The GMO controversy

(Note: this is chapter 5 from my book Agricultural and Food Controversies.)

What is the GMO controversy?

Suppose you are a citizen of France, China, or Germany—three among ten nations that consume horse meat. You enter a store to purchase a few pounds of the meat, but for some reason are worried that the owner is actually selling you meat from a different type of animal. Finding the store manager, you ask him whether he can guarantee that the meat labeled "horse meat" really came from a horse. He laughs and says, "Well, I raise the animals myself, and I can guarantee that every animal was born from a horse!" He is mocking you, and though too embarrassed to argue, you are still suspicious, and after buying the meat you send it to a lab for testing.

When the results come back it turns out that the owner was deceiving you and telling the truth at the same time. The meat came from a mule, not a horse, but mules are the offspring of a male donkey and female horse. Is mule meat so different from horse meat that the store was engaging in false advertising, or is a mule close enough to a horse that the store’s actions were acceptable? That depends not so much on laboratory tests but whether consumers believe horses and mules are basically the same type of animal. Likewise, people’s attitudes towards genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) depend on whether a GM plant (or animal) is considered just another variation of the same species, or something very different.

Is the mule-horse story a good metaphor for the GMO controversy? Scientifically it is a horrible metaphor. After all, a GM corn or soybean seed differs from their non-GM counterparts by one or a few genes, whereas the horse and mule are so different they do not even have the same number of chromosomes. It is easy to tell a mule from a horse, but very difficult to tell a conventional from a GM soybean seed.

The metaphor does work for those who fear and oppose GM foods though. Just like it seems rather "freakish" that a horse can give birth to a mule, GMOs have been labeled as "Frankenfoods" by some. There is a GM corn that produces its own insecticide to control rootworms. As a result, animated YouTube videos like GMO A Go Go put a Frankenstein-like face on an ear of corn, influencing some to believe that GM foods truly are freaks-of-nature.

To what extent does the public experience anxiety about GM foods? Polls show that 93% of Americans (who responded to a survey) support mandatory labeling of GM foods. This may overestimate true concern, as simply asking people this question suggests there is a problem with GM food. That is, asking the question itself changes the person’s beliefs. Think about it: if a telephone survey asks you whether you believe the water you drink to be safe, don’t you automatically become suspicious it is not? If there was no problem with the water, why would someone be calling you about it? At the same time, these polls are conducted using valid survey protocols, and it is hard to ignore such a large percentage of citizens.

A different kind of survey was conducted by Jayson Lusk of Oklahoma State University, where 1,004 Americans were surveyed, asking them if they could think of a time they lost trust in the food system. If they answered yes, he then asked them why. This was an open-ended question, so they were not primed by the survey to think of GMOs. About 40% said they had indeed lost trust, and of those 413 individuals, GMOs were mentioned 24 times. From this we can say less than 3% of survey respondents in the U.S. are truly concerned about GM food.

The two surveys together tell us that, although very few people have lost trust in the food system due to GMOs, they still want to know if their food contains GM ingredients. So people haven’t lost confidence in food due to biotechnology, but they will feel even more confident if GM labels were required.

Before delving into the controversy we should define exactly what a genetically modified organism (GMO) is. In this book, a GMO will refer almost exclusively to transgenic crops, where the genes from a non-plant organism (usually bacteria) are deliberately inserted into a plant (using recombinant DNA or gene-splicing) in hopes that the new plant will exhibit certain desirable traits, like creating its own pesticide or being resistance to a certain herbicide. Not all GMOs are created in this manner. For instance, a cisgenic plant is formed by inserting into the plant’s DNA a gene acquired not from a different organism, but from the same or similar species. A GMO can also be formed by removing or silencing a gene within a plant. Most of the controversy concerns transgenic plants, though we still refer to them as GMOs because that is the term used by food activists.

GMOs discussed on Madam Secretary

The transference of genes from one organism to another is nothing new. At least 8% of the human genome was transplanted from viruses, but we are not GMOs because this transplant was not the direct intervention of human scientists. The alteration of genes by human intervention is not new either. We intentionally alter the DNA of plants constantly through selective breeding. Genetic mutation is a natural process of evolution, and sometimes these mutations can lead to better crops. The rate of natural mutations can be rather slow, so we sometimes increase the rate by zapping plants with irradiation (scientists often wonder why this form of genetic alteration receives little attention from food activists, while GMOs do).

Technologies in genetic modification are different in that humans are choosing the genes they want to insert into another organism and can create these new plant and animal varieties at a faster rate—and with much more precision. Some say these technologies are our best hope in feeding a growing population. Others say the technologies are used recklessly, due to corporate influence in regulation. This disagreement is the GMO controversy.

