The Social Consequences of the GMO Debate

The GMO debate has been raging for two decades, but this debate isn’t actually about GMOs at all. Rather, “GMOs” have become a stand-in for a number of very real concerns: Who controls our food supply? Who makes sure our food is safe to eat and our environment is protected? Who looks out for small farmers? What about health and economic disparities that are surely tied to food? Fear, anger, and distrust over “GMOs” distract us from these much deeper questions.

More often than not, GMO fears have nothing to do with science (although the science is a topic we have also discussed). But if you look at the comment section of any article on “GMOs” and you won’t find people debating the pros and cons of modern recombinant DNA techniques. Despite the scientific consensus on the relative safety of genetic engineering, you’ll find apprehension and fear about the safety of our food system. These fears are rooted in the socio-economic anxieties that “GMO” has come to represent, but unfortunately, equating “GMOs” with these fears and concerns continues to distract us from tackling the complexities of our food system.

Note: we put the term “GMO” within quotation marks for a reason. Our combined extensive experience in discussing these issues publicly tells us that when we lump the myriad existing and potential traits under the “GMO” umbrella, we take the heterogeneity of genetic engineering and reduce it to a poster child for industrial agriculture that must be opposed or defended at all costs. This trend runs counter to the nuance for which the SciMoms strive.

Socio-economic issues are falsely equated with “GMOs”

Even though “GMOs” are routinely blamed for a plethora of economic, social, and political issues, these issues aren’t exclusive to genetic engineering:

Shunning “GMOs” strengthens the position of “Big Ag”

When we demand that GE crops be held to a higher standard of regulation due to the breeding method, rather than the risk, we continue to make it difficult for small companies and startups to compete. For example, Okanagan Speciality Fruits submitted initial documents to the USDA in 2010 for their non-browning apple, but did not receive a decision until 2015. AquaBounty started an application to commercialize fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon in 1995, but still faces regulatory delays in 2018.

Potential GE applications like tear-free onions and gluten-free wheat have been shelved due to these virtually insurmountable regulatory hurdles. This creates a vicious circle of power, where only corporate behemoths have the resources to get a new crop through the multi-year and multi-million dollar regulatory process.

Both Okanagan and AquaBounty have now been purchased by the biotech company Intrexon, which makes us wonder whether small companies can actually afford to jump through these regulatory hoops and compete with major agricultural corporations.

If the US were to embrace “a tiered approach to regulation that is based not on the breeding process but on considerations of novelty, potential hazard, and exposure as criteria,” as recommended by the National Academies of Sciences, it would help level the playing field for smaller agricultural companies and non-profit organizations.

Shunning “GMOs” is a luxury

There’s also the added cost of avoiding “GMOs.” A recent study which we reviewed in depth, examined the cost difference between non-GMO food items and other products. It found that non-GMO foods cost 10-62% more with no added benefit. As we’ve highlighted before, the non-GMO label does not mean that the food is healthier, better for the environment, or more sustainable. Worse, we’ve encountered even more far-fetched, implied or explicit claims about what “non-GMO” means, like better conditions for farmers and reductions in suicide rates, mitigation of racial health disparities, and even prevention or cure for autism symptoms. These dubious claims may persuade customers to continue buying this label, even when they may not be able to afford it, which means the non-GMO label and the GMO debate have real, negative consequences for individuals.

Shunning “GMOs” impacts developing nations as they fight for food autonomy

Man bending down to select from a variety of fruits on a table. A consequence of the GMO debate has been the thwarting of efforts to develop local genetically modified crops in developing nations.
Fruit market in Lahore. Image from US Peace Corps.

Scientists around the world are using genetic engineering to solve or mitigate nutritional and agricultural challenges, but fears and anxieties about “GMO” stand in the way. Crops such as water efficient maize, bananas resistant to wilt, and vitamin fortified cassavas are being developed by African scientists and tested in Uganda, Nigeria, and other nations, primarily through public funding.

Anti-GMO sentiment, often promoted by groups headquartered in the West, continues to thwart these efforts. For example, Kenya banned imported “GM” food in 2012, based largely on a discredited and fraudulent study linking consumption of these foods to cancer in rats. In 2015, Venezuela passed a GE seed ban despite protests from the nation’s own scientific academies, growing food scarcity, and hyperinflation. One assembly member asked “How can we feed 40 million people in 2050 if we cannot feed 30 million today?” This question remained unanswered by Western anti-GE groups who celebrated the passing of the law as if it marked their own success. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the protests within these countries against “GMO” crops are often interlinked with the not-entirely-misplaced distrust of foreign companies who have a history of interfering with these nations’ food sovereignty.

After India’s Bt cotton ban was lifted in 2002, following the discovery of thousands of hectares of illegal hybrid Bt cotton growing in Gujarat, India became the world’s leading exporter of the crop. It’s difficult to label India’s Bt cotton success as inherently “good” or “bad”: increased farmer income is certainly good, but is fueling a wasteful “fast fashion” textile industry a good thing?

