It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. There is no other place where that phrase is more prevalent than the debate about transgenics, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short. With much hysteria about their safety, some nations have debated or even legislated to label them or to outright ban them from ever being planted, period. The reason for GMOs being labelled or banned are reasons for health and environment with such reasons as GMOs can cause cancer, GMOs can increase the amount of pesticides used and overall, that they are unnatural. These concerns can be labelled under an umbrella of “they can be a health risk to the public.”
However, are there any hints of truth to these claims? The short answer: no. If anything, it would be more of a danger to get rid of them and go organic overnight, like many want to do. With a little bit of explanation many myths will be put to bed, and a few reasons of why GMO crops are actually good will be raised and incentives of why people should allow them to be cultivated and consumed by the masses will be addressed.
The first thing to be addressed is why GMOs get such a bad reputation in the first place. Of course, one thing to get out of the way is to say that one of the reasons that GMOs get a bad reputation, regardless of health concerns is the company that sells the most, Monsanto. While some may have legitimate concerns about Monsanto’s business practices, this report will mainly focus on GMOs as opposed to the past sins of the company.
With all of that out of the way, the reason many claim that GMOs are bad for people is a 2012 study which stated that GMOs give people cancer. The full name of this paper “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant GM maize” but, for short, it can simply be called “The Séralini paper.” Even though it is a peer-reviewed essay, it draws much more critics in the scientific community than it does supporters. Such criticisms include that the rats used, the Sprague-Dawley Rat has a habit of spontaneously growing tumors at a rate of 45% (“Spontaneous Tumors in Sprague-Dawley Rats and Swiss Mice”, Prejean) and these rats were too few using only 100 rats of each gender with 10 of each gender being the control (“Bad Science in the Paper ‘Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant Genetically Modiﬁed Maize’”, Power). Another flaw with this research was that the researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini had a conflict of interest being the president of an anti-GMO lobbying group known as The Scientific Board of Criigen (Power).
However, this study acted as a catalyst for the anti-GMO mindset which is often very loud and dogmatic with personalities like David “Avocado” Wolfe, Vani Hari, who goes by the name of FoodBabe, and the famous (or infamous, depending what side of the fence someone sits on) radio host Alex Jones, as well as the many people who listen to these people and usually call people in favor of GMOs “sheep” or “Monsanto shills”. Yet, these people are far from being the only offenders, and are actually some of the more loud voices and more extreme cases of people against GMOs, and can usually be labelled as “cranks” or “shysters” among many other colorful names which are not advisable to use in an essay for an economics class.
But other skeptics include bigger businesses, one of the biggest being the grocery store chain Whole Foods. Another skeptical group with a high amount of recognition to their name is grassroots organization Greenpeace and a woman who goes by the name Vandana Shiva, who is actually included in many documentaries going against genetic modification. Yet, many of these people haven’t listened to the studies that say they are safe and looked through the research of the benefits of GM crops. Although, to be fair, it would be hard to go through the 1,783 studies over the course of 10 years (as of 2012) that confirm they are safe (Nicolia).
While there are some people who have an anti-GMO mindset have good intentions, the fact that they don’t take the benefits into account shows that they are inadvertently throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Because not only are GMOs safe, as determined in the aforementioned 1,783 studies, but in some cases, there are actually benefits. These benefits include health benefits for people in developed nations and developing nations, environmental benefits due to growing more food with fewer inputs, economic benefits for the people growing them, and best of all, a growth in food production and a more secure source of food.
The health effects are wide and varied and never taken into account by those who are scared of GM food, the most notable example of this ignorance and fear is when people took direct action against GM crops by uprooting 400 stalks of rice stalks in the Philippines (Harmon). The rice stalk variety they uprooted was a modified rice breed known simply as golden rice due to its color. Color aside, golden rice has been modified so that it has an added benefit of being loaded with beta-carotene, which is a source for vitamin A. The benefit of rice that is loaded with vitamin A is preventing vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency can cause 250,000 to 500,000 cases of blindness, half of those resulting in death within 12 months (“Micronutrient Deficiencies”, WHO) in children as well as preventing the death in both Asia and Africa where rice is a staple food.
