I used to hate GMOs. The term “genetically modified organism” seems designed to evoke a sci-fi movie filled with mad scientists injecting tomatoes with murky chemicals.
The Public Response
As if living in such a movie, the public’s response to GMOs over the past few years has been precisely modulated to venom. I’ve heard stories that Monsanto extorts poor farmers with patented seeds that push them deeper into poverty, that GMOs are loaded with pesticides and that nobody can predict what happens to you when you eat them--so you better not eat them! Scare stories like that are plentiful.
Also, Monsanto’s poster child status didn’t help--a company that helped to engineer the pesticide revolution doesn’t exactly have my vote of confidence. Monsanto promoting GMOs would be like if one of the Big-Ag giants announced plans to build chicken hotels to improve animal wellbeing. I think everyone would be skeptical.
However, people should realize that many non-profits and universities are producing GMOs that do not require pesticides or herbicides.
Even still, if given the option between a GMO tomato and a genetically UNmodified tomato, I’d go with the latter. But that doesn't mean I would avoid a GMO tomato, either.
The more I read about scientists and activists switching sides and advocating for GMO use, especially in the developing world, I continue to expand my understanding of the issue and grasp the role that GMOs can play in the fight against poverty.
It’s not that GMOs are without drawbacks. There are still risks. Many Monsanto GMOs, specifically, are designed to work with the company’s herbicides. An overreliance on a single herbicide can lead to weeds and pests with stronger immunities.
Any time a corporation can corner a market--seed distribution in this case--nothing good really happens. And GMOs can lull farmers into not using smart agricultural techniques such as rotating crops throughout the year and throughout a single plot of land. They can also crush plant variety.
But there are benefits to GMOs, especially in the developing world.
Far from yoking poor farmers to the tyranny of corporate greed, GMOs can actually empower farmers to lift themselves out of poverty by giving them a heartier--and less chemical-doused--diet, more control over unpredictable conditions and more income.
Let me explain.
Farmers have artificially cross-bred, or domesticated, crops for centuries and plants have been naturally changing since they first started sprouting from Earth. This flux just happens. Put two plants next to each other and in time they will form a hybrid.
In the era of modern, industrial farming, farmers have placed a premium on creating homogenous crops--because that’s what the consumer presumably wants. (This often leads to a decline in taste. One of those tomatoes above is way tastier than the typical grocery store tomato). There are also all sorts of market incentives guiding what is planted and why--but that's another issue.
In the process, crops ceded many traits that made them resilient when in the wild or in a less controlled environment.
At the same time, farmers began to dedicate entire plots to single crops such as a starchy type of wheat. When multiple plants populate a plot, they complement one another by replenishing the soil and by sharing defense mechanisms.
When that single strain of wheat is planted in the same soil year after year, the soil gradually deteriorates, creating worse conditions over time and making the crop more vulnerable to the environment.
To compensate for this deficiency, pesticides are introduced to protect the wheat, exacerbating the problem of soil degradation. And the more a farmer uses pesticides, the more dependent a crop becomes on that pesticide.
Genetic modification is a form of artificial cross-breeding accelerated to a degree of maybe millions. The plants produced through genetic modification could conceivably occur naturally in the wild, but it would take a very long time. The process can also recover plants lost through domestication.
In many cases, scientists take a good gene--such as drought-resistance, cold-resistance, disease-resistance, higher vitamin C yield, or the ability to repel particular insects--and splice it into the DNA of a plant. This GMO can now better withstand harsh conditions or provide more nutrition.
For instance, a pest-resistant eggplant strain used by some farmers in India borrows a gene from a soil bacterium that produces a protein that kills moth larvae that feed on eggplant.
Now, instead of soaking plants with pesticides to kill the larvae, no action needs to be taken.
Where GMOs can do the most good
Places in the developing world such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Laos and India depend on agriculture for their people's livelihood. These places also happen to be some of the most affected by climate change.
Instead of emerging on the other side of a drought with a parched and dusty field, a GMO designed to withstand drought can leave a farmer with a surplus harvest.
A GMO designed to naturally repel pests reduces the need for pesticides, reducing exposure to pesticides and any accompanying health complications. It also allows the farmer to label her produce “pesticide-free,” commanding a higher price. And a GMO designed for a higher overall yield, leads to higher income as well.
A GMO designed to have more nutrients lets a farmer feed her family a more nutritious diet, making her more self-sufficient.
The best way to address poverty is to create an enabling environment in which people can thrive.
In a perfect world, GMOs would be unnecessary. The world would practice sustainable, multicultural and locally-centric farming methods that generate healthful harvests.
But industrial, monocultural, chemical-heavy agriculture dominates the globe.
I still prefer to buy “organic” produce from a local farmer because I like to support farmers’ markets. I like to talk to people who care about the apples and tomatoes and spinach they grow. I like that they respect their chickens as living creatures. But I live in a prosperous country where I can, most of the time, choose from a range of options. And that set of options could include local farmers selling GMOs. Nothing is fundamentally wrong with that.
People living in poverty often have limited options and climate change threatens to limit options even further. A yield devastated by drought can devastate a family’s annual income and sustenance, and potentially plunge them into debt.
Crusading against GMOs in such a world seems like the wrong fight.