Crop of Lies: GMOs and Misinformation
Issue   |   Tue, 03/06/2018 - 20:36

The term “genetically modified organism” (GMO) often inspires visceral reactions. To some, GMOs are cancer-causing, environment-destroying monsters created by evil biotechnology corporations. To others, they nourish a patronizing belief that American technological innovation is the only way to feed a growing global population with the onset of climate change. Misinformation abounds between these two schools of thought, and neither seems to have a firm grasp on the scientific realities and social implications of genetically modified crops.

Genetic modification is not a new practice. Through selective breeding, we have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the beginning of agriculture. Modern genetic engineering, however, is far more precise. A common method today is to use comparative analysis to isolate the genes that produce a trait of interest — such as disease resistance — and then employ molecular technology to insert these genes into the circular DNA strands of bacteria, like Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This bacteria’s natural life cycle includes embedding its DNA into a host organism’s DNA, so the modified A. tumefaciens provides the perfect delivery system for desirable genes.

Fear towards genetic engineering is rooted in the false notion that moving genes between species is unnatural and dangerous. Anti-GMO sites like use emotional yet misleading language, such as calling GMO crops “frankenfoods.” To put their warning of “artificial combinations” in perspective, about eight percent of the human genome is composed of viral DNA passed down from ancestral infections, which illustrates that there is a natural precedent for interspecies gene transfer. There is nothing essentially different about DNA from different species; all DNA has the same structure and comes in different sequences of the same four molecular building blocks. Adding genes from one species to the genome of another is similar to editing a car manual to add a few more lines of instruction. Additionally, rigorous testing is done to ensure that the modified product displays the desired traits and does not show any unexpected alterations that could occur from the introduction of new genes.

While the most vocal members of the anti-GMO movement betray their scientific illiteracy, GMO supporters are often no better. To propose GMOs as the ultimate solution to a global hunger crisis is both myopic and naive. First, this solution ignores greater issues with modern agriculture. Increasing the yield or nutritional value of crops does nothing to alleviate the rampant land degradation, exploitative labor practices and ecological destruction that results from large-scale monocropping, nor does it address the United States’ colonial legacy of burdening developing nations with these damages. Moreover, because biotechnology corporations were controversially granted the ability to patent their organisms, only farmers with the ability to afford licenses are able to grow these crops — at least until the patents expire.

Though a meta-study of 1,700 separate reports done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information concluded that GMOs do not pose a health risk, it is important to maintain rigorous oversight of new inventions, especially while corporations like Monsanto are the dominant innovators. Monsanto, a Missouri-based company, has a shady history. In 1982, the company dodged liability when a chemical spill contaminated Times Beach, Missouri with dioxin — a highly toxic carcinogen — and all the town’s residents were forced to evacuate. Monsanto was also one of the primary producers of “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War, a defoliant connected to a multitude of health problems. The corporation was also sued, along with Deere and Company, by the Department of Justice for violating antitrust laws in creating a monopoly of the seed supply. With these transgressions in mind, it’s important to remain skeptical of corporate motives and support regulations that keep them accountable to the public. Ultimately, through the hedge of uninformed, reactionary opinions we can see that while the science of GMOs is not in itself dangerous or diabolical, there remain a host of valid criticisms surrounding the issue, including questions of corporate accountability, oversimplified solutions for global issues and scientific literacy in the public.