If you didn’t read the Phoenix two weeks ago or, much more likely, have completely forgotten anything I said, here is a flashback. Last time, I wrote that there is no ethical or practical basis for categorically rejecting genetic engineering. But in the fight against genetically modified organisms, there are two main positions - being categorically against genetic engineering and being specifically against the application of genetic engineering to agriculture. This week, I’m going to address that second position.
For a pragmatic analysis of GM crops, we need to explore this case-by-case simply because different GMO’s offer different benefits and, to a certain extent, different costs. Let’s start with golden rice, a pretty classic case of genetic engineering coming to the rescue. It’s enriched with vitamin A so as to prevent blindness and decrease mortality due to vitamin A deficiency. It’s free of patents and ready to distribute to impoverished farmers worldwide as a permanent substitute for planting normal rice.
Two GMO’s that are already in heavy rotation in the United States are pest-resistant and herbicide-resistant corn. Despite common misconceptions, both of these GMO’s actually result in a significant reduction in herbicide and pesticide use. Pest-resistant corn produces its own species-specific pesticide so that farmers don’t have to spray any. Bugs are also killed somewhat more selectively, leaving untargeted insects alive and well. Herbicide-resistant varieties prevent the need to repeatedly spray a field with several specialized herbicides in order to leave the actual crop untargeted, reducing total herbicide use.
Of course, there are associated costs and risks. GM crops may transfer their traits to wild populations the same way that regular domesticated crops will cross-pollinate neighboring wild varieties, changing the gene pool. There is the chance that inserted genes won’t remain stable over generations and that there will be unwanted or harmful mutations. And while we know a lot about the long-term effects of genetic engineering in the lab and the short-term effects of GMO’s in the environment, we don’t know much about the long-term impacts of GMO’s on surrounding ecosystems. Although we haven’t seen any disasters on the 122 million acres of GM crops the United States currently plants, there could be serious negative impacts that only become apparent over time.
So there are significant risks and biotechnology should be closely regulated, especially in regards to ecological impact. But when evaluating the cost of GMO’s, it is important to realize that the alternative is not a cost-free baseline. What we should actually be comparing to the cost of GMO’s is the cost of the existing agricultural practices that GMO’s would supplant, such as high herbicide and pesticide use, which are known to have ongoing and significant negative ecological impacts. When evaluated in this way, the costs and risks associated with GMO’s don’t clearly come out as the worst of the two options.
Looking at the science, I think the good outweighs the bad for at least some GM crops. However, what hasn’t yet been brought up are the social implications, and some really serious negative impacts lie in this direction. But the effect of GMO’s on agribusiness, specifically on the continued planting of vast monocultures of the same plant and on the power of seed companies, is a whole new topic. What I want to make clear is that science-wise, the GMO story is not a horror story. It’s also not a fairy tale. But just because there’s no magic wand doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a realistic look at all the tools in our arsenal.