Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Munchable Soapbox: Frankenfood, Again?

Plus, there is so much more variety beyond GMO!
Every few months genetically modified organisms come back onto people's radar. Most recently, the country witnessed as California voted down legislation to label GMOs. Before that, the rise of 'super bugs' was giving transgenic crops a bad name. And underlying these sporadic news items, groups like the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch are constantly battling to bring consumer Joe Somebody into the anti-gmo movement.

So, Rachel, "what is it this time?" you may ask. As the New Year gets underway, some GMO proponents seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. As one of Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of 2012, a study suggested that transgenic crops might actually increase biodiversity and ecosystem health! The research published in the journal Nature showed evidence that cotton grown in China with an embedded bacteria gene (Bt Cotton) to resist pests reduced the amount of pesticide sprayed on fields. The article does raise the caveat that context is key; this study took place on small farms, with multiple crops (not all GMOs), and available habitat for natural pest predators.

Ok, la-di-da. So one showed that there may be some benefits of GMOs in some contexts. An even more recent article published yesterday in the New Yorker documented how a prominent environmentalist has done a 180, offering another voice in favor on genetic modification. His reasoning? Many of our fears - such as the increase in fertilizer use or the profits in big biz's pockets - are unfounded, and we may need the technology as global growing conditions alter in the coming years. 

But the author of this article brings up what I think is the main downfall of the GM discourse - technology alone won't solve our problems. We cannot engineer our way out of crisis, and we need to diversify our approach to farming so as not to place all our eggs in one basket. Perhaps transgenics will be part of the mix, but we must tread lightly. As we have come to realize with technology previously considered the answer to feeding the planet (namely chemicals...), the consequences can be unexpected, expansive, and long-lasting.

Want more? I wrote about the debate on GMOs in international development and learn more about efforts in Washington State to achieve what California failed to do.

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