Meanwhile, Bt brinjal (eggplant) remains illegal in India. Brinjal is undoubtedly less important to India’s economy than cotton, yet it’s deeply important culturally and is consumed widely by the largely vegetarian population. However, pest damage and overuse of insecticides to control the fruit and shoot borer has wreaked havoc on the health and finances of brinjal farmers. There is a stark contrast between the approval of GE traits in profitable crops, versus culturally important crops of low economic appeal..

The starchy banana known as matoke, ekitooke, and by other names, is another culturally important staple crop. Banana makes up around 30% of the average person’s daily caloric intake in regions of Eastern Africa. It has been devastated by Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), a bacterial disease that affects all banana cultivars, and is considered one of the most dire threats to banana productivity and food security in Uganda and eastern Africa. It’s particularly challenging to breed disease resistance into bananas, since most cultivated varieties aren’t fertile, so it’s frustrating to see a genetically engineered variety, identical to matoke other than the pepper gene that confers resistance, remain illegal in Uganda while subsistence farmers and their families go hungry.

It’s important to note that while a couple of us have roots in Venezuela and India, we don’t purport to speak for the people of these nations or other nations we’ve discussed here. Their stories are compelling and we should seek them out and consider them in forming opinions and policy. For example, Ugandan farmer Patricia Nanteza writes:

Michael Pollan is quoted to have suggested that we should grow squash and greens around our houses and fields. What the hell is squash? Is that something that I can feed my family on and even have some extra to sell for my children’s school fees? Is that squash thing a perennial crop and is it as food secure as bananas (matooke)? Can a farmer use squash peels as feed for her pigs or cows? I doubt squash can do all the things matooke does for Uganda without forgetting the incredible source of starch and potassium that bananas are. Heck! Can squash make delicious breakfast katogo with cow offals? Or will Pollan tell us to forget katogo and start having burgers for breakfast?

By shunning “GMOs,” we may be forsaking sustainable and humane options

In the GMO debate, these crops are often conflated with herbicide use. Yet several genetically engineered traits can in fact decrease agricultural dependence on chemical pesticides. The addition of genes that enable resistance to pests, including fungi, insects, and viruses, has been shown to decrease the need for the application of external pesticides. Additionally, a reduction in the need to spray crops reduces farming’s carbon footprint by decreasing fuel use and equipment wear-and-tear. It also keeps the farming community healthier by reducing their exposure to pesticides.

Examples include the Rainbow Papaya, which has a gene from the ringspot virus to give it pest-resistance, the second generation Innate Potato, which has a gene from a wild potato species giving it resistance to late blight (this pest is infamous for being a major factor in the Irish potato famine), and Bt eggplant, which has a gene from a soil bacterium giving the crop resistance to worms.

Three Impossible burger sliders on a wooden serving tray.
The Impossible burger sliders Alison tried in Vegas.

Genetic engineering can also help produce meat-like products without the use of animals. Yeast can be engineered to create vegan cheese. The mass production of plant-heme using microorganisms to mimic meat flavors has the potential to reduce our reliance on animals and decrease our carbon footprint.

New applications of GE technologies can also improve animal welfare. For example, scientists have used gene editing techniques to breed hornless cows, eliminating a dehorning process associated with problems like animal infections and injuries to farmers. Other examples include disease-resistant cattle and low-fat pigs.

Shunning GMOs isn’t the answer. Let’s think more about the questions.

It’s not surprising that multinational agricultural corporations first chose to develop GE traits that improved commodity crops and enriched their investors—that’s the nature of capitalism. That’s not to say those traits haven’t also benefited farmers or the environment, but their primary purpose, like any other commercial product, including seeds developed through non-GE technology, is to make money.

The success of these commodity crops has had both positive and negative impacts on our food and agriculture systems. One consequence of capitalist-driven crop improvement is public doubt. Given a rich history of corporate corruption in a system that benefits the wealthy and powerful, it makes sense that customers would be asking themselves: Is this technology good for me? For my family? For the environment?

These questions might be intertwined with the GMO debate, but banning these crops won’t resolve them. Those who oppose “GMOs” should reflect on the root of their discomfort and question whether banning a crop modification method will actually address their concerns. Banning GMOs will not solve corporate corruption, greed, pesticide use, monopolies, monocultures, or industry lobbying. Agricultural companies will simply find other, less efficient ways of modifying crops.

And if you’re passionate about advocating for “GMOs,” take note: GE technology will not be “the one true solution” to any of these problems, nor should science and safety be our only inquiry. Questions about which crops to grow and for whose benefit, are rooted in values, not science. We in the West need to support scientists around the world as they develop and implement new technologies for the benefit of their own populations. Here at home, we need to take a moment to examine our own privilege, experiences, and responsibility as we search for ways to address the challenges of our food system together.

Written by SciMoms Dr Alison Bernstein, Dr Anastasia Bodnar, Dr Layla Katiraee, Kavin Senapathy, and Jenny Splitter

This piece was originally published on June 10th, 2018. It was updated to include new links.