The controversy is important because GM crops have come to dominate the U.S. and are spreading across the world. As the graph below shows, three major crops are planted almost entirely in genetically modified varieties. For those who believe GMOs to be advantageous this is a remarkable achievement in agriculture. For those who eat foods derived from animals but are fearful of GMOs the graph is alarming, as virtually all livestock consume corn and soybeans.

How are GMOs regulated?

Usually when food processors add something "foreign" to food, like a food additive, unless that additive is deemed to be GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is regulated similar to pesticides, especially if it is a synthetic additive created in the lab. Before it can be used to, say, color or preserve food, it must undergo a series of rigorous tests to ensure it is safe.

Some believe that taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into another is like adding a foreign substance, and GM foods should undergo similar testing. This type of logic is unworkable in actual regulation though, because the DNA from all life forms is comprised of the same substance. Yet, because genetic modification just seems riskier to many people, a GM seed is not treated the same as a seed created through selective breeding or radiation-induced mutation. A complex system of regulations has been constructed in the U.S., where GMOs are vetted by the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure the crop is safe to grow, the Food and Drug Administration to make sure the food is safe to eat, and the Environmental Protection Agency to verify it will not harm the environment. What follows are the most important features of those regulations in regard to human health, particularly from the FDA.

It is easy to misrepresent how food safety is protected by the FDA. The laws are clear that it is the company’s responsibility to ensure food safety, and it is the company’s decision of whether to consult with the FDA to measure health risks from a new GMO. That makes it seem like GMOs are not regulated at all, and that is what some critics imply, but this grossly misrepresents how companies actually interact with the FDA. Sometimes there is little difference between a suggestion and a command, especially when the suggestion is made by a powerful government agency, and the FDA has made it clear it wants to be consulted throughout the process of developing any and all GM crops.

Quote 1—The FDA on GMOs[the] FDA believes that it is in the best interests of the regulated industry and the agency for developers to inform the FDA ... prior to commercial distribution, about foods or feed derived from new plant varieties, including those derived using rDNA techniques.
—Food and Drug Administration. 1997. Consultation Procedures under FDA’s 1992 Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties. Accessed November 30, 2013 at this link.

The FDA does not assume that a GM crop variety is safe, nor does it deny it may be safe. For this reason the company producing the GM crop will communicate with the FDA throughout the product’s development so that it can answer any questions the FDA poses—and the FDA will have many. What the company wants is confirmation, most often in the form of a letter, from the FDA indicating they have no further questions regarding the safety of the new variety. This letter is considered to be "FDA’s blessing" by the company, though the FDA would certainly never use that term. Without this letter the company is more vulnerable to lawsuits and can be subject to an expensive product recall by the FDA. Moreover, it is in the company’s interest to produce a safe product. Companies don’t make money by sickening their customers (at least, not in the long-run), so they want to work with the FDA to ensure product safety. And because people working for seed companies are just as ethical as everyone else, it follows they also work with the FDA because it’s the right thing to do.

For this reason, the GMO "approval" process is best described as a series of consultations that occur throughout a product’s development. Its main objective is to determine whether the GM crop is "substantially equivalent" to its non-GM varieties and whether it poses an allergen risk. "Substantially equivalent" doesn’t mean it’s safe, only that it’s no less safe than non-GM food. There are three criteria by which substantial equivalence is verified. In regards to crops, one criterion is whether the plant looks and behaves like the non-GM plant. Does it mature and flower about the same time, and is it resistant to the same diseases in roughly the same way? These are examples of observational data the FDA might request from the seed company. A second criterion concerns the chemical composition of the final product. For a GM canola variety, for example, the FDA may request information on seed’s triglyceride and fatty acid content. Finally, the third criterion involves information on the nutrients, antinutrients, toxicants, and allergens of the entire plant (even the part not eaten). Due to the variety of crops being genetically modified there is no one established system of assessing their safety. The FDA reviews each variety on a case-by-case basis, collecting similar data in the beginning but involving different questions as the consultation process proceeds. All of this requires extensive data collection on the part of the seed companies.

If the FDA is concerned about the safety of a GM crop it may place restrictions on how the crop is used, request animal feeding trials, or oppose the product entirely. Every GM product that has been produced and used in the U.S. has undergone this consultation process with the FDA (in addition to similar interactions with the USDA and the EPA), so regulation of GMOs is in fact extensive, expensive, and comprehensive. In our opinion, they are also effective.

The concept of substantial equivalence is then the foundation of GMO regulation. Why did the FDA adopt the rule of substantial equivalence? Supporters of the technology will claim that it is because the most prestigious scientific institution—the National Academy of Sciences—supports the notion. The Academy concludes that the method by which a plant’s DNA is altered is irrelevant, and thus taking a gene from a bacterium and inserting it into a canola seed is not like adding a food additive, but more like selective breeding. So long as the GM canola’s DNA is basically the same as its non-GM counterpart, there is no need for additional regulation or testing. So if you ask the most prestigious scientific organization if a GM tobacco seed is basically just another variety of tobacco, they will respond, "yes."

