GMO paranoia overshadows evidence

If you Google “Genetically Modified Organ­isms” (GMOs), the first thing you notice is an image of a tomato being pierced by three syring­es. This seems to promote a fear of tampering with crops, and encourage us to distrust the food industry.

The anti-GMO rhetoric doesn’t stop there. In 2015, the FDA approved the AquaAdvantage salmon, genetically designed by AquaBounty to grow faster than farm-raised Atlantic salmon so that it can reach customers more quickly. This is the first genetically-modified animal to be ap­proved for consumption, and even though it has yet to hit the shelves, the criticism has been as bold as the tomato image. Anti-GMO sympathiz­ers have christened the salmon “Frankenfish,” along with vague suppositions of its adverse af­fects on human health and the environment.

For as long as science has existed, people have been wary of how far our knowledge and technol­ogy can take us. In my senior year of high school, we read multiple novels that were great literary tools, but also carried deep undertones of mis­trusting science. We delved into the iconic Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein” that is the forerun­ner of the entire “Mad Scientist” archetype, and also investigated its modern cousin “Oryx and Crake,” where Margaret Atwood destroys the world with Crake’s transgenic supervirus. Deep skepticism of the morality or unintended conse­quences of scientific advancements are universal to our culture, but I believe that we can’t rely on shouts of “Frankenfish” to dismiss GMOs.

I do think it is extremely important to criti­cize and understand the deep relation between morality and scientific advancement; however, it needs to be done with a complete and thorough knowledge of the science itself. In November 2015, 17 European countries—including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland—announced bans on the cultivation of genetically-modified organisms. Many criticized the EU for turning their backs on science with this ban.

In response, the leader of the Scottish Nation­al Party, Nicola Sturgeon, conceded that nobody had consulted the first minister’s science adviser because the solution “wasn’t based on scientific evidence.” Rather, Scotland had made the de­cision in order to keep a green and wholesome reputation of the country.

Banning an entire new enterprise in genetics without even consulting a scientist is indicative of the moral paranoia that surrounds GMOs. But are there any valid scientific criticisms of GMOs that could warrant these types of attitudes? In 2013, when a bill to ban genetically modified crops on the island of Hawaii was proposed, pro­ponents of the ban referenced heightened aller­gies, “superweeds” and a study that showed that rats that ate genetically modified corn developed more tumors and died sooner than the controls.

It turns out that at least two of those claims are pseudoscientific. “Superweeds” actually can­not be created from cross-pollination from the genetically modified crops, because differing species cannot hybridize in this way. The “super­weeds” referenced can only come to being when weeds develop resistance to multiple pesticides, pesticides whose use many GMOs prevent through genetic resistance to pests. The allergies argument is simply the case of implying causali­ty from correlation: Though allergies are on the rise in children, there is no evidence that this is caused by GMOs. In fact, GMO crops that con­tain genes from other crops in them are tested to ensure that the encoded extragenetic protein will not cause allergic reactions. As for the rats with the tumors, the study has been almost uni­versally dismissed by the scientific community, due to the small sample size and the predisposi­tion of this kind of rats to tumors.

Despite the shaky scientific evidence behind it, the cry for universal bans of GMOs still rings out. Fascinatingly, scientists and lawmakers alike have actually found that the greatest demograph­ic of anti-GMO activists are politically left-lean­ing. “Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activi­ties contribute to global warming, many progres­sive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits,” wrote Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California Pamela Ronald.

Some of the anti-GMO supporters stem their criticism from distrust of large agricultural com­panies that make the seeds. Regardless of the po­litical identity of GMO critics, a blanket ban on these useful technologies would jeopardize the results of important research and endanger the livelihoods of many.

I don’t believe that we can trust GMOs un­conditionally, but they have provided extremely valuable solutions to the global food and health problems. Genetically-modified rice in South­east Asia that contains genes from corn and bac­teria can provide vitamin A, which is an extreme­ly common deficiency among people for whom rice is a staple. In the case of Hawaii, papaya farmers had been using a genetically modified papaya that included part of the genome of the Ringspot virus to give the plant immunity to said virus. Instead of spraying cabbages in upstate New York with copious amounts of pesticides to protect them from the invasive Diamondback moths, researchers are working on developing a population of moths equipped with DNA that will kill larvae progeny and thus reduce the pest population.

The World Health Organization (WHO) ex­plains, “Different GM organisms include differ­ent genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” I believe that a scientifi­cally grounded, case-by-case investigation of the potential benefits and drawbacks of GMOs is the best approach to solving global food issues.

4 Comments

  1. “A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, awaiting the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on the understanding of living organisms they seek to control.”
    Rachel Carson 1962

  2. An interesting thing about the Frankenstein comparison was the most innocent and sympathetic character in the book was the monster and the real villains were the angry lynch mob of the villagers. Not understanding the technology that could have made their lives better, they reacted with rage based on fear and ignorance.

  3. I’m curious which scientist is saying that superweeds are a result of PESTICIDES, when the concern is that the weeds would build up resistance to HERBICIDE and require increasingly higher doses of the herbicide to obtain the same effect, which would then would be absorbed into the crop plant.

  4. As the argument continues the glaring fact remains, the pro go movement is insistent on the non labelling of their products. There are many, many reasons that folks all over the world are choosing to deny GMO access to their kitchen tables, all that is NECESSARY for the people to make their own decisions is the information on the packet that allows them to do so. The constant oppressive legal actions and persecution of farmers not willing to participate is the most glaring evidence that the suspicions about the dangers of GMO are correct.
    In America we have the first amendment, freedom of speech, not according to Monsanto it seems.

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