Genetically modified food: Good, bad, ugly



Genetically modified food has had a rough year in what has been a fairly miserable decade. In August, 400 farmers in the Philippines stormed a government-owned GM (as it is known) research field. The protesters destroyed 1,000 square meters of Golden Rice, a variety genetically engineered to cut down on vitamin A deficiency.

A 2013 poll in The New York Times found that three-quarters of Americans have concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food; most are worried about health effects. Thirty-seven percent of those with worries fear that GM foods cause cancer or allergies.

On the Web site CounterPunch this summer, Katherine Paul wondered what happens when animals are confined in cramped, filthy environments and force-fed monoculture diets of genetically modified corn and soy. A lot, concluded Paul, who is with the Organic Consumers Association: \”Calves are born too weak to walk, with enlarged joints and limb deformities. Piglets experience rapidly deteriorating health, a \’failure to thrive\’ so severe that they start breaking down their own tissues and organs—self-cannibalizing—to survive.\”

The article described animals with weak bones, dairy cows with mastitis, beef cattle with liver abscesses. \”It all adds up to a lot of misery for animals unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of industrial agriculture\’s Big GMO Experiment,\” Paul wrote.

A documentary, Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives, proclaims GMO \”the most dangerous thing facing human beings in our generation.\” And a headline in Pravda sneered at the decision to expand GMO agriculture in Russia, under the headline \”Russians to proudly poison themselves with their own GM food.\”

But at the same time, the Times also noted that commercial farming of oranges and grapefruit is in dire peril from an insect-borne bacteria that causes a disease known as \”citrus greening.\” An uncontrollable fungal blight is destroying the banana crop around the world. Coffee rust is knocking out plants in Central and South America. Diseases like rice blast, soybean rust, stem rust in wheat, corn smut in maize, and late blight in potatoes destroy at least 125 million tons each year of the world\’s top five foods. The damage done to rice, wheat, and maize alone costs global agriculture $60-billion per year. The effects are especially catastrophic in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people rely on these foods.

There is a way to get rid of such otherwise unstoppable plant diseases, which waste scarce resources, bring about malnutrition and starvation for hundreds of millions, and cost the world economy billions of dollars. Genetically modified organisms.

Specifically, engineering plants to resist the diseases. So why don\’t the folks bearing the bad news about GMOs make a connection to the huge problems that could be fixed by genetic engineering? The answer is the bungling mismanagement of a potentially useful breakthrough technology by the GMO industry, alongside market forces that produce GMOs friendly to pesticides rather than hostile to fungi.

On September 10, 1999, I found myself in Switzerland, on a mountaintop overlooking Lake Geneva. A pleasure trip? Nope, I was giving a talk to CEOs about the ethics of GMOs. I spent my time at the summit yelling, literally, at the CEO of Monsanto. He was yelling right back at me—neither of us calmed by the beauty of the setting. Or the horrified looks on the faces of other guests.

The subject of the craggy debate was whether foods that contain GMOs should be labeled as such. The head of Monsanto said absolutely not. Since there was nothing unsafe about genetically modified food, there was no reason to label. I thought he was nuts.

I argued that people had a right to know what was in their food, regardless of the safety issue. In a land where you can have a Slurpee and a couple of Slim Jims for lunch, and where E. coli, listeriosis, yersiniosis, and salmonella outbreaks are frequent occurrences, I was not too worried about the safety of GMO food. But safety has little to do with labeling. Plenty of foods are labeled \”kosher,\” \”natural,\” \”halal,\” \”made in Vermont,\” or all manner of other terms not connected to safety.

By not labeling their foods, agricultural companies were creating an environment of suspicion and distrust. The CEO, however, was not convinced. Monsanto did not push labeling or lobby for labeling. No other companies in the GMO business did, either. Only restaurants and supermarkets that threw a \”GMO-free\” label around, to appeal to consumers made nervous by lack of transparency, bothered to label.