Quote 2—The NAS on GMOs[there is] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes... the product of genetic modification and selection should be the primary focus for making decisions about the environmental introduction of a plant or microorganism and not the process by which the products were obtained.
—Committee on Scientific Evaluation of the Introduction of Genetically Modified Microorganisms and Plants into the Environment. 1989. Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions. National Research Council. National Academy of Sciences.

There are some well qualified dissenting scientists and a motivated group of food activists behind them, pushing back against GM food. They believe a GM crop is not substantially equivalent to traditional crops. Moreover, they believe that the FDA follows the substantial equivalence rule not because of the science, but because the FDA was corrupted by corporate influence. This is not a belief that the authors’ share, but there are smart people of high character who do believe this conspiracy theory, and their side of the story deserves to be heard.

In The World According to Monsanto, author Marie-Monique describes how the substantial equivalence began with a 1992 policy statement by the FDA under the leadership of a former Monsanto lawyer, who, after working in the FDA, returned to Monsanto as a Vice-President. Her story then suggests that GM regulations were the product of intense lobbying by Monsanto and a revolving-door system where the regulators are former and/or future employees of the company being regulated (note that some argue Monsanto wanted excess regulations to keep out competitors, but that is not Marie-Monique’s story). It is not hard to imagine a company rewarding lenient regulators with a nice job, and food activists have websites listing powerful government officials and their relation to Monsanto and other corporations. If this sounds like a conspiracy theory (a term not meant as a euphemism), it is.

Consider the 2001 PBS special Harvest of Fear, where a representative of Greenpeace claims that the FDA scientists actually advised mandatory labels for GM foods, but that the FDA administrators made a political decision not to. This argument appeared again on a 2013 episode of Stossel (see below), where it was clear that the pro-GM side used the credibility of scientific organizations to bolster his case, while the anti-GM side told a political-conspiracy story. With one side telling a scientific story and the other side telling a story of political conspiracy, it’s little wonder that the GMO controversy has persevered through decades of debate.

Quote 3—The Stossel show on GMOs
     Lusk: All selection is playing around with genes ... In fact, that traditional plant breeding is involving many thousands of genes and we often don’t know what’s going to happen. Modern biotechnology is picking one or two genes ... so it’s actually much more precise than our traditional plant breeding techniques.
     Stossel: So that should make it safer. Jeffrey [Smith], what about that?
     Smith: Well, the FDA scientists were absolutely clear in the memo made public from a lawsuit. They said that the process of genetic engineering is different and leads to new and different risks. Like new allergins, toxins, and new diseases. They repeatedly urged their superiors to require [more] study, but the person in charge of policy at the FDA was Michael Taylor—Monsanto’s former attorney, later Monsanto’s Vice-President, now is back at the FDA as the U.S. Food Safety Czar.
     Stossel: So Monsanto has captured the FDA, this thousand-person agency? And [the FDA] is just in the tank with big business?
     Smith: Monsanto has not only captured the FDA, but as I traveled to 36 countries they’ve done the same to many, many countries ...
     Stossel: ... That makes me skeptical of you [Smith], not them [in that Smith’s conspiracy theory is to expansive and intricate to take seriously]      Lusk: You look at every major scientific authority on the subject, whether it’s the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization [of the United Nations] ... these are all independent bodies, of independent scientists, and every one of those organizations has confirmed the basic safety of biotech foods.
—Stossel [TV show]. June 6, 2013. "War On ... " John Stossel [host]. Fox Business News. Guests are Jayson Lusk (agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University) and Jeffrey Smith (Institute for Responsible Technology).

A good conspiracy theory will have a villain who is withholding vital information from the public, and because it is the company’s responsibility to perform the research demonstrating the product is safe, there is always the fear that the company is hiding a dangerous secret. Also, much of the information about the effects and performance of GM crops is controlled by the seed corporations, allowing them to release only studies that view GMOs favorably, and suppress studies that do not. In both Marie-Monique’s book and in the documentary Ethos it is claimed that Monsanto deliberately withheld information showing harms from their rBST hormone (given to cattle to increase milk production), and if this is true, the anti-GMO crowd wonders what other data were kept secret?

Quote 4—Documentary Ethos on MonsantoAt that time Monsanto was saying, "There’s no evidence of any adverse effects, we don’t use antibiotics," and this clearly showed they had lied through their teeth.
—Epstein, Samuel [interviewee]. 2011. Ethos [documentary]. McGrain, Pete [director and writer]. Media for Action [production].

