Commentary: GMOs: How do I hate thee?
You know something’s arrived as an “issue” of substance when it has its own Top Ten list. With all the opponents—irrational and otherwise—that the science of genetic engineering has generated, the only question about a Top Ten Reasons to Hate Biotech is this:
What took you so long?
Well, thanks to the Food Consumer group (www.foodconsumer.org), we now have that list. Let’s explore it, shall we, and along the way, helpfully point out the group’s ignorance, bias and overall wrongheadedness.
In the spirit of dialogue, of course.
Here are their Top Ten Reasons Why We Don’t Need GM Foods:
10). GM crops won’t solve the food crisis. Probably not—at least all by themselves. To date, genetic engineering has been deployed primarily to develop crops that can withstand the application of broad-spectrum herbicides, which significantly simplifies cultivation and weed control. It also has the side-effect of enabling no-till farming, which helps the soil preserves moisture from rainfall, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide pollution in rivers and waterways and helps minimize the consumption of fuel, since plowing is greatly reduced. So, yes—genetic engineering’s no panacea, but its full potential has yet to be tapped.
9). GM crops do not increase yield potential. Again, give the science a break. Genetic engineering is in its infancy, and since so much of the low-hanging fruit (pardon the pun) in food production has already been captured, incremental gains in crop yields and farm productivity have become harder and harder to achieve. But when really smart people, like the ones working on food security for the Gates Foundation, start investing in biotech as a pathway we need to travel if we hope to feed another two billion people in the next couple decades,
8). GM crops increase pesticide use. True and not true. Some studies have indicated that in terms of “pounds on the ground,” the widespread adoption of GM crops (ie, Roundup-Ready) has resulted in a slight (somewhere around 7%) increase in the use of herbicides. But Round –up is a relatively benign chemical; it readily biodegrades and has far less adverse effects, environmentally speaking, than many alternatives. And with cotton in particular, genetically engineered Bt cotton crops have dramatically reduced the use of some very harsh and ecologically detrimental pesticides. The bottom line is that biotech has been developed for other ends; it’s overall impact on chemical use is close to neutral.
7). There are better ways to feed the world. I don’t mean to be snarky, but: Such as? Let’s hear them, and I’m not referring to the usual geo-political rant about “better distribution of food among haves and have-nots,” or “if we’d just stop eating meat, all that corn could feed the entire developing world.” Such statements dismiss economic realities and ignore the most promising way to leverage food security: Ramping up food production across Africa. If farming in the areas of Africa—and we’re not talking about mowing down rainforests or somehow irrigating the Sahara Desert—where agriculture is prominent could even be approach North America productivity, the world’s food crisis would be well on the way to being solved. And one way to shortcut that process is biotech crops that can survive in semi-arid climates and produce in poor soils.
6). Other farm technologies are more successful. Here, the Food Consumer people reference “Integrated Pest Management and organic methods (?) of controlling pests” as alternatives to pesticide use.
5). GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat. Yeah, we need another 20 years of people consuming genetically modified corn, soy and other crops by the trainload before we can have any assurance that these foods aren’t going to cause the people who eat them to drop dead on the spot. Please.
4). People don’t want GM foods, so they’re hidden in animal foods. You could make the argument that most of the ingredients are “hidden” in animal foods, although the labeling’s right there if you care to check out Fluffy or Fido’s bag of kibbles. As for feeding livestock, since virtually everyone raising food animals wants them to be healthy and productive, if the feed rations fed to cattle, pigs and chickens actually were repositories for “dumping” GMO ingredients—and they adversely affected the livestock that consumed them—the suppliers of such chow would be out of business overnight. Farmers and producers aren’t stupid. They buy feed to grow their animals, and if the formulations aren’t working, they switch to something else. Period.
3). GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers. Get serious. Farmers don’t make these decisions on which sees to buy or which crops to grow at the expense of their farmland. They not about to willfully destroy the source of their livelihood, and liely that of their children and generations to come. Let’s give them minimal credit for being smart enough to make economic decisions without the “input” of anti-GMO activists who’ve never so much as harvested an ear of corn in their lives.
2). GM and non-GM cannot co-exist. Maybe not. And if so, that’s not an argument for condemning biotech. It might be a reason to abandon conventional farming. Anyway, organic certification—which is what this argument is really about—is based on production methods, not on the purity of the crops, so it’s a moot point.
1). We can’t trust GM companies. You knew they’d save this one ’til last. If you peel back all the pseudo-science and political ideology, the beating heart of anti-GM opposition is simply fear and loathing of big corporations—specifically Monsanto. They’re all about profit, critics complain, to which one is tempted to reply, “What’s your point?” Monsanto’s seeming dominance of the seed market is not because they can hold metaphorical guns to farmers’ heads, but because they offer growers the opportunity to capture better margins through greater efficiencies and more predictable quality.
That’s not a cause for criticism, it’s what the rest of us like to call free enterprise.
Anti-GMO haters ought to look into it sometime.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.