Can Genetically Modified Food Save Millions Of Lives?

gmofoodSlate has posted a compelling case for genetically modified foods. In the last 12 years, over 8 million children have died of vitamin A deficiency. The culprit is white rice, itself a result of ancient genetic engineering, and its lack of vitamin A. Three billion people rely on rice as their primary cereal grain, putting millions at risk of malnutrition. Rice, like corn, only supplements a diet; you will die of malnutrition if you fail to diversify your diet.

Scientists have since created something called golden rice containing vitamin A. This crop has not made it to places like the Philippines, where it is most needed, because of the anti-GMO movement:

Finally, after a 12-year delay caused by opponents of genetically modified foods, so-called “golden rice” with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible?

After taking on many specific arguments from Greenpeace against golden rice, the author gives us a summary of the evidence:

Of course, no technology is without flaws, so regulatory oversight is useful. But it is worth maintaining some perspective. In 2010, the European Commission, after considering 25 years of GMO research, concluded that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Now, finally, golden rice will come to the Philippines; after that, it is expected in Bangladesh and Indonesia. But, for 8 million kids, the wