GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, have been a big part of the news lately as people argue for and against them, lawsuits are filed against farmers for patent infringement, and bills are submitted to require labeling. So far, opponents of GMOs haven’t had much luck against the big businesses and government organizations that support and profit from the genetically engineered foods.
We make our own luck though. Anyone who wants to change the world need only act upon their beliefs and encourage friends and family to do likewise. If it’s something that resonates with the majority, it will carry through, cross boundaries, and inspire our leaders to listen or fall behind. We vote every day with our choices, with our voices, and with our dollars. Let’s all take a step toward healthier options and avoid GMOs. If enough of us do so, they will be forced to take us seriously.
I was a biochemist major before switching over to writing. I still love biology. I love science. The things we are capable of doing today are beyond amazing. The things we are on the verge of doing will alter humanity’s place in the universe. Thousands of years’ worth of information in the palms of our hands, novel sources of energy, faster quantum computers, carbon nanotubes, tiny flexible biosensors, nanoparticles that destroy cancer without side effects, even warp travel to explore the stars. There’s so much potential for growth, renewal, learning, discovery, and life, but there are risks as well.
Genetic modification isn’t entirely new. We’ve been guiding the evolution of our food, livestock, and pets for thousands of years through selective breeding, but this process is slow and allows for corrections when something goes wrong. That’s how nature works. Our technology has made this process faster, easier, and allows for genetic combinations that could never occur through natural means or even selective breeding.
This doesn’t mean that genetic modification is inherently dangerous or bad, but it does open up possibilities that could be harmful. Combining the beneficial characteristics of two separate species, even joining the DNA of animals, plants, or bacteria doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I remember reading as a kid about one of the first cross species genetic experiments where a tomato plant had been given the genetics of a firefly. This tomato plant glowed in the dark. I did not feel immediate revulsion at the idea, but let my mind glide along all the possibilities that had been opened up to us.
Think of the starving nations of the world. What if you could give them a rice grain that takes in more beneficial nutrients from the soil? What if you could supply them with wheat that can grow in less than ideal environments? What about corn that required less water? That would save thousands of lives each year, perhaps millions, many of those children. Unfortunately, this is not the way genetic modification has been handled. Instead it has become a means of making money, extorting people, and even of intimidation.
Large companies hold farmers hostage with patents on seeds. They sue anyone who gets in their way. They create genetically modified soybeans solely to sell more of another product. When many of these GMOs were introduced in the 1990’s it was an exciting time where we dreamed of using less pesticides, having more food available to all, and ending world hunger. Pesticide use has increased since the introduction of pesticides, crop yields have actually gone down, and people still die from starvation, drought, and famine.
The majority of genetically modified organisms that have entered our food stream were altered to resist pesticides and/or create more of their own pesticides. This lets farmers use much more of the substances they rely on to kill weeds and insects without killing the crops. More pesticides find their way into the plants we use for food. Pests become more and more resistant to these chemicals, prompting farmers to use more. These fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides damage more than harmful insects and weeds, but kill beneficial insects too while destroying the natural microbial balance in soil. Many believe this is the cause of the honeybee die-off we are seeing and it also depletes the nutritional value in the food we eat.
This is a big business using one product to sell another, regardless of any harm they might do together or separate. There are many more problems with the way we’ve allowed businesses to approach genetic modifications to our food. Most of the testing for these foods is done by the companies that produce them or by third parties that are paid by these companies. This conflict of interest has produced conflicting reports on the safety of these foods and the pesticides that come with them. They argue that there is no credible evidence that GMOs pose any risk, but this argument can be flipped. There is no credible evidence that they are safe.
There remain risks of allergies, exposing the body to proteins and chemicals it is unfamiliar with. There is also a risk of horizontal gene transfer. DNA and RNA are resilient and strong, this is why the body uses them. Studies show that genetic material can survive digestion and even some fragments of plant RNA make it into our bloodstream. Bacteria in the intestines can take up this genetic information and splice it into themselves. It happens with bacteria all the time. Do we even understand what this can do? Antibiotic resistance could be a big problem if bacteria in the gut get ahold of these genes, but also imagine a pesticide expressing gene being plugged into the bacteria inside us. What would a pesticide producing bacteria do to our system?
The lack of control is also rather frightening. Pollen of genetically modified plants is carried on the wind or with pollinating insects to other fields. GMOs are invasive species, taking over wherever they land. To make matters worse, businesses then sue farmers who have these GMOs in their fields without having paid for them. The farmers can’t stand against the money and fleet of lawyers that appear even though they have done nothing wrong. If GMOs cannot be contained, they should not be released to the public. This limited genetic selection also makes our crops more susceptible to disease that can wipe out all of them. We’ve seen this happen with potatoes and bananas. Nature relies on variety for good reason.
GMOs are banned in 27 countries and require labeling in 61 other countries and yet we keep failing to follow these examples. I’m not against the idea of GMOs, but I am against the way they have been used to destroy small businesses, farms, lives, and the health of workers without any control and without heart. These tactics are wrong and put us all at risk. I will be reaching for organic certified foods when I shop as I know they do not contain GMOs or the pesticides that contribute to obesity and disease.
What’s wrong with labeling food anyway? Opponents of GMO can more easily avoid something they don’t want and advocates can more readily support them. No one should be afraid of a little more transparency in what we eat. It would probably be good for all of us. So, go vote with your dollars and help us change the world for the better.
Learn more about Charlie Pulsipher