GMO A Go-Go: Understanding the Science Behind Engineered Crops

In case you missed the state’s headlines over Fall Break, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution Oct. 21 prohibiting the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) seeds in
Los Angeles. 

While that may seem like welcome news against the backdrop of the media’s obsession with the Ebola-ISIS-Putin Axis of Doom, it
should be noted that the council’s decision is pretty symbolic, at best
representing a measure similar to fossil fuel divestment and at worst being on par with #Kony2012. There is basically no agriculture in L.A., the
country’s second largest metropolis, and GM seeds cannot be purchased at
consumer garden stores.

With
any luck, the decision will generate a little more knowledge about
genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, a much maligned acronym in the American
public eye. A decisive 70 percent of American adults do
not want GMOs in their food, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey, but somehow the issue remains controversial in
Congress. With the partisan bickering surrounding GMOs, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering: Is the GMO controversy just a “distraction,” à la Pomona
President David Oxtoby’s take on fossil fuel divestiture? Or are foodies
justified in their mistrust of GMOs? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

‘GMO’ is a blanket
term for organisms whose DNA has been artificially altered. In reality, almost
all fruits and vegetables have been genetically modified to be bigger, juicier and sweeter. Modern sweet corn, for example, comes from a fairly inedible Mexican grass
called teosinte. Over generations, farmers opted to plant slightly more
and more edible forms of teosinte, eventually converting it to maize, an intermediate
between the grass and sweet corn. This process is known as artificial
selection, a form of genetic modification that is responsible for the creation
of everything from bananas and apples to dogs, cats and horses.

The
modern usage of ‘GMO’ refers to the scientific modification of three main
crops—corn, soy and cotton—which are subject to two main genetic alterations.
One type (Bt) causes cotton and corn to produce a molecule that is toxic to
insects. But corn can, in turn, kill a host of different pests without the help of
chemical pesticides. 

The other major type of GMO, ‘herbicide tolerant’ (HT), allows corn, soybeans and cotton to resist herbicides that contain the common
chemical glyphosate so farmers can kill weeds by spraying their entire field
without worrying about destroying crops. In a stunning feat of conniving
capitalism, HT soybeans were actually developed by the Monsanto Company to
increase sales of their glyphosate-containing herbicide Roundup. 

Both
of these modifications emerged in 1996 and have grown to constitute 90 percent of the
acreage of corn, soy and cotton in the United States. Corn, soy and cotton
are used in a huge range of foods—essentially anything with corn syrup, corn
starch, cottonseed oil, soy lecithin or soy protein could come from a GMO. GMOs have proliferated rapidly because they sustainably
increase crop yields at low cost, widening profit margins for agricultural
companies. Proponents point out that increased yields of basic crops
mean a lot for the world’s poor and hungry, who could benefit greatly from amplified
food production.

A range of
controversies exist surrounding the use of these crops, ultimately boiling down to three
major issues: environmental concerns, health concerns and
government/corporate transparency.

Environmentally,
GMOs may threaten naturally developed ecosystems. Limited and non-replicated evidence
suggests insects that are not pests, like monarch butterflies, may be sensitive
to Bt toxins. Other GMO critics propose that the widespread use of Roundup
with HT crops will give rise to ‘superweeds’ capable of resisting attempts at chemical eradication.  

Health-wise,
there is reason to question whether the altered plants are dangerous for human
consumption. Though not traditionally considered toxic, glyphosate has been
shown to increase growth in human breast cancer cells at extremely low
concentrations. Evidence also suggests Bt toxins can cause different bacteria
to flourish in the human gut, resulting in allergies and food sensitivities. 

Again, these claims have some evidence to back them up, but such papers are few
and far between. In fact, a meta-analytic review of 1,783 GMO studies found almost
no evidence that GMO products are unsafe. But a 2011 study by scientist Johan Diels and
colleagues estimated that 44 percent of scientific GMO literature has at least one
author affiliated with the agricultural business, and author affiliation was
significantly correlated with study outcomes that were favorable for proponents
of GMO use.

This
brings us to the last criticism: the lack of political transparency surrounding
GMO use and research. American farming is synonymous with big business.
Monsanto alone is worth $20 billion. With this money comes legal and
political power, and anti-GMO folks claim companies like Monsanto use this
power to affect research into GMO safety and keep Congress from passing laws
forcing GMO foods to be labeled as such. This can be reduced to a pretty simple
question: If Monsanto and its corporate farming partners actually knew that
GMOs were dangerous, do you think they would allow this information to reach
the public? My speculation is no.

With
all the blustering in American politics, it’s difficult to discern who the more
threatening exaggerators are: those who exaggerate the downsides of genetically
modified crops, or those who play up their utility in the face of concern. Not
much evidence suggests GMOs are dangerous, but that doesn’t make them safe. For
poor farmers in India, China and South Africa who have already adopted Bt
corn, it may be more important to generate more food and more revenue than to
it is to avoid potential risks, and anti-GMO attitudes may tarnish a
fundamentally safe technology that could do wonders to combat hunger. 

In the
more developed world, those who fear GMOs can avoid ‘processed’ foods that are
likely to contain corn, soy or cotton, or buy foods that are specifically
labeled as being GMO-free. For me, the hassle and cost of eating GMO-free just
hasn’t proven to be worth the benefit of escaping the still-hypothetical
risks. That being said, I think the onus should be on corporate farms to prove
their products are safe as opposed to the scientific community being forced to
prove GMOs are unsafe. Unfortunately, such a method can only be achieved with
government regulation, and, given the embarrassing incompetence of our current Congress, I wouldn’t expect changes any time soon. 

Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry. 

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