Worried About Eating GMOs? That’s Not the Real Problem

Farmers harvest rice in a field.

(© tong2530/Fotolia)


The 21st century food system is awash in ethical issues. To name just a handful: There's the environmental impacts of farming, the human health effects of diets based on animal products and processed foods, the growing clamor around food waste, and the longstanding concerns about agricultural labor. The last decade has seen the emergence of "ethical consumption," as people have been encouraged to avoid products that are associated with animal cruelty or unfair to farmers.

Misguided concerns about GMOs are missing the point altogether and distracting from a far more substantive ethical problem.

But consumers have never been so ignorant about where food comes from, and they are vulnerable to oversimplifications and faulty messaging. Many would include the first generation of crops from agricultural applications of recombinant DNA methods for genetic improvement—so called GMOs—among the foods they should avoid for ethical reasons. Unfortunately, these misguided concerns are missing the point altogether and distracting from a far more substantive ethical problem.

As we stand on the precipice of a new era in food and biotechnology – crops and animals with genomes altered through gene editing – it is more important than ever to let go of unnecessary fears and to pay attention to the real hazards of agricultural innovation.

But first, as a bioethicist with almost 40 years of experience working on issues in the food system, let me stress the overall context and rationale for trying to make changes in plant and animal genetics. Doing so, whether through conventional breeding or biotechnology, allows producers to meet the challenges of seasonal climate differences and increase yields.

And just because a food was created through ordinary plant breeding vs. genetic modification does not automatically make it safe. Things can and do go wrong in ordinary plant breeding, such as with potatoes and tomatoes. These both produce toxins in the green parts of the plant, and breeders exercise caution to ensure that toxins aren't transferred to edible parts.

Despite real risks, there is no regulatory oversight that protects us from these known hazards. We rely on the professional ethics of agricultural scientists. And GMOs are, in comparison, much more carefully tested and regulated. The claim that they are "unregulated" is just false.

We should not ignore the role that all gene technologies have played in displacing small farmers, depleting rural communities, and shifting economic control.

I do want to shift the public's attention away from the anti-GMO debate to more substantive questions about contemporary agriculture that really have little to do with where the genes in their food came from, or how they got there.

No matter how important genetic improvements might be in terms of total global food production, we should not ignore the role that all gene technologies—including breeding—have played in displacing small farmers, depleting rural communities and shifting economic control of agriculture into a small circle of powerful actors. Globally, these changes have had disproportionately harmful effects on women and people of color.

Combined with mechanization and chemicals, gene technologies have freed planters from their dependence on impoverished and poorly educated field hands, but they did nothing to help the fieldworkers transition to a new line of work. These are the real problems that deserve the public's and the science community's attention, not the overly narrow worries about eating GMOs.

But these problems are viewed as "not ours" by agricultural insiders, and they continue to be ignored by scientists whose focus is solely on biology. Many of the concerns that are today viewed as "urban problems" or "social issues" have origins in agriculture. For example, in California tomatoes, the development of mechanical harvesting led to a rapid concentration of ownership and the displacement of thousands of field hands. In the South, similar technologies displaced black farmers working land owned by whites, causing migration to urban centers and unskilled jobs. I must fault the science community for a lack of willingness to even take the thrust of these more socially oriented critiques seriously.

The new suite of tools for genetic modification that go under the name "gene editing" promise greater precision. They should allow scientists to target the locus for new genes in a plant or animal genome, and minimize the chance for causing unwanted impacts on gene functioning. This added precision is reducing some of the uncertainties in the mind of technology developers, and they have been expressing hope that their own confidence will be shared by regulators and by the public at large. In fact, the U.S. government recently issued a statement that gene-edited crops do not require additional regulation because they're just as safe as crops produced through conventional breeding.

It is indeed possible that the public doubts about genetically modified food will be assuaged by this argument. We can only wait and see. Whether or not gene editing will lead to more reflection about agriculture's complicity in problems of economic inequality or structural racism depends much more on the culture of the science community than it does on the technology itself.

Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson is the author or editor of more than 10 books and over 200 academic articles on food and agricultural ethics. He has taught at Texas A&M University and Purdue University and is currently the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!