Oct 17, 2017
Food News, October 2017
Science, regardless of what high school textbooks say, is not black and white. Scientists are, after all, human; they interpret data through the filter of their worldview. Numbers are subject to human politics, including the data behind genetically-modified (GM) foods.
What exactly are GM foods? Genetically engineered food production, otherwise known as recombinant DNA technology, is based on the science of genetic determinism, which sees mankind, and the world we live in, as essentially materialist or physical. Biotechnologists take a specific gene from one organism and place it into the DNA of another organism in order to create a new type of seed with one or more desired traits, such as herbicide-tolerant plants and, most recently, apples that do not go brown after you cut them. This process is known as in vitro DNA modification.
The recent documentary Food Revolution, narrated by the well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, claims that genetic engineering has the potential to feed the world, and that the anti-GMO movement is like climate-change deniers—its concerns are misguided and even dangerous. The documentary, however, fails to cover GMOs from a big picture perspective, while blatantly misquoting the views of sustainable food advocates like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle. Indeed, the documentary’s funding is also in question, as the organisation behind the film is closely tied to the food industry.
Like Food Revolution, many GM studies are also problematic. Food industry giants like Monsanto deny the validity of any study or meta-analysis that questions their product, while funding research that supports their products and, hence, their bank accounts. There is in fact a “revolving door” between members of the food industry and government officials, which of course does not exactly inspire confidence in the actual safety of genetically engineered food production.
From a health perspective, eating a GM potato is not necessarily going to kill you, make you autistic or give your baby 14 toes. But (jokes aside) genetically engineered food production has been linked to health risks such as cancer.
The potential risks of GMOs are not, however, limited to human health. GM crops are monoculture crops and are therefore prone to the issues this type of agricultural production causes, including a dramatic decrease in the environmental diversity essential to a balanced ecosystem. In fact, a growing body of research on the ecological impact of GM food production, for example, indicates that over time both weeds and insects can develop resistance to these new chemicals and crops, thereby necessitating the use of more and more pesticides (chemicals that have been linked to cancer and birth defects) for the same desired effect. Once GMOs are incorporated into complex ecosystems, their effect on the interconnected nature of these systems is little understood. This risk is particularly alarming in light of the fact that genetically engineered seeds contaminate non-GMO crops through natural processes such as pollination and the weather.
We have to remember that GM science is in its infancy—to make broad statements like “GMOs are perfectly safe,” is not only misleading but also myopic. Such pronouncements do not even take into account the simple fact that GM soy, corn and wheat, like conventional corn, soy and wheat, are used to make highly processed and addictive foods made up of empty calories. These types of foods are not feeding the world—they are making people sick.
GM food production should also make us think twice about food sovereignty. Biotech companies are continually increasing their control over what we eat. Since these companies can patent their GM seed technology, farmers can no longer save their seeds and plant them in subsequent seasons—a time-honored practice that has continued since the beginning of agriculture. But is it safe to have large companies controlling the food supply?
It is important to remember that we actually have enough food to feed the world. The system that delivers this food, however, is one where millions and millions of pounds of food go to waste on a daily basis, millions of pounds are turned into animal feed and gasoline for our cars, almost a billion people are starving, while more and more people are suffering from both obesity and malnutrition. As celebrated economist and 1998 Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen noted, “starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”
The current system of GM foods is an oversimplified (and inherently indeterminate), controversial solution to the complexities of hunger, where there is enough food for everyone but not everyone can access this food. We need to change the political, social, and economic forces that do not allow people to alleviate their hunger. Growing more and more corn, wheat or soy is merely taking the easy way out and does not solve the underlying issues that lead to food insecurity and starvation—it is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
If you prefer listening, you can purchase the audiobook for Think and Eat Yourself Smart at Amazon.