GMOs can also help those in more developed nations. Most notably, GM technology has found a way to modify E. coli bacterium and yeast cells to produce insulin for diabetics. Before this was developed, the source for insulin was ground up pancreases of cows and pigs from the slaughter house, which in itself is a major contributor to pollution and water usage (Walsh, “”The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production”). GM insulin, which can also be called humulin, also has its advantages over the insulin made from organs of animals. In fact, there are three advantages towards GM insulin minus the point made before. The first advantage is that humulin is absorbed into the body quicker, the second, there are fewer allergic reactions, and the best one of all; it’s cheaper to make (“Humulin and Its Advantages”). These advantages make it the main reason why all insulin out in the market since the 1980’s has been genetically engineered.
Another plant which can benefit health is one that was mentioned in a Ted talk from Borut Bohanec, a professor from University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. In his talk, he brings up black tomatoes, one of those black tomatoes being conventionally bred, the other being genetically modified. Plus, he brings up a general overview of the test results of mice that were fed black tomatoes that were genetically modified, but not the results of the ones that were conventionally bred. That last statement alone would imply that maybe he was leaving something out or even cherry picking, but the reason he didn’t bring up the test results on the conventionally bred black tomatoes is because there weren’t any studies done. However, there were studies on GM black tomatoes that found something that contradicts Séralini’s research. Most notably: GM black tomatoes that were tested on mice found an anti-cancer property (Bohanec).
However, production benefits are also present in the many advantages of genetic modification. Some notable examples include the papaya in Hawaii (Cornell Alliance for Science). That’s right; GMO technology actually saved an entire industry. Specifically, the papaya industry in Hawaii was threatened in the 1990s due to the fact that it was threatened by ring spot virus, which once it infected the papaya, rendered it useless. However, due to genetic modification, according to Pamela Ronald in a Ted talk, 80% of papayas exported from Hawaii are genetically modified. The reason she gives is that in 20 years, there is still no alternative to controlling the virus (“The Case for Engineering Food”). Another example of better security was mentioned by Rob Saik, who in a Ted talk, mentioned the growth rates of corn in different places. The one that really stood out was Brazil, who saw a yield increase of 400% on 43% more land in 2005 (Saik).
But surely with the foods that are now resistant to disease, one would expect more land to be cleared up in order to make all this food, right? In the case of a GMO, the answer to that question is no. The reason why is because more crops can be harvested on the same amount of land. The fact given in a paper by both Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot is that within 16 years, there was an increase of 122.3 million tons of soybeans, 231.4 million tons of corn, 18.2 million tons of cotton, and 6.6 million tons of canola (Brookes & Barfoot, Table 5). It also claims that had these technologies never been used, the amount of land needed in order to just maintain the 2012 levels needed would have required much more land needed. To be specific, soybeans alone would have required 4.9 million additional hectares, corn would have required 6.9 million hectares, cotton would have required 3.1 million hectares, and canola, while being the least, would have required 0.2 million hectares of additional land (Brookes and Barfoot).
Yet, another environmental concern is the use of pesticides. Resorting back to Brookes and Barfoot, over the same 16 year study, what they found with GM crops and pesticides was a decrease of use by 8.8%. While that may not sound entirely impressive, it means that over 503 million kilograms of pesticide weren’t used (Brookes and Barfoot, 13). However, to just stop at that being the only benefit to the environmental concern would not be doing the other benefit justice. In the same report, one of the other benefits was a reduction in CO¬¬2 emissions via saving fuel. The chart in the US alone show a total of 943.37 million liters of fuel, which equates to 2518.81 million kilograms of CO2 (Table 67). Brazil, on the other hand, saved 1,234.75 million liters of fuel and reduced CO2 emissions by 3,296.78 million kilograms (Table 74). However, Argentina, however, was the highest saver of fuel and CO2, saved 2,375 million liters of fuel saved and 6,341.2 million kilograms of CO¬2 saved (Table 72). However, how could crops alone save that much fuel and reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by themselves? The answer to that question: no till or reduced till farming, which is possible with GM crops due to the fact that they’re better at retaining soil moisture, and reduced fluctuations of temperature due to the crop residues.
