Genetically modified food poses no harm to us
More than two decades ago, genetically modified (GM) foods started becoming a major part of the American food supply. At the time, environmentalists and activists warned of superweeds or superbugs, lower soil fertility, decreased nutritional value and health risks including increased food allergies or cancer. The European Union was so concerned that it made labeling of GM foods mandatory in 1997; as a result, GM foods are quite rare on the continent.
But we Americans have been eating GM foods, often unknowingly, for the past 20 years, and we’re no worse off for it. In fact, according to Peter Ellsworth, Director of the Arizona Pest Management Center in the Department of Entomology, “each of these issues has been examined and either resolved or discarded.”
Those same environmentalists and activists remain unconvinced. They brought a ballot initiative during the last election in Washington that would have mandated that the 70 percent of processed foods that contain GM foods be prominently labeled as such. The same initiative failed in California last year, and it thankfully failed in Washington two weeks ago.
I’ll admit — it sounds reasonable. “Genetically modified” is such a scary term, totally at odds with the sunshine and dew drops we like to associate with our food supplies, and it seems fair to inform people about what exactly it is that they are eating.
But GM foods are truly no different from any other food, except, perhaps, for all of the ways in which they are better than other foods.
Humans have been selectively breeding plants for millennia; doing so in the lab is not a fundamentally different task, says Ellsworth, it’s only a faster and more precise one. This breeding results in foods that are equivalent to their peers in terms of health: The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and even the European Commission have all now declared GM foods to be as safe as any conventional food.
The difference comes in environmental sustainability. Even accounting for the occasional rogue “superweed,” the National Research Council found that genetically modified crops have fewer adverse effects on their environment than other crops. This comes as a result of the drastically reduced use of insecticides and pesticides.
According to Ellsworth, Arizona alone has seen a 92 percent reduction in the use of broad-spectrum insecticides since 1991 — a total of 19 million fewer tons of insecticide being released into our water and air supplies.
GM foods are also more efficient, allowing us to grow more usable food per acre, a necessity if we want to feed a world population that is fast approaching 9 billion. It’s a miracle that we’ve even been able to feed the world for this long without major famines, says Paul Wilson, University Distinguished Professor in Agricultural and Resource Economics.
“That hasn’t been done with clearing more land for agriculture but by increasing productivity,” he said. “I personally believe that the European Union has done great harm to African agriculture by not allowing GMO crops produced in Africa to be imported into the EU.”
Which brings us to the most important argument: According to Wilson, by incentivizing producers to move away from more efficient crops and creating costly regulatory frameworks to ensure that no GM foods slip into our breakfast cereals, the cost of food will rise.
Perhaps the residents of Seattle and San Francisco, who brought the labeling initiatives to fruition, can afford the prices that will result. But the poor cannot. It’s a privilege to be picky about the kind of corn you will consume.
Proponents of these campaigns argue that it’s just a label — they aren’t attempting to ban GM foods outright. But as we’ve seen in Europe, the result can be just that. Research to create new GMOs could be hurt by what UC Berkeley professor David Zilberman last year called the “stigma effect” of labeling laws. According to Wilson, GMO labeling can “creat[e] unsubstantiated fear in the consuming public.”
But more than that, the label itself is disingenuous. Why are GM foods, which have no health risks, displayed on the front of a box while saturated fat and sugar get to hide on the back? If foods that are grown using harmful fertilizers and pesticides don’t have to declare themselves, why should GMOs?
I respect the choices of those who choose to eat only locally sourced, organically-grown, GM-free foods. But those people should be lobbying the USDA to create a GMO-free label, like the one that already exists for organic foods, rather than lobbying voters to sign off on a proposal that raises food prices, reduces efficiency and casts scientifically-spurious doubts over technologies that will be a necessary part of any sustainable future we can conjure.
Jacqui Oesterblad is a junior studying political science and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Follow her @joesterblad.