I don’t know much about you, dear reader, but I think I have a 50/50 chance of guessing what you think about genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food. You almost certainly believe either:
a) GMOs are dangerous, and are a threat to both human health and the environment. No Frankenfood for me, please!
b) GMO crops are the best, if not the only, hope for feeding a growing population. Only hippies or conspiracy theorists would oppose them.
There seems to be very little middle ground on this issue (unless one considers total apathy a middle ground).
But consider: everything you eat is already the product of genetic modification. It really does not matter how health-conscious you are or whether you live in a country whose government has stringent laws regulating GMOs. Unless you are a traditional hunter-gatherer, EVERYTHING you eat is the product of genetic modification.
Regardless of whether it’s certified ‘organic,’ the corn that you eat does not and never did grow in the wild. And the cows, whose meat we euphemistically call ‘beef’, not only have never lived in the wild, but most likely would not survive if they were released there. That’s because every crop we grow (and every domestic animal we keep) has been altered through thousands of years of human selection, experimentation and cross-breeding until it no longer resembles its wild ancestors.
The fact that we’ve now moved that process from the fields into laboratories is a bit odd, but it seems a bit disingenuous to insist that, after a dozen or so millennia, we must now reject any further genetic modification on principle. Sure, it’s happening at a much faster pace than it used to, but so is just about everything that we do: communicating, crossing the Atlantic, running marathons, etc.
At this point, I calculate that I am on the verge of alienating half of my readers because all of the above sounds very pro-GMO. But only if you believe that there are in fact only two ways to think about the issue.
My argument is not that current GMO ‘research’ and adoption should be unquestioningly accepted just because all our food has been genetically modified anyway. In fact, there are several MASSIVE differences between the genetic engineering of the past and what goes on today; the speed at which it happens is, in my view, the least significant.
1. In the past, humans modified and experimented in order to benefit the farmer. This is so obvious that it doesn’t really need any explanation. But now, much GMO research is devoted to screwing the farmer. Perhaps the most infamous example is the so-called ‘Terminator genes‘ which cause plants to produce sterile seeds that the farmer cannot replant, thus necessitating dependence on the seed company.
And then there’s the problem of cross-pollination for farmers who don’t want to grow GMOs, which wouldn’t be so big a problem, except…
2. Only in recent times have humans allowed themselves to believe that it is possible to ‘own’ biological processes. Private land ownership is a slightly older concept, but has only been foisted upon the whole planet within the last 200 or so years. Perhaps it was just the logical next step that a few scientists and lawyers would start to treat biological life itself as their intellectual property. And it was only in 1980 that the US Supreme Court ruled that living things could be patented. This bizarre new concept of patenting biological life has led to a plethora of legal opportunities for GMO companies to further screw farmers.
3. As our world has grown ever more complex, our desire for silver bullet solutions has increased, even as the likelihood of such simple fixes has decreased. GMO seeds represent the hope for a simple, technical fix to a host of food security challenges.
They also represent the height of reductionist thinking.
Perhaps the most concise example of this tunnel vision, of which GMO-thinking is both cause and effect, are the infamous Roundup Ready crops. These GMO crops were developed because farmers were having to use ever-increasing amounts of Roundup herbicide (a Monsanto product) as weeds became resistant to it. Thus, these crops were engineered to withstand showers of chemical herbicide.
So what is this third way on GMOs that I propose? It starts with a new attitude, recognising that:
- Genetic modification is a morally neutral process; it can be used for good or for ill.
- In the hands of a few powerful agribusiness companies, GMOs have become a tool of control and manipulation. But if pursued in the public interest, genetic modification could improve the livelihoods of farmers and the food security of their communities.
- GMOs shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. They must be considered within a larger ecological context, and attempts to confront food security challenges should focus on root causes and not just symptoms.
Of course, none of this will reverse a Supreme Court ruling, or undo environmental damage that’s already been done. But attitudes have to change before we can expect anything else to change.