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The Modified State of the GMO Debate

The debate over whether or not to label products of genetically modified (GM) crops has seen a small revival after the Natural Products Association, a trade group representing over 2,000 companies, announced its backing of legislation requiring labeling of GM food products.

In 2012, more hectares of GM crops were planted in the developing world than the developed for the first time. From ISAAA. In 2012, more hectares of GM crops were planted in the developing world than the developed for the first time. From ISAAA.

Further, the state of Washington will put Initiative 522 on its ballot on November 5, sparking a battle much like the one over California’s Proposition 37 last year, which was narrowly defeated on Election Day.

On July 17, British environmental advocate and journalist Mark Lynas spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies  in Washington, D.C., on his “changed perspective on GMO Food.” In January of this year, Lynas vocally renounced his long-held opposition to GMOs, saying that since his initial opposition to GMOs began in the 1990s, he “discovered science.”

While there are volumes of research extolling the virtues of GMOs in helping to achieve many goals concurrent with those of environmentalists, from maintaining biodiversity to reducing pesticide use, many continue to decry their use based on passionate irrationality alone. This science that Lynas and many others are beginning to “discover” is lending increased sanity to the GM debate, but anti-GMO advocates are still able to evoke visceral reactions from the public by holding up their signs depicting Frankenfish, corn with hooves, or self-aware rice.

The approval process of GM products is already long, costly and uncertain, discouraging private investment in agricultural technologies. Lynas used Europe as a cautionary tale, saying its “food sector is turning into a museum,” because of its tenacious distaste for all things genetically modified (it allows but two type of GM crops to be planted, if special permission is granted). The labeling proposals would add more unnecessary costs for producers, costs that would undoubtedly be in part passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

It’s one thing for generally well-fed consumers in the developed world to deny GMOs a place in the market. But, their unfounded fears have significant knock-on effects in many poorer African and Asian countries, where they base their GMO policies on the unscientific policy that pervades the developed world. CSIS Food Security Project’s most recent report details as much. Fear of what the adoption of GM crops might mean for trade with neighbors and the European Union, East African countries have been deterred from adopting such crops. A coherent, evidence-based approach to regulation can help facilitate GMO acceptance.

Two teams of researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo. have been working to make cassava, a staple crop in much of sub-Saharan Africa, more nutritious and resistant to pests. Citizens have an obligation to, if nothing else, allow potentially life-saving products like these to reach markets, giving small African farmers a choice of which seeds to grow.

As others have suggested, there is a need to regulate not the process, but the product of genetic modification. In a National Science Foundation survey, only 47 percent of Americans correctly answered the question “ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified ones do.” Here’s a hint: all living things have genes. But if 47 percent of Americans don’t understand that DNA is the basis of all life, imagine the fear invoked in consumers when they see a big, scary “CONTAINS GMOs” label on their favorite potato chips or popcorn.