Canola field in new south wales
GE Canola fields in New South Wales, Australia. Approved in 2003, roundup-resistant canola is Australia's third biggest crop. Jan Smith / flickr

GMOs: What really matters?

How politics and fear serve only to confuse and polarize in what is one of the most important issues today

Will Caron

In the past 3 days, I’ve received 159 articles and blog postings through Google alerts with the key words “GMOs” and “Genetically Engineered Crops”—by far the most out of any of my numerous Google alerts (the closest is “Hawaii Military” with 15 articles sent to me over the past 3 days).

These articles, letters to the editor, blog updates and science journal entries come from all over the world and cover the labeling movement, Kaua‘i County’s bill 2491 (available to read top left), world-wide protests against Monsanto and other biotech corporations, the struggles of Indian, African and Asian farmers dealing with a globalized food market and debates over the science and safety of genetically modified food.

It’s pretty obvious that this is a hot topic of discussion and all parties feel passionately about their stance. Two of the more interesting (and better written) pieces I’ve read come from what most would consider opposite sides of the over-arching GMO debate. Yet both, I feel, make good points and show that the heated nature of this topic is mainly serving to only confuse people and polarize what is actually a much more complicated issue than simply pro and anti GMO.

The first is a HuffPost Hawaii blog post by Andrea Brower which points out that it’s not the science of GMOs itself that is evil, but rather the way in which biotech corporations misuse the land, people and environment in developing these GMOs for their own massive profits that is. As she says, it is an issue of environmental and social justice, not science.

The second is the transcript of a speech by Mark Lynas, an award-winning writer and world-wide speaker on climate change, biotechnology and nuclear power, given today during the Center for Food Integrity Summit in Chicago. In it, Lynas argues that simply repeating that science has proven GMOs safe time and again will not convince people to drop the labeling campaign, because the issue has mutated into one of politics and fear. Rather than pour money into anti-labeling campaigns, biotech companies should embrace labeling in order to regain the public’s trust.

I think both authors are correct in their assertions that people have been led away from the issues that truly matter when it comes to GMOs. The Nobel Prize for Agriculture is going to the VP of Monsanto this year because it is an award based on science, not social justice (whether the prize should still go to a man connected to such a company is another matter). On the other hand, Indian farmers chant “Monsanto quit India” not because GMOs themselves are known to be dangerous for human consumption, but because of the viscous cycle of debt and suicides Monsanto’s colonial seed-patenting policy regarding Bt Cotton caused in that country and is causing elsewhere with other crops.

Likewise, protesters and concerned citizens in Hawai‘i should be wary of total GMO research bans, as is advocated by some organic lobbyists. Remember that they have an economic incentive to see GMOs banned outright. Remember also that, before this century is even half-way over, we may be in dire need of GMOs to feed a bursting world population. The science of this is something that should be celebrated and shared, not condemned or held captive in a patent.

So keep the focus on why Monsanto won’t make its, “world-saving” research public; why it insists on driving farmers around the world deeper into debt to line its own corporate pockets; why it conducts open-air field tests on new, untried chemical variants that are likely responsible for the 50 percent drop in American bee populations over the past couple years; why it perpetuates colonialism in Hawai‘i and abroad by creating massive monoculture plantations and squashing attempts at small-scale, diversified agriculture that would go along way toward our food security and independence; and why it feels the need to control the world’s food supplies with an iron grip backed by a private army.

Labeling GMO foods is hardly the most important thing to be fighting about right now and has more to do with politics and fear than solving any actual problems. Keep up the pressure, but in the right spots. Keep marching, but make sure the message is clear.