Jan 20 2014

Seeing Beyond the GMO Debate

Genetic engineering overthrows the old rules governing the relationship of nature and culture in a plant – Michael Pollan

People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice. – University of Florida scientist

In a special election last May, Portlanders voted about whether to add fluoride to the city’s water supply. The proponents on both sides were equally impassioned, at times angry, and perpetually convinced of the rightness of their perspective. National media outlets and nonprofits rained opinions, judgements, and money onto both camps, with the media occasionally ridiculing Portland as that “weird city” when polls started to indicate that the citizens might ban fluoride. Though I wasn’t on the fence about which direction I planned to vote, I didn’t feel comfortable siding with a specific camp, lest I be cast as an uneducated kook by outsiders, or attacked for the the grey hue of my views. Ultimately, after special interests shelled out over $1 million to sway voters’ opinions, all stayed the same in the Rose City as Portland voted, for the fourth time, to ban fluoride from the water supply. Just as Portland’s water remain unchanged, so too did the opinions of most everyone who voted; months of rhetoric and emotional advertisements didn’t do much to sway anyone’s opinion.

On a national level, the fight to label and ban (or not) genetically modified foods bears eerie similiarites to Portland’s fluoride fight. Unlike traditional plant or animal breeding, which employ methods such as selective mating, seed saving, and grafting to influence traits like size, color, productivity, and pest resistance, genetic engineering involves inserting genes from one species into the genetic code of a different species (a spinach gene into an orange; a soil bacterium into corn; a corn gene into rice). Proponents of genetically modified organisms argue that the traditional methods of selective breeding are nearly identical to genetic engineering (after all, both try to influence the behaviors of an organism and involve human intervention), and that we’re quibbling over minor details – where the desired trait comes from and how it’s inserted into genetic code pales in importance to the benefits of the resulting organism.

Much ink (both real and virtual) has been spilled debating the merits of GMOs, and journalists like Amy Harmon of the New York Times write sentences that draw easy parallels between GMOs and grafting. When describing the future of genetically modified oranges in her article, A Race to Save the Oranges by Altering their DNA, Harmon wrote, “the vast majority of oranges in commercial groves are the product of a type of genetic merging that predates the Romans, in which a slender shoot of a favored fruit variety is grafted onto the sturdier roots of other species: lemon, for instance, or sour orange.” By using the word “genetic”, she gently guides her readers away from the thought that genetically modified organisms might be something of which to be weary, and are instead just business as usual. While any kind of breeding, genetically modified or traditional, involves selecting for desired traits, genetically modified organisms come into existence either by being shot with a gene gun (shooting pellets coated with DNA into plant tissue), or using the microbe Agrobacterium tumefaciens.

Harmon’s most recent article on GMOs featured a profile of one Hawaiian congressman who voted against banning genetically modified organisms on Hawaii; since the article was published, I haven’t been able to open my twitter account without immediately being forced to scroll through a deluge of retweets and rebuttal tweets of Harmon’s article, along with other journalists linking to helpful fact sheets like Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds. Despite its controversial tone (at least according to my food brethren), Harmon’s article is not unique in its scope: when writing about genetically modified organisms, whether the journalist presents an article that opposes genetically modified organisms, opposes studies that oppose genetically modified organisms, or attempts to stay somewhere in the middle, most of the resulting rebuttals aim to achieve one of several things:

  • Discredit studies related to GMOs
  • Caution against the monopolization of our food supply, both from a GMO angle and otherwise
  • Prove that genetically modified organisms are harmful...or not
  • Cast the opposite camp in a negative light

In newspapers, magazines, and radio, what I absorb are the two extremes, often sharing the same party line over and over, convincing no one. What this conversation needs is nuance, but as someone who didn’t want to cast her refined perspective into the fluoride debate, I’m not surprised that such a polarizing issue seems to be without much in the way of nuanced information and studies. When the New York Times published Harmon’s Hawaiian GMO article, I initially read it with the hope that this was finally the refined article the conversation needed. Her concept – to use a “common man” as the proxy to explain complicated questions and concerns – is an effective one (so effective, in fact, that she employed the same technique in her previous orange greening article).

With each article, Harmon adopts an editorial stance that supports a nuanced conversation, yet in both pieces, her quotes, descriptions, and links to outside articles and studies find her firmly on one side, despite aspirations to present a refreshing, non-polarizing view. She toes that common industry line (and with it, uses my favorite response when genetically modified organisms are challenged: we must feed the world!) with quotes like: “advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests”, and “Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment.”

