Earlier this year, health-conscious fast-food chain Chipotle announced a plan to give genetically modified organisms the boot from its menu ingredients. It did so to appease its young target audience, which loves organic food — even if they might not know what organic means.
The natural-foods craze has spurred a resounding chorus of anti-GMO sentiment, including the potential upheaval of grocery stores, with required GMO labeling coming July 2016 and jacking up prices storewide. Much of the hate exists for good reason: The companies that profit off genetically modified food call the shots on what goes in your fridge and, according to Mother Jones, have a chokehold on the 53% of farmland planted, largely with their modified seeds.
But there's a problem with how our justified distaste for corporate greed taints our perception of a potentially life-saving science, and it's something the American populace needs to look beyond to see the bigger picture.
Put simply, genetically modified food is the future. That could be all we'll eat in 20 years. Moreover, we've been eating genetically altered food for decades without even realizing it.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have been modified with genes they didn't get from nature.
Making them requires three components: the gene you want to add, the organism you want to modify and a way to get the former into the latter.
Take the Hawaiian papaya industry. For decades on Hawaiian papaya farms, the papaya ring spot virus was an infection that killed the plant's ability to produce. Farmers realized they needed a way to protect the fruit, and the tree, from the disease, or the bustling business was headed for trouble.
By 1985, researchers had figured out how to add a gene from the virus itself to produce a protein that helped papayas resist PRSV. From there, strains of the plant were born and tested until one was found to resist PRSV while still being healthy for people to eat. After years of testing, 70% of Hawaii's papaya industry is now genetically modified papayas, according to GMOAnswers.
Why are so many people opposed?
There are certainly some bizarre experiments using gene modification, like glow-in-the-dark cats and scorpion-venom cabbages, which go viral due to their sheer outlandishness and paint GMO researchers as mad scientists gone off the rails, cackling as they forge a dystopian future of animal hybrids.
And some biotech companies, like Monsanto, give the science a bad name.
In 2013, scientists were dumbfounded when millions of honey bees suddenly died, turning billions of dollars' worth of productive, money-making beehives into mass graves. They discovered a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), almost certainly caused by a cocktail of pesticides and fungicides — up to 21 chemicals — in the pollen bees were collecting: chemicals like the ones produced by big agrochemical companies like DuPont, Dow Agrosciences and Monsanto.
If you've heard of Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company behind the herbicides Roundup and Agent Orange, you've heard why people are against them — or at least you've heard about their reputation for dumping toxic chemicals incorrectly, which is usually a great way to make more than just anti-GMO groups hate your guts.
The company also happens to be one of the biggest players in the GM food business, and supplied the United States military with one of its more screwed-up initiatives during the Vietnam War, involving spraying herbicide over Malaya. It's understandable, then, why people wouldn't want an organization like this in charge of our food.
How do young people really feel about them?
Well, let's ask them. Mic conducted a brief Google Form survey to get a sense of where people fall on whether GMOs are safe or dangerous. Of the 111 who replied, 75 believed they're safe to eat. Thirty said they are not. Four said they didn't know what GMOs are. But the more interesting answers came from the people who don't see the debate as being so black and white — or wished they had more real information.
"I think there's no reason to believe anything but that most GMOs are safe for most anyone to consume." — Kirke Elsass, 28
"I just wish I knew what is and isn't a GMO product," Zoë Lillian, 25, told Mic. "I am not necessarily for or against them, although superweeds and superbugs are pretty terrifying. As a consumer, I feel most strongly about increased visibility."
"I think there's no reason to believe anything but that most GMOs are safe for most anyone to consume," Kirke Elsass, a 28-year-old science teacher based in Detroit, told Mic. He pointed out that he doesn't believe genetically modified foods are necessary for human survival. "I think they include some amount of risk to general food security in the future either by encouraging reliance on high-input agriculture or simply by making food crops increasingly patent-controlled, resulting in more people dependent on the crop and fewer people with knowledge of how to create/grow it."
What does science say?
The wacky, creepy-crawly science of gene modification is just one, unflattering facet. Scientists are increasingly supportive of GMO foods, and for good reason: As the world's population grows, the global food supply will run low. And when some of the most fertile and productive agricultural zones in the world start to turn sour — most devastatingly, California — that means trying to find other options.
