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.