GMOs: Discussing a Heated Debate

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Pulse

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Pulse

By Isobel Whitcomb '17
Environmental Columnist

"GMOs are killing our children slowly.” “Monsanto creates tumors.” “If you walk for a cure then march against the cause.” These slogans were spotted on signs carried by demonstrators involved in the third annual “March Against Monsanto,” in which protesters gathered in over 400 cities worldwide to demonstrate against the American biotech giant. These scenes typify a mainstream reaction to the use of GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms, in food production.

In recent years, the debate over GMOs has taken up a large portion of the media spotlight.
Both sides of the argument have been made equally loud and clear. Heated with emotion, the anti-GMO argument is deeply mistrustful of the corporations that develop and sell GMO technology. On the other side of the debate, people argue that anti-GMO sentiments are overly emotional, scientifically unfounded and create an unnecessary halt in biotechnological progress. Both sides claim objectivity. However, with emotionalism and corporate conflicts of interest on either side of this highly polarized debate, is true objectivity possible?

When looking for an objective analysis, we should first turn to the facts. First of all, what is a genetically modified (GM) food, and how is it made? GM seeds are produced by biotechnology companies, which insert genes into the DNA of conventional plants. The modified seeds then express traits which are favorable to agriculture, such as herbicide and pest resistance, or enhanced nutritional properties. Sometimes, it is the manipulation of genes alone that elicits a visceral reaction in people, who feel it’s unethical to design living organisms. Here it’s important to understand that for thousands of years, people have manipulated the genetics of plants through selective breeding. Without our manipulation, we would not be able to choose between “Granny Smith” and “Pink Lady” apples. However, this “old school” method was slow, whereas modern genetic engineering allows us to radically transform the makeup of food.
It’s always a possibility that rapid changes in the DNA of our crops might lead to unforeseeable consequences in health and the environment. This is the basis of the anti-GMO argument.

However, there is little to no scientific evidence that would suggest that current GM crops are causing any adverse effects. Statements like “Monsanto creates tumors” and “GMO is killing our children slowly” are completely unfounded. No credible studies have ever suggested that GMO foods cause cancer, and very few have suggested that they are harmful at all to human health.

While some studies suggest that GMOs may pose an environmental threat, the majority of studies show that this threat would be negligible. In fact, any potential damage to the environment presented by this minority of studies often has more to do with other farming methods associated with agriculture than with the GM seeds themselves. For instance, GM crops’ herbicide resistance allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops, eliminating weeds. Weeds generally provide a plant diversity that is beneficial to insects like bees and butterflies, so the widespread spraying of Roundup reduces their habitat.

The scientific consensus on GMOs is that they pose no risk to the environment, or to our health. Can this scientific consensus be trusted? A recent study found a significant correlation between studies showing a negligible effect of GMOs on health and environment, and professional and/or financial conflicts of interest. This means that the vast majority of studies published that support the further cultivation of GM crops are associated with funding from companies like Monsanto, or are conducted by scientists working directly for biotech companies.

Science is a constant debate. Very rarely, if ever, have scientific consensuses been reached by one paper. Normally, discoveries are made once studies have been replicated many times.

Often, multiple studies on one topic will have contradictory results. This is the nature of science; it builds on itself. However, in recent years, scientists have come out and spoken about the silencing that occurs within research on biotechnology when researchers come out with results that point to harmful effects. For example, in 2009, Emma Rosi-Marshall, a young female professor from Loyola University published data in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that debris from GM agriculture entering streams caused ecosystem-wide damage. After the article came out, the researcher was assaulted with emotionally charged criticism rarely precedented in the scientific peer-review process. Her research was called “bad science” and she was criticized for “sloppy experimental design.” The response to her study jeopardized her career, making it difficult to publish further studies or secure tenure. This kind of feedback has come to be expected in the community of scientists conducting research on biotechnology, and discourages an open scientific dialogue on potential consequences of GM crops.

True objectivity is often difficult to recognize, even in science. Research is often motivated by personal beliefs in an issue, or funding may come from a source with a specific agenda. This bias is difficult to extricate from the scientific process.

However, the real problem is when one side of the scientific dialogue is silenced. While it is important to understand the unfounded nature ofmany of the arguments presented by anti-GMO advocates, we also need to understand the complicated political and economic climate affecting the scientific material currently available.