Flash in the Pan 

Common ground on GMOs

In case you missed it, there has been an interesting discussion about genetically modified food over at Grist.org. It began with a series of posts by Nathaneal Johnson in which he dissected, in impressively neutral and skeptical fashion, most of the argument for or against GM food that you've ever heard. Johnson's posts managed to draw attention and respect from voices on all sides of the issue.

After six months of researching and posting, Johnson came to the conclusion that genetically modified organisms are neither as scary as many haters claim, nor as world-saving as supporters have boasted. In an attempt to put the discussion to bed, he wrote, "The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs, is that the stakes are so low."

All of a sudden, folks respectfully had a beef with Johnson. Two responses were published at Grist, one by Mother Jones food columnist (and former Grist writer) Tom Philpott, a longtime critic of GM food, and one by Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

Philpott argued that GMOs do matter, because they are a load-bearing pillar of a misguided agriculture system, while Naam wrote that GMOs matter because they can, and already do, benefit people and the environment, not just corporations and factory farms. According to Philpott, most GMOs have been used to sell pesticides and herbicides. He called the vast majority of GMOs currently on the market "an appendage of the pesticide industry, which has dominated the technology from the start."

Naam, a proponent of "sensible labeling," wrote that GM crops have more impact in poor countries than rich ones. He said GM cotton in India is an example of how these crops can help boost the income of small farmers.

While Philpott and Naam inhabit opposing camps on the GMO issue, their arguments are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they could define an important chunk of common ground between both sides of the debate.

Skeptics of GM food should come to grips with the fact that the act of genetic manipulation is itself not unholy. As it is, few GMO haters would refuse medicine made with assistance from GM bacteria, like insulin, or a blood clot thinner used to treat a stroke. As GMOs have proven useful in medicine, they could also be useful in agriculture.

By the same token, proponents of GM foods should remember that for most skeptics of GM food, the bare act of genetic manipulation isn't even the issue. It's the process by which the technology has been rolled out that's pissing them off. In many ways, the script is playing out according to old fears, and there seems little public recourse available.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

The epitome of this power imbalance, of course, is Monsanto, which is simultaneously the world's largest biotech corporation, seed company and organic seed company, as well as one of the world's largest pesticide companies. That's a ridiculous concentration of power.

There is now an effort underway to use genetic modification to save Florida's orange orchards, which are threatened by the greening virus. Bananas and chocolate, as well as other beloved and economically important crops, are susceptible to viruses as well. GMO haters might want to do a gut check by asking themselves if they would forgo GM chocolate if it was the last chocolate on earth.

And those who believe that all GM skeptics are being paranoid should remember that there is nothing inherently safe about introducing GM plants to people and the environment. If not tested and regulated appropriately, there will be problems.

The rollout of GM foods has been awkward and wrong-footed since it began, in 1994, with the first GMO food ever to be commercially licensed: the slow-ripening Flavr Savr tomato. Its creators at Calgene had sought to use a process called antisense knockdown to shut down certain genes, and the Flavr Savr was approved according to this understanding. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, meanwhile, was awarded to a team that figured out that in addition to the antisense knockdown, something entirely different was happening in that tomato: a process now known as RNA interference.

The Flavr Savr was pulled from the market, not because it was operating via a previously unknown pathway, but because it was too mushy. It turns out the world didn't need another subpar supermarket tomato, yet we all took a risk, in a sense, on a tomato that was approved before anyone knew what was going on.

Red flags and all, skeptics need to face the fact that our walk down the GMO trail is inevitable. After Philpott's and Naam's rebukes of his "GMOs don't matter" conclusion, Johnson posted a response of his own, beneath the headline: "OK, GMOs matter, but the noisy fight over them is a distraction."

He acknowledges that there are problems with GM foods, but thinks they have been overblown, and are solvable.

The battle over GM food has become a proxy for a philosophical debate about the appropriate places for science and capitalism. This is an important, ongoing discussion to be having. But it's a separate discussion, even if GM crops offer many cases in point.

The benefits and risks of GM food lie in the processes by which this neutral technology is deployed. So let's focus on these processes as we figure out how best to solve the problems that most need solving.

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