GMOs Aren’t Good or Evil, They Just Are

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The term “genetically modified organism” conjures up images of science fiction. “Soylent Green is people!” and GMOs are a communist machination designed to keep the sheeple in check.

Or not.

Despite ample evidence that GMO crops are safe to eat, there is a steady current of anti-GMO politics that has become the liberal mirror of climate change deniers on the right, or the anti-vaccination movement that exists on both sides.

When GMO technology first arrived on the scene in the 80s and 90s, there was public backlash in the name of all things “natural.” The late 90s saw an increased focus on “natural” foods versus artificial ingredients and GMOs, and the sentiment stuck. Today, the Non-GMO Project labels thousands of food products as “non-GMO.” Shoppers believe they can rest easy knowing they’re eating healthy.

Most foods labeled “non-GMO” are intrinsically that way, not because they are a special, unmodified version of a product. Your soy milk probably was, but that square watermelon isn’t a result of GM wizardry. In reality, most of the produce we see in the store are not GM crops. Processed foods are a different story because they probably have an ingredient like corn or soy, which are two of the most common GM crops.

While labels are fine, this hints at a larger problem: labeling GMOs does basically nothing.

Pat Zambryski, Professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley, studies agrobacterium and cell-to-cell genetic transport in plants (which is instrumental in the process of creating GMOs). She has little faith in GMO labeling. Zambryski is not opposed to GMO labeling because she believes consumers have a right to know about the food they eat, but she tells BTRtoday that labeling plants and how we produce them for food is “really limited” because of all the factors we don’t label.

She reminds us that the bigger agricultural concern is the chemical input used on the crops, such as the several layers of incredibly harmful pesticides, insecticides, and fumigants used on industrial yields of potatoes.

“These are toxic things,” she says, and if labeled, “I don’t think anybody would buy a normal potato (they’d all buy organic).”

GMO labeling, meanwhile, remains a political hype that promotes a false sense of security in consumers which, in turn, fosters complacency that prevents the necessary public push for useful labeling on our products.

While many critiques of GMOs remain on the outskirts of science, focusing instead on more esoteric arguments about naturalism, some jump into the shallow end and clamp onto scary soundbites like antibiotic resistance.

Given the rise of “superbug” antibiotic strains of diseases like strep and gonorrhea, it’s an understandable response to hearing about “antibiotic resistant GMOs.” If eating GMO corn will make your next sore throat kill you, nobody in their right mind would chow down.

The problem is that talking about antibiotic resistant GMOs does not mean antibiotic resistant crops. Antibiotic resistant markers are used in the lab to select the GMO. It’s not the same as putting antibiotics in the field or making plants produce antibiotics. And it’s not going to affect the ability of our bodies to respond to penicillin.

Zambryski finds the idea frankly silly because it once again demonstrates how little people understand about the thing (GMOs) that they so ardently avoid.

“We eat DNA all the time,” says Zambryski. “We eat DNA in our spinach, our chickens, our fish, and if you eat a plant that’s got a little piece of extra DNA that’s been put in there by the scientist, it’s not going to jump out of that food and cause you any harm. That’s just nonsense.”

The problem is that there are legitimate concerns regarding GMO agriculture and the industrialization of agriculture. Such concerns are generally drowned out by the scientific need to paint GMOs in an idealistic light, given the opposition.

Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College and the former co-host of the Rationally Speaking podcast, argues that “any form of large-scale agriculture based on mass production of a small number of edible species should be of concern.” He tells BTRtoday that it limits our diets, both in terms of health and aesthetics, and that, most importantly, we are exposing large chunks of our food supply to the possibility of a single, devastating, disease agent that may wipe them out because of lack of genetic diversity.

His nuanced response tackles a common defense of GMOs, which is that they can increase crop yields and decrease global hunger. Pigliucci is not anti-GMO, nor does he believe it is as simple as being for or against them. His argument is not for ceasing all GMO agriculture, but rather to be wary.

Such a critique is uncommon in the GMO debate, which generally consists of shrieking “GMOs are good” or “GMOs are evil.”

In an impassioned critique of GMO advocates who assure the public that modern genetic engineering is safe because it is just like traditional artificial selection but faster (a radical distillation of the technology), Pigliucci argues that giving people real and complex answers is vital.

“This is not a matter of being pedantic about science minutiae,” he writes. “Truth and honesty are important values that are all too frequently ignored or trampled in a contemporary public discourse.”

The answer cannot simply be “GMOs are good” or “GMOs are bad.” This unequivocally principled statement distracts from the complexities of the science behind genetic engineering and only furthers a radical mistrust of the technology.