I’ve got another guest post for you today! I don’t do guest posts that often, but when a topic as fraught as this one is covered in such a well-researched and thoughtful way, I want to share it. I’ve personally been steering clear of the topic of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) over the life of this blog, hinting here and there that I have an opinion, but leaving the topic mostly untouched, but that changes today. Part of the reason for my hesitation is the controversy surrounding GMOs. GMOs hold political weight, and most people who have an opinion on the topic feel strongly about it, one way or the other.
Strong views on any topic can send people running toward unsubstantiated claims, just to bolster their argument. They can blind people to the actual facts, which makes it hard to have a real conversation about any of it. This piece of writing brings a balanced perspective using analogous issues (albeit also controversial issues).
This isn’t just any old guest post though. This piece was written by my husband Loren Rothman. He’s a mechanical engineer and a self-proclaimed ‘science geek.’ When we first met, we debated regularly (sometimes heatedly) about whether or not science was the end-all, be-all of what makes the world go ’round. I would come home from my ‘hippy grad school’ with ideas he’d scoff at, but he’d later come around after contemplation (and likely some googling) on his own. As a rock climber and outdoor enthusiast, he’s also deeply committed to conservation, sound environmental practices, and sustainability. Loren offers this thoughtful, deliberate, and well-researched piece on a topic he’s contemplated a lot after many conversations and much deliberation, so I’m proud and excited to share it with you today. It accurately represents my views on the topic of GMOs (and the analogous topics he uses) so well, I wish I’d written it myself.
Anti-GMO is not Anti-Science
Recently, I’ve noticed a trend of media sources dismissing the movement against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as anti-science quackery. Their argument basically goes that scientific consensus says foods from genetically modified crops are safe for human and animal consumption, therefore the stance against their use is mostly hysteria – per se irrational and unscientific. Comparisons to the anti-vaccine and climate change denial communities abound. Unfortunately, the behavior of the most extreme contingent of the anti-GMO movement legitimizes these accusations in many ways, and in turn distracts and detracts from the substantial, legitimate arguments against GMOs. These days, it’s the wackos that get the headlines, so the public is severely misinformed about the actual factors involved in the complicated question of whether we should be using GMOs. The issue has become a destructive false dichotomy that pits self-described rational people against the rabid extremists willing to use any tactic to achieve their goals, and, as is so often the case, the important nuances get excluded from the discussion. Hopefully this post will help clarify some of the myriad real issues at stake and point out why it’s scientific indeed to oppose genetically modified foods. I’ll use the analogies with the anti-vaccination and climate change denial movements as a spring-board, as I think they’re good foils for this discussion.
First off, there’s no doubt in my mind that vaccines are a critical, massively beneficial part of the worldwide fight against preventable disease, and climate change is at least significantly exacerbated by human activities, which we desperately need to reform before it’s too late. The question of GMOs on the other hand is far less clear. Vaccines have been in use for centuries, and we have libraries of evidence as to their efficacy, risks, benefits, and costs. GMOs – not so much.
Climate Change vs. GMOs
Climate change data from a tremendous number of sources tell us that it’s definitely happening, and we’re nearly certain that humans are a primary driver of its effects. Our understanding of it is founded on the examination of trends over thousands of years as well as phenomena we can watch in real time. Importantly, even if we’re wrong about the causes of climate change, yet we still take steps to try to address its effects by moving to cleaner, renewable energy sources and limiting our greenhouse gas emissions, we will still yield huge benefits to the worldwide economy, environment, and rapidly growing community of industrialized nations, not to mention defunding many violent extremist organizations. It’s hard to fathom how the law of unintended consequences could come back to haunt us there, at least in a way that would seem disastrous in retrospect. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to imagine how the ubiquity of genetically modified foods, having displaced most or all traditionally farmed plants, and all that that entails, could turn out to be a huge mistake on which we can’t turn back the clock.
Vaccines vs. GMOs
Some major differences demand to be pointed out regarding the anti-vaccine movement and the anti-GMO movement. For one, the end goal of vaccines is singular: prevent the transmission of the disease for which a particular vaccine is targeted. In this goal, vaccines are wildly successful. In 1952, there were almost 60,000 cases of Polio in the US alone. In 2014, there were 359 cases worldwide. The negative side-effects of vaccine use, both for the individual and the world, have shown to be incredibly small relative to the damage that many of those illnesses cause. The cost-benefit analysis falls so heavily on the benefit side that it is deserving of mockery to claim we should not be vaccinating everyone who can be vaccinated.
