Sensible dialogue about GMOs

Monsanto-protestOK, I know that’s not an attention-getting headline. I was tempted to go with “Why Monsanto cannot and never will be able to control the world’s food supply.” But because genetically-modified crops are already one of the most divisive and emotional topics in sustainability, there’s no need to pour fuel on the fire. Instead, let me point you to this forum in the current issue of Boston Review which seeks to bring insight, respectful conversation and yes, science, to the conversation about GMOs.

The forum is anchored by a long and thoughtful essay from Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis, who argues that GMOs are safe for humans to eat and pose no special environmental risks. Nevertheless, she writes, governments need to regulate new GMO crops and public-sector financing, as opposed to corporate control, is probably the best way to research and develop seed varieties to benefit farmers in poor countries.

Pamela (who I’ve written about before, here) also reminds shoppers who pursue so-called natural foods that

virtually every crop grown for human consumption has been genetically modified in some way: bananas are sterile plants with artificially induced triple chromosomes, some varieties of California-certified organic rice were developed through radiation mutagenesis, and most cheeses use genetically engineered rennet as a key ingredient.

In other words, unless you forage for wild berries, hunt game, or catch wild salmon, you are consuming a food that has been genetically altered.

Yes! There really is almost no such thing as natural foods, despite the labels that proliferate in supermarkets. [See my July blogpost, Our misguided fetish for “natural” foods.)

I also liked this essay by farmer and dietician Jennie Schmidt, explaining why farmers decide to plant GMO seeds, and the measured approach taken by Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who explains that her “major concern about genetic engineering is not its risks but that its over-hyped promises will divert resources from the pursuit of more promising technologies.”

I’ve contributed a story to the forum that looks at corporate opposition to GMOs. Companies like Whole Foods, Stonyfield Yogurt, Naked Juice (which is part of PepsiCo) and even McDonald’s have either opposed transgenic crops, or tried to steer clear of them. I argue that their resistance to support GMO technology could “stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable.”

My story concludes:

This corporate opposition to GMOs surely has effects, hard as they may be to measure. In all likelihood, they discourage research into biotech solutions to plant diseases such as the coffee rust that threatens the coffee industry and the “citrus greening” that has spread through Florida orange groves. Biotech companies have developed soybeans with a healthier fatty acid composition, which would give soybean oil a profile more like that of heart-healthy olive oil. But consumer resistance could mean that such healthier products never reach the shelves. Indeed, despite the defeat of California’s GMO labeling initiative last year, it appears as if the anti-GMO forces are winning the battle for the hearts, if not the minds, of America’s food shoppers. So much for Monsanto’s quest for world domination.

The idea that Monsanto–or anyone–can control the world’s food supply is, frankly, ludicrous. No farmer is obligated to buy Monsanto’s seeds and many, of course, do not.

Two concluding thoughts: I wrote in my story that “organic farmers understandably worry that their crops will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby.” Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project wrote me to say that “contamination” is a loaded word, and that the correct scientific term is “cross-pollinate.” Cross-pollination isn’t a health or environmental issue, but when GMO crops find their way into organic or conventional fields, by wind or insects or some other means, the organic or conventional farmers can suffer economic damage, particularly if they are growing for export markets. [See my 2011 blogpost, Attack of the mutant rice, and my 2007 Fortune story, also called Attack of the mutant rice, if you’re curious about what can go wrong.]

Finally, I’ve been pleased to read some superb reporting about GMOs lately, particularly from Amy Harmon of The New York Times and Nathanael Johnson of Grist. Maybe, just maybe, we can get beyond the polarized GMO debate. The more that people understand what plant breeders and farmers do, and why they do it, the more likely that we will collectively make wise decisions about when GMO technology makes sense and how best to manage it.


  1. says

    There does seem to be a conflation of the technique itself, which can produce very beneficial results which can improve human health, especially for the billions of nutrient-deficient people in the world, and the distribution. As my nephew-in-law who works in developing drought-resistant corn points out, seed manufacturers need to price their products so poor farmers can afford them. Wiping out their customers is not a successful strategy. Selling improved seeds at a fair price is the successful strategy, to help their customers thrive.

  2. Rev. Dan says

    I am an activist with GMO Free Lancaster County PA and I am not convinced that this new technology is not completely safe. Mostly, it seems to benefit the corporations like Monsanto who sell a lot of Roundup in order to grow the various crops they have engoneered. GMOs may be fine, but more and more studies are showing links with very serious health issues such as cancer and autism. I think we know far too little about we are doing to our food supply. The FDA has approved these GMO crops simply based on short term studies done by the companies who developed them. So, at the very least, we must do more testing by nonbiased scientist not funded by the corporations. And until this testing is completed, Americans deserve the freedom to make an informed choice about what we eat and feed our children. To do this labelling is absolutely necessary.

  3. Rev. Dan says

    Corrections: I am not convinced of the complete safety of GMOs. I think we know far too little about what we are doing to our food supply. There is an arrogance that may get us in trouble.

  4. Barbara says

    Unfortunately, you lost me by your comment about “hearts, if not the minds….” Insulting the intelligence of opponents of GMO’s, or more accurately, the proponents of GMO Labeling, is not helpful. We are well informed and passionate about our right to know what is in our food. Many studies are being brought to light that conclude that GMO’s may not be completely safe, and that more study is needed. That is enough for me to choose to avoid them, and I believe I have the right to know what foods they are in.

    • Ed Reid says

      There is a difference between the freedom of producers to label their products “GMO-free”, which many are currently voluntarily exercising, and the requirement that producers include on their labels the presence of any GMO ingredients. The producers of foods that GMOs “are not in” demonstrably have the right to advertise that fact, on their labels and otherwise. Consumers of foods have the ability to purchase products labeled as “GMO-free”. As more and more consumers choose “GMO-free” products, the number and variety of such products would increase to meet the demand.

      You are certainly free to believe that you have some non-existent “right” which requires the imposition of a non-existent obligation on producers.

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