Bad management thus turned a technology that should have been greeted as a way out of chemically based farming into a public-relations nightmare.

I actually had crossed paths with Monsanto years before. When I was at the University of Minnesota, in 1994, the company introduced a genetically engineered form of growth hormone, rBGH, for use in dairy herds. The naturally occurring gene for making rBGH had been inserted into bacteria, E. coli, which went about merrily making as much hormone as anyone could want. Monsanto sold the artificial hormone to dairy farmers with the promise that they could get more milk from their herds.

That product had driven me crazy. Why create more milk? My subsidized school lunches at Saxonville Elementary, in Framingham, Mass., in the late 1950s had been built on dairy products—a butter or cheese sandwich every day—since the federal government did not know what else to do with all the surplus. So had my younger sisters\’ lunches, right through the 1970s. Consumers did not need more milk. rBGH milk is still sold throughout the United States. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a U.N. food-safety agency representing 101 nations, has banned it. So has Canada. Milk, butter, and ice cream remain abundant.

Genetic engineering started out trying to create more of foods that were already abundant. It then tried to sell its products not to consumers, but to farmers. No labeling was involved, no explanation of the genetically engineered cow\’s milk offered, no value added to what the consumer got on the plate or in the glass. The pattern of ignoring the consumer and selling to the farmer continued with genetically engineered soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, and cotton. No labeling. No value added for the eater.

Even worse, Monsanto, and later DuPont, Bayer, and other big companies focused their GMO efforts on finding synergies between genetic engineering and their existing pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer businesses. Monsanto\’s Roundup Ready soybeans, introduced throughout the world in the mid-to-late 1990s, made crops more resistant to herbicides sold by—Monsanto.

The companies making lots of money from the pesticide and fertilizer revolution that swept through agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s were not ready to gamble on losing that business if GMO technology was used to make plants and agriculture greener, cheaper, safer, and more capable of providing nutritious food without their chemicals. GMO, which should have been the next major technological revolution in farming, making the Green Revolution even greener, instead was turned into a handmaiden for an outmoded, highly polluting, and increasingly expensive chemically based agriculture.

Which brings us back to all those diseases and bugs that have figured out ways to defeat our herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and microbicides while thoroughly enjoying global warming, war, and human deforestation. Chemical agriculture has no answer. Nor does organic farming.

The only path toward a continuous supply of a variety of foods, more nutritious food, cheaper food, and an environmentally friendlier agriculture is the genetic engineering of plants and seeds. Critics of genetic engineering need to start to separate the technology from its miserable history. Altering genes, which is going on in medicine as a powerful tool against disease, has to be deployed in the same way in the plant world.

The route to getting rid of chemical agriculture can run through organic farming. But it must also incorporate genetic modification, lest entire industries, such as those providing orange juice or coffee products—and their jobs—disappear, and those who eke out a living trying to farm on a warming planet, short on water, with many blight-threatened crops, starve.

There is plenty to argue about regarding GMO foods. Controlling the dissemination of genetically modified plants and animals needs a lot more thought. Getting farmers off monoculture farming and adding back more diversity to vulnerable foods are efforts that need more than a few seed banks. And we must figure out labeling. If it is not always feasible to label foods, trustworthy information should be made available on the Web. Even industry knows that—14 years after my shouting match on the mountaintop, Monsanto has launched a Web site,

That said, the push to make GM food a complement to farming rather than handmaiden to a rapidly failing form of polluting agriculture must become a priority for all. If industry cannot use the technology in an ethically responsible manner, then either government or a philanthropy like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ought to be urged to step in. (Full disclosure: I receive no support from food companies or agribusiness. But while at the University of Pennsylvania, I did participate in a project with DuPont to establish a code of ethics for its biotechnology business. That project goes on.)

Genetic engineering is not yet solving the food challenges that face humanity. Despite industry bungling, market failure, and a lot of fearmongering, however, it is our last, best, practical, serious hope.

Author Bio: Arthur L. Caplan is a professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University\’s Langone Medical Center.