The end goal of GMOs, however, is multiple. Some genetically modified crops are designed to produce their own defenses against bugs, theoretically reducing the need to use insecticides (so-called “Bt crops” – named for the bacterium they produce – Bacillus thuringiensis); others are designed to improve their resistance to herbicides used for controlling weeds (“Round Up Ready” crops); and others have improved nutritional characteristics that can address certain major dietary deficiencies, such as “golden rice” that has dramatically increased levels of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
In terms of the cost-benefit analysis of GMOs vis-à-vis vaccines, the most glaring difference emerges when looking at the second class – Round Up Ready crops – the most common class of GMOs in use today. The benefits of these GMOs are largely economic – farmers can increase the amount of herbicides they apply, therefore yielding a more successful crop, therefore increasing the profit margin and/or lowering the price of the food. The problem is that this economic benefit comes with a hefty price tag in the form of environmental degradation and harm to human health. A recent analysis found that from 1996 to 2012, the total volume of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Round Up – applied to the three biggest genetically modified crops (corn, cotton, and soy) had increased 10 fold. That means 10 times the amount of herbicide going into our soils, groundwater, rivers, oceans, and ultimately, us.
The really bad news is that the World Health Organization recently published a paper in The Lancet Oncology, one of the most highly respected medical journals, indicating that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. It has also been implicated in numerous deleterious effects to vital actors in both the natural food chain and our own food system as a whole. Scientific research is starting to look at the effect of glyphosate on honeybees and has found compelling evidence that suggests it plays a primary role in bee population declines. It has also been directly linked to the fall in Monarch butterfly numbers.
The comparison to vaccines is especially ironic to me, considering all you have to do is look at their cousin – antibiotics – to see a true cautionary analog. The alarm bells coming from the scientific and medical communities regarding the overuse of antibiotics has reached cacophonous levels. As in the emergence and proliferation of antibiotic resistance strains of diseases, such as MRSA and incurable gonorrhea, pesticide resistant weeds and bugs have emerged, and will continue to evolve past the defenses created by the genetic manipulation. And as the pests develop resistance, the efficacy of Bt crops decline, begetting the ever-increasing application of ever more toxic pesticides. So while it’s possible that current levels of pesticide application may not be severely harmful to people, it’s very likely that the continued accumulation and escalation of their use will be, given the WHO’s findings.
GMOs and the Developing World
At this point, I feel compelled to say that the potential benefits, particularly to the developing world, of the nutritionally-enhanced class of GMOs cannot be understated. In countries where many people live on fewer than 500 calories a day, offering them a food staple with dramatically more nutritional content has the potential to save many thousands, if not millions of lives. As an engineer and believer in the power of technology, I feel that we absolutely owe it to those people to continue cautiously pursuing the research and implementation of those products for the populations desperately in need of their impact. The anthropological and cultural implications of introducing these foods to populations in need is a concern, but that’s a discussion outside the scope of this post.
Safe for Human Consumption
I should also acknowledge that, at this point, the body of evidence does show that GM foods are most likely safe for consumption, as most of the studies claiming cancerous or other such outcomes have been refuted or significantly undermined. That said, I do think there remains the very real possibility that the genetic modifications themselves could yield serious consequences for our food and natural ecosystems that we don’t yet understand or foresee. It’s critical that rigorous testing on the safety for human and animal consumption continues so that we can build a record and understand the effects of their long term use. We can’t rest on our laurels just because a few years of study have sufficiently convinced us that it’s probably safe to eat. After all, look how long it took to establish a conclusive determination that smoking kills.
There is ample evidence, based firmly in mainstream, peer-reviewed, concrete science, that GMOs have serious consequences for our environment and health. I absolutely recognize that there are significant contingents in this movement that embrace virtually any notion that floats along that ostensibly bolsters their argument. Embarrassing terms like “frankenfoods” need to be eliminated from the movement’s vernacular if they expect to be taken seriously, and rational GMO critics need to do much better at promoting the legitimate reasons for opposition and try to distance themselves from such truly irrational, destructive movements like the antivaxxers and climate-change deniers. That said, painting this issue with such a broad brush is harming everyone, and true science demands that we look at the nuance and details of this complex issue and try to understand the full scope of the costs and benefits.