Nathanael Johnson at Grist has an excellent series on genetically modified organisms and the ongoing debate over GE crops. With so much information and disagreement about the safety of GMOs, Johnson taking a straight-forward approach and speaking with experts on both sides of the issue.
He starts with what is one of the basic, but probably more contentious questions:
Is there any evidence that genetically modified food is directly harmful to people who eat it? There’s a one-word answer to this: no.
But as Margaret Mellon at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "it’s not a yes-or-no question."
“It does not appear,” Mellon said, “that there’s any risk that applies across the board to all genetically engineered food and to all people. Each plant is different, each gene insertion is different, each person’s response is different.”
Johnson concludes this first post in the series by posing what is the biggest concern:
The real question is, have we thought through the realistic potential for problems, and put regulatory safety nets out to protect ourselves?
Trying to answer that opens another can of worms. Critics like Mellon say that, right now, the producers of GM crops aren’t required to do any testing at all. GM boosters say that regulations are so onerous they stifle innovation. Clearly, someone is wrong here.
One problem with the GMO debate is that genetic engineering is a broad field of science and used in a lot of different ways.
For example, Johnson interviews a rice researcher that is helping farmers in the developing world use sustainable weed and pest control techniques:
Ronald had mentioned that there were two main projects for which her lab is known: the discovery of the gene XA21, which confers resistance to bacterial disease — good for farmers in the developing world who can’t afford antibacterial pesticides; and a gene that allows rice to tolerate submergence better — good for those same farmers, who now have an herbicide-free way of drowning weeds without drowning the rice.
In the second post of the series, Johnson digs into the issue over whether companies are actually required to test the safety of GE crops. It is a good overview of the different views on this particular issue.
In his third post of the series, Johnson explains what it actually means to genetically modify a plant and how that is similar and different from what happens in the wild. Pamela Ronald, a scientist at U.C. Davis who uses genetic engineering to study rice, did a good job of highlighting the problems with opposing all GMO research:
‘What is it that bothers you about genetic engineering?’” she said. “Is it the idea of moving genes from one species to another? Well, what we do here is rice — we put rice genes into rice plants. Is it that you don’t like corporations? Well, I’m at a university here, and we’re funded by the government. Is it that you don’t like profits? Well, we have no private funding, and the rice we are developing is all for developing countries. We don’t make money off our discoveries.”
What bothers me about genetically engineered crops, I told her, is that the technology seems to disrupt the co-evolutionary relationship between farmer and plant. I like the idea of farmers saving seeds and coaxing plants toward a greater harmony with their environment (the seasons, the pests, the culture), rather than buying their seeds each year from Monsanto. Plus, in that slow process of selection, it might be easier to weed out any unintended effects that cause problems.
Johnson's concerns mirror my own.
A few weeks ago, I inadvertently mischaracterized the GMO debate when I wrote about why scientific consensus wasn't always necessary for one to be concerned about an issue. The topic of the post was a study that found traces of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller in the urine of 182 people in Europe. The study was dismissed by other scientists because of the small sample size, but The Guardian's Kara Moses wrote that these small studies are still important and that it is not unreasonable to be worried about exposure to the chemical weedkiller, even if there wasn't scientific consensus that it was a risk. I tried to make a nuanced comparison to the debate over climate change and that waiting for scientific consensus to be worried about climate change was not wise, because in the meantime the problem has become much worse.
However, in a reply to a reader in the comments I wrote that, "I would dislike GMOs whether the scientific community agreed they were bad or not. Likewise, I think we should not use Roundup, whether the scientific community agrees that it is dangerous or not." And to another commenter I wrote, "I don't need scientists to tell me that GMOs are not a good idea. My values of respecting nature's way of doing things is reason enough for me to dislike GMOs."
I was making the mistake of using the term GMOs as short-hand for Monsanto's Roundup resistant crops and the unethical practice of making crops that don't produce seeds so farmers are forced to buy more seeds each year. Basically, I made the mistake of generalizing an entire field of science as being equivalent to the bad practices of one company. Not good.
As Johnson's series explains, there are different types of genetic engineering and it isn't fair to judge all of these methods in the same way we would those of Monsanto.
One of his strongest points in the series is that it is hypocritical to pick and choose when to value the opinion of scientific community:
It’s hard to make the case that we should trust science and act to stem global warming, while at the same time we are scoffing at the statements of *snort* scientists on genetic modification.
There's a lot more to see in Johnson's posts, so read the rest.