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Sunday, March 31, 2013

With Apologies to My Organic Friends

Genetically Modified Foods Pros and Cons

I remember a few years ago as a college student I enrolled in a post-graduate anthropology class just for fun.  I ended up dropping it 5 weeks or so into the semester; I hadn't taken any of the prerequisites and I would have flunked miserably. But during the time I was in the class, I got to watch a documentary about the looming spectre of genetically modified foods.
I don't remember most of the video, but there was one part that stuck with me. A farmer in some rural country in South America was telling the camera about how dry and acidic the soil was in his region, and how hard it was to irrigate effectively because of the geography. His crops came out so poisonous that he couldn't even use them for animal feed. The people in the region were starving and dying of disease from eating the horrible crops.
Then, one season, he got genetically modified corn that was resistant to the impurities in the soil. That harvest, he had a huge crop that enabled him to feed his family, his animals and improve the quality of life in his region. The next season, the government in his country (I really wish I could remember which one it was) banned the use of gmo foods, and his region went back to starving.
The reason stated in the video for banning the gmo crops was that not enough testing had been done on the long term effects of gmo foods on the human body.
What's wrong with this picture?
I've done a little research over the years, and so far, the picture has yet to change. The primary reason that so many people and cultures are against gmo foods is that we simply don't know enough about them.
Which is a valid concern, of course. But in my mind, the proven benefits far outweigh the hypothetical, conjectural concerns.  I'm sure there are a few kinks to be worked out in the lab, but does that really mean that we should avoid these foods altogether?
One of the "kinks" I've read about is that a diet high in gmo foods has been linked to a higher incidence of developing certain cancers.  But as gmo ingredients are often present in processed foods, I think that positing a causal relationship is flimsy.  Any study that purports to link gmo foods to cancer had better take a hard look at what else is in those processed foods, not to mention the other poor lifestyle choices made by people who eat predominately processed food.
Another concern is that gmo crops could lead to the development of super weeds and have other negative impacts on the environment. This I do not have a snappy rebuttal to, but I think we have to really carefully weigh the pros and cons here. Everything I've read about this possibility merely states that it could happen in theory.  My feeling is that with every solution comes a host of new problems.  Gmo foods could be a solution to inadequate food supply.  Newer, tougher pests could be a problem that comes along with that. So what? Is it an unsolvable problem? Probably not.
Basically, I think this issue comes down to a fear of progress. The science out there saying that gmo foods should be avoided is tenuous, and the positive impacts on quality of life are current and measurable.  Granted, some people eat a lot of these foods unknowingly as a part of a generally unhealthy diet. That's bad, but the onus is on the individual. I choose to understand what I'm eating, not out of fear of the unknown, but out of an affinity for control. I like making things from scratch, starting from basic ingredients that I understand.  If some of those have been genetically modified to have improved taste, higher nutritional content, resilience during growing, longer shelf-life and better appearance... well that's okay with me.