Setting the Table: Re-framing the debate on GMOs
October 29, 2015
By Carl Segerstrom
Twenty-five years ago there were no commercially produced Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods. Fast-forward to 2015 and GMO corn, soy, and cotton each account for over 90 percent of total planted acreage in the United States. Amidst this stratospheric increase of GMO foods there is growing concern on the part of consumers about potential health risks associated with GMO consumption and production.
In spite of public concern regarding the safety of GMO foods the federal government has given its wholesale approval to GMO production and commercial approval, with the USDA’s own website reading like a promotional pamphlet for biotechnology companies. The debates surrounding the science of GMO technology, agribusiness industry influence on food policy, the health impacts of GMO food, and the agricultural practices associated with GMO food production have so far been stifled by industry funded scientists who deride opponents of GMOs as anti-science zealots and dismiss the legitimate concerns about the utility and safety of genetically modified foods.
Rather than focus on the simple albeit unanswered question of the basic safety of consuming genetically engineered (GE) foods and animals raised on GE feed, conscientious consumers and producers need to approach the totality of the effects of GE foods on our food system and environment. The profusion of GE technology and the accompanying reduction of genetic biodiversity pose a serious threat to our food system. The monoculture systems that GE foods are designed to grow in, which are predominantly dependent on noxious pesticides and fossil fuel based fertilizers, place a great burden on natural resources, degrade soils, reduce farmland biodiversity, increase the risk of catastrophic crop failure, and are major contributors to global climate change. Beyond these immediate and apparent effects there is the long-term threat of genetic erosion as we lose crop varieties that are vital sources of genetic diversity and can be utilized in traditional plant breeding practices to resist crop diseases and adapt to ever changing growing conditions.
Expansion of GMOs in our food system also jeopardizes the position of small farmers who have traditionally relied upon seed saving and exchange as a means to produce locally adapted and productive varieties of fruits, grains, and vegetables. The ever-increasing monopolization of seed and agricultural input industries handicaps farmers by limiting access to seed and other agricultural input sources, making farmers vulnerable to a constricted market in which multi-national corporations can raise prices with little threat of competition. Concentration of seed sources and agricultural inputs threaten the role of small and local food producers, as increases of input prices outstrip prices received by farmers for their produce. In this system rigged to favor corporate agribusiness interests small farmers are unable to compete and support themselves and their families, and are increasingly losing their land, way of life, and the inter-generational knowledge integral to a sustainable and diverse food system.
The basic issue of the safety of GMO foods is an important discussion that deserves a critical and unbiased examination from scientists and public health professionals responsible for protecting the public from potential dangers associated with GMOs. However a myopic focus on the safety of GMO technology belies the need for a broader debate on the proper role of biotechnology in our food system and the underlying costs to producers and consumers alike. Turning back the tide of GE technology poised to dominate our agricultural system is no small task, but it may prove essential to regaining a food system capable of salubriously and sustainably nourishing future generations.