By Gabriella Levine
On Feb. 23, Union’s 2011 Environmental Science, Policy, and Engineering Winter Seminar Series on genetically modified food concluded with its final speaker.
Genetically modified (GM) food is derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), which have specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering. GMO’s can increase yields of crops without the risk of insect infestation, drastically decrease pesticide use, and improve nutritional value. However, many question their ability to cause unexpected effects.
The series was intriguing and complex, but altogether inconclusive, proving only that the controversy over GM food will continue with further debate until opponents concede to the will of farmers and consumers. The fate of GM food ultimately lies in the decision to produce on the behalf of the farmers, and the decision to buy on the behalf of consumers.
First and foremost, if farmers remain partial to the use of GM seeds, GM food will stay on the market and in our food supply despite opposition. We cannot undermine the knowledge and skill of farmers in choosing their planting methods as Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumer’s Union, the series’ third speaker, chose to do.
Hansen claimed that farmers don’t choose their own options for planting techniques, suggesting that farmers only use GM seeds more frequently than natural techniques because large seed corporations have a monopolistic control over the seed supply.
One must only look at the facts to see that Hansen is way off base. Over the past decade GM crops have skyrocketed, and in 2009, 14 million farmers planted 134 million hectares of GM crops worldwide. If it were not in the benefit of farmers to use GM seeds, they would avoid them, and the market would respond to this by providing alternatives.
Hansen also supported the common claim that GM food lacks proper testing and risk assessment. However, Dr. Janice Thies, another series speaker and a member of a panel that regulates GM products, refuted Hansen’s popular claim and asserted that there is sufficient testing of products with the most current technology.
If government regulation increases testing, financial responsibility would fall on taxpayers. If seed companies financed additional testing, the expense would reflect in the increased price of the product. Proper testing is crucial, but if it’s increased when regulatory hurdles are already very high for GM food, financial burden will simultaneously increase.
Second to farmer partiality is the preference of consumers. If people continue to buy GM food, it will remain on the market, even if it has possible risk association. Often, hypothetical speculation will not sway public preference.
Take, for instance, cell phone usage. Some speculate that cell phones, like GM food, can have hazardous long-term health effects such as cancerous diseases; however, nearly everyone walks around with a cell phone attached to their ear possibly emitting radiation into their brain. If opponents in fact produce evidence to support the negative health effects of GM food, it would be labeled for possible reactions, but a consumer may entirely disregard it.
Risk labels do not completely deter consumers. A cigarette pack contains labels reminding smokers of potential dangers, but according to the New York Times, 1,000 teenagers become regular smokers every day, adding to the estimated 46.6 million adult smokers nationwide. A risk to some is not a risk to others. The smokers will continue to smoke, the cell phone users will continue to make calls, and the eaters, obviously, will continue to eat.
The question lies not with the antipathy of scientists or anti-GM opponents, but rather with farmers and consumers. In the U.S., we’re caught in a debate over the hypothetical effects of GM food, consequently overlooking the larger threats from the perspectives of starving populations in deprived countries. GM food has the ability to combat famine, drought, disease, and malnutrition.
Consider this: in Africa, one in every four people have HIV. A newly developed GM tomato has an anti-HIV gene that carries a vaccine for this deadly disease. In Africa, GM food isn’t considered a risk when people are dying of disease and starvation. It’s a lifesaver.