Some may see the above quote as clear evidence of a conspiracy, but this may not be the case. If rBST does what it is designed to do, it will increase milk production, and greater milk production is usually associated with higher rates of mastitis, which requires the use of antibiotics. Both the regulators and the company may have agreed that the antibiotics Epstein refers to is not an adverse effect of rBST at all, and so nothing of concern to the regulators was being concealed.

This hasn’t stopped the anti-GM crowd from associating Monsanto with the nefarious activities of cigarette companies decades earlier. A commercial supporting the mandatory labeling of GM foods, aired before Proposition 37 in California, begins by remarking on the scientific support that was once given to the health benefits of smoking, and it is true that cigarette companies had deliberately withheld information about the dangers of smoking and manufactured a perception of scientific uncertainty where none really existed.

Scientists have been wrong in the past, and their errors make some discount the scientific support behind GMOs. Scientists once approved the rendering of sheep carcasses for conversion into cattle feed, a practice now linked to the outbreak of Mad Cow disease. In the case of cigarettes much of the "science" was deliberately withheld, while in the case of Mad Cow disease there was no cover-up. Once the link was made between Mad Cow disease and rendered carcasses, the public was quickly informed and the practice was halted. Though an honest mistake, it shows that scientists can indeed make mistakes. The fear is that scientists are making a similar mistake in regards to genetic modification.

Most of this discussion has concerned the U.S., whereas the European Union is far less accepting of GMOs. This difference seems to be attributable to the greater caution exhibited by European consumers, perhaps due to food safety scares in Europe and Britain (especially Mad Cow disease) that eroded trust in regulators.

Quote 5—GMOS and BSE The public response in Europe to GM crops might be very different if the outbreak of BSE, or Mad Cow disease, in the United Kingdom had not occurred in the 1980s. Despite reassurances from the British health officials that consuming British beef was safe, in 1996 the consumption of BSE-tained beef was presumptively linked to a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease ... the appearance of BSE in cattle in other European countries further eroded the European public’s trust that governments were able to assure the safety of food—a trust that had been damaged by a series of food scandals in the 1980s.
—Greif, Karen E. and Jon F. Merz. 2007. Current Controversies in the Biological Sciences: Case Studies of Policy Challenges from New Technologies. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Most of the corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets in the U.S. are GM varieties. Are these really just different varieties of the same crops, or "Frankenfoods?" It depends on the trust one places in scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, and the extent to which one believes that corporations control regulation. As agricultural scientists the authors have considerable esteem for the Academy and place great trust in the U.S. regulatory agencies, and for these reasons, are supporters of GMOs.

Is genetically-modified food safe to eat?

When the National Academy of Sciences published its 2004 report on the safety of GM food it explained that any form of genetic manipulation can have unintended health impacts, but that no health harms attributed to genetic engineering have been documented, nor are they expected to arise. Most other health and scientific organizations agree, including

  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • The American Medical Association
  • Food Standards Australia & New Zealand
  • The French Academy of Science
  • The Royal Society of Medicine
  • The European Commission
  • The Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities
  • Seven of the World’s Academies of Sciences (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the Third World Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.)
  • World Health Organization

As mentioned previously, when one consults prestigious scientific organizations they generally testify that GM foods are safe, but there are some individual scientists who dissent. Earth Open Source published a book in 2012 arguing that GM food is unsafe, and listed the many animal feeding trials as evidence. It contains alarming sentences like, "Mice fed GM soy showed disturbed liver pancreas and testes function ... .Old and young mice fed GM Bt maize showed a marked disturbance in immune system cells in biochemical activity ... Female sheep fed Bt GM maize over three generations showed disturbances in the functioning of the digestive system." These are real effects observed in real studies, so why did the National Academy of Sciences say GMOs are safe?

In any study investigating the impact of a certain food source on animals, animal health will vary across groups for reasons other than the feed. Even the most scientific trials contain an element of randomness. For example, for any two groups of almost identical mice, one group will be healthier than the other for no obvious reason. We would not expect all mice to die at the exact same moment. Likewise, even the most tightly controlled experiments require the use of statistics to say what health harms were caused by a particular food and what harms were caused by randomness. Researchers are human, and these judgments are probably impacted by their general beliefs about GM food, but different conclusions also involve simple differences in judgment, absent of bias. Sometimes what appears to be an ideological bias against GMOs could actually be the result of something more esoteric, more mundane, and perfectly understandable.

Likewise, research interpreted to imply that scientists favor GMOs due to corruption also has an alternative explanation. After studying 94 articles on the health impacts of GM products, a group of researchers found that scientists who possessed a professional relationship with a GMO company were more likely to conduct research favorable to GMOs (though the source of funding did not seem to matter). Does this prove that industry connections influence research, or could it be that research influences industry connections? A researcher who believes the data clearly show GM foods to be safe is more likely to develop ties with corporations. That belief in the safety of GM foods will then impact the judgment calls made in future research. Corruption may have nothing to do with it. One does suspect that at least a few researchers are swayed somewhat by corporate influence (they are humans, after all), but critics of GMOs greatly overestimate their numbers.

