February/March, 2014

From the Editor

Contrarian Views

Hostility to GMOs as a class is more political than scientific. Genetic modification is a technology, not a food, and, as with any technology, can be used in many different ways. For example, for as long as we have had domesticated agriculture, man has tried to select and breed for desirable traits. Almost all the produce items you see in a supermarket are hybrid varieties that bear little resemblance to the original wild plant. John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, was famous for spreading apple orchards across the country, but those apples were used almost exclusively for hard cider – they were virtually inedible as a fruit unless baked with lots of sweetener.

Over years of breeding, we have crossed varieties to capture their most useful traits and so have delicious and healthy apples that are a joy to eat. So if one corn variety yields well but tastes awful, while another variety is sweet and delicious but yields very poorly, we have crossbred these plants in the hope of getting an optimal combination of traits. But conventional cross breeding can take decades and may never produce the desired outcome.

At its simplest, genetic modification is a technique that can be used to simply speed up the process of hybrid seed development. So instead of trying decades of crossbreeds, we identify the gene that causes “high yield” and put it in the plant that has the gene for sweetness. In the end, this plant would be genetically indistinguishable from what an optimal conventional breeding program would produce. It is extremely hard to see rationality in endorsing a result – the sweet high yield corn – if achieved expensively over many decades of conventional breeding but rejecting the same plant if the same genome came about through speedy and less expensive use of modern technology.

Indeed some of the opposition to GMOs is quite questionable. The organic community, for example, opposes GMOs. Indeed, if any consumer wants to avoid GMOs, buying Certified Organic Product is a simple way to do so, as the national standards prohibit the use of GMOs. Yet the organic community accepts hybrid seed and knows full well that since the 1940s, many conventional breeding efforts rely on blasting seeds with radiation or strong chemicals in the hope of inducing a useful genetic mutation. The fact that the organic community accepts the idea that Mutation Breeding of this sort is perfectly acceptable and yet GMOs are not makes one suspect that marketing is guiding this effort more than anything else. Is it really true that the typical organic consumer would recoil at the thought a gene was removed from an heirloom organic white corn and placed in an heirloom organic yellow corn, yet this same consumer would be placid if the seed was blasted with radiation or toxic chemicals?

What about labeling? Even if the science opposing GMOs is weak, don’t people have the “right to know” and so shouldn’t labeling of GMOs be required? Traditionally we have not mandated labels just because someone might want to know something. After all, some people might want to know that the seed was developed through conventional hybridization or that the growers are opposed or are in favor of same-sex marriage. We have taken the position, though, that labeling requirements should generally be science-driven. So putting a notice on food “this is a GMO” or “this product is a result of conventional hybridization techniques” is the same thing as raising a red flag before consumers.

What about consumer rights? Well, any consumer can avoid consuming GMO products by purchasing organic products or by purchasing those products that are labelled as GMO-free. The whole business of throwing “rights” into the labeling discussion is awkward. After all, saying people have the “right” to know implies someone else somehow has acquired the obligation to inform. But why would that be the case? Don’t producers have rights? Can’t a consumer ask a producer if his product has GMOs, and can’t the producer say he prefers to keep his ingredients secret and understands fully if the consumer prefers not to buy from him? How does the consumer’s “right to know” take away a producer’s right to hold his tongue? DB