The pro-and anti-GMO positions will remain polarized until larger questions about the future of food production are addressed.
Is the engineering of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) a dangerous technology posing grave risks to human and ecological health? Or are GMOs a potent new tool in the onward march of modern agricultural technology in its race to feed the world?
In a recent opinion piece – Avoiding GMOs Isn’t Just Anti-science, It’s Immoral – Purdue University president Mitch Daniels offers an impassioned plea that we embrace GMOs in agriculture. Daniels’ argument runs as follows: The health and ecological safety of GMOs is unquestionable “settled science.” Therefore, it is immoral to deny developing countries the agricultural technology they need to boost food production and feed their growing populations. It seems an open-and-shut case: the self-indulgent anti-GMO fad among rich consumers threatens the less fortunate with starvation. As Daniels says, it is immoral for them to “inflict their superstitions on the poor and hungry”.
But let’s look at some of the assumptions that this argument takes for granted: (1) That GMOs are indeed safe, and (2) that GMOs and industrial agriculture in general allow higher yields than more traditional forms of agriculture.
The ecological and health safety of GMOs is more controversial scientifically than Daniels’ piece asserts. The problem is that it is hard to know which science – and which scientists – to trust. In the United States, most university agronomy departments receive massive funding from agritech companies who, according to Scientific American, “have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.” Since GMOs are proprietary, those companies can and do restrict who can perform research on their products. When a study does document harm, it and its authors are subjected to intense scrutiny, career-ending attacks, and even lawsuits. Imagine yourself as a graduate student at, say, Purdue University. How welcome do you think a research proposal on the health hazards of GMOs would be?