The lesson the authors learned writing this chapter is that the GMO debate has become so acrid that it is difficult to even have an honest discussion. If one makes positive remarks about biotechnology they are accused of being a corporate shill, and if one questions the safety of GM crops they are ridiculed by other scientists. Oddly, treating both sides of the debate with respect only angers both sides. Nevertheless, it is impossible to truly understand the controversy without taking both sides seriously, and that is exactly what this this chapter has attempted to accomplish.

Will GMOs lead to excess market power for a few corporations?

It can be difficult at times to see what GM opponents dislike more: genetic modification itself or the large corporations that perform it. When people protest biotechnology, sometimes, they are really protesting the market power of corporations. Creators of new GM crop varieties are given a patent, which is a temporary monopoly on that crop. Patents are no modern creation, but an ancient and reliable system for rewarding creativity. In ancient Greek colonies, cooks were allowed a patent for one year on all new food inventions; seed companies can today acquire a patent for GM seed that lasts 20 years.

Quote 6—Fear of GMO Corporations No, my problem with biotechnology is that the science has been hijacked by corporate interests, and that the subsequent wholesale rush to patent plant genes as the intellectual property of a handful of multinational corporations is placing the control of global food production directly into their hands.
—Gunther, Andrew. May 15, 2013. "GE Crop Thriller Leaves Bond and Bourne for Dust." Huffington Post. Green.
Quote 7—Fear of GMO Corporations The claims made for GM agriculture are a transparent fraud. The real purpose of GM foods is to give giant corporations legally-enforceable monopoly powers over the entire global food chain.
—Tudge, Colin. November 1, 2013. "The real point of GM food is corporate control of farming." Ecologist.

This does not mean that big corporations have a monopoly over all crop seeds though. There are plenty of non-GM varieties of corn and soybeans, but most farmers simply do not want them—they voluntarily purchase the GM seeds. In this sense the seed corporations have earned their market share through the creation of a superior product—just like Google has earned its large market share in search engines through its superior search algorithm. The majority of corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets in the U.S. are GM varieties for the simple reason that farmers prefer them. Biotech crops are spreading across the world, and because not many firms can sell GM seeds, the four-firm concentration ratio (the percent of the market dominated by the four largest firms) for the seed and biotechnology sector rose from less than 25% in 1994 to over 50% in 2009.

It is sometimes said that economists believe a market is no longer competitive when four companies control 40 percent or more of a market, but that’s only the case when firms are making an identical product (and even then not all economists agree on the 40% rule). Just as Google is a very different search engine than Yahoo’s engine, GM seed is not the same product as non-GM seed. These days, seed companies compete less on price, and more on innovation. Given the constant stream of new seed varieties one could make the case that the seed market is actually quite competitive.

This does not mean there are no concerns about market power. Six large seed corporations are Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Dow, and Bayer, but these firms do not act independently of one another. Monsanto owns most of the patents for GM seed traits, but other companies have seeds with advantageous traits also. Often, to produce the highest quality seeds possible, Monsanto and one of the other firms will strike an agreement and combine their genetics. For example, Monsanto may own a patent for a GM trait in soybeans, while Dow may have a variety of soybeans particularly suited to the southeastern U.S. By combining these traits they can sell a GM seed that grows well in South Carolina, increasing the value of the traits owned by both companies. This is referred to as cross-licensing agreements. This cooperation requires the companies to work closely with one another, making it easier for them to collude and behave like a single seed monopoly. Even a Monsanto executive is said to remark in 1996 that the entire food chain is becoming consolidated, not just the seed industry. However, if the purpose of cross-licensing agreements really is to create better crop varieties, they may be good for the consumers as well as the companies.

Are we losing crop diversity?

Some feel this corporate hegemony in crop seeds threatens our food supply by reducing the diversity of plant varieties. The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1850) was caused, in part, by the planting of the same Lumper variety of potatoes throughout Ireland. So little genetic diversity existed that virtually all the potatoes were destroyed by one pathogen. To breed potatoes resistant to this pathogen it was necessary to return to the land of potato’s origin (South America), where thousands of different varieties were grown. In 1970 a leaf blight struck much of the U.S. corn crop, reducing corn yields by more than 20%. The same variety of female corn plants had been used to produce the hybrid seeds that most farmers planted, and the varieties resulting from this cross were particularly susceptible to the blight. Crop breeders quickly learned they needed greater genetic diversity if their seed varieties were to remain popular. The vast majority of bananas come from one variety currently under assault from the Tropical Race Four fungus. The banana case is a particularly interesting example because it can only reproduce asexually, creating an extreme uniformity of plant genetics. The lesson is clear: when crops lack genetic diversity a greater portion of the food supply is vulnerable to damage.

