For the purposes of this article, let’s limit the focus of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to crops developed in laboratories. I have no idea of the amount of time, energy, research, and yes, money required to identify the gene carrying a trait desirable for another plant. Beyond that, scientists are able to extract that gene and insert it into the other plant and create a viable hybrid. While this process takes place “naturally” all the time through cross-breeding, the lab seems to accomplish the desired goal more directly. But, is it as safe?
Research involved looking for facts and myths surrounding the science of these issues. I wish I could say it was simple to separate the two, but that would be a lie. I learned long ago that one’s perception (based on their environment, past experience, beliefs, and expectations) is their reality. I also learned that people will say and do things they don’t necessarily believe in order to gain a paycheck. I approached this hoping to sift through the misinformation and acquire an understanding founded on facts.
Discovery initiated with an article written for The New York Times by Amy Harman titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops”. In it she documents the efforts of District 4 Hawaii County Council member Greggor Ilagan to get to the root of this issue. A bill before the council sought to ban genetically engineered crops from the island of Hawaii. Vocal support for the bill overwhelmed the council and “public hearings were dominated by the ills often attributed” to GMOs. Ilagan believed opposing the bill could be political suicide (not good), but knew papaya farmers who said an engineered variety saved the fruit from a disease that threatened to wipe it out entirely. To ease his mind and better perform his duty, he embarked on a mission, one I hoped to follow.
Well, I followed it alright, straight down the rabbit-hole and into wonderland. A place where popular opinions and perceptions (that word again) masqueraded convincingly as science and the science eluded confinement. Here is just a taste of what the article reports Mr. Ilagan found:
Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and General Mills announced moves to avoid GMOs
About three-quarters of processed foods now have some GMO ingredients
Those for limiting or eliminating GMOs are accused of distorting the risks as vehemently as proponents are accused of downplaying the risks
Two Nobel Prize winners wrote an opinion article in 2013 for Science called “Standing Up for G.M.O.’s”
There was reason to believe “Big-Ag” companies could place profit above public safety
The genetically engineered papaya (with its now built-in resistance to the ringspot virus) was grandfathered in and exempt from the proposed ban
Although he heard many times there were no independent studies on the safety of GMOs, Biofortified, which receives no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies
People convinced of potential dangers lurking in genetically engineered crops were quick to dismiss testimony from researches saying they were influenced by industry donations to their institutions and favored believing self-proclaimed experts with no credentials
Have you ever watched a movie where some innocent traveler passes through some unknown, out of the way town and finds themselves in a nightmare of corruption and injustice? I cannot stand these stories and always end up changing the channel. But this is not a show and there are no channels. Read the article if you have the time and desire to know how things worked out for Mr. Ilagan.
Surfing on, I found articles purporting to clarify GMO facts and fiction and others warning of the inherent dangers. On one side of the debate stands progressive science. On the other side stands….I don’t know….fear? Not to be derogatory in any way, I just don’t know how else to sum it up. I could say “organic”, but the scope of opposition is far greater than the push to organics. It’s my word and it is just that, a word. Call it the “opposite of progressive science” if you like. From everything I read there is no concrete proof of ANY harm caused by genetically engineered crops. But, the questions that haunt me are, “Where are we going?” and “What if?” Back to the movie scenario, Hollywood made millions producing movies based on science gone wrong. Fear IS a basic survival instinct. Without it we don’t question and…we die!
My final stop landed me on the USDA web site. They have a page titled “Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions”. (Interesting that they chose not to use Genetically Engineered or Modified.) The page succinctly defines Agriculture Biotechnology, how it is used, its benefits, the safety considerations, regulation, and other matters. They provide numerous links (which I did not have time to use) to access additional information. After reading this page I felt better. As I closed it I thought, “Good. They have it under control…or do they?”