Can GMO Be A Good Thing? Why This Issue Isn't Black & White

December 2, 2019

As a scientist, I am trained to question everything and demand evidence. But despite knowing this, I still fall prey to clever marketing tactics and sensationalist headlines that seem to know just how to poke me in my soft spot. As such, I need to regularly remind myself to take check and see what it is that I truly believe, amidst a sea of opinions built on little more than hearsay.

Greenwashing is a term we’ve discussed before and I think it’s important to regularly remind ourselves that, unfortunately, what we see is not always what we get with a large array of companies looking to profit from our innate desire to do good. Particularly when it comes to the current environmental crisis (here, lumping together climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction among many others), the majority of us want to do the right thing. So, we jump on the bandwagon, opting to play by the rules of society and allow ourselves to be swept up in fickle trends as and when they are churned out. (Ooh, sound a bit bitter, don’t I?!)

Today we’re discussing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and why a recent study claiming to have cracked the code on photosynthesis might be the answer we need to meet ever-increasing global food demands. You might, like me, be immediately throwing up your defenses, primed and ready to argue that “natural” always equals better, but hear me out; my opinion has recently been swayed.

Take a look around any US grocery store and you soon realize that those little butterfly-adorned “Non-GMO” logos are everywhere. On the one-hand, I believe that the more information given to consumers about the origin of their food is great, but on the other, I wonder if it’s a kind of greenwashing in and of itself. Or, rather, unnecessarily tarnishing the possibility of GMO as a viable solution to our problems with a bad brush. It’s the same with “organic” or “free-range”: it all comes down to a matter of ethics. Should the supply chain be transparent? Absolutely. But should we be ruling out genetic engineering altogether? That’s where it gets a little complicated.

A new study published in Nature has identified the protein complex that essentially serves as the “beating heart” of photosynthesis. The researchers argue that manipulating this protein might increase photosynthetic efficiency and thus allow us to grow bigger and better plants, with the ultimate and obvious goal of feeding our growing population.

Technology has come a long way since genetic engineering first came into existence. Nowadays, the likes of CRISPR make many in science just a little uncomfortable, because the possibilities appear almost endless. This has—quite rightly—driven many countries to implement regulatory frameworks describing what is and isn’t allowed within the realm of genetic modification. The discrepancies in policy do get us into some tricky situations though; take, for example, instances like GM pollen contaminating a batch of Mexican honey that was subsequently rejected for sale in Germany. It’s complicated when we’re so global.

When it comes to crops, we’ve been selectively breeding for centuries. Today, at least 70% of processed foods in the United States contain GM ingredients and it doesn’t look to slow down any time soon. Whatever our preconceived ideas, GM ingredients have lowered the price of food, increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide and increased output, therefore—theoretically—allowing fewer people to die of hunger. The reality is that wheat, corn and soybean yields are simply not where they would otherwise be if it weren’t for climate change.

There’s another side to the coin though: profits being made by the manufacturers of these crops. Consider the ongoing ethical crisis in India. Here, the cost of genetically-modified cotton seeds containing a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene to protect against the common pest, bollworm, forces many farmers into spiraling debt. This has resulted in over a quarter of a million suicides since 1995. 

Is non-GMO synonymous with healthy? No. But it’s a tactic employed by many food producers to signal to consumers that their products are the right choice. Peruse the literature, though, and you see that the data suggests that GM can produce healthier crops. From modified soybean that doesn’t lead to insulin resistance when compared to conventional sources to carrots that help us absorb more calcium, we need to shift our thinking.

That being said, the importance of thorough research cannot be overstated. Playing God and genetically modifying on a whim is a recipe for disaster. We must always remember that every plant is part of a wider ecosystem and that we can truly never predict the impact of modifying the genes of one organism on the trophic interactions with everything else within that habitat. From neighboring vegetation to animals depending upon it as a food source, to the soil microbial community in the earth where it all begins, we can’t predict everything. We can only do our best.

It’s instinctive for us to gravitate towards “natural” products. I feel this myself. But why the fear? I think it comes down to the ways that we revere nature: its ability to provide for us and the divine mechanisms by which it always manages to bounce back. Is it right for us to ignore this infinite wisdom and further an agenda built around the preservation of us as a single species, at the potential detriment of everything else that calls the planet home? It’s not a question that can be easily answered.

The fact is that we have found ourselves in a mess that we need to—rapidly—overcome. GMO might just be an answer to that. Drought, floods and intense storms causing widespread crop damage are very real, life-threatening concerns. So, it’s a matter of shifting the way we do things to fit our changing landscape. First though, we must admit that we are amidst a crisis. Until powerhouses like the US government put all hands on deck when it comes to the likes of climate change, the pieces of the puzzle will never come together. GMO may never be a term that fits like a warm glove, but it feels a hell of a lot better trying it on for fit as a potential solution than continuing to bury our heads in the sand.

What are your thoughts on GMO?

Also by Kat: Why Indigenous Peoples Provide The Untapped Key To Mitigating Climate Crisis

Operation Ocean Cleanup Is Starting To Reduce The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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Photo: Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash and Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
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Kat Kennedy is an explorative writer, Physiology PhD student and holistic health advocate breaking down the barriers in science. You can read more of her articles on her blog, Sphynx Kennedy, or keep up with her on Instagram @sphynxkennedy.

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