Quote 8—Michael Pollan on Plant Diversity My problem has been less about health and safety of the [GM] technology than it has been about the political economy of GM and what it has done to American agriculture, to competition in the seed business, and to the size and sustainability of our commodity crop monocultures.
—Pollan, Michael [interviewee]. August 28, 2013. "Pointed Talk: Michael Pollan and Amy Harmon dissect a GM controversy." Accessed August 30, 2013 at

If a perilous crop disease threatens the food supply the types and varieties of crops planted may need to be altered. It might be prudent to cross (i.e., breed) the most popular varieties with less popular varieties to acquire more genetic diversity. But if these less popular varieties are no longer around because farmers have not purchased them in years, the only way of quickly acquiring diversity is genetic modification, radiation-induced mutation, or the like. Thus, some apprehensive groups have been storing all the different varieties of seeds they can acquire in frozen vaults (in Norway, for instance), an insurance policy which might save millions of lives.

Are we losing genetic variety in our crops? A recent National Geographic article documents a decline in variety for 66 crops between 1903 and 1983, such that we lost 93% of our varieties during that time period. Yet a different study of seed catalogs over that same time period found the number of varieties to have risen for some crops and fallen for others, but overall found no difference—implying we are not losing crop diversity. It is currently unclear which study better represents reality.

Suppose that in the future genetic diversity in crops is lost, and suppose it is largely due to successful GM crops. Does that alone put the food supply in danger? Not necessarily. If, say, a horrible bout of rust (a fungal disease) wipes out much of the wheat, one response could be to cross the current wheat crop with more antiquated varieties, hoping some of the crosses would be resistant to the rust. Or, scientists at seed corporations can devise a new genetic modification that is also resistant to the rust, which is how the banana industry is responding to the Tropical Race Four disease (but then, they have little choice). Remember the leaf blight that hit the U.S. in 1970s, mentioned earlier? The problem was solved in only one year, after seed companies—aided by university research—quickly integrated greater genetic diversity into their breeding programs.

It could be argued that to protect the food supply from devastating disease, the most advanced genetic science should be employed, and that would be genetic modification performed by large corporations. One could imagine a world where GM crops are banned and there is greater crop diversity, but a rust is able to infect most of those crops anyway. Seed corporations then claim they can develop a GM wheat seed resistant to this rust in three years. Could it be that genetic modification is the savior? It is a possibility.

Do not be deceived about the true genetic diversity that occurs even for the same type of GM seed. There is no one single Round Up Ready soybean seed, but different varieties with Round Up resistant genes. Once Monsanto developed a Round Up resistant soybean it did not sell that exact same variety to both Minnesota and Texas farmers. Instead, it crossed that GM variety with other soybean varieties best suited to each region, especially the length of a region’s growing period. What emerged then were various varieties of Round Up Ready seeds suited for specific settings. Similar stories can be told for all superior varieties, both GM and non-GM alike. When the West Africa Rice Development Associate sought better rice varieties it took Asian rice for its reputation for high yields and crossed it with African varieties, which are known for their weed-control and drought-resistant traits. This diversity is the norm in plant breeding, and should not be forgotten when discussing seed diversity.

One final comment. Genetic diversity of crops cannot be measured by the market share conquered by the four largest seed corporations. In nineteenth century Ireland that share would have been almost zero, as most farmers acquired their seed potatoes not from seed companies but last year’s crop from their own fields. Still, farmers managed to plant a similar crop across all of Ireland. If a large seed company had entered the country and tried to acquire market share by selling better varieties, that company’s quest for profits might have averted a famine.

Should GM labeling be mandatory?

The U.S. allows GM food to be sold without a label, though firms can always voluntarily label their food if their consumers value it. Whole Foods made this move recently when it announced it by 2018 its food would be labeled GM or non-GM. What Whole Foods seeks to accomplish by 2018 the European Union established in 1997. All food from GM sources sold in the EU must be labeled as such (except milk, meat, and eggs fed from GM feed, and a few other categories). Europe has gone beyond labeling, placing tighter restrictions on the planting of GM crops and allowing individual member countries to ban GM products if they wish. A number of EU nations like France and Romania do not allow GMO maize to be planted.

Why does the U.S. and EU view GMOs so differently? One explanation is that European producers sought the labeling law as a trade barrier to benefit European companies. There is little evidence that such indirect trade restrictions have benefitted European farmers. In the 1990s much of EU agriculture actually supported biotechnology. Europe treats GMOs differently than the U.S. because their consumers view it differently. For example, roughly two-thirds of American consumers in the 1990s supported GMOs while a similar proportion of French opposed it.

