The debate about GMOs is the same as almost every major technological or scientific breakthrough and subsequent debate. It goes a little something like this… The technology/science exists or is accessible, but the application of the advancement has both positive and negative implications. The pro camp sees the possibilities for human advancement so transformative that only blind support will allow it to reach its full potential; the con camp sees a Pandora’s Box filled with horrors and devastation so terrifying that only swift abolishment of all efforts will protect the human race. Cue: Internet shrieking.*
The two groups debate supporting or abolishing the technology, instead of the more challenging work of negotiating its application, and that’s when I get annoyed. Halting science is ass-backwards, but throwing up our hands at the complexity of implementing regulations is defeatist, and I don’t want to be either.
Am I in favor of genetic modification of our food? I think so. The World Health Organization states:
“Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.
The technology behind genetic modification enables the creation of foods that can feed people who may not otherwise have access to enough food to survive; in this circumstance, I am absolutely in favor of it.
Am I in favor of genetic modifications to seeds that allow them to be the lone survivor of a pesticide bath or resist drought? Sometimes.
I try to avoid them, personally, and would like to see the practice limited to necessary applications, but when you’re dealing with issues of global food production, your concerns are feeding people, feeding people well, and feeding people sustainably. Those priorities may shift day-to-day, depending on circumstance, mood, or company, but they are always there and shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of dogma.
My complaint is with the hegemony of chemical and seed vendors that rely on GMO and use various (at times, nefarious) tactics to make business more difficult for sustainable agriculture in communities that would not otherwise need to rely on GMOs. GMOs should be used to solve acute problems, not for the purposes of produce aesthetics or eking out another penny of profit.
I work to make more of the food grown in the US healthy and sustainable for the people who grow it and eat it. I have a lot of problems with industrial agriculture, but I do appreciate that many of the ag-tech advancements that have taken place within that system keep people, without the luxury of making the decision to eat sustainably or not, from going hungry. That fact cannot be excluded from this debate.
Let’s shift the conversation from arguing over GMOs right to exist to addressing how we apply the technology to maximize its positive impacts and minimize its negative ones.
Dogma may work for simple problems, but the complex issues that global food production face requires collaboration above conflict, reason over restriction, and determination over dogma.
Interested in reading more on this? Check out this excellent article about the debate at UC Berkeley between Michael Pollan and Pamela Ronald.
Update: This post has been in draft mode for over a week. Partly because I was still editing, but mostly because I was a coward and didn't want to invite internet shrieking. The tough thing about being a coward is watching someone else do exactly what you were too afraid to do. So, after Mark Bittman's op-ed in the NYT, I'm jumping on the bandwagon of food activists calling for a more nuanced approach to discussing the pros and cons of genetically modified food.
*I’m pro-hyperbole. Don’t read too much into the excesses in my language.