Genetically Modified Food: Why We Need More Information
Recently, there have been renewed suggestions that organic agriculture should abandon one of its foundational principles and accept genetically engineered crops for the good of the world. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with contemplating a theoretical overlap between biotech crop genetics and organic farming systems, there's not a compelling set of reasons to do so either.
Although the chemical-based systems that genetically modified food crops virtually always presuppose could be cleaned up with organic techniques, organic agriculture's recently recognized benefits for improving food security don't depend on a boost from genetically modified food technology. And there's no clear reason to degrade organic standards to accept the downsides that come with biotech-produced crops as they are currently managed.
Some allege that the principled barrier between biotech and organic is merely a sticking point of "hard core resistance" within the organic community. However, this argument diverts attention from real questions as to the net value of this pairing.
Real Question #1: Why Bother with Genetic Engineering?
To this point, biotech crops have not produced higher-yielding varieties or the biological resilience to multiple stressors that come with advanced organic seeds in organic systems. If we're looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player.
The question is rather: Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease?
This organic activity is sustainable in the long term and improves water-holding capacity in soil for all crops—not just those that happen to have a gene with drought resistance, leaving the other crops at risk.
Real Question #2: Who Does Genetically Modified Food Benefit?
Why encourage patented seeds good for a single planting when what most farmers in the world need are replicable, open-pollinated varieties that thrive in the particular mix of soil, degree days, weather and pest pressure where they are grown? The patented seed path is entirely under the control of a company and typically requires substantial chemical inputs to survive. The latter path, relying on finding the optimum fit with natural systems and fluctuation (thanks to climate change) over time, is controlled much more by sustainable farmers and the heroic seed companies dedicated to their service. Organic seed development is, of course, commercial and expensive, but serves the ends of farmers developing long-term success from seed they can use again as it adapts to their farm's conditions.
Real Question #3: Is Genetically Modified Food Safe to Eat? And Why Don't We Know?
There's lots of research alleging "safety," but it's mostly tucked within the files of the companies that paid for it. There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GMO crops with their altered genetic makeup. The same companies prevent independent research on the efficacy and health impacts of their crop seeds. Many of the handful of intrepid researchers who do manage to carry out studies and dare to publish results showing problems with the GM approach face amazingly virulent reactions from the biotech community, and the institutional systems that depend on them for funding.
I think this quote from the editorial in the recent issue of Scientific American tells how little we really are allowed to know about GM crops:
Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.
Dr. Judith Carman of Australia is conducting one of the few long-term, independent animal feeding studies with GM materials. She says recent Australian and Italian studies finding reduced fertility and immune function, respectively, in mice are disturbing. In the Organic and GMO Report she talks about the extreme difficulty of doing meaningful research into this area. She is a PhD in medicine in the areas of metabolic regulation, nutritional biochemistry and cancer.
To us, it does not make biological sense that you can create brand-new proteins in food through genetic engineering and expect that our bodies will have the enzymes and capacity to break them down. These novel proteins are foreign to our immune systems because they have never before existed in nature.
Given how much we are not being allowed to know, our scientific, agricultural and food safety leaders need to take the reasonable step of following the precautionary principle until we have the knowledge we need. Organic agriculture proponents are eager for more high-quality research on biological systems, because the promise for improving soils, sequestering carbon and feeding more people with healthier diets is so great all around the world.
Simply, this means that, facing irreversible potential harm, the onus for generating the proof of scientific consensus falls upon those seeking to take the action. With biotech crops and our long-term health and ecological well-being, that's a pretty big onus.
The organic community may eventually be open to biotech crops if long-term, independent studies would some day show there are no ecological or human health impacts. Because there is no research available to prove that yet, who needs them? Why risk it?
More on genetic engineering and genetically modified food
Why Genetically Modified, Drought-Resistant Seeds Are a Waste of Time and Money
Say No To Genetically Modified Foods In Japan
Germany Approves "GM-Free" Label