A movement has emerged in the U.S. to require food manufacturers to label all food according to whether it contains GM ingredients. Supporters of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know. There is much appeal to this argument. It is only information, after all, allowing consumers to decide for themselves whether their food contains GM ingredients. Even advocates of biotechnology sometimes support labeling, arguing that attempts to oppose it makes it seem like there is something to hide.

Quote 9—A Case for GMO Labeling ... by fighting labeling, we’re feeding energy to the opponents of GMOs. We’re inducing more fear and paranoia of the technology, rather than less. We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide, otherwise, why would we fight so hard to avoid labeling?
—Lynas, Mark. October 15, 2013. "Why we need to label GMOs." Speech at the Food Integrity Summit. Accessed October 18, 2013 at

Labeling opponents pose two arguments. One is that requiring such a label will give the false impression that GM foods are unsafe. It reminds one of when, in the sitcom Arrested Development, Gob Bluth suggested his construction company adopt the slogan, "The Bluth/Morento Company: A Columbian cartel that won’t kidnap and kill you!" stating, "Underline 'won’t' because that makes the competition look like maybe they ... [will kidnap and kill you]." Indeed, the groups pushing for the mandatory labels are also very keen on making GM foods look bad. If a label were passed and it destroyed the market for GM crops, the Food Democracy Now! organization would no doubt celebrate and consider the labeling bill a success.

The other argument against mandatory labeling is that if consumers really wanted the label then companies would voluntary adopt it, as Whole Foods plans to do by 2018. Let markets, not food activist groups, decide how food is labeled, they say. This sounds reasonable, but one must wonder whether we would currently have nutrition labels telling us the amount of calories, fat, and sugar in foods if it were not for the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990. Most everyone supports these nutrition labels today, but it is something the food industry was unwilling to provide until they were mandated by law.

This issue has not divided people among their typical ideological camps of pro- or anti-regulation. Some regular supporters of government regulation—like Obama’s Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein’oppose mandatory GM labels. State Representative Harvell of Maine, a Republican, supports a labeling bill for Maine based on the idea that markets need information to work well, and he quotes the libertarian hero Ludwig Von Mises to defend his position. Others who normally announce no political opinion, like Prince Charles of the UK, have publicly asserted that GMOs don’t just pose health harms but threatens the world’s ability to feed itself.

Strangely, both sides of the labeling debate claim to have consumers’ best interest in mind. One side observes how polls show strong support for labeling, while the other side retorts that this support falls considerably when a real election is held. This support might fall in real elections because consumers take the issue more seriously, because the people who vote are different from the people who respond to polls, or because people are swayed by the political advertising of biotech companies. One side protests that consumers have a right to know what is in their food, and the other side rebuts that consumers don’t want everything about the product on the label, but only the information that matters. If only there was a way to ask consumers what they "really" want, but the only thing clear is that consumers say different things in different contexts. It is almost as if consumers themselves are unsure of what they want.

Will GMOs help us feed the world?

A typical defense of GM crops and livestock first asserts that agricultural productivity gains must continue in order to feed the extra two billion humans expected by 2020, which some estimate will require 40% more food than produced today, and that current productivity trends are not optimistic in meeting these goals. Then the argument postulates that biotechnology, which includes genetic modification as well as other tools, should be one among many technologies available for reaching this goal.

There is a logic to this argument. Between 1950 and 2000 the world population rose from 2.5 to 6 billion people, yet the only famines that occurred were largely due to political causes, like the central planning failures in China and the dictatorship in North Korea. Those not living under repressive regimes were mostly able to eat, thanks in part to the Green Revolution. This was not a political revolution but one of agricultural science, where new plant breeding and chemical fertilizer techniques allowed food production to increase faster than the world population. Technology saved the day, it seems. Will GMOs be the technology that saves us in the coming decades?

Are GM crops more productive? There is no reason to believe farmers using GM crops should have higher yields, as the farmers who first adopt GM crops are different types of farmers than those who do not, and their yields are influenced both by the productivity of GM grains as well as their land and managerial skills. These nuances are observed in the U.S., where insect-resistant corn has increased yields whereas herbicide-resistant soybeans have reduced yields (though only slightly).

Only controlled experiments can isolate the effect of genetic modification on yield, and some of these studies find that GMOs increase yields while others identify a decline in yield. Yield is important but it is not everything. A lower-yielding GM variety may still be preferred if it reduces pesticide costs, is more resistant to drought, or helps control pests for a different crop planted subsequently (e.g., planting GM canola this year to help control weeds in next year’s non-GM wheat).

