The Icarus of Biotechnology: Genetically Modified Organisms
Starting with the groundbreaking Flavr-Savr Tomato that hit the shelves in 1994, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have met a turbulent and controversial landscape of public opinion. Originally touted as the cure for hunger worldwide, GMOs have garnered a uniquely bad reputation that has incited a worldwide movement to switch to organic, locally sourced, and sustainably produced food. The term “genetically modified” is almost ubiquitously associated with unnatural, unhealthy food in a world that struggles from an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. The upper echelons of society wake up every day to a rapidly expanding stock of fruits and vegetables stacked up in trendy stores that have learned to slap an ‘organic’ sticker on their apples and charge double. How warranted are these claims, and are GMOs really as bad as people say they are?
The Manure, the Myth, the Legend
Genetically Modified Organisms are controversial for all the wrong reasons. Multiple studies have reported that there has been no evidence whatsoever that there are any health risks associated with GMOs. In fact, the reduced dependency on pesticides of crops such as Bt Brinjal (which has been engineered to produce its own bacterium-derived pesticide that is harmless to humans) has been proven to provide marginal health benefits. Genetically modified ‘fortified’ crops with boosted nutrient content, such as vitamin A enriched rice (‘golden rice’) and folic acid-enriched vegetables have gone a long way to reducing disease and deficiency worldwide. The astronomical improvement in the productivity of crops has seen a global reduction in hunger and food scarcity. GMOs are also showing great promise as the weapon of choice in combating climate change, with improved shelf-life of produce playing a crucial role in the reduction of food wastage, as well as future potential for the technology to improve carbon sequestration (such as through the use of genes of the carbon-sequestering genius that is the American Chestnut tree) and other active interventions to halt the cycle of global warming.
Organic food has seen a rise in popularity based on its alleged health benefits and more ‘natural’ farming practices. However, numerous studies have found limited or even negligible improvement in health from consuming organic food. Organic foods are those that use no GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or fertilizers. However, they do use natural pesticides such as Copper Sulphate, which is more toxic to humans than most synthetic pesticides, and considerably more toxic than the endogenous pesticides of GMO crops (which eliminate the need for the use of pesticides altogether). At best, organic food is an equally healthy, but more expensive alternative.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe and have enormous potential to solve the most pressing crises mankind faces today. Yet studies found that a majority of Americans in a poll did not consider GMOs safe or healthy. This gap between scientific and public opinion is the largest by far for any politically relevant scientific debate, even larger than that of vaccines and climate change. So, where did things start going wrong?
The Angel, the Devil
In 1992, commercial papaya farms in Hawaii were hit by a viral epidemic of their own ‒ the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV). By the end of the 1990s, commercial papaya production was halved and the virus threatened to doom the industry for good. In 1998, genetically modified papayas resistant to the virus were introduced in Hawaii. The GM papayas rose in popularity rapidly and production recovered, saving enormous amounts of money, and the livelihoods of several farmers.
It was all downhill from there. Hawaii, being separated from the rest of the world by the Pacific Ocean, became the dream location for genetic engineering research. Escaped genetic variants could not spread to the mainland, thus protecting the profits of the companies that researched them. Monsanto, the largest producer of GMO seeds in the world, began its research projects on GM crops on open fields in Maui.
In doing so, they tested their herbicide-resistant varieties by spraying unconscionable quantities of the herbicide, glyphosate (‘Round-up’) onto the crops, which was subsequently carried by the wind into the nearby residential areas. In 2015, the WHO reported that glyphosate was carcinogenic. Protests erupted, which resulted in local authorities imposing a moratorium on research in the open fields of Maui, which was then overturned by a federal ruling after the wealthy company took the issue to court. Monsanto also spent lavishly on publicity, twisting the narrative by painting the protest as ‘anti-GMO’ and ‘anti-science.’
Big Agro and Big Brother
The trouble does not end there. While pest-resistant crops reduce the use of harmful pesticides, the opposite is true of herbicide-resistant varieties. Herbicides kill weeds on farmland and need to be chosen in a way that they do not kill the crop plant itself. Herbicide resistance (most importantly the resistance to glyphosate) being engineered into the crops actually increases the use of (and dependence on) herbicides.
Big Agriculture companies such as Monsanto have resorted to far more malicious acts to protect their profit margins. Since seeds can be harvested from the plants upon maturity, most farmers need only buy seeds once. This resulted in the development of ‘terminator’ crops, which produce sterile seeds and cannot be continued. While this has been touted as a way to prevent the spread of GM crops into nature, no harmful effects of GMOs spreading into nature have been observed and no other preventative measures to contain them have been taken before. The real impact of these new terminator crops is that farmers are now dependent on these large, private corporations for seeds, for the required fertilizers, and so on. Big agriculture companies can now set the prices for their seeds, and farmers have no choice but to go back to them if they want to remain competitive on the market.
Worse still is that most genetically engineered crops aren’t even food. Most GMOs are fuel and feed crops like alfalfa. The major GM food crop is actually corn, which is further processed into corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup and used in processed foods, the most profitable route. The corporate priorities for GM technology no longer involve combatting world hunger.
With their enormous power, wealth, and influence, massive companies like Monsanto monopolize research and trade of genetically modified crops, at the cost of small farmers. They also use their engorged wallets to line the pockets of politicians and lawmakers, being some of the largest corporate political lobbies to exist.
The Ethics of Alternatives
The shift to organic produce is now being considered as a more ethical alternative to enriching Big Agro, but the reality is that organic food production is categorically insufficient to meet global food requirements and prohibitively expensive for developing countries that struggle to feed their poor even with the significantly cheaper GMOs. More importantly, activism to switch to organic alternatives shifts the blame for corporate malfeasance onto individuals that have neither the resources nor the ability to comply, and reduces the impetus to improve food production technologies and expand upon the nearly limitless potential of GMOs.
The unspoken tragedy of human greed is that it comes in the way of genuine progress. Misconceptions about the safety of GMOs and unscientific opinions about their production and use now hold a position of undue prominence in public discourse today, threatening to derail one of the most valuable scientific advancements of the millennium. The technology itself is harmless and requires large-scale systemic changes in corporate and political attitudes to meets its true potential. GMOs are safe.