What’s the Big Deal About Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)?

It’s a topic that continues to make headlines and draw visceral reactions.  California’s much discussed Prop 37, a measure meant to require retailers and food companies to label products made with genetically modified ingredients, was dealt a high profile defeat in November of last year.  Similar legislation has failed to pass in other states, though Oregon currently bans the production and import of genetically modified salmon.  Why the concern?  While GMO companies like Monsanto have undeniably done some shady business dealings, does that affect the safety of the products or the production methods?  Are the doubts rooted in science or sentiment?

The first commercially sold genetically modified food, a tomato that takes longer to ripen after picking, hit the market in 1994.  A year later, several food products that were resistant to herbicides or disease joined them.  In the year 2000, scientists were able to increase the nutritional content of a food for the first time, with the creation of golden rice, although its production has been (unnecessarily?) delayed until just now.  Overall though, the practice has been hugely successful, as about 85% of American corn and as much as 91% of soybeans are derived from genetically modified crops.  In fact, the Grocery Manufacturing Association estimates that 70% of items in American food stores contain genetically modified organisms. Betcha didn’t even know.

But really, if you get right down to it, our food crops have been genetically modified since Roman times, and more scientifically since the 1700′s.  The process of selective breeding, through which particular animal and plant individuals are bred to emphasize specific traits, is so ubiquitous that many of our most important crops, including wheat, rice and corn, wouldn’t exist in their current forms without it.  Not to mention broccoli, cauliflower, bananas, ad infinitum.  We’ve been deliberately altering the course of animal and plant evolution for centuries, but few people bat an eye when it’s done in a field.  Why the outcry when it’s done in a lab?

manipulateWell that’s not deliberately manipulative and meant to elicit negative emotions at all, is it?  Image with an agenda from nutritiondenver.com

The answer may lie in the language of GMO opponents, who often refer to the products as “Frankenstein food.”  Marry Shelley wrote her famous tome in 1818, an early example of the European Romantic era, a time characterized by reactionary thought against the Industrial Revolution and the increasing rationalization of nature.  Many balked at recent scientific advances, thinking that man had decided to play God, a theme no more evident than in the novel where a modern Prometheus creates his own man.  Of course science and progress has continued since then, and such concerns almost seem silly in hindsight.  How will our GMO mania appear to our descendants in two hundred years?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

We shouldn’t let knee-jerk reactions and queasy feelings dictate progress and public policy.  There are certainly issues with genetically modified crops that need to be monitored, such as the possible hastening of antibiotic resistance and the introduction of allergens to other foods, but that’s why better regulation and testing from the Food and Drug Administration is needed, rather than labels meant to scare people away from already approved products.

It also goes to show that the American right wing doesn’t hold a monopoly on anti-science ideas, as Chris Mooney and others have suggested.  Unfounded objections from Greenpeace and similar organizations illuminate that U.S. liberals can be just as hard-headed and fact-evasive in certain situations.  See also the opposition to nuclear power.

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