Genetic modification is just one tool for producing a better crop variety, and if one GM crop isn’t successful that doesn’t mean other GM crops won’t be. The Flavr Savr tomato was the first GM food, and it failed, but it was later followed with soybean and corn varieties that would dominate the market. Any time technology providers and farmers have more options in how to produce food they will produce more efficiently—otherwise, they will be driven out of business by those more efficient. If one has faith in the regulatory system that no GM food will be approved unless it is safe and environmentally-friendly, then it is hard to imagine how GMOs cannot help us feed the world.

Anna Lappè with the Food MythBusters organization argues otherwise, saying that we have been tricked into believing that technologies sold by corporations are necessary to feed the world in 2020. Her argument is that these technologies initially seem advantageous but farmers develop a "quick addiction" to GM seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Eventually the soil becomes depleted and pesticides become ineffective, thus threatening our ability to produce food, she predicts. This prediction is based on her belief that corporate influence has "tilted the playing field" to favor large corporations and thus the technologies they sell, like GM seed.

Once again, whether one believes GM foods can help feed the world in 2020 depends on one’s view of corporations. If, like Lappè, one believes that corporations can reduce farmers’ options by controlling regulation, the input market, and the output market, then they hinder our ability to feed the world. Conversely, if one believes GMOs are regulated effectively and corporations can only succeed in the market if farmers consistently prefer their product, then GMOs increase farmers’ options and might play a major role in feeding future generations.

Do GMOs reduce pesticide use?

If GMOs can reduce pesticide use then there might be health and environmental benefits from the technology. Both sides of the GMO divide seem to agree that crops which create their own insecticide (e.g., Bt corn) have lowered insecticide use. It would have been shocking if it did not. That said, the use of any insecticide, whether it is sprayed by the farmer or created by a GM plant, leads to pest resistance, making the pesticide less effective. Lately, the corn rootworm has become resistant to the insecticide produced by Bt corn, such that farmers are now having to spray insecticides again. If this continues then the reductions in insecticide use may be reversed.

But what about the pesticides in the plant itself? If the EPA considers the Bt corn to be an insecticide (it does) it should certainly take into account the insecticide produced naturally by the plant. At the time of this writing it is unclear how total insecticide use trends would change if this is accounted for. Although some sources claim the Bt toxin is thousands of times more concentrated in GM plants than pesticides containing Bt (like Foray 48B) this is something EPA would take into account when determining whether Bt crops are safe, so it is doubtful that Bt products lead to increased exposure to pesticides.

There is a disagreement regarding GMO’s effect on herbicides. One line of research shows total herbicide use decreasing because of GM crops, while another measures an increase. So, do GM crops like Roundup Ready cotton lower total herbicide use? It is unclear. One thing known is that the toxicity of Roundup is very low relative to the herbicides it replaced, so even if herbicide use has risen, the total amount of harmful substances applied to cropland—expressed in units called the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)—has probably fallen, benefiting the environment and consumer safety.

Are GMOs Good for the Environment?

How can GMOs benefit the environment in ways other than pesticide use? If GM crops are more productive, then farmers can produce the same amount of food with fewer inputs, The GMO Controversy 85 which means smaller amounts of pollution, better resource conservation, and more land available for wildlife preservation (higher yields per acre means less land per calorie produced). As a headline from an article in The Economist reads, “Frankenfoods reduce global warming.” GMOs additionally make no-till agriculture more feasible, thereby reducing soil erosion and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. From the previous section we saw that—although GM technologies often increase yield—even if GM crops have lower yields they would be accepted by farmers if they are more efficient, and more efficient means fewer inputs, fewer resources, and less land used to produce food.

GMOs in agriculture have focused on lowering the cost of agricultural production, rather than social problems like reducing water pollution from fertilizers. The reason is clear. Corporations operate on money borrowed from investors, so they must make sure all their activities are devoted to paying back those investors. If investors wanted that money to help clean America’s lakes and rivers, they would donate it to a nonprofit organization instead of buying corporate stocks. But they didn’t, and so we should not expect Monsanto to try to save the world, but only generate products that other people will pay for.

The presence of avian influenza and the world’s huge populations of chickens—especially those raised outdoors, where they come into contact with feces of other wild birds—presents a serious health threat. Scientists have developed a GM chicken that is immune to and does not spread the deadly virus to other chickens. Because such a virus can spread quickly around the world, one can only imagine how many lives such a chicken could save.

There are endless other ways to achieve public goods through genetic engineering, and we haven’t even mentioned the GM plants and animals used to produce human organs and pharmaceuticals. The reason GMOs tend to be associated largely with corporations is that funding for biotechnology 86 Agricultural and Food Controversies in the public sector is declining, and this is partly due to the controversial nature of GMOs. If another decade passes and no harm from GM foods is proven, opposition by food activists will either wane or become irrelevant to the rest of society. Then perhaps biotechnology can accomplish social goals like a cleaner environment and disease prevention. In the meantime, though, the controversy becomes more acrimonious every day.