Last year, Bill Nye, renowned scientist and former GMO skeptic, reportedly made a visit to Monsanto and revised his feelings toward GMOs. In an episode of Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he elaborated on his new views:
"This is what changed my mind, is being able to do [sequence genes] 10 million times faster than they used to be able to do it ... and being able to eliminate the ones not suitable for farming and susceptible to diseases and so on. We're farmers, and we want them to come out the way we want them.
Then they plant the promising ones in super-controlled sterile greenhouses, and the ones that have suitable qualities they propagate and it takes about five years of that and then the FDA or the Department of Agriculture does another three years, sometimes five years, then they agree it's worth planting."
So are GMOs actually safe?
Did Chipotle have the right idea, or will thinking inside the box leave the next generation to frantically scavenge what's left of the planet?
There's no reason to believe GMOs themselves — as in, foods that have been modified — aren't safe to eat. In fact, a University of California, Davis Department of Animal Science geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam reviewed 29 years of livestock health data in what must be the most in-depth, thorough and smelly research ever attempted.
The study, which reviewed the health of 100 billion animals before and after they started eating GM feed, found the feed didn't change the quality of their health. Ditto for the massive collection of similar papers published in the years since GMO foods began sprouting up.
Something important to note: The first GMO crops in the Eenennaam report are from 1996. Chances are, you've been eating GMO-affected foods for most of your life.
As it turns out, we've been genetically modifying foods for a long time.
When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked about his stance on GMOs during a book-signing, he wasn't hardline for or against. But he definitely thinks people who fear genetic modification need to chill out.
"What most people don't know, but they should, is that practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food," Tyson responded to a French journalist. "We have systematically genetically modified all of the foods the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called artificial selection. ... Now that we can do it in a lab, all of a sudden you're going to complain?"
In the U.S., a lot of common foods have been either altered genetically or selectively, the latter meaning farmers perpetuate the life cycle of only those plants with favorable characteristics, like larger fruit or lower seed count. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, almost 85% of corn grown in the States is genetically modified (corn's early ancestor, like many other crops, was drastically smaller). About 90% of canola crops is modified, and soy is allegedly the most heavily modified food in the country.
GMOs will make us healthier — and supply better food in developing countries.
A common mantra you'll hear about GMOs, like the one astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson uses, is that humanity has been genetically modifying crops for centuries through a process called selective breeding, or breeding plants for their certain traits. It's how we got edible, fat stalks of corn, seedless watermelons and hypoallergenic cats.
But true genetic modification skips the natural, gradual years of breeding, instead just identifying the genes you want and cutting out the ones you don't. It's resulted in things like herbicide-resistant tomato plants, insect-resistant sweet corn and a form of rice that is high in Vitamin A. And for the most part, that's a good thing.
A 2014 study from the science journal PLOS One found that incorporating GM technology in farming reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, brought up crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%. The highest results were shown in developing countries experimenting with GM farming, opening the door for usually starved countries to produce crops amid less-than-ideal growing conditions.
Genetic modification will change what else goes into your body, too.
Researchers have been experimenting with adding human genes to pig organs in a heavily financed play to manufacture modified animal organs for human transplants.
The science is going to take a while to perfect, and right now the process of putting an organ from one animal into another, called xenotransplantation, costs about $100,000.
But it could be the answer to balancing the extremely unequal donor-to-patient ratio in the country — and it wouldn't be possible without genetic modification.
Of course, there are pitfalls.
If you breed a crop to resist pervasive, aggressive fungi, you don't have to spray it as much. But you also run the risk of the fungi, bacteria or bug developing its own genetic resistance, causing more modification or requiring even more pesticides, bringing us back to square one.
The problem with our current GMO climate is that the only companies that can afford to make progress are corporations like Monsanto, which people oppose on principle due to their unethical business practices.
So is there a solution?
It may mean taking a harder look at what can and can't be modified, and what genes can be used in the process. Or the government could enact strict regulations imposed on environmental impact from biotech corporations, which might be more concerned with profit margins than the possibility of wiping out large swaths of native agriculture.
But letting that disdain for a promising science turn into unanimous GMO disapproval is a problem. It means that smaller companies and independent labs, the ones making the planet better for the sake that we all live on it, can't get a foot in the door. Because when you scare away the people who could do some good, the only people left will be the ones who don't care what you think.