From “Frankenfood” to eradicating disease, GMOs have been regarded as both peril and promise. But one thing’s for sure: They’re here to stay.
When we cross the border from Canada en route to the Vineyard, my husband and I typically stop to refuel in upstate New York where we always buy a bag of Chex Mix. Chex is an American thing for us, hard to find in Canada. My doctor thinks my inability to get Chex regularly is a good thing, noting my rising cholesterol. At his urging, I’m more carefully reading food labels, which is why I recently noticed this on the Chex bag: “Contains Bioengineered [BE] Ingredients.”
Or, put another way, “You are eating genetically modified food.”
Ask anyone about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, or bioengineered ingredients (all terms for the same process) and you will typically hear strongly held opinions. As a supporter of local organic farms, where I buy my family’s weekly meat and produce, and as an environmental journalist, I myself have held a few strong opinions. While I hesitated to believe genetically modified food to be “Frankenfood,” an evocative and catchy term coined by GMO opponents, I didn’t want GMOs in my food, or more to the point, my children’s.
I settled on being a strong proponent of labeling, the so-called Right to Know: We all deserve the right to avoid GMOs, if we chose.
There were — are! — a lot of us. Enough that the Obama administration passed a law — mandatory as of January 1, 2022 — that food manufacturers, importers, and others that label food for retail sale must designate products that contain bioengineered ingredients as such.
Hence, the label on my bag of Chex Mix.
But a funny thing happened between my “Right to Know” stage and gleefully scarfing Chex Mix clearly labeled as containing BE ingredients. I stopped fearing GMOs.
Because, obliviously or not, I’d been consuming them in some form or another since roughly the mid-90s. Indeed, most of us had.
And while there’s no denying that GMOs have problems, safety doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Executive Director of Project Drawdown Dr. Jonathan Foley put it this way in an article he wrote for his GlobalEcoGuy site: “My concern about GMOs is that they are being used very poorly right now, and without larger social and environmental consequences in mind.” He notes that even “the more enlightened proponents” of genetic modification are being cavalier about long-term impacts.
Food that is genetically modified has either itself been altered through a process called recombinant DNT (or gene splicing) to create a desirable trait — or it contains ingredients whose genetic makeup has undergone that process. Genetically engineered foods differ from non-GE foods in that they contain one or more new genes and usually make a new protein.
Let’s look at the one that started it all: the Flavr Savr tomato (the greater assault might be on literacy!). The Flavr Savr was modified to stay firm after harvest and was the first genetically altered food product to be approved by the FDA. It was put on the market in 1994.
Unfortunately, according to a 2016 story in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Flavr Savr didn’t live up to its hype — hype that consumers at the time largely embraced or, at least, accepted. But Calgene, the California-based company that launched the Flavr Savr, was spending more than it was making, even with the tomatoes priced higher than the conventional ones. When agri-tech giant Monsanto bought Calgene, it retired the Flavr Savr. But, of course, Monsanto had plenty more genetically engineered products up its sleeves, including Posilac —bovine somatotropin (bST), a growth hormone that increases output of milk from dairy cows; and Roundup Ready versions of corn, cotton, canola, and soybeans, primarily used in animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn ethanol.
Both changed the game. Roundup Ready crops were impervious to Roundup, the glyphosate-based weed killer, so farmers could liberally spray their crops. But glyphosate was known, even then, to be harmful to human health, notes the Sierra Club, citing “decades of research [that] connected the weed killer to cancer.”
But Monsanto became the face of GMOs, an easy enemy to those of us suspicious, not only of the technology, but who controlled it and how.
Fear of something new has always been an easy sell. “The easiest message to convey to people is that, well, we’re tinkering around with things that we don’t fully understand so how can we possibly know all of the consequences,” says Jon McPhetres, an assistant professor of psychology at the U.K.’s Durham University who studies why we sometimes reject science. It’s a message that resonated. And while McPhetres does think there are potential problems with GMOs, he told me, “The one that people are scared about is the biological one, which I think is probably misguided.”
