The way in which the issue of GMOs is framed drastically influences opinions on the subject. If we take GMOs broadly to mean their common implementation in the context of corporatized, chemical-heavy, monocultured agribusiness, few people are strongly in favor of these systems. However, if we take GMOs narrowly to mean the simple fact of inserting positive genetic traits into crops to make them for example more drought-tolerant, more nutritious, or resistant to certain pests, strong opposition plummets.
Let us address these two definitions in turn. As regards the broad definition, in this context there are few aspects of GMO cultivation that differ from general international agribusiness. The same criticisms that are levelled at the former are levelled at the latter. The exploitation of farmers in the developing world, the destruction of natural habitats, the use of pesticides, and the creation of environmentally monotonous monocultures are problems common to any form of corporate agriculture, be it GMO or non. It may thus behoove us to consider the possibility of decoupling these two concepts: let us consider for a moment the possibility of GMOs implemented in small-scale, ecologically harmonious, potentially organic conditions – all the problems that critics may cite regarding corporatized agriculture removed from the picture, with only the GMO technology itself remaining. To what point, then, does the level of opposition fall? I am not sure how easy it would be to ascertain this information, given the need to walk poll participants through a bit of a thought experiment, but the question does remain.
Even so, there remains a core of critics who are starkly resistant even to the technology itself. These critics primarily see the manipulation of nature via genetic modification as an inherent wrong – nature bequeaths to us a certain set of genetic variation, and it is our station to work within that framework. To these critics, it should be pointed out that the entire history of human agriculture has involved genetic manipulation – selection of desirable traits in crops and animals for the past 10,000 years has left many of them starkly different from their pre-modern forms. Genetic modification has always taken place and always will. Another line of criticism, though, concerns the dangers of genetic manipulation. Inserting pesticidal genes into human crops might be inadvertently harming humans or the rest of the ecosystem, and the results may not be apparent for years. Thus, it is better to maintain precaution by avoiding such technologies altogether.
This argument is not entirely incorrect, but it is still not an argument against GMOs. The fault in this reasoning is that conventional plant breeding is susceptible to exactly the same problem. For a benign example, consider modern storebought tomatoes. Throughout the 20th century, grocers began noting that bright red tomatoes sold better than mottled or off-color varieties. Grocers passed this fact on to farmers and plant breeders, who responded by selecting for brighter and redder tomatoes, leaving us today with blue-ribbon tomatoes – at least on the surface. But beneath the exterior, a genetic trap was being sprung: in tomatoes, genes for color are coincidentally close on the strand of DNA to those for sweetness and flavor. And thus decades of careful breeding and selection for bright red tomatoes left us with storebought tomatoes bleached of flavor and sugar. Anyone who has ever tasted a home-grown tomato can attest to the fact that there is very little in common with the flavorless storebought varieties other than an ostensible name and exterior. We manipulated plant genetics through conventional plant breeding, and had no idea what we were doing. The result is a culinary disaster.
But as I mentioned, that was the benign example. Other such mishaps are not so harmless. Consider, for example, the Lenape potato. In the mid-twentieth century, potato breeders sought a perfect spud to make chips with – white, flavorful, and capable of frying up with a delightful crispy crunch. But as with the tomato above, the treasure trove of conventional breeding perfection turned out to be a pandora’s box of unwanted genetic consequences. The resulting potato proved unexpectedly high in glycoalkaloids, resulting in several potato chip enthusiasts experiencing life-threatening illness.
To this end, GMOs actually provide a solution rather than a deepening problem. Breeding of plants and animals is always a tricky proposition – in addition to the myriad of genetic shuffles that take place between the DNA of two parents, there is the randomness of genetic chance – mutations, the stuff of natural selection and evolution. Without sequencing the genetic makeup of each individual seed, it is impossible to know what exactly the final product will be. But with genetic modification, it is possible to know exactly what genetic changes have taken place; indeed, that is precisely the point. If we want to insert a gene for the production of Vitamin K from an obscure berry into a common rice plant, we don’t have to guess at what those genes are going to do: the genes for vitamin k production are read by the plant’s cells as only that. However, due to the nature of genetic variation and mutation, it is actually a possibility that through conventional breeding, a rice plant could produce offspring with the very same gene that the berry has – or to have a genetic mutation result in a gene that fills the rice plant with cyanide. Both could happen without breeders, farmers, grocers or consumers ever knowing – until it was too late.
The Spain Study
These things said, I would like to draw attention to a recent study on GMO cultivation in Spain. The study reveals that GMO cultivation has resulted in greater economic benefit, lower pesticide use, lower land use, and ultimately lower environmental impact than conventional agriculture. On the whole, GMO agriculture in Spain is simply better in various dimensions. It remains a fact that many of these plantations are monocrop, that they are not organic, and that they displace traditional small-scale agriculture. But what is the right comparison to make here? I propose that the comparison ought to be drawn not with organic farming, compared to which GMO cultivation can leave much to be desired for many people, but rather with conventional large-scale agriculture. On the several dimensions mentioned above, GMOs offer an improvement. And for those who would still say that it’s better to be safe than sorry on GMOs, I would argue – is keeping pesticide use and land use higher than necessary really “playing it safe”? The precautionary principle works both ways: sometimes caution is keeping a new technology out; sometimes caution is letting a new technology in. Not innocent until proven guilty, but an improvement until proven a detraction.
Opposition to GMOs will remain widespread. The idea that humans are haphazardly tinkering with nature and creating frankenfoods has a great deal of cache. The idea that we should make do with what we have and not risk unforeseen harm is a powerful one as well. I do not ask anyone to abandon caution, or to abandon a reverence for a natural way of doing things. All that I ask is that these same principles be taken to their natural conclusions: could caution not lead us to, sometimes, accept GMOs? And with a complete reverence for natural ways of doing things, what else would we need to abandon?