A short bit I wrote up for the premier of the documentary The Embrace of Aging: A Female Perspective directed by Michigan-based filmmaker, Keith Famie:
The existence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has caused a wave of strong, dichotomous opinions in the public worldwide. A GMO contains genes modified by genetic engineering technology. Many staple food crops have been genetically modified to produce better yields through traits such as herbicide resistance or resistance to pests and disease. Some crops have also been engineered for higher nutrient content, or to contain nutrients novel to the crop. Misinformation on both the benefits and detriments of GMOs has torn through the media and created a feud over an issue that is complicated and multi-faceted, with no single answer that will solve the issue of feeding the world. Rational discussion and hard fact must win out over emotional reactions spurred on by talking points and media frenzy.
GMOs were developed to solve problems faced by farmers. Farming provides the essentials for modern life: our food, clothing and even energy comes from farms. Unfortunately, farming is a risky business. Bad weather, insects, diseases and other threats can destroy a single farm’s crop or an entire nation’s food supply. The introduction of GMOs decreased the risk of farming. For example, Bt corn contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and wards off caterpillars that are otherwise destructive to the crop. Genetically modified crops resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, commonly sold as Roundup, were introduced to combat weed pressure. Total usage of herbicides decreased, thus reducing the impact on the environment, and yields increased. Several years after the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops on farms around the world, populations of weeds evolved resistance to the herbicides. Known as “superweeds”, these plants are not affected by glyphosate and negatively impact crop production. To deal with the “superweeds”, new varieties of corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified for resistance to 2,4-D, an ingredient of Agent Orange, are now on the USDA’s list of potential new GMO crops.
The purpose of GMOs is beginning to extend beyond reducing risks for farmers. Rice containing vitamin A, known as “Golden Rice” is near to release on the market. It is hoped that it will reduce or eliminate vitamin A deficiency in countries where malnourishment is prevalent. What is not accounted for is the fact that the rice must be grown with resources that are difficult to come by in the parts of the world where vitamin A deficiency exists. Nor does the crop solve the source of the existence of malnourishment. It is not that rice contains too little vitamin A, but that the diet of many has been reduced to rice and little else due to poverty. There is no magic bullet to kill world hunger. GMOs could be part of the answer, but they are not a cure-all.
Concerns with the use of GMOs range from possible negative effects of GMOs on the environment and human health to the business practices of GMO developers. Few conclusive studies yet exist to support claims that GMOs are harmful to human health, but there are enough concerns to justify more unbiased research before these crops are introduced into our food system. A study conducted in France linked cancer with the lifelong consumption of genetically modified corn in rats. This study was met with suspicion due to complaints about the inconsistencies in research practices, and it was eventually pulled from publications despite insistence from the researchers that their practices were sound. Some of the frustration and fear surrounding GMOs has arisen from the overbearing business practices of those companies developing the crops. Because the seeds for the crops are patented technology, a farmer must purchase new seeds from the companies each year and can not save the seeds for the following season. If a farmer is growing her own variety of corn and it is wind pollinated by the genetically modified corn from an adjacent field, her seeds are forfeit. To save and grow them would be patent infringement punishable by law. Thus the financial burden of buying new seeds every year and preventing cross pollination falls on the farmer, not the large corporations.
In the entire GMO discussion there is no single solution. Strong opinions and high emotions make rational discussion rare. It is worth being cautious of such modifications to crops; they may affect human health, and there is also possibility for environmental harm. However, with this technology and these genetic modifications in their infancy, open discussion and research must continue in order to know what will become of GMOs and their impact on the world.