This is the third time I’ve posted on the subject of GMO crops. I’m not a scientist (duh) and most of my readers are not, either. Thus, wading through the contradicting claims of pro-GMO and anti-GMO factions has been a task similar to the kind of homework assignments I loathed as a kid. That said, here’s what I’ve come to believe so far, based on the numerous papers, articles, and studies I’ve read, all of which were sent by readers of this blog. It is a fraction of the literature available and by no means complete, so I’ve come to these conclusions based on a combination of the admittedly small amount of reading I’ve done and my own process of critical thinking. Read for yourself and make up your own mind.
1. The preponderance of scientists with knowledge in these areas appear (to me) to believe that the process of genetically modifying crops and the modified crops currently on the market are safe. They’ve come to this conclusion because the preponderance of evidence and studies show no deleterious effects to health or the environment. The studies and papers used to come to this conclusion have been peer-reviewed and published by reputable scientific journals and the like. In general, I do not trust corporations but I do trust scientists over activists. (Even though most of my friends are activists and I am often called one myself.) That said, you must keep in mind that you can always find some scientists who will discredit anything. A few years ago a reader was regularly sending me articles by a couple of well-lettered scientists who regularly make arguments against evolution and for creationism. That’s their right, but it isn’t science. The fact that you can never get everyone to agree on a topic is why the scientific community has historically used general consensus and peer review as a method of determining the truth. This, to me, seems the best we can do in any question of science or technology.
2. The anti-GMO papers and articles I’ve read have been rigorously defended by non-scientists and equally rigorously attacked by scientists for being rife with small amounts of cherry-picked, non-peer-reviewed or even unpublished studies that have been discredited by the scientific community as a whole. That doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t some truth in what they say, but it does mean that what they are passing off as scientific evidence of the harmful effects of GMO crops does not meet the standards of science.
3. Everyone hates Monsanto.
4. Lots of people object to the fact that Monsanto manufactures GMO seeds to make money. That, for me, is not enough evidence to say that the products are dangerous. Antibiotics are manufactured for profit, but I’m still going to use Neosporin on my cuts.
5. I do not trust Monsanto, almost no average person does. But I don’t trust pharmaceutical companies either, yet I take advantage of their medical advances. Yes, I’d like to keep a close eye on them. No, I don’t think that everything they touch is inherently evil just because they make obscene profits from them.
5. Various sources have reported that there are a lot of suicides by farmers in India as a result of the bad business practices of Monsanto, the failure of the seeds sold by them, and that this is a huge problem that has not previously existed. I’m certain at this point that all of these claims are utterly false. Here’s why: The crop primarily in question is called Bt cotton. It has been sold in India for a decade and has done so well that over 95% of all cotton in India is now from Bt seeds. The reason farmers have overwhelmingly chosen Bt cotton in India is because it has raised crop yields and profits by huge margins. In short, it works, as advertised. On occasion drought and other factors have killed Bt crops (as well as everything else) and people have used this to point a finger at GMO crops. These crops were not designed to defeat severe drought, which will kill any kind of cotton. For cultural reasons (presumably) suicide is an alarmingly common practice in India and has been for ages. There are nearly 200,000 suicides per year in India and farmers have consistently made up only about 15% of those. There seems not to be a substantial rise in the rate of farmers committing suicide that is not also reflected in the suicide rate of the overall population. These facts appear to me to be indisputable. Here are two excellent and credible (published and peer reviewed) sources with lots of juicy graphs to show both cotton yield and suicide rates.
6. Labeling GMO products seems like a good idea and in keeping with the general principle that consumers deserve to know what they are eating. Many people assume that if Monsanto is trying to fight these labels in court, they must have something to hide. From what I can tell, the reason Monsanto and others are fighting this in court is that so much fear and suspicion has been created by opponents of GMO that these labels may effectively destroy the market for these products. From a business perspective I can understand their concern. If the scientific community agrees that there is no real danger but the public ignorantly believes otherwise, is it fair to mark them with a scarlet letter? If someone somehow convinced the public that reading Bizarro cartoons causes brain cancer, even though the vast majority of neurologists and oncologists disagreed vehemently, would I fight against my work being labeled with a “Could Cause Cancer” banner? Certainly. Though I’m still on the fence about this point, I think at present I favor labeling because I favor consumer knowledge and choice. But part of that knowledge should be whether these crops are actually dangerous or if it is only fear-based hype.
7. Genetic bioengineering sounds scary. And it can very easily be made to sound even scarier. But virtually any new science or technology can. There was a time when cutting a person open and removing a tumor was condemned as “playing god”. The practice must have sounded ghoulish and horrifying to people of the time. I can only imagine the kinds of fears people had when someone began conducting brain surgery. Microwave ovens were thought to make food radioactive and dangerous to eat. There are people who still believe that, even after decades of common use. Until a new science becomes common, it is often seen as the stuff of which horror films are made. But as a being capable of rational thought, I try to base my decision on the general consensus of experts. Yes, they can be wrong, too. But they know a hell of a lot more about science and medicine than I do.
Since you are also a rational being, you should educate yourself and make up your mind, too. As trusting as I am of the experts I’ve read in this context, I must admit that I may be a little skittish about eating GMO corn before it has been around a while and I get used to seeing it. I’ve got my careful side, too, I guess.
Thanks again to everyone from both sides of this debate for your comments and links.