How I’m Moving Forward in the GMO Food Debate

Bosworth Battlefield (2)

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, “The Genetically Modified Food Debate”, which introduced a series of articles by Nathanael Johnson, a Grist.org writer that’s taken on the big task of sorting through the GMO debate to provide the straight story on where the science, politics and implications to people and planet truly stand.

As someone who’s followed the topic of GMO for many years, I’ve often wished for a series of articles just like this. It’s a heroic effort and having the opportunity to go on an exploration of sorts through these articles has helped me crystallize what I believe are the biggest issues and necessary next steps in the GMO food debate. If you’d like to read Johnson’s series, you can start here and find links to subsequent posts at the bottom of each article.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that as humans we are hard-wired to experiment, research and evolve our understanding of the world. Given what I know of evolution and farming, biotechnology seems like a logical place for exploration in science. It’s in the application of this science that things can get complicated. My sense is that, like most things, the best scenario for people and planet as it relates to genetic modification is toward the center from either side of the extreme.

My primary concern about genetically engineered food crops is not so much about the study of biotechnology in plants, but the ripple effect the application of these crops is having on current farming practices and our global food community. Here are some of the things I find most troubling:

  • GMO are often bred for resistance to herbicides and pesticides. As a result, weed-killing herbicide use on genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton increased by 383 million pounds in the U.S. from 1996 to 2008.
  • GM crops support the practice of mono-cropping (growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year). This approach has an economic benefit in that it simplifies farming operations and decreases labor costs. However, mono-cropping depletes nutrients from the soil and decreases crop-yields over time creating a need for increased synthetic fertilizer use. Although there may be a short-term economic gain, there’s a larger long-term cost to the health of the planet.
  • Implementation of GMO and mono-cropping practices in developing countries has impacts that go beyond just human and planet health. Traditional knowledge about how to farm the land, what indigenous plants provide nutrients of need and seed saving techniques to maintain biodiversity…all this wisdom that is passed from generation to generation may be lost and maybe more importantly, be seen as inferior to modern conventional methods.

The biggest hurdle to finding a path forward that is acceptable to groups on both sides of this issue seems to sit within science. Through Johnson’s articles, it’s clear that the methods we have to determine safety and the impact to human and planet health are flawed. The questions we’re asking through testing simply do not provide the answers many people are seeking to understand. This is an issue that’s much bigger than just GMO, but yet one that is effectively stalling the ability of the food community to find consensus about how to move forward. Until we evolve both the methods of testing and what we’re testing for, I don’t see how we’re going to come together.

So, what to make of all this? Well, as for me, I plan to keep looking [read: hoping] for an evolution in testing, particularly in the form of support from our government to investigate new approaches to better answer the valid concerns around GMO’s impact to people and planet health. In the meantime, as we continue to navigate our way to better answers, I believe the right thing to do is provide as much transparency and through that, education, as possible. We don’t have the answers, and until such a time that we do and this matter is settled, why not let people make their own decision? Let’s label GM foods, raise awareness and hopefully get to a place where we can argue towards solutions.

If you’re interested in doing some digging of your own into this issue, Johnson also did a recent article that provides a “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the most popular books on GMO. You can read this article here.

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