This essay was written by Miles Traer. If you’d like to hear Miles read it, click play below.
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The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms, often called GMOs, is an absolute mess. A huge part of the argument stems from genetically modified foods. Some people trumpet GM wheat and corn for its drought resistance and ability to feed more people in parts of the world that desperately need food. Others point to unwanted side effects like the creation of super-weeds and the potential loss of biodiversity as reasons to be wary of this new technology. But what drove my desire to do a GMO story for Generation Anthropocene was something entirely different and was born from two intertwined questions: how did the GMO discussion become so polarized and why does it continue to feel like the topic of GMOs doesn’t allow for a middle ground?
Seeing as how I’m defending my PhD in a matter of weeks, I don’t have a ton of time to dive deep into the nuanced answers to these questions and shape them into coherent prose in this blog post. But that won’t stop me from offering this dramatic oversimplification: whichever side of the GMO debate you come down on actually doesn’t depend on your love and acceptance of objective science, but will instead depend on your subjective ideologies… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Let’s start with the science, which of course we all love and accept. Scientists and engineers manipulate GM crops by inserting or deleting genes in various plants, enabling those plants to resist drought, resist pesticides, grow in non-native environments, or produce more stuff (like cotton). Scientists do this with genes from things like bacteria and even fireflies or fish (note: this inter-species genetic sharing can actually occur naturally, but it’s not common). But based only on our knowledge of objective science, we’re already forced to weigh the positives and negatives of GMOs. Recalling a gag from one of my favorite Simpsons episodes:
GMO crops are able to withstand extreme weather caused by climate change (that’s good); but pesticide resistant crops are creating weeds that are tougher to kill, in an analogous way that overuse of antibiotics is leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, thereby necessitating tougher pesticides that are often bad for the environment (that’s bad); according to the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the British Royal Society, GMOs are safe to eat, even offering vitamins previously unavailable in certain crops (that’s good); but GM crops may reduce biological diversity by spreading into non-GM plants and replacing them in our agricultural fields (that’s bad).
But the positives and negatives found within the scientific results aren’t the only positives and negatives that we weigh with GM crops. Yes, genetic transfer between species is possible through natural processes (I’m mentioning that again because I think it’s pretty freaking cool), but GM crops represent a larger scale change to plant genetics than was likely without human intervention. We’re actively toying with nature in ways that some would argue are greater than the ways we’ve toyed with nature for centuries by selectively breeding everything from peas to horses. That said, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or good for us. Dusting off a familiar chestnut, nature produces some remarkable substances like cyanide and ricin, some of the most potent poisons, and the poppy, which gives us opium. Dusting off another familiar chestnut, nature gives us wheat, but genetic manipulation of wheat gives us dwarf wheat, credited with saving one billion lives, mostly across India, and earning Norman Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize.
Toying with nature raises another touchy subject, and that’s the reliability of a new technology. As I mentioned before, numerous scientific institutions state that GMOs are safe to consume. But then again, GMOs have really only been a thing for the past 20 years. While 20 years is long enough for acute symptoms of negative health effects to appear, it’s not a guarantee that we’ve seen everything or understand every way GM foods interact with our bodies. Going deeper into the technology, I also mentioned that we’re manipulating the genetic structure of plants. I’m willing to bet large sums of money that most people (like myself) don’t know how this is done, or what genes scientists and engineers are manipulating. The fact that the majority of the population isn’t familiar with the science tends to make us uneasy, especially because we’re putting this stuff into our bodies. I don’t have time to go into it here, but this foray into the scientific unknown creates something called the reverse halo effect, which is brilliantly explained in relation to GMOs by Maria Konnikova here.
Of course, someone has to create all of this technology, and that someone turns out to be yet another source of contention in the GMO debate. I’m talking about the figurative machine known as Big Agriculture, the most visible player being the multinational agricultural biotechnology giant, Monsanto. And this is where the proverbial poop hits the proverbial fan. Monsanto has become a bit of a bogeyman in recent history. From their aggressive attempts to patent genes and genetic research, to class action lawsuits arising from health effects of some of their chemicals, to their lawsuits filed against numerous farmers, to a US Department of Justice foreign corrupt practices lawsuit, Monsanto is no stranger to controversy. So their position near, if not directly at, the center of GMO research and proliferation complicates our feelings even further by calling into the question not the science, but the people doing the science.
Just to pour fuel on the fire, I’ll also point out that a former Monsanto lobbyist was appointed as senior advisor to the Food and Drug Administration on food safety in 1991, only to return to Monsanto where he became vice-president, only to return once again to government as senior advisor for the commissioner of the FDA under President Obama in 2009. Having a big agriculture sympathizer in a government position at the FDA makes many people uneasy. And while accusing “pro-GMO” scientists of being bought by big agriculture goes way, way, way too far down the conspiracy rabbit hole, a single player occupying high positions in both agricultural business and government, especially government whose job it is to oversee and regulate our food, is in many ways a real cause for concern.
So at the end of all of this, all I really have are more questions. Are the tradeoffs of super-weeds and plant biodiversity loss worth the increased crop yields and ability to grow food in more places and more extreme environments? Is there a clear line that we can draw that determines the extent to which we manipulate nature? Can we ever feel totally comfortable with a technology that we put into our bodies and yet don’t fully understand? And is it appropriate to support a company that feeds hungry people through GM crops when that same company aggressively seeks to patent our food in a way that guarantees huge profits while placing increased pressure on smaller farms?
These aren’t rhetorical questions, and none of them have objective answers. This is why the GMO debate is so difficult to break down because we’re forced to fall back on our subjective ideologies. Each of the complex elements that I only scratched the surface of here, in addition to many others I didn’t even mention, all have their own ideological spectra and even their own languages used to talk about them. I would argue that the different ideologies and accompanying vocabularies is what makes the GMO issue so contentious, but also why the sides can’t seem to find a middle ground – they might not be arguing about the same things simply because they weigh the values and tradeoffs of GMOs differently. And that makes the discussion confused and messy!
I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life training as an earth scientist, trying to eliminate bias from my experiments with a deep trust that science will reveal how our world works. And my research into the GMO debate reinforced the idea that science doesn’t necessarily give us answers, but it will always give us information to inform our answers. In this way, science affects our morality, our ethics, our values and social interactions – this is why science is so cool! It gives us the information, but then we have to sit with it and keep thinking about it. Personally, I think I support GMOs. But I’m not totally comfortable with that statement. And my anxiety speaks to a larger uneasiness that I think a lot of us share. It’s an anxiety that comes from the recognition that we have the ability to manipulate nature in powerful ways, and a concern ceding that power to a science we, as members of the general public, don’t fully understand. Put another way, it’s an anxiety arising from our realization that we all represent a geologic force, and that GMOs are another step into the Anthropocene.