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Genetically Modified Food Isn't As Scary As You Think

While Washington State has been in the news more for one of its initiatives which passed last year, another recent legislative battle has caught the attention of some of the world’s largest agriculture companies, most notably Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. The law would require labeling all genetically modified organisms (GMOs.)

The agriculture giants have pumped resources into the fight to the tune of almost $8 million, but Washington is just the latest battleground in the fight between agriculture companies and anti-GMO activists worried about the potential adverse health and environmental effects arising from widespread distribution of GMOs.

But how bad are GMOs, really?

The short answer is: probably not very. As an overview, seeds are implanted with genes that make them grow more robustly, by increasing herbicide tolerance, resistance to invasive insects, or through other methods. This means that companies can grow more food, use less pesticide and herbicide, and generally produce a more consistent product while keeping up with new threats to crop health. (A great overview from the World Health organization can be found here.)

Obviously, though, the story doesn’t end there. The thing about GMOs is that the idea of them is pretty scary. When most people think of genetically modified foods, they imagine weird Frankenstein fruits like in that one Simpsons episode. More scientifically, at least one scientist, Gilles-Eric Séralini, believes that he has evidence that GMOs can cause cancer, based on a study in which rats that fed on genetically modified Monsanto corn developed much higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Yikes. Séralini wants the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency (FSA) to take a look at his data, and for Monsanto to release its data so they can compare notes.

The FSA and Monsanto have, in turn, dismissed Séralini’s data on the grounds that the sample size was too small and that the type of rat used was already prone to developing tumors.

The more pressing concern has to do with GMO contamination of unmodified crops. Just one recent example of this also happens to have taken place in Washington, where an alfalfa farmer "confirmed a low level presence of a genetically engineered trait …developed by Monsanto Co. to make plants able to tolerate treatments of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller."

The fear is twofold. The first is that farmers will cease to have control over what kind of crops they want to grow and will have no choice but to produce genetically modified crops on their land. In cases of accidental contamination, Monsanto has even sued farmers in the past for copyright infringement.

The second fear is a broader one: that genetically modified plant specimens will overpower unmodified crops, eventually driving them to extinction. If this doesn’t immediately strike you as a dangerous thing, imagine that instead of talking about genetically modified corn, we were talking about genetically modified bears — let’s call them “überbears” — and they were driving normal grizzly bears to extinction. It’s tampering with the environment on a large scale and there’s no way to know what all the implications will be. We don’t want überbears running around in our backyards.

Ultimately, though, while we have good reason to be cautious in our use and containment of GMOs, being “anti-GMO” as a general rule doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. There simply isn’t the scientific evidence to support claims that genetically modified food is unequivocally bad for our health or the environment, and there is plenty to show that genetically modified foods can go a long way towards easing world hunger. I empathize with the dislike many people feel for Monsanto and DuPont. That said, fighting GMOs because they're backed by these companies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

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