GMOs Are Complicated, And Our Food System Is Not Designed To Handle Complicated. That’s A Problem


gmo tomato

This month, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) — an independent group created by Congress — released what is, to date, one of the most extensive reviews of genetically modified crops. The nearly 400-page report looks at everything from genetically modified crops’ potential impact on human health to their impact on the environment. It’s a massive, hulking piece of scientific literature — the panel spent two years pouring over more than 1,000 existing studies on genetically modified crops, interviewing 80 witnesses, and analyzing more than 700 comments submitted by the public.

So are GMOs good? Or are they bad?

The NAS report resists making broad generalizations one way or the other, trading black or white distinctions for a detailed and nuanced picture of the pros and cons of GMO crops.

But our food system isn’t set up to handle the kind of nuance that appears in the NAS report. And that’s a problem — for farmers, for scientists, and, above all, for consumers.

Asking if GMOs are good or bad is asking the wrong question

Broadly, the report concludes the genetically modified crops available to date — mostly staple crops like corn or soy that have been engineered to resist either herbicides or pests — are safe for human consumption. The crops are mostly safe for the environment, too, with the caveat that the prevalence of herbicide-resistant crops has led to an increase in herbicide use and, likely, an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds. And while GMOs have helped farmers economically, they have not led to grand increases in yields promised by proponents that see GMOs as the best way to feed the growing population.

But these conclusions are just broad summaries of a massive, complex scientific inquiry. The better takeaway from the NAS study might be that GMOs are really, really complicated.

“If you had a sample size of one man, you might decide men are good or bad depending on that,” Kareiva said. “But as soon as you recognize there are a thousand different men out there, you realize it’s impossible to make a judgement.”

So GMOs, probably, are neither one hundred percent good nor one hundred percent bad. Some of them have key benefits — crops engineered to thwart pests, for instance, have been shown to reduce the amount of pesticides that farmers use. And many of them have some key drawbacks — because the vast majority of genetically modified seeds are patented and sold by large corporations, small farmers often lack access to these crops, feeding into the sense that Big Agriculture has a monopoly on innovation and technology.

The false narrative of ‘natural’ foods

Food is inherently complicated. Farming in India is different than farming in the Midwestern United States, and farming in the Midwestern United States is different than farming in California. Decades of scientific inquiry has found that different methods of farming — organic, conventional, no-till, tilled — often have pluses and minuses. When it comes to sustainability, sometimes efficiency is the most important factor — which can mean that large farms might be more sustainable than small ones.

GMOs are also complicated. They can be created by adding genes from another species into a crop, or they can be created by taking genes out of a crop’s DNA. They can be deployed by large corporations, or by non-profit research firms.

The United States’ food system, however, is terrible at conveying this nuance. That’s partly because food marketing does a great job of selling things to consumers under the auspice of simplicity. There’s no space on a label for deep explanations of how a grocery shopper should evaluate farming practices — we expect consumers to be able to interpret the food system on their own, at a time when consumers have never been further away from the people that produce their food.

Take, for instance, the concept of “natural” — and by extension, the “all natural” label that graces everything from oil to soda. Despite what most consumers think, there’s no standard requirement for manufacturers to label food “natural.” But thanks to a growing consumer interest in “wellness,” or eating foods that are perceived as better for you than others, the “natural” label has been proliferating rapidly in recent years. And consumers are willing to pay a premium for “natural” food, even if that categorization essentially means nothing.

This creates a problem that’s bigger than just cheating uninformed consumers out of a few extra dollars. Ultimately, it feeds into the idea that there is such a thing as “natural” food, with “natural” being inherently better than the opposite. And GMOs are a perfect example of this rift.

When you think about GMOs, you probably think about a crop that contains genetics from another species — a gene from a soil bacteria, for instance, gets added to a crop, and magically that crop starts producing its own insecticide. That doesn’t sound, at first pass, very natural.

This is not at all what GMOs are.