Though both articles initially seem to present several angles, Harmon ends up drawing conclusions that promote the mainstream scientific consensus, while simultaneously dismissing the majority of views that question the existing research. Representative Ilagan was tasked with voting on whether or not to ban genetically modified crops on the Hawaiian Islands, and before voting, he asked clarifying questions of several scientists and farmers. While the depth of Ilagan’s questions is unclear, the resulting answers are presented in the article as definitive facts. Representative Ilagan is portrayed in a similar manner to the star of Harmon’s orange article, Ricke Kress. As president of Southern Gardens Citrus, Kress is desperate to find a cure for the bacteria ravaging orange groves all over Florida. Both Kress and Ilagan are portrayed as renegades fighting against popular opinion and siding with science: “Mr. Ilagan sought answers on his own,” Harmon writes. “In the process, he found himself, like so many public and business leaders worldwide, wrestling with a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence.” Further, Harmon describes Mr. Kress’ thought process: “Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies had concluded that existing GMO’s were as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others had issued statements to the same effect.”

Harmon carefully plants her words much like a farmer sows her seeds, leaving subtle hints about the mental acumen and cultural make-up of believers in each camp. On the anti-GMO side, we have “college students, eco-conscious shoppers and talk show celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz and Bill Maher”. On the pro-GMO side, we have respected scientists. She pads both articles with familiar lines about the necessity of trusting science, needing to consider GMOs as a necessity to feed an ever-expanding population, and reassurances that genetically modified organisms haven’t been found to be harmful.

Here’s what we’re currently genetically engineering:

  • Soybeans/Canola/Sugar Beets: Engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate by inserting an enzyme that allows them to stay alive when the herbicide is sprayed
  • Corn/Cotton: Modified to release Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to kill insects like the cornworm
  • Rice: Still in test phase; engineered to be fortified with genes from a soil bacteria and maize to produce beta carotene
  • Papayas: Resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus by containing certain viral capsid proteins that elicit an “immune response” from the papaya plant.
  • Salmon: Engineered to grow in half the time by inserting two genes into salmon – a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon, and a gene from the ocean pout (which switches on the growth hormone)

The question that must be asked, whether the discussion is centered around fluoridation or GMOs, is why are we at this point? Writers and researchers on both sides of the GMO issue have written copious articles tackling the subject of why the world does or does not need GMOs, and why these GMOs will or will not harm us. But these questions miss the larger one: how have we reached a point where the only solutions to public health problems are simple, seemingly blunt catch-alls for which only a positive or negative opinion is allowed?

Nathanael Johnson, a writer at Grist, recently spent over six months researching, interviewing, and writing about genetically modified organisms in an awe-inspiring 26 part series designed to uncover facts while separating internet rhetoric from emotional knee-jerk reactions. His series is fascinating both in its breadth and for its conclusion: that there’s no yes-or-no answer about the relevance or future of genetically modified organisms.

Johnson culminates his series by writing that “the banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system. Farmers could always do fine without it.” This thought is nearly identical to one that Mark Bittman raised in his most recent article responding to General Mills’ GMO-free Cheerios. When news broke that consumers will soon have a choice to purchase GMO-free Cheerios, Bittman responded that General Mills “has done little more than source non-GMO cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar” and that “eliminating GMOs would not do much to remedy what’s wrong with industrial agriculture; that’s going to require a hard look at crop rotation, chemical applications and monoculture in general.”

Through a myriad of factors, including increased fertilizer use, consolidation and vertical integration of everything from seeds and animals, to processing, distribution, and grocery, as well as vast monocrops of corn and soy and the continued export of our processed, Western diet (not to mention trade restrictions that encourage the spread of this diet), we now find ourselves at an impasse. We can continue on as usual, fighting superweeds and super-pests with more chemicals and plants bred to resist those chemicals, churning out salmon way faster than they’d ever reproduce in the wild, and eliminating the natural oxidation process of foods like apples and instead engineering apples that don’t turn brown. Or, we can take a step in an entirely different direction, and work to strengthen individual ecosystems through a more holistic approach to agriculture, one that mimics natural systems and allows for crop rotations, one that promotes an intimate understanding of plant ecology, in which these systems promote natural pest resistance, and food is planted in patterns designed both to nurture the crops and provide a safety net if one crop fails. This involves a complicated transition away from mass-produced uniformity, and a move toward flexibility – and ultimately, harmony with plants and animals, instead of warfare against them.

Near the end of his series, Johnson writes, “We still have to ask: What type of GMOs [are we debating]? Are we talking about rice engineered to feed the poor in Indonesia, or soy engineered to feed pigs in a country suffering from calorie surpluses? Those two plants don’t belong in the same argument.” On quick reflection, the methods and rationales may be different, but rice engineered to feed the poor in Indonesia is exactly the blanket, blunt instrument from which we need to move away. Genetically modified rice is not a panacea that solves Indonesia’s or Africa’s vast nutritional deficits; I don’t buy into the argument that this rice will completely improve people’s nutritional lives when the problems are much deeper and more complicated than a simple lack of beta-carotene.