While benefits to health, production, and the environment are good, for an economics report, one has to look at the economics of GM crops. One of the main talking points against GMOs is that they’re “bad for farmers” due to patents, many saying that it’s bad for the farmer’s incomes. While one can be against the patenting of seeds, to say that farmer’s incomes are suffering is false. In fact, William Klümper and Martin Qaim in a meta-analysis reported that profits for farmers, on average, rose by 68%. On top of that, a 2004 UC Davis study found that corn prices actually dropped by 6.8% and that price held (Carter & Smith).
However, if that isn’t convincing enough, there is another added benefit to GM crops that should, by theory, convince even the harshest GM critic. That benefit is that GM crops actually save lives. Not just saving lives by maybe dozens or even hundreds, but GM crops can save lives by the billions. This can be seen today in the country of Kenya, where they use Bt maize in order to combat both the native Maize Stalk Borer and the invasive Spotted Stalk Borer, the latter being much more aggressive and harder to deal with. Both breeds have been found to be able to destroy 14% of a crop yield. While 14% may seem like a small number, it should also be noted that 14% can feed up to 3.5 million people.
Yet, they can’t use pesticides since pesticides are usually expensive and usually not very good for anybody’s health, let alone bugs. In the case of Bt corn, it was only slightly higher than regular corn (or, depending on who’s selling, cheaper than regular corn). But what were the results? In keeping up with the points before, one of the effects was an increase over the non-Bt corn. Specifically, the non-Bt corn yield was around 6 tons per hectare, while the Bt corn yield was 9.7 tons per hectare (Tafera).
Yet, this is far from the first time that a genetically-modified staple food has saved the lives of many. The first that can be traced back in recent history is from a man named Norman Borlaug, an American plant breeder whose work spanned from Mexico, China, and certain regions of Africa. However, his most notable work was done in India and Pakistan where he would go on to start The Green Revolution. His work in Mexico in the 1940’s and 1950’s would eventually make the entire self-sufficient on wheat by 1956 (“Norman Bourlag – Facts”).
After the success in Mexico, he would introduce this wheat strand to the countries of India and Pakistan and teach them how to cultivate it properly, making India self-sufficient in 1971. This would eventually be the beginning of The Green Revolution which spread to China then to Sub-Saharan Africa in the mid 1980’s. This green revolution from the 1940’s to the 1980’s would go on to save the lives of one billion people (“Norman Borlaug: A Billion Lives Saved.”, Singh). Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, because when a person prevents one billion deaths, it’s only fair.
All of these out of the way, the harshest critic may have their opinions and want to eat non-GMO, organic produce. They are well within their right to do so. But after all these studies summarized, even they have to admit there is a benefit to allowing them. GM technology has been successful multiple times in multiple countries, from increasing yields of crops in Kenya, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Brazil, the United States, and Bangladesh, the last not being mentioned since the talking points would be repeats of what has been covered multiple times already (higher yields, fewer pests, and reduced use of pesticides), the only thing different would be the location and the crop being brinjal, or eggplant as it’s known in the US (Hossain).
It only took about seven pages to do so, but there. GMOs are safe and beneficial. But there still skepticism due to the fact that scientists haven’t spoken up enough, and when they do, there is a seemingly louder voice of pseudoscience that contradicts them leading to further anxiety and paranoia about the safety of GM technology (McHuen). But on a final note, there are horrible consequences if someone decides to ban them. These effects can be shown in the countries that need them most and worse yet, it’s happened more than once. It happened twice in 2002 in Zambia (“Zambia Refuses GM ‘Poison’”) and in Zimbabwe as recently as February of this year (“Zimbabwe: Govt Says No to GMO Imports Despite 3 Million in Need of Food Assistance.”).
Zambia, in the article mentioned, had 2.4 million people starving while Zimbabwe had 3 million people starving. In the developed nations, we can afford to be paranoid or anxious about our meals. But it seems that those who are the most paranoid and anxious are forgetting that people in developing nations don’t have that same luxury. Now, the question is: which of these scenarios are worse, people who are eating GM food or people starving, potentially to death? For a good amount of people, the answer is clear.