The Politics Surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms
The issue of genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s, has been an ever increasing source of global controversy since the first GMO’s were introduced in the 1990’s. An organism is considered to be genetically modified when “scientiststake individual genes from one plant, animal, or microbe and insert them directly into the DNA of the cells of another, ormodify an existing gene within that organism.” (Young 8). The debate over whether GMO’s should be used or not, or if they should be labeled or not, has many different sides. GMO’s are currently required to be labeled in the European Union, while their unlabeled use is widespread in American food sources (Cauvin). Many opponents of GMO’s cite ecological ethics and lack of research as major reasons for their position. Proponents of GMO’s argue that these organisms are safe and offer solutions to global problems of hunger and economic security. This is not a simple or straightforward issue, and each opinion that has been represented thus far has its own unique and valid reasoning.
First and foremost, this is an issue that affects farmers around the world. One of the major purposes of the GMO is to create crops that are resistant to insects and herbicides so that farmers will have larger yields. Crops that are resistant to herbicides will not be out competed by weeds because the weeds can now be sprayed with the herbicide without fear of killing the entire crop. Farmers who can grow more food using less land will be able to make more money, and the cost of produce to the consumer
should go down. With these GMO’s, farmers can count on their crops at the end of the season. The result of larger amounts of food is undeniably positive, but the methods through which this is achieved is objected to by many. Proponents of GMO’s argue that these crops can help solve the problem of world hunger.
In fact, this food was offered to parts of South Africa that are currently experiencing famine. Of these five countries, one refused any GM food at all, three have accepted the food, and two accepted the food under a specific condition: “Mozambique and Zimbabwe have insisted that corn be milled before being distributed, to eliminate any risk that genetically engineered seeds could cross-pollinate with naturally occurring seeds.” (Cauvin). A major concern for these countries is that by accepting genetically modified foods, they may limit their trade options with countries in the European Union. It would be very difficult for these countries to keep the genetically modified seeds and crops separate from those that are non-GM. Any cross-pollination could ruin current trade agreements with the EU and exacerbate economic problems. But of these countries experiencing famine, one (Zambia) has completely refused GMO’s under any circumstances. President Mwanawasa of Zambia has commented on his refusal to accept U.S. food by saying ‘I’m not prepared to accept that we should use our people as guinea pigs,” (Cauvin). However, it is worth pointing out that this is the same food that American consumers are eating. The U.S. is not exporting any GMO’s that its citizens do not already use.
Some proponents of GMO’s may consider opinions such as those expressed in Zambia and parts of the European Union as scientifically ignorant, but “the willingness to
accept these new technologies as benign probably depends a great deal more on factors such as faith in the adequacy and integrity of regulatory agenciesand the ethics of businesspeople” (Hornig 37). In other words, some people may doubt GMO’s are safe because they do not trust the policymakers and corporations in America or in their own countries. In a world of E. coli, mad cow disease, and other food safety issues, this can be a pretty popular stance.
Another issue with GMO’s is biodiversity and ecological ethics. Opponents of GMO’s say that growing GM crops “allow[s] the escape of transplanted genes from crops to related wild species and contaminate the environment.” (Hoge). One method of this contamination occurs when GM species cross pollinate with naturally occuring species. This type of contamination can result in a lack of biodiversity. The problem with this is that if all of the organisms in one area are genetically identical, then they will all be equally susceptible to the same diseases, which could actually undermine the effort to produce more reliable crops. Another example of this potential problem is the GM salmon, “which is genetically engineered to grow at twice the rate of normal salmon.” (Pollack). Opponents of the GM salmon argue that if these fish escape into the wild, they will either breed with wild salmon or out compete the wild salmon for resources. Either way, genetic biodiversity will be lost, which could be dangerous for ecosystems where salmon are an integral part.
But some GMO’s were specifically created to be more nutritious, as is the case with “Golden Rice which is designed to contain more nutrients, particularly Vitamin A” (Brennan and Withgott 288). Many people in developing countries do not get enough
Vitamin A from their normal diets, and Vitamin A deficiency can lead to serious health problems. With problems such as world hunger and malnutrition, it would almost seem unethical to not create these GM crops, since we have the resources to do so, and since it is one way of solving these problems. If we have the power to use our science and technology to help others, what’s the problem?
Despite the fact that Americans consume many of these GMO’s on a daily basis, some people still are not convinced that these organisms are safe. There really has not been any long term study on the effects of GMO’s on humans, so there’s always a chance that these crops have latent and unintended consequences for our health. This was the reasoning behind the president of Zambia’s refusal of American food, and it is the argument behind the mandated labeling of GMO’s in the European Union. Also, a couple of recent scientific studies provided evidence that “the genetic make-up of mad-cow diseaseand other degenerative brain diseaseswas found to contain no nucleic acids at all – no DNA, and no RNA.” (Young 9). What these findings suggest is that DNA may not be the whole basis of all life, and that there may be another component that impacts our genetic traits. Seeing as we do not yet know what this other component is, we do not have the same control over it that we do over DNA. Essentially, when we create GMO’s, we may not know the effect of everything that we are manipulating.
Stuck in the middle of all of this is the consumer. In our case, the American consumer. The old arguments against technology, the ones where people object to man acting like God, have taken a backseat to legitimate and serious scientific concerns. For the American consumer, this is not an easy situation to sort through. There are ethical
concerns on both sides, as well as issues of the advancement of technology. Do we really know what we are doing? Will we ever know the full potential of this technology if we stop now? One thing is for sure: there are potential risks and benefits for both the use of GMO’s and the refusal to use GMO’s. The question is whether the benefits of GMO’s outweigh the risks. Even during famine, the president of Zambia held strongly to his beliefs that GMO’s are dangerous, but not everyone facing starvation would make that decision. Using genetically modified organisms has undoubtedly helped some U.S. farmers to support their families, and it has certainly given us, as a country, the luxury to be able to export surplus food to relieve world hunger. The only problem with our produce is when the hungry people of South Africa refuse a genetically modified organism as though it is poison. Whether to continue creating and using GMO’s or not is a very important decision that we, as a global society, just do not have enough information to make at this point. More research must be done so that we can finally take into account the most important factor of all: the impact that GMO’s will have on humans and on the environment.
Overview Food Science Technology
The Politics Surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms