by Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D.
Agriculture had its origins about 10 thousand years ago. Throughout most of that period, farmers shared seeds, selected desired phenotypes of plants, and with keen observation and experience sought to understand the environmental factors affecting crop productivity. Through selective breeding, farmers chose plants that were best adapted to their region. By saving seeds of the more desired varieties, they were able to achieve shortened growing seasons, larger fruits or vegetables, enhanced disease resistance, and varieties with higher nutritional value. The birth of botany as a discipline can be traced to ancient Greece.
With the discovery in the first half of the 20th century that radiation and chemicals could create mutations (or changes in the DNA code) in plant cells and germ plasm, plant breeders deliberately induced mutations that they hoped would produce more desirable plant varieties.
After the discovery of recombinant DNA molecule technology (aka gene transplantation) in the early 1970s, the new field of plant biotechnology was launched less than a decade later. Scientists were now capable of cutting and splicing genes and transferring them from one biological entity to another, thereby crossing broad species barriers. Plant biotechnology made its debut at an international symposium in Miami, Florida, in January 1983.
While there have been longstanding controversies between vegetarians and omnivores or organic versus conventional farming, rarely has there been a time when food has divided society into two major warring camps. But that is the situation that people now find themselves throughout the world in response to genetically modified food. One camp proclaims that GMOs represent the future of food. They echo the words of Francis Bacon, the 17th-century philosopher and scientist, who more than four hundred years ago in the New Atlantis, prophesied a future of biotechnology:
“And we make by art, in the same orchards and gardens, trees and flowers to come earlier or later in their seasons, and to come up and bear more speedily, than by their natural course they do. We make them also by art greater much than their nature; and their fruit greater and sweeter, and of differing tastes, smell, colour, and figure from their nature.”
Bacon saw the biotic world around him as providing the feedstock, or starting materials, for recreating plant life on the planet according to human design and utility. In more contemporary terms, the plant germ plasm holds the building blocks for new food crops, just as the chemical elements of the periodic table were the starting material for synthetic chemistry that has brought us plastics, pesticides and nanotechnology.
In the view of the modern agricultural Baconians, farms are like factories. Food production must be as efficient as an assembly line. This means that the producers of food must reduce the uncertainty of inputs and speed up food production to cultivate more crops per given acre, per unit of time, per unit of labor, and per unit of resource input. They proclaim the need for higher food productivity to provide for a growing population of more than 7 billion people on the planet.
The opposing camp is comprised largely of food purists; skeptics of industrial, high chemical input farming; critics of agribusiness; and scientists that are not convinced that genetically modified food is as safe and as ecologically sustainable as its proponents claim it to be. They point out that the altruistic promises of GMO proponents have had no relationship with the actual use of genetic engineering techniques in modern agricultural production. In fact, there have been only two commonly applied major innovations in GMO agriculture: 1) crops resistant to herbicide, and 2) crops that contain their own insecticide. Both methods were designed to find synergies with their corporate sponsor’s existing pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer businesses in order to maximize profits.
GMO skeptics harken back to the transformation of small-scale agriculture, where crop rotation, agro-ecological diversity, family farming, animal husbandry, taste, freshness, and purity were core values. Their perspective on GMOs can best be characterized by use of the acronym GAUF: Genetically Adulterated Unlabeled Food. Consumers, especially those not on the edge of poverty and famine, are asking more from their food than its price, its plentitude, its perfect geometry, its homogenous color, and its shelf life. They are demanding that their food be grown without the use of poisons, that animal protein not be harvested at the expense of the humane treatment of sentient beings, that agricultural practices not destroy the substrate of the natural ecology (the soil), and that modern agriculture not put an end to agrarian life by turning land-based food production into industrially based cell culture and hydroponics.
The fact that Americans have been consuming large amounts of GMO corn and soybeans does not mean that GMO crops are highly desirable nutritionally unless we know that other changes in the crop have not taken place. One report concludes: “Using the latest molecular analytical methods, GM crops have been shown to have different composition to their non-GM counterparts … even when the two crops are grown under the same conditions, at the same time and in the same location.” Nine studies have found that GMO soy contains lower amounts of isoflavones; GMO canola contains lower amounts of vitamin E; and GMO insecticidal rice has higher levels of sucrose, mannitol and glutamic acid than its non-GMO counterparts. These are all results consumers should know about.
Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D., is Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning in the School of Arts & Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine in the School of Medicine at Tufts University. Author of The GMO Deception, he will be speaking at The Real Truth About Health Conference, which will be held Feb. 2-11, 2018, at the Long Island Hilton, in Melville (RealTruthTalks.com).