Food4Thought — Are GMO’s safe?

Short answers to complex questions from you about food & farming

Question: Are GMO’s safe? (sent by Mike B.)

Answer: Yes*, but……

Although over sixty countries globally require GMO’s to be labeled, the United States does not. According to the USDA, FDA, EPA and nearly all available research*, GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organism) are “safe”. This is a divisive and impassioned issue, but to date there is no scientific evidence proving GMO’s themselves are unsafe. Claims to the contrary typically center around two issues. First, that some of the companion chemicals which accompany some GMO’s like Glyphosate are unsafe (Glyphosate was deemed a “probable carcinogen” in 2015 by the World Health Organization).

Secondly, that the effects of genetic modification and gene editing have not been impartially researched, nor have we studied them for long enough to provide conclusive data.

We’ve been modifying plant genetics since we started farming about 12,000 years ago. We’ve done our best to find better ways to feed ourselves from our ancient ancestors who selectively saved the seeds of the strongest and highest yielding plants, to Gregor Mendel’s studies on crossbreeding and genetics, to the first GMO’s a couple of decades ago, to the recent discovery and development of CRISPR (gene editing). The current GMO debate tends not to be shaped by objective independent scientific research as it should be, but by corporate science called into question by conflict of interest, or by a larger world view which questions modern agricultural practices. If you view modern agriculture as an unsustainable system of exploitation, pollution, and illness — you’re probably anti-GMO’s. If you see efficiency, abundance, and advancement you are most likely pro-GMO’s. The reality is that either perspective obscures objectivity.

GMO’s have increased yields, lowered food costs, reduced present crop risk, and have been studied and deemed safe*. Additionally, if you’re a hungry child in an impoverished country they’ve brought you one step closer to a meal. Negatively, they’ve increased reliance on a handful of dominant global seed and chemical companies which hold patents on their creations, reduced genetic diversity increasing future crop risk, and may have some harmful companion chemicals. Furthermore, because of the complexity of natural systems, biology and our bodies, many believe not enough time has elapsed for truly objective study. *Most studies to date have been funded by those who profit from the sale of GMO’s. GMO’s are a relatively new development and we may not be ready for absolutes, so perhaps it would be prudent to add the caveat “at this time” to temper the discussion. After all most people remember being told to switch from butter to margarine, and then back to butter again. Considering the confusion around a single ingredient, isn’t it reasonable to be cautious with something as complex as the long-term consumption of genetically altered material?

📝 Read this story later in Journal.

🗞 Wake up every Sunday morning to the week’s most noteworthy Tech stories, opinions, and news waiting in your inbox: Get the noteworthy newsletter >

Farmer @VeritasFarms. Working with others to change the food system. @paul_alward

Farmer @VeritasFarms. Working with others to change the food system. @paul_alward