People fear what they do not understand. And no issue is more misunderstood, maligned and shrouded in conspiracy than that of genetically modified crops. The issue is really three-fold: fear of science, hatred of corporations, and the naturalistic fallacy. And when the two meet, many tend to imagine the birth of something akin to the Umbrella Corporation from the Resident Evil games. Such is the popular culture view of large-scale science application.
Let us first have a look at the science. There is absolutely no evidence - zero, zilch, nil, nada, none - that GM food is somehow harmful. That is not to say that there have been no attempts to prove that it is. Perhaps the latest one came from the Spiroux lab at the University of Caen, France, known for its opposition to GM food in general. They attempted to show that rats fed Monsanto-developed NK603 corn, which is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, developed tumours. The study has been dissected elsewhere, but I shall mention a few key facts. Discounting the known bias of the researchers, the rat strain (Sprague-Dawley) used is susceptible to developing tumours, especially in their old age. The rats were monitored for 2 years - that is, nearly their whole lifespan.The control rats died in under 24 months as well, but the authors do not mention why (I’ll hazard a guess it had something to do with tumours). I will not go into the stats, but it should be enough to say that the sample size was 10 animals, when 50 per sex and group is the recommended number. In general the statistics were overemphasized and poorly presented. But perhaps the shadiest aspects of this story were the authors refusing to release the raw data or to allow journalists to ask for second opinions previous to the press release.
One big issue with the science is: who funds it? The GM corporations fund masses of research into the safety of their products, but the opponents cry foul when such research is presented. When opponents fund research, they are equally if not more untrustworthy. Ideally, a truly independent non-profit organisation or charity could look into it, but in today’s world, is it even possible for true independence and objectivity to exist where such a topic is concerned?
Now onto the second issue. While scientific problems can and ultimately are resolved by reality, the perceived problem or corporations is completely different. The hatred for Monsanto, in some circles, borders on pathological. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a great fan of corporate welfare, intellectual property or any other government-enforced perks and powers corporations have. However, it seems ridiculous to me to vilify a business for wanting to make profit. Do we hate Apple for making really shiny computers and intuitive operating systems? Well, some people do, I guess, but surely not with the religious fervour that people hate the GM food corporations.
I often ask myself the reasoning behind the fear that Monsanto et al are out to kill us. Surely, a for-profit institution would do all it can to make sure its products are safe for the consumers, for the only honest reason out there: to make money. But maybe I’m just a naive sheeple. But when the top anti-GM and anti-Monsanto spokespeople are the paragons of intellectual honesty like Mike Adams of the peer-reviewed and balanced Natural News. So excuse me while I continue drinking my genetically modified soy chocolate milk (not because I’m vegan, but because it’s delicious).
The third and the most fundamental issue is the naturalistic fallacy. This is basically the idea that everything that’s natural is good and everything that’s artificial is bad. So, stretching the logic, arsenic and cholera are good, and the internet and anti-cancer drugs are bad. Or, in this case, organic food is good just because it’s more “natural”, and GM food is bad just because scientists have dabbled with it. The organic food vs GM food topic deserves its own article (if not its own tome), thus I will not go too much into it here. But I do want to drive the point home that a thing is not more inherently virtuous/healthy/beneficial just because it is not manmade, and that this fallacious thinking is the reason behind all the anti-GM racket.
So why is GM food good for you? Well, there’s the decreased use of and fertilisers due to the added pest-resistance genes. Then there are the possibilities to supplement staples - the most famous examples being Golden Rice, where vitamin A is added to save countless Third World children from blindness. Then there are environmental benefits, including increased yield and thus decreased land use, which can be returned to the wild. Curious side note: environmentalists should therefore love GM foods, but instead they, of course, fanatically hate them.
I would advocate an open market, where people can choose the food they want to eat, and where choices are made using sound science rather than fearmongering. If rich people in trendy places want to eat their organic kale and grass-fed beef, that is their choice. However, their choices should not prevent those less fortunate from having a perfectly healthy and actually sustainable diet.