When you separate the GMO discussion from the labeling issue (I agree, by the way, that the public, already out of control of so much of the food system, should at least have an inkling of what kind of food they’re eating), or the issue of whether it’s safe to consume GMOs (if you steer clear of many processed foods, you can simultaneously steer clear of GMOs), a commonality appears when you compare all the foods that have been genetically manipulated: they are designed to prop up our current, unsustainable agricultural system. Why are they necessary? To allow us to grow billions of acres of corn and soy that feed billions of heads of cattle, pigs, and chickens and create box upon box of processed food, of course. These genetically modified crops provide our nation with a way to grow monocrops of narrow genetic makeups, with the thought that we can continue on indefinitely.

In the case of the genetically modified papaya, a genetic change allowed the Hawaiian papaya to continue growing, saving an entire industry from devastation. Because papayas, and so many similar foods, are grown in isolated dense swaths, they are susceptible to the kind of diseases that can level an entire industry (which, as Harmon writes, is soon to happen to the orange industry). But, how long will these virus-resistant papayas remain resistant? In this view, it’s not our culture that should change; it’s food. Stop browning, apples! Stop taking so long to grow, salmon! Why don’t you have beta-carotene in you, rice? Why do so many weeds grow around you, vast monocrop of corn?

In the Portland water fluoridation debate, proponents of the measure introducing fluoridation focused on alleviating tooth decay, an ailment that is frequently linked to diet, and further linked to poverty, work, and culture. But, the fluoride argument skips understanding the more complicated problems causing gum disease and supports an expensive solution, one that just happens to be the byproduct of the industrial fertilizer industry (phosphate). It’s much easier to blanket the entire population with a chemical fix than to create targeted solutions that address the larger problems of poverty. Likewise, we have more than enough food “to feed the world” today; the problem is what so much of our food is being used for: as food for the rich world’s food. With GMOs, it’s easier to continue planting our vast monocrops, a vital cog in our industrial agricultural machine, than to consider a new way of doing things.

In 2008, when GMOs were in their relative infancy (especially related to public awareness) Michael Pollan fortuitously wrote that “the industry has succeeded in depicting these plants simultaneously as the linchpins of a biological revolution – part of a ‘new agricultural paradigm’ that will make farming more sustainable, feed the world and improve health and nutrition – and, oddly enough, as the same old stuff, at least so far as those of us at the eating end of the food chain should be concerned.”

Just as Representative Ilagan and Ricke Kress were proxies in Harmon’s articles, GMOs are the proxies for talking about the larger problems in our nation’s agricultural system. When journalists, nutritionists, and scientists discuss GMOs, they could just as easily be discussing the food system as a whole. GMOs just provide a lens with which to express concerns over subjects like:

  • Corporate control of the food supply
  • Environmental consequences of indutrtial agriculture: soil health, superweeds, bacterial outbreaks, blight, disruption of natural systems
  • Governmental loopholes

Our industrial food system has succeeded in eliminating the idea that plants are living creatures that, in many situations, are equipped to take care of themselves. For example, several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps sense this scent, find the attacked plant, and destroy the caterpillars. We’ve changed the environment in which plants take care of themselves, and now we’re manipulating the genetic structures of those very plants. When journalists and scientists equate genetically modified organisms to traditional breeding methods, they leave out key facts: with diversity comes strength and redundancy. Traditional hybridizations and breeding (let’s leave out modern versions of this, like creating cows that can produce ten times more milk than before, especially when growth hormones play a role) were designed around specific environments, and in those environments, were bred to resist pests and boost yields. Genetically modified organisms are a “one size fits all” solution. Or as Pollan wrote in 2008, “biotechnology is the new silver bullet that will save monoculture. But a new silver bullet is not a new paradigm – rather, it’s something that will allow the old paradigm to survive.”

At the conclusion of his lengthy series, Johnson asks, “Do we absolutely need genetically engineered crops to feed the world?” His answer: “No. So far GMOs have mainly been used in animal feed and biofuels. Genetic engineering has helped minimize the amount of grain lost to insects and weeds, but it hasn’t boosted intrinsic yields.” Here’s my addition: Let’s stop asking that tired “feed the world” question. It’s time to leave behind blunt, forced solutions and allow communities space and resources to develop tools and opportunities to feed themselves. GMO proponents push these genetically modified solutions because of their trust in science, but the true scientific response would be to better study the natural phenomena at the heart of environmental processes, modeling our systems after the adaptive networks that form the linchpin of biology on both a micro (symbiotic bacteria) and macro (ecology) scale. The problem with GMOs, and the problem with industrial agriculture as a whole, is its inherent reductionism: just like there isn’t one food you can eat to make you healthy always and forever, there isn’t one silver bullet that will fix our complicated agricultural system’s present and future. But by moving beyond the binary, “for-or-against” nature of our current debates, perhaps we can begin constructing better methods for our food and environmental systems.