An anti-GMO rally in Seattle. (Courtesy of Flickr user Alexis Baden-Mayer)
It’s rare to find someone neutral on the subject of genetically modified food—which is, depending on whom you ask, either a risky technology giving Monsanto greater market control, or the heroic invention of scientists who will save us from world hunger.
The last few weeks have brought a flurry of news about scientists and techies trying to save the imperiled orange—and our food supply more generally—through genetic engineering. A few days ago, The New York Times published an in-depth story about farmers and scientists battling anti-GMO public sentiment to rescue oranges from an epidemic bacterial disease. They were testing a new orange (with a gene taken from spinach) that would resist pathogens.
Earlier this month, an article in Slate suggested genetic engineering could move beyond the ills of corporate agriculture and become an open-source project, as hip and democratic as the operating system Linux. The magazine ran a second story from a vegetarian yoga instructor who had seen the light on GMOs. This author chose to debunk a series of arguments against genetic tinkering, most connected to ick-factors—e.g., queasiness over whether animal genes are inserted into plant DNA. The gist of both pieces was that GMOs and genetic property rights should be taken out of corporate control and put into the public domain and the hands of smart, principled scientists.
“When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it’s a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply,” wrote the self-described hippie.
It is doubtless true that the world will need smart science and diverse genetic resources to respond to crises like climate change and disease. But to read these stories, one would think that the biggest objections to GMOs were concocted solely by sentimental greenies and organic food growers with outdated sensibilities. From the Times piece:
Some…scientists were still fuming about what they saw as the lost potential for social good hijacked both by the activists who opposed genetic engineering and the corporations that failed to convince consumers of its benefits. In many developing countries, concerns about safety and ownership of seeds led governments to delay or prohibit cultivation of needed crops: Zambia, for instance, declined shipments of G.M.O. corn even during a 2002 famine.