Safe is not the same as harmless
Before she moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Noli Taylor made her home in Hawaii, which is where she first saw the community impact of GMOs up close. The Hawaiian government had given considerable farmland to agricultural companies in an attempt to save the papaya industry, which was collapsing due to the papaya ringspot virus. But though many credit the “rainbow papaya,” a genetically modified papaya created by a Cornell scientist, with saving the key crop, there’s no arguing with how quickly the GM version eclipsed the conventional one, leaving even those who wanted organic (non-GMO) papayas with no choice, due to spread.
What’s more, says Taylor, Senior Director, Programs, at Island Grown Initiative, there was considerable division between those who blamed the pesticides being sprayed on the rainbow papayas for making people sick and those who saw the GM version as saving their industry.
To Taylor, it offered an argument for the type of farming that she and IGI espouse. “Our focus has been less about GMO resistance and more on creating these pathways for different approaches to how we grow seeds, how we connect with the community around foods.” For Taylor, “It starts with the seed … and represents the values of the work we do in the community, which is about equity, access, regenerative systems, community care, care for the people, care for the land…all of that can be embodied in the seed system.”
Much of the pushback against GMOs has fallen along the same lines as Noli Taylor’s desire to see food and the control of it remain in the hands of people, not corporations.
This, at least in part, led to the backlash against so-called Golden Rice, a rice that was genetically modified to have beta-carotene in the edible part of the rice. Millions of people primarily in Asia, including an estimated 250 million preschool children, who rely on rice as a staple food suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and premature death.
The pushback to Golden Rice was swift and severe. Promises from the company that produced it that it would always be given to qualifying farmers free of charge were challenged. Opponents argued that it was better to encourage and strengthen local farming communities. Some maintained that a public health initiative aimed at providing nutritional supplements was preferable to promoting a GM crop. But proponents pointed to a technological advance created for humanitarian use and available free of charge to those who needed it (and who could save their seeds) and that it could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
A combination of things, including the considerable regulations required, sidelined Golden Rice’s promise though it seems poised to be on people’s plates in the Philippines and Bangladesh sometime soon. It will be too soon for those opposed and not soon enough for those — including more than 150 Nobel Laureates who in 2016 signed an open letter to the UN, governments of the world, and Greenpeace — urging a more balanced approach to Golden Rice.
Can education open minds?
The story of Golden Rice underscores important considerations around GMOs, including that there must continue to be robust vigilance and testing before crops are put on the market. Currently, governments around the world implement strict protocols, including laboratory and field testing spanning many years, according to a release from the Cornell Alliance for Science, adding “The resulting plants and foods are far more tested than their conventional counterparts.”
Which begs another question. Are the two approaches fundamentally incompatible? Or is there a way to incorporate GMOs while strengthening organic farming communities and ensuring that they don’t lose control of their products?
Jon McPhetres believes education can play a key role in shifting people’s understanding of GMOs. “There’s a lot of good evidence for simply teaching people basic scientific facts,” he says. “It’s not about completely reversing people’s opinion … but I think we can shift people to being slightly more positive, or at least less negative towards [GMOs].” He has noticed a similar shift in people’s opinions around nuclear energy, vaccines, and, yes, GMOs when people’s level of knowledge is increased. He admits that the rise of anti-vax sentiment is disheartening. He would like to see scientists do a better job of communicating with the public. “Science is really about change and changing your mind and changing your mind a lot, whereas people think that science is about finding the answer quickly and then never changing your mind from that.” We should change our minds, he says, when we learn something new.
McPhetres himself is fascinated by gene editing though he says he can “understand why people might be scared of it.” The answer, he insists, is talking about it, talking about safety, and realistic outcomes.
Genes creep in on tiny mice feet
Realistic outcomes are hard to hold onto when proposals seem like a combination of wishful thinking and science fiction. Take the Vineyard and Nantucket mice, for instance.
