Spinning Yarns About Genetically Modified Crops

A compelling narrative often makes a good engine to pull public policy. Unfortunately, this means we are sometimes unwilling to let facts get in the way of the story we want to tell.

Consider, for example, the science and pseudo-science behind the ginned-up opposition to genetically modified crops ("organisms" in the parlance of critics who want to skip past the detail that crops are useful for feeding people), or GMOs.

Out in the real world, genetically engineered crops are helping to boost yields, reduce pesticide spraying and its associated runoff, improve product quality and conserve water and soil. Farmers, agronomists and biologists know this. But their voices are often drowned out by critics whose main objections appear to be economic and political (some people just don't like it when other people make money), but who wrap their agenda in claims of health problems, genetic contamination and "superweeds" whose actual existence is about as well documented as Sasquatch.

But don't take my word for it. Lest you dismiss me as some sort of profit-loving, coldly logical Republican CPA (charges to which I would mostly plead guilty), let's look at a recent story in the eco-sensitive columns of The New York Times. A story, as it happens, that is about the investigative activities of a councilman in the Democratic island paradise of Hawaii. (1)

The Times focused on Greggor Ilagan, a member of the County Council on Hawaii Island (known as the Big Island). When the Council considered a measure to ban most GMOs from the island last year, Ilagan set out to try and verify or debunk the various claims the measure's supporters used to argue for such a ban. To his initial surprise, the councilman found that most reputable scientists agree that genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others. The American Medical Association has stated that "there is currently no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods." (2) A group of prominent scientists wrote an editorial for Science Magazine last fall standing up for the benefits of GMOs.

Yet the accepted wisdom on GMOs among many of its opponents is that such crops are big agriculture's attempt to maximize profits at the expense of public safety. When Ilagan and others trying to get at the truth of GMO research have pushed such claims, they have found that the evidence is disputed, when it exists at all. Though certain future GMOs, just like future non-engineered crop breeds, might be dangerous, the evidence so far that genetic engineering is itself a dangerous process is vanishingly slim.

Jon Suzuki, a molecular biologist at the national agriculture research center in Hawaii, told Ilagan that genetically engineered food had so far proved safe. "With scientists, we never say anything is 100 percent certain one way or another," he said, according to The Times. "We weight conclusions on accumulated knowledge or evidence - but often this is not satisfactory for some." (1)

Nuance and uncertainty are hard sells. It is easier to demonize the process than to discuss the actual results of decades of GMO use. Moreover, objections to GMOs are a true "First World problem." Wealthy people can afford to pay double for organically grown food and whatever is left over after yields are reduced by a variety of diseases or pests. Yet for many in the developing world, crops modified to grow in less than ideal circumstances or to resist blight can mean the difference between nourishment and hunger.

There are 7 billion people on the planet, all of whom need to be fed. We have finite supplies of fertile land and usable water, and these resources must be employed efficiently if we want to succeed at feeding our planet's population. Such efficiency is what GMOs are all about. It is what selective breeding has been about it for centuries, too. Genetic engineering is not totally new, but rather a new advance in an existing process.

The consequences of rejecting this progress are easy to imagine, and in some cases may have already arrived. Citrus crops, especially oranges, are threatened by a greening blight spreading among producers via insects. If unchecked, such fruit may revert to the luxury it was in medieval Europe. Agricultural threats spread at the speed of jet planes, and this one is no exception. Citrus greening disease now threatens the $9 billion Florida citrus industry, and has shown up in Brazil, an even bigger producing region. California is at risk as well.

Even if a team of scientists announced tomorrow that they had engineered a blight-resistant orange, the demand would far outpace the potential supply. Still, introducing a resistant strain could preserve a larger, heartier population than would be possible without it - much as Hawaiian papaya farmers said an engineered version of the fruit saved their crops. It would be a travesty to ban or reject outright new citrus breeds that could resist this threat.

Invasive species are a fact of modern life. They travel with us wherever we go. Crops and other native species have had no chance to develop resistances against them at a natural pace. GMOs are a way to fight back against an existing problem, and to use our resources efficiently. Banning GMOs will not leave us in a natural state. It will simply leave us in a contaminated state, complete with crop failures and dangerously unbalanced ecosystems. I only wish we had genetically engineered chestnuts and American elms in time to resist the blights that virtually wiped out these beautiful trees during the past century.

On the surface, it seems odd that so many people who accuse climate-change skeptics of being anti-science have jumped on the anti-GMO bandwagon, while many of those who fall into the climate-skeptical camp (and I consider myself a skeptic of conjectural computer modeling and breathless climate hype) tend to be more accepting of genetically altered crops. Psychologists might say we are all just exhibiting confirmation bias, in which we accept only the facts and arguments that support our pre-existing conclusions. Let's grant that the psychologists could be right.

But it could also be the case that the climate skeptics want hard evidence for their views. It's difficult to point to specific weather and say it was caused by man-made climate influence. But we can point to scientifically modified crops that grown for decades all over the world without ill effects, yet remain the targets of bans like the one that passed in Hawaii, despite councilman Ilagan's efforts.
We all love a good story. It seems we hate to let facts ruin one for us.

1) The New York Times, "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops"
2) Los Angeles Times, "GMO foods don't need special label, American Medical Assn. says"