Do you remember where you first heard the term “GMO”? Was it on the news? On a blog? On food packaging or in marketing at restaurant chains?
The acronym stands for genetically modified organisms, and it’s become a hot-button issue among consumers, foodies and environmentalists. An unfortunate driver of the GMO controversy is a general lack of knowledge and understanding of the topic. Indeed, if your understanding of GMOs comes mostly from marketing, food packaging or TV talk shows, it’s probably time to start paying attention to what science has to say on the subject.
Focusing on the science of GMOs was one of the major messages at this year’s American Farm Bureau convention in Orlando, Florida. Attendees heard from renowned environmentalist and author Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, who explained how he transitioned from anti-GMO activist to someone who now speaks in favor of the science.
Lynas said that “if you want to feed a world of 7 billion people sustainably without destroying the rain forests, you need modern technology (like GMOs). You can’t do it without it.”
Lynas changed his mind on GMOs, he said, because he realized that he was urging people to listen to the scientific community on climate issues while ignoring the fact that science supported GMOs, as well.
“To be consistent … I had to reverse my position on GMOs,” he said.
So, what are GMOs?
Let’s start with the basics (which, it turns out, are not as basic as most might presume). According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms can be defined as organisms (i.e., plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been changed through mating or natural recombination. The process is also referred to as “genetic enhancement,” “biotechnology” or “gene technology.”
It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another or between nonrelated species. In plant agriculture, it has come to mean the process of intentionally making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant.
It is often the misperception that biotechnology is strictly about transferring genes between unrelated plants, but that’s not the case. Frequently, it means manipulating genes in the same crops or plants. The truth is that this sort of genetic enhancement and trait selection has been practiced by those in agriculture and horticulture for a very long time. Indeed, farmers have manipulated crops for better results for thousands of years and it has changed the look and feel of some very familiar and common foods.
To see what watermelon, corn, bananas and other crops would look like without this human manipulation, take a look here.
Why has biotechnology and GMO use expanded through the years?
As Lynas pointed out, one of the major motives is to feed a growing world population, while also reducing waste and increasing efficiency in farming. Farmers choose seeds based on what is best for their farms, market demand and local growing environment. Thus, a farmer might select GMO seeds to reduce yield loss or crop damage from weeds, diseases and insects, as well as from extreme weather, such as drought. Farmers also choose GMOs to reduce the impact of agriculture on their environment and manage their costs — for example, by applying pesticides in more targeted ways and thereby reducing use.
Farmers have also used GMOs to save crops and create crops that can save lives — a high-profile example is the creation of beta carotene-rich “golden rice,” which could help children in developing countries who don’t get enough of this vital nutrient.
So, then comes the big question: Are they safe to consume?
Science resoundingly says “yes.”
A statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sums things up nicely: “…the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural’ and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm.”
The AAAS goes on to state that “civilization rests on people’s ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed and fiber plants and all of these modifications are genetic.”
The fact is that today’s GM products have been scientifically studied and tested more extensively during the past 20 years than any other food product and the studies continue. That research has revealed that genetically enhanced crops are nutritionally the same as non-GM crops and GM crops have not been linked to any diseases whatsoever. Trusted, nonpartisan organizations such as the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have all declared that there is no evidence genetically enhanced crops are unsafe.
What does all this mean when it comes to government policy, average grocery buyers and Arkansas farmers? We’ll have more on that in our next column. In the meantime, if you’d like to hear more from Mark Lynas, you can listen to a podcast recorded with him at the American Farm Bureau convention here.