We are all genetically modified organisms (GMOs), all 7.1 billion of us and every other creature on earth produced by sexual reproduction. We are all a random combination of our mother’s and father’s genes and are therefore genetically unique modifications. Only identical clones are not genetically modified.
I point this out because the now negatively loaded term “genetically modified” has been misused, abused, and confused to describe recombinant DNA biotechnology, one of the most important advances in the 10,000-year history of agriculture.
Throw in Frankenstein Foods, Killer Tomatoes, and Terminator Seeds, all titles borrowed from scary Hollywood fantasies, and you have the makings of perhaps the most baseless anti-science campaign in the history of anti-science campaigns.
We have been modifying the genetics of plants and animals since agriculture began, first by choosing which superior individuals to select for breeding, and more recently by using radiation and chemicals to induce mutations. How many people know the Durham Wheat used to make most of our pasta had its DNA modified by exposing seeds to high-level gamma radiation? No labeling required.
Oh no, the anti-GMOers opine, “Nature never moves DNA from one species to another; therefore GMOs are ‘unnatural’.” Not so, genes have been moving across species since life began. The random movement of genetic material from one species to another has been one of the driving forces of evolution. The human genome has 70 percent of its genes in common with the sea urchin for example. We would be remiss if we did not harness this naturally occurring phenomenon to improve the genetic makeup of our food crops.
And just how “natural” are automobiles, poodles, circus clowns, and satellite TV?
The new biotech crop varieties have been adopted at such a rapid rate that today 280 million farmers in 27 countries are growing GM crops on 12 percent of the world’s farmland. It would be at least three times that if not for bans and restrictions due to irrational opposition. And now smallholder farmers in developing countries grow the majority of GM crops.
Every credible science, health, and nutrition organization in the world says the GM food available today is safe, without reservation. This includes the World Health Organization, the European Commission, and the Society for Toxicology. These are conservative groups that would not make such a definitive statement if there were the slightest doubt.
But then there are the demon seed companies, with Monsanto leading the effort to “control the world’s food supply”. First, these companies are not weapons manufacturers or drug cartels; they are trying to make better seeds for agriculture; and second, they don’t decide which seeds to plant; farmers do that and they have hundreds of varieties to choose from. It is hard to imagine how seed companies that grow no food crops themselves, and only sell seeds to millions of farmers who want them, could control the world’s food supply. It is a ludicrous accusation.
Recently the first meta-study compiling the results of GM crop performance around the world reported some surprising numbers. On average, GM crops increase yield by 22 percent, reduce pesticide use 37 percent, and increase farmer profits by 68 percent. You don’t have to force those results down farmer’s throats; they line up for more.
It’s time to put an end to the debate over the safety of GM crops and foods. Today nearly all of our beer, wine, cheese and yoghurt are made with GM yeast and culture. Most of our livestock are fed GM corn and soybeans, and most of our prepared foods contain GM ingredients. People who want to believe there is something sinister or unhealthy about GM plants should either buy food that is labeled non-GM or pay double for “organic” food. Then the rest of us who are not afraid of good science can get on with healthy and productive lives.