Kevin Esvelt, a biologist, associate professor, and one of the founders of the Mice Against Ticks project at MIT as well as an MIT PhD candidate and the project’s research director, Joanna Buchtal (who lives part-time in Menemsha), were tired of worrying about their children contracting Lyme disease. Ticks are a huge problem on the Cape and Islands, and so the project was created to harness the promise of CRISPR technology to alter the genetic code of the mice that ticks frequently use as their first host.
CRISPR, while often referred to in the same breath as genetic engineering, differs in that, while genetic engineering involves the introduction of foreign genetic material from a different organism (transgenic) or from the same organism (cisgenic), CRISPR involves changing or altering original base pair arrangements within the genome of an organism — there are no introductions.
Subject to CRISPR technology, these white-footed mice would create antibodies to kill the bacteria that carries Lyme disease, an immunity that would be passed down through generations. With fewer mice able to transmit Lyme to the ticks, fewer ticks will transmit Lyme to people, or so the thinking goes.
“We won’t be impacting the population with Mice Against Ticks,” explains Sam Telford, a professor of infectious diseases and global health at Tufts University who has dedicated his career to eradicating tick-spread diseases. “We’ll simply be making that population less likely to have [Lyme] infection.”
“It’s not a new idea per se,” explains Telford. “After all, genetically modified mosquitoes are being deployed to try and reduce the risk of certain viral infections transmitted by mosquitoes, and there’s a big push to use genetically modified mosquitoes to combat malaria in Africa. It’s really the wave of the future.”
But if people are uncomfortable with scientists tinkering with tomatoes, one can imagine the hesitation with bioengineering hundreds of thousands of mice and then releasing them into the wild.
Despite legitimate questions about potential problems of the ‘how would we ever put the genie back in the bottle,’ a variety of bioengineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have already been released in the Florida Keys in hopes of eradicating the diseases — Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever — that this type of mosquito carries.
And the Mice Against Ticks project, though not a slam dunk, is being greeted by many on Nantucket with open-mindedness, according to a recent Boston Globe story, not least because ticks themselves have become an overwhelming concern. Similarly, Martha’s Vineyard has been the site of info sessions over the past few years about this initiative.
Telford calls the Mice Against Ticks project simply “another tool”, alongside habitat modification, insecticides, and reducing the number of deer, another favorite host of ticks.
And he, along with Esvelt and Buchtal, are clear-eyed about what they are asking people to approve. They insist that even after the considerable vetting required by local, state, and federal regulators, the project won’t go ahead without the support of both the Island communities — Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard — where the experiment will be undertaken.
So what’s the real issue?
Opening ourselves to the promise of gene editing, however, doesn’t mean we should swallow the GM story whole. Much of what proponents want us to believe — that GMOs will help us feed the world, that they will always boost yield — has been credibly challenged, even those who aren’t vehemently opposed to GMOs in principle.
“The real problem is that large-scale industrial monocultures are simply a bad idea — for the food system, for the environment and for us long-term,” wrote Dr. Jonathan Foley. GMOs, he continued, are part and parcel of this type of farming, perpetuating the problems. His concern is that GMOs are primarily driven by profit, without larger social and environmental consequences in mind.
Noli Taylor agrees. “Food shouldn’t be in the hands of a few big companies,” she says. “It should be in the hands of the people and the community. We should have the right and the ability to feed ourselves and help make sure that our neighbors have enough to eat and that all begins with the seed,” she says.
Jon McPhetres is also notably leery about the role that big agriculture companies play. “People can patent these kinds of seeds and they can take away people’s livelihoods,” he says. “This is a really different kind of issue. I think that’s the real issue.”
Ultimately, genetic modification is a new technology that isn’t, inherently, good or bad. Like any technology, it can be employed to solve problems or, used irresponsibly or corruptly, it can create problems, or worsen them.
But GMOs have become part of our food system and that isn’t going to change. We can, indeed must, ensure that oversight remains robust and principled. And though I personally haven’t made complete peace with genetic modification, for now, I am happy, as I dip my hand into a bag of Chex mix, to eat it.