Should We Be Growing Genetically Modified Crops?

As someone interested in food policy and global food systems, I am often asked what my opinion is on GMOs, so I decided it was high time I formulate one.  After finally tackling the debate for a school research project, I have come out on the other side with a (somewhat) educated opinion on this question: Should we be growing genetically modified crops? GMO image This is an incredibly complex issue, with duplicitous factors at play – from politics to religion.  For the purpose of my research I focused on three key categories of interest: environmental impact, human safety, and socioeconomic impact.

My final paper was 20+ pages, so I will provide a brief summary of the debate and my findings here, but if you are interested in reading the whole thing you can view it on my pressfolios page (karipierce.pressfolios.com).  I hope this helps you to consider new perspectives and to raise questions of your own!  I have added some of the more useful sources from my research to the bottom of this post, if you are interested in diving into the deep end.

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Environmental Impacts: Pros and Cons
Proponents of GM crops argue that there is a considerable amount to be gained from GM crops by way of environmental impact.  Their most commonly cited environmental benefits are reduction in pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions, and the conservation of non-agricultural ecosystems.

One of the most widely recognized environmental concerns of planting GM crops is our inability to keep them under control.  The Institute for Responsible Technology explains that by introducing GM crops into the environment we put both natural species, and other conventional crops at almost-certain risk of crosspollination.  Marion Nestle also addresses this risk in her book What to Eat, warning against what she considers to be the “inability of biotechnology companies to keep their genes under control”.

Another serious concern over the commercial use of GM crops is the evolutionary potential for ‘super bugs’ and ‘super weeds’ to develop. Despite claims from the biotechnology industry that resistance can be held at bay by careful crop management, many scientists – both pro- and anti-GMO – argue that this evolution of insects and weeds will happen eventually through natural selection.

Health Impacts: Pros and Cons
Proponents of GM crops see improved health as the biggest benefit of GM crops, while opponents see it as one of the scariest unknowns.  One of the strongest arguments that the pro-GMO camp makes is that increasing yields by planting GM seeds is the best, if not only way to feed growing populations and to end world hunger.  As the whole world faces serious issues of hunger and malnutrition, and rising population levels, biotechnology is seen by many as a sort of golden ticket, an answer for the all consuming question, “how will we feed everyone?”

The question of whether or not GM foods are safe for human consumption really comes down to the unknown.  Not only do we not know very much about the impact of consuming GM foods, but there is also a tremendous amount of conflicting data that has been published on the subject.  All pro-biotechnology institutions, like the U.S. federal government, claim that GM foods are safe for human consumption because they are not significantly different from their non-GM counterparts.  Several studies have been published, however, that suggest otherwise.  One of the biggest concerns here is that very little testing is done on the health impacts of consuming GM products before they are put on the market.

Socio-economic impacts: Pros and Cons
The socio-economic impacts of GM crops are highly disputed.  The central argument made by biotechnology proponents is that the increased yields promised from GM crops will increase farmer revenue, and alleviate poverty in developing countries.  Others point out that this elevated revenue level has potential to lead to other socioeconomic benefits, such as increased access to education for children.

One of the biggest socioeconomic concerns stems from the financial motivation of the companies that develop and control the GM seeds, and the way that these transnational corporations trap farmers, both domestically within the U.S. and internationally, in a cycle of dependency.  Farmers who use patented GM seeds are not legally allowed to save seeds from one season to the next; they are obligated to purchase and use the expensive chemical sprays that are designed to work with the GM plants; and once they grow the GM crop it is extremely difficult to revert back to non-GM crops because they will likely be breaking patent laws by unintentionally growing contaminated seeds.  Additionally, GM seeds are expensive, and require the use of expensive chemicals.

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This analysis of the GMO debate brings to light an important point: genetic modification is still in its early stages, and it has not even come close to reaching its full potential.  That is to say, that while the risks of growing GM crops on the commercial level for human and animal consumption are very real at present that does not mean that genetic engineering is a failed technology.  Biotechnology has tremendous potential to address the panacea of problems associated with our current model of industrial agriculture, both for developed countries like the U.S. and for countries who are seeking to model their system after our own.  But until these considerable questions on the safety and sustainability of GM crops are thoroughly tested and conclusively answered, we need to slow down the advancement of agro-biotechnology, and proceed with caution.

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Some of my most useful sources:
Kaplan, Melanie D.G. (2010, June 30). Biotechnology will help us feed the world. Smart Planet, retrieved from http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/usda-chief-scientist-how-biotechnology-will-help-us-feed-the-world/4074.
Mannion, A.M. & Morse, Stephen (2012). Biotechnology in agriculture: Agronomic and environmental considerations and reflections based on 15 years of GM crops. Progress in Physical Geography, 36(6), 748.
Nestle, Marion (2006). What to eat (pp. 58-59). New York: North Point Press.
Stone, Glenn Davis (2010). The anthropology of genetically modified crops. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 383.
Thomson, Jennifer A. (2006). Seeds for the future: The impact of genetically modified crops on the environment (111). Ithica, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.
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2 Responses to Should We Be Growing Genetically Modified Crops?

  1. Emily says:

    I love how informative this post is — and you manage to report without pointing fingers and being overly opinionated. That’s hard to do! After reading your post I intend to read your paper in full. My thoughts at this point are that the potential health risks of consuming GM foods are not worth the other socioeconomic or environmental “pros”. Great post Kar!

  2. Lisa Ashley says:

    Thanks for succinctly summarizing three of the main issues I have come across in my own pursuit of information about GM seeds, crops, etc. I agree, the jury is out, way out and we should definitely proceed with greater caution. So sorry that our desire to make money often drives the rush to produce. If our food was labelled we could make our own choice about whether or not to consume them. The “voice of the people” is actually, in my opinion, part of the research that needs to be used in making decisions about how much to plant, where to plant, etc. Complicated is right!! I will read your paper (as soon as I finish my own for finals!). Glad to have this as a springboard!

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