As a lover of food, I like many of you have some opinions on genetically modified organisms or GMOs in our food supply. Are they a good thing? Is their safety still in question? As I see it, there are a couple problems with GMOs that will make it hard for Americans and others throughout the world come to a consensus on the issue.
First and foremost, there is the problem of imprecise language. Genetic (genes, chromosomes, DNA). Modification (to change). When two parents come together, half of the chromosomes are transferred to the offspring from the female and half from the male. This means that the offspring has been changed. It is genetically different from either the mother or the father. Modification at the genetic level has happened. Throughout history this has happened millions of times in natural settings. Genetic modification is a way of nature. But when we hear the term GMO, we are usually talking about genetic engineering or when humans control what genes are transferred and exhibited in the resulting offspring. Genetic engineering typically happens in a controlled environment. In nature the 50% from the female and 50% from the male is very random. In genetic engineering the human guided result is more precise. Specific genes that have been studied and have known benefits are targeted. This human guidance can speed up nature and make plants and animals that can address a known problem.
Secondly, in the USDA classification of Organic, GMOs were tacked on kind of like a rider on a congressional bill. The USDA guidelines for organic crops certify that genetically modified organisms were not used. It might stand to reason that the organic certification was intended to eliminate the use of pesticides on crops. Many organic producers plant hybrid species. So the conversation is muddled. What the USDA Organic certification has done is lumped together two very different conversations – pesticide usage and GMOs. Marketers very cleverly position organic certified products touting how they are also GMO free and the two become synonymous in the eye of the public. This unfortunately pits two groups against each other and polarizes a battle that maybe should not be a fight at all. There is a place for organics in the marketplace and there are benefits to GMO crops. Why can’t we have both?
Time and time again I hear from teachers about the emphasis on reading and mathematics in elementary school. Science gets pushed to the back burner and sometimes is never addressed. This creates a lack of science literacy in our children that grow up to be uninformed consumers and decision makers. Science should be evidence based. We should arrive at conclusions about the world that we live in by examining the facts, conducting our own experiments and trials, and using the evidence that we collect. Wikipedia and Dr. Oz do not count as evidence. We should be critical thinkers. But when it comes to GMOs we sometimes turn off critical thinking to even understand the issue. The by now famous Jimmy Kimmel sketch is a perfect example of this. People he interviewed were adamantly opposed to GMOs. But when questioned, they didn’t even know what GMOs were. They should have based their thoughts about GMOs on evidence rather than on media hype.
Science is (or can be) boring. But it is also amazing! As someone who loves science, I freely admit that I could have never been a scientist. Science takes a lot of patience and is full of frustrations. Science requires meticulous attention to detail, observation, and the ability to perform the same experiment over and over again to confirm the results. The ‘Eureka moments’ of science are usually pretty rare. And when a breakthrough does happen (like a new genetic trait that can be engineered) it requires months or years of testing. Then the findings are submitted to a community of scientists to review and validate. Then the community of scientists conduct their own version of the experiments to verify the results. Then the scientific advancement has to be approved by government regulators for safety before it would ever come near the food supply. This long, arduous process loses its luster quickly. And as a general public we are less likely to understand or even care about all the hurdles that each scientific advancement had to go through before we hear about it.
Once a new biotechnology has made it through testing and all of the regulatory hurdles there are still a lot of people who will likely oppose it. Their opposition can sometimes be well founded and it is good that we have these questioning minds in our society. But sometimes a very loud, vocal opposition (that may not have evidenced based concerns) builds a large base of support. These vocal opponents often make such a stir that we are hesitant to speak up for the science in fear of being singled out. This spiral of silence creates a vacuum of truth. The only message that is being pushed out is the negative anti-science message. So whatever your thoughts on GMOs are, it is important to understand the science behind them so we can have a healthy debate and end the spiral of silence.
We’re human. Because of my humanness I am curious and have the right to be skeptical. I think this is healthy and that all of us should be skeptical. We should question everything around us. When a new GMO technology comes to the marketplace we should ask why. We should ask if it is safe. We should ask if it benefits us. Then we need to have an open mind to hear the answer and learn. Many GMO technologies allow farmers to spray less chemicals on their crops. I love the idea of less risk of ingesting pesticides. GMOs make that possible. And I also like the idea of my apples not turning brown immediately after I cut them. GMOs make this possible. As humans we have fears and we need to acknowledge those fears as legitimate. Often times understanding calms that fear. I’m still going to question the world around me because I want to understand.
Where do we go from here? Let’s start by talking about genetic engineering rather than GMOs and clearly define the issues at hand. Let’s separate the idea of GMOs from the idea of Organic. Let’s put a priority on teaching our children evidence based science. Let’s celebrate the scientific process and grant a small amount of trust to the scientific community for doing incredible research that improves our lives. Let’s stop the spiral of silence. Let’s keep our healthy skepticism AND approach each issue with an open mind. Are you up for the challenge?