One of the things most comforting to me about organic food is that you know it doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (Organic regulations prohibit them.)
And, since food companies aren’t required to disclose when their products contain GMOs, it’s often tough to be sure you’re not eating them (though the “no-GMOs” label is becoming more popular these days for non-organic foods).
Now, I’m not an extremist on GMOs. I think they should be labeled. And if we won’t require that they be labeled (a recent proposal to require this was just shot down), I think they should be tested–very, very thoroughly–before being introduced to the public. But with those safety precautions, I don’t necessarily have a problem with GMOs. Technology usually comes with pluses and minuses (automobiles = greater mobility but also greenhouse gases and noise pollution), but the former often outweigh the latter.
And this may prove to be the case with GMOs. GMOs have the potential to increase yields (including in places where agriculture currently struggles and hunger is widespread), to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides (though so far this hasn’t happened), to produce heartier crops that survive adverse weather, and to create better-tasting or more nutritious food, all or any of which would benefit society.
That these promises have gone thus far largely unfulfilled doesn’t mean that GMOs lack the potential for future advances. There’s a reason people as smart and connected as Bill Gates tout GMOs as a cure for many of today’s food-related problems.
But the way we handle GMOs today is scary. They’re not labeled, so we don’t know we’re eating them. (The biggest reason they’re not labeled is that their manufacturers know many of us would avoid them if we knew they were in our food–rarely a good reason not to label something.) They’re largely untested, before being introduced to the public. (The federal government considers them “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts, and thus not worthy of separate review. And they’re pervasive. If you eat non-organic processed foods, you’re pretty much certain to be eating GMOs, whether you realize it or not.
What’s the problem with this? Well, we’re all guinea pigs. GMOs have little solid evidence against them so far. We’ve (almost all) been eating them for now 20 years or so, and there’s little concrete sign they’ve been hurting us. Conclusive evidence that they’re harmed us at all is nonexistent. They sound quite good.
But sometimes problems take a while to show up. As we’re starting to see with diabetes, these sorts of maladies can be passed on to our children via something called “epigenetics.” Tests on certain types of diets in non-human animals have shown a couple generations looking healthy enough, and then all of a sudden the next one unable to reproduce. Sharp increases in human maladies (autism, food allergies) have closely tracked the broader introduction of GMOs into our society.
None of these results condemns GMOs, and the first two don’t even relate in any way to GMOs. But what they do is show that even if a clear connection between a behavior and a malady isn’t immediately clear, that doesn’t mean that the behavior isn’t doing harm. After all, how long did we all smoke before we tied it conclusively to lung cancer, emphysema and a slew of other weakened vital signs? Sometimes the connection between the behavior and the disease doesn’t take effect immediately, and sometimes we just don’t recognize it immediately.
And a recent case confirms my worries. In Germany, herds of cattle recently died in a test of Syngenta’s new genetically modified corn. The corn, genetically modified to act as a pesticide, killing insects that eat it, is also apparently killing the cattle it’s fed to. (This happened some time ago, but Syngenta seems to have covered it up; it now faces criminal charges in Switzerland.)
How can we consider this sort of genetically modified corn “substantially equivalent” to natural corn, and thus not meritorious of thorough testing and approval prior to its introduction to the public? Is corn that kills cows really substantially equivalent to corn that doesn’t kill cows?
And if these genetic modifications can cause corn to kill a cow, isn’t it possible that it can cause it to do harm to our bodies as well, even if that harm isn’t immediately evident? Isn’t it worth running serious tests to be pretty darned sure?
Because if there’s a problem with our GMOs, we’re all going to feel it, because we’re all (or almost all) eating them. That’s an awfully big trial population. Does this corn make such a big impact that we can’t wait a few years (decades?) to test it out before we expose everyone to it?
Interested to hear if you avoid GMOs yourself.