A lot of readers have asked me to discuss GMO. You see the acronym everywhere, but what’s the issue? GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” and refers to a process whereby genes from one species’ DNA are inserted into that of another. It’s high-tech cross-breeding begun in 1996 with the aim of reducing pesticide use. Fine intentions, to be sure, but what’s the reality?
Part of everyone’s confusion is that 1996 date: eighteen years of data is simply not conclusive. We cannot yet read the possible toll on the environment and our health, it’s too soon to know. If, for example, GMOs indeed cause cancer, as some already claim, the science will not be in for years or decades.
Another reason for the confusion is the air of near hysteria on the parts of both the pro- and anti-GMO activists. Sans conclusive science, this makes it hard to trust, or even listen to, either camp. As was remarked in Nature magazine: “People are positively swimming in information about GM technologies. Much of it is wrong—on both sides of the debate. But a lot of this incorrect information is sophisticated, backed by legitimate-sounding research and written with certitude. (With GM crops, a good gauge of a statement’s fallacy is the conviction with which it is delivered.)” (“Fields of Gold“)
The pro-camp is partly populated by shills for the biotech companies, heedless of the potential dangers that GMO may pose, posting on their websites that GMO technology has been shown to be safe for human consumption. Really? And how can they assure us of this when the science is not in? Although a much-publicized paper linking GMOs to tumors in lab rats was retracted after it was revealed that due to improper scientific procedure, “no conclusions [could] be drawn from this study,” that doesn’t assure the safety of GMOs. Efforts by agribusiness to resist labeling laws are suspicious at best, there is concern about GMOs’ fostering herbicide resistance, and although humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia, the high-tech tinkering of modern science should obviously be approached with great caution and ongoing testing.
The anti-camp, on the other hand, often uses rhetoric that says more about them than about the companies like Monsanto that they wish to label as evil incarnate, seeking profit at the literal expense of humankind. They throw around terms like “enemy,” “evil,” and “Frankenfood” that drum up fearful emotions, but do little to clarify what dangers, if any, GMOs pose, even though such august bodies as the NYT editorial board has recently declared that “there is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers.”
The antis are also often silent on the potential upside of continued genetic research—such as reducing pesticide use, increasing crop yield, improving nutritional profiles of various foods, and so forth. That may not mean much to spoiled Americans with farmers’ markets and Whole Foods dotting every city, but it could mean all the difference to millions of people in the developing world suffering needlessly from everything from vitamin deficiencies to outright starvation.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not making any safety claims for GMOs. To repeat: We simply do not know yet! In light of the uncertainty, you may well feel more comfortable avoiding GMO food products for now. Nothing wrong with that, and by sticking to a more organic and whole food diet, you are doing that already. But don’t yet assume you are averting allergies or illness.
In my own case, I try to buy as much organic as possible, and when I can avoid GMO, I do. I wager that since it’s still a mystery whether there are long-term effects, better to use caution. It irks me that labeling has not been made mandatory. (Tamar Haspel, in her Washington Post “Unearthed” column, makes sense on this point.) Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food! One can only hope that it’s the first step toward full transparency.
For balanced reporting, I am impressed by Nathanael Johnson, a liberal writer with hippie credentials—i.e., not one to make apologies for agribusiness—who has done extensive research on the state of GMO science. I quote him at length, just because he’s so damn sane.
I’m going to start with the most politicized issue: Is there any evidence that genetically modified food is directly harmful to people who eat it? There’s a one-word answer to this: no.
If you aren’t prepared to take my word for it (especially that particular word), things get a bit more complicated. The most persuasive evidence is that millions of people have been eating genetically modified foods for the past 20 years without any obvious ill effects. If anyone exhibited acute symptoms after eating GM food, we would have seen it.
At the same time, the absence of evidence of harm does not prove safety. If the effects were subtle and chronic, and showed up in only a small subset of the population, it’s possible that we could have missed something. And we don’t know what to look for. . .
There’s no way to completely eliminate risk. The real question is, have we thought through the realistic potential for problems, and put regulatory safety nets out to protect ourselves?
So, what I really think, is this. As with most things in life, it all comes back to philosophy, which teaches us how to think about stuff and, in cases like this, that feelings are not tools of cognition. There is a lot of credible, balanced discussion out there, and level-headed scientists and journalists of all political persuasions who are soberly weighing the facts as they come in. We will feel far less anxious if we focus on them—and avoid the fringes where intense emotion, but little truth, resides.