2013 with Bowman v. Monsanto Co. Anti-GMO activists often see this as a way for Monsanto to essentially force farmers to buy from them every year rather than allowing them to buy once and continue to replant. If anything, Monsanto should provide compensation for farmers who replant their seeds considering they’re growing (and selling) the company’s product, plus the willingness to launch a lawsuit over something as small as seeds seems a little petty.
Regardless of the politics of the companies that produce GMO crops, it is absurd to shoot down the science that produces these crops. Genetic modification by any process has made food crops more fruitful, more resistant to disease and pests, more nutritious and more available to more people in more countries.
Amanda Hutchinson is a junior journalism major who just wants you to eat the food guys. Email her at ahutchi2[at]ithaca.edu.