UPDATE: Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.
I started this blog about plant biology and photosynthetic organisms to engage the public with respect to modern research in these areas and the potential for this science to improve everyday life. So, I feel it’s time to address the elephant in the room of modern plant science: GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Yes, we are going to go there. I am sensitive to the fact that this subject evokes powerful emotions in many people. While it may usually be framed as having only two sides (yes vs. no), the use of GMOs in agriculture is a more complex, multi-faceted issue. I plan on addressing the various aspects of GMOs in a series of blog posts over the course of the next few weeks. Today’s post is merely a preface to map out the specifics to be covered and explicitly mention the premises underlying the GMO issue.
Here’s how the series of posts will break down*:
- The GMO numbers
- The science behind making GMO plants
- Regulation of GMOs: Testing and Approval
- GMOs as part of our modern food system
- Issues of intellectual property protection for GMOs
- GMO labeling
- Future GMO potential
When it comes to GMOs, I think it’s fair to say that their implementation and use has been less-than-transparent to the general public. The resulting shock has aroused generalized suspicion and automatic rejection. With this series, I propose opening a frank discussion about GMOs and our wider food system because, as ‘eaters,’ we are all stakeholders within it. A basic premise within this topic is that humans are demanding more of plants than ever before. We need plants to produce nutritionally dense food with higher yields on less land from fewer inputs in the face of increasingly erratic environmental conditions.
Another underlying premise for this issue is the fact that humans have been optimizing plants for desirable characteristics for millennia. This synergistic relationship between humans and plants is a basic tenet of agriculture. For an assortment of reasons, the wild varieties of plants are insufficient.** Yields could be too low, flavors not sweet enough, seeds not high enough in oil content, growing seasons could be too long, plants could be chilling-intolerant or their pollination heat-sensitive, on and on. Much work has been done by generations of farmers to push plants towards something better for human needs. They have selected the most useful traits and cultivated them with great care. This is why Silver King Hybrid corn doesn’t just sprout on its own in fields. Even heirloom varieties like Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Black Beauty eggplants don’t just grow wild in our plains or forests (although, volunteers can sometimes be found in compost piles). No, this is not where I’m going to say that GMOs are equivalent to these past manipulations, and the argument should be ended thusly, but they are an evolution of this tradition.
With the world population increasing ever closer to the 9 billion mark expected to occur around the year 2050, now, more than ever, is the time to reassess the inner workings of our global food system to ensure food security for all of us. Therefore, we need to develop strategies that will meet these demands- quickly. There will be no singular magic bullet solution. GMOs should not be seen as such. I do not feel qualified to elaborate on the efficacy of all components of our modern food supply chain, but it is my opinion that there is room for improvement at all levels. In modern society, too many of us have become too disconnected from what we are eating and where it came from. For the sake of convenience, we have created a giant blind spot in the food system where things like optimal nutrition, environmental sustainability, economic exploitation and food safety can be obscured. It’s time to start talking about this.
Of course, the broader repercussions of how our food system functions are not lost on me. Eating is more than just ingesting sufficient calories. It is a deeply personal experience entwined with our social customs.
“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” -Henry Kissinger
Alas, our modern agricultural system conveniently entangles both of these issues. With great power comes great responsibility, right? We have enjoyed the economic advantages of the system for too long without being accountable for the larger problems it perpetuates. The science related to what we eat is only a small piece of the puzzle, but it has come to embody all that is wrong with our modern food system. This is an oversimplification that has unfortunately pitted groups against one another when, in fact, they should be working together toward better solutions.
* There may be more posts depending on how the conversation develops.
** Don’t get me wrong. There are some examples that are truly extraordinary. I personally am a fan of wild blackberries. I am fortunate enough to have acres of pastureland being overtaken by them. They are delicious enough to make me risk close encounters with snakes and West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. For cobbler and jelly, there just is nothing better. However, they are small, seedy, and thorny. I understand why horticulturists have tried to tame newer varieties with larger berries and fewer thorns.