The fight over genetically modified foods, whether they’re safe, healthy, good for the environment, or just plain “unnatural,” has been going on for a long time now. Most people in the scientific community agree that genetic modification in general is a good thing, able to create crops that need less water, less fertilizer, less pesticide, or that contain extra vitamins and nutrients that are otherwise difficult to come by in certain parts of the world. Many would also argue that fighting against such life-saving, often environmentally sustainable modifications is a sign of an ignorant anti-science backwardness. Two recent articles in The Guardian and The Economist show that the issues surrounding the acceptance of genetically modified food technologies are a lot more complicated than a simple rational/irrational or scientific/ignorant divide.
In The Guardian article, plant scientist Eoin Lettice points out that most of the genetically modified (GM) plants brought to market today primarily benefit giant multinational corporations rather than the consumer. Tomatoes designed to last longer during long-distance shipment end up tasteless and mealy, and the most common genetically modified foods are designed to be resistant to the weed killer that Monsanto produces, the chemicals in which may actually contribute to health problems (although the numbers in the one study are worst than shaky and a lot more work needs to be done). Moreover, Monsanto and other GM producing corporations aggressively patent their products, holding back research in plant science by not allowing university researchers to use naturally occurring plant gene regulatory sequences that they have patented, and forcing small farmers around the world out of business. Government delays in approving the use of GM products cause a lot of problems for these corporations, and it is in their best interest to make their products seem natural and good and their opponents seem crazy and stupid. Lettice puts it well when he writes:
Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I can’t imagine many Irish or European consumers lying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for [the German chemical company] BASF. What Irish consumers are interested in, however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.
For the most part, real and tangible benefits from current GM technology are not going to be felt by well-fed consumers in Europe and the U.S., but already GM technology has made an impact on the yields and quality of food produced by farmers in developing countries around the world. According to The Economist, 90% of the farmers currently benefiting from GM technology live in poor countries, where soil quality and access to water and fertilizer can make it difficult to grow at the high yields needed to feed the community. The spread of the technology has also made an impact on how companies like Monsanto think:
Attitudes are also changing at Western agribusinesses, some of which used to dismiss poor farmers as mere “seed pirates”. As developing countries develop GM crops of their own, these firms are now pursuing public-private partnerships or joint ventures with local firms and otherwise softening their stance. Monsanto, a hard-nosed pioneer of transgenic crops, is donating its drought-resistant technology to a coalition called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, for example.
As plant engineering technology develops further, these issues will only become more important, and scientists around the world need to consider how their work and their support can go to real people, not just corporations.