This new blog article is an important follow-up to the article I posted on December 15 about Norman Borlaug, known as “the man who fed the world.” One of my respected Thinking Friends responded with a lengthy email about the problem of GMOs, and that is an important concern that needs careful consideration.
Facts about GMOs
Since I am not a scientist and have limited knowledge about botany (plant biology) or genetics, I can say little about the technical aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I have, however, done some reading and thinking about ethical issues surrounding GMOs.
Beginning in 1944 in Mexico, “Borlaug developed simple techniques for cross-breeding, harvesting, and planting seeds in order to produce unusually disease-resistant strains of wheat. The result was a striking growth in wheat yields. By 1963, largely due to Borlaug's techniques, Mexico was producing six times as much wheat per year as in the year before Borlaug's arrival.” (The quote is from this website for biology teachers.)
Borlaug’s success in Mexico led to successes in other countries—and to the “Green Revolution,” for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. His successes also led to geneticists developing techniques for extending his work by altering crops at the genetic level, resulting in the proliferation of GMOs.
The controversy that has arisen about GMOs is not linked so much to what Borlaug and others did before 1970 but rather to the way GMOs have been developed and marketed by large companies. The major U.S. company to do that was Monsanto, a chemical company that was started in St. Louis in 1901 and acquired by Bayer in 2018.
Monsanto scientists were among the first to modify a plant cell genetically, publishing their results in 1983. Five years later the company conducted the first field tests of genetically modified crops. After introducing Roundup Ready soybeans and corn in 1994, Monsanto steadily became an agribusiness giant.
The strong opposition in some circles to GMOs is not so much opposition to genetic engineering (GE) as such but to the ways that GE has been used (or misused) by large corporations such as Monsanto.
Opposition to GMOs
In the last half of the 1990s, there was growing opposition toward GMOs because of the way many thought GMO produced food could be detrimental to human health.
In 2000, when Borlaug was 86, the African News Service published an article (see here) titled “Norman Borlaug Blasts GMO Doomsayers.” He stated, “There is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous.”
Nevertheless, opposition continued to grow in the first two decades of the 21st century. Although it is several years old now, the opposition to foods containing GMOs is strongly, and attractively, presented in a film with the clever title “GMO OMG” (2013). (June and I checked the DVD out from the local library and watched it earlier this week.)
Affirmation of GMOs
In January last year, Charlie Arnot, a thought leader in food and agriculture whose office is in the Kansas City Northland, was the guest at the Vital Conversations study group June and I regularly attend. At that meeting we discussed his slim book, Size Matters: Why We Love to Hate Big Food (2018).
(It was that meeting and Charlie’s book that rekindled my interest in Norman Borlaug and led to last month’s blog article about him.)
During the discussion, I asked Arnot directly about whether he thought GMOs were dangerous to human health. He gave an unequivocally negative response.
Just this month I have read the “Saturday essay” written by Mark Lynas and published in the June 22, 2018, edition of the Wall Street Journal. The essay’s title is, “Confession of an Anti-GMO Activist”—and here is his main point:
Genetically modified crops have been vilified and banned, but the science is clear: They’re perfectly safe. And what’s more, the world desperately needs them.
Lynas (b. 1973) is also the author of Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs” (2018). That is a work that merits careful consideration by anti-GMO people.
Attention also needs to be given to William Saletan’s Slate.com’s 2015 article titled “Unhealthy Fixation,” which contends, “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.”
I have no complaint about people who wish to avoid GMOs in the food they choose to eat. But the most important ethical problem is seeking to curb all GMO-produced crops if, indeed, they are helping to feed the many people in the world who are chronically hungry.