Pictures of scientists in white coats injecting some mysterious fluid into an apple or corn cob — some of the most common stock images associated with genetically modified foods — don’t help dispel the idea that genetically modified foods must be inherently “unnatural.”

But as Nathanael Johnson points out in this great exploration of the definition of GMOs over at Grist, the process of genetic modification can actually be a lot more complicated than that. Lots of crop species have genes from fungi or bacteria that were transferred naturally, completely void of human intervention. Sweet potatoes are the same — thousands of years ago, a soil bacteria inserted itself into the DNA of sweet potatoes, and humans have been eating them without adverse impacts practically ever since.

That doesn’t fit neatly into the simple view of “natural” that food marketers have sold to consumers for years. And so it’s easy to see how that nuance could get lost in the larger conversation about food and breeding.

That’s why it’s difficult to imagine that a report like the NAS study on GMOs will have much of an impact on the debate at a consumer level. The review is a study in nuance meant for a system that thrives on binaries. Since GMOs aren’t binary, they can’t fit into the system of certainty that makes consumers most comfortable.

“Everything is binary, local, non-local, GMO, non-GMO,” Kareiva said. “What if instead we thought about food as ‘let’s describe the food, in all its richness’ like you would art or like a novel, and then let’s see where that gets us.”

The debate about GMOs isn’t really about GMOs

GMOs are often associated with Big Agriculture, an industry that American consumers tend to view with suspicion. And that means that, a lot of the time, the debate over GMOs isn’t so much a debate over whether the technology should be used — it’s about who should use the technology, and how.

“What we have found is that the debate about GM is a debate about today’s food system, more than it is about the GM crops themselves,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, told ThinkProgress.

Kareiva agrees, nothing that opposition to GMOs is largely connected to an opposition toward Big Agriculture itself.

“I’m not sure that that complaint about GMO crops and Big Ag is a complaint about GMO crops or a complaint about Big Agriculture. I understand that Big Ag is driven by the biggest possible markets, and in doing so it leaves behind a lot of needs, no question about that,” he said.
The criticism is not unfounded. As Bill Freese, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, points out, the vast majority of GMO crops have been deployed by big companies that also happen to have a stake in the chemical business: names like Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta. It’s hard to buy into the vision of genetically-engineered crops as altruistic innovations — drought-resistant crops that can help stave off food shocks in the face of climate change, or disease-resistant cassava that can help ensure food security in Africa — when the reality is that many of the GE crops that are currently being deployed are commodity crops tweaked to resist herbicides.

But as with the blurry distinction between “natural” and “unnatural,” trying to judge GMOs solely based on their connection to big agriculture simplifies what is, in reality, a more nuanced issue.

“The irony is that by making so much opposition, and so expensive to get approval, you reinforce the advantage of big agriculture, and you make it harder for the local entrepreneur to design a variety of tomato that is really flavorful and would do really well in California,” Kareiva said. “Let’s separate the criticism of Big Agriculture from the criticism with GMOs, and let’s imagine a future where GMOs could be associated with small farmers.”

The more narrowly we view genetically modified crops, and the more we try to cover them with one-size-fits-all definitions, the more uncomfortable we will become with the technology — because it simply can’t fit into the neat little boxes upon which our current food system thrives. But as GMOs become more complex, it doesn’t make sense for regulatory bodies to keep operating under the oversimplified assumption that “unnatural” GMOs can be pitted against “natural” conventional breeding. In fact, conventional breeding might introduce traits that could pose greater hazards than traits created through genetic engineering.

In the end, the National Academy of Sciences argues for a regulatory system that allows for all the complicated versions of GMOs and non-GMOs to be judged equally, by focusing on the end product, not the process, no matter how the crop is created. That would allow regulatory agencies the flexibility needed to help small producers and non-profits — the people who might be most interested in using the technology in a ways that could align well with what proponents of “natural” or “sustainable” systems are interested in — explore the technology further.

Genetically modified crops are complicated. But so is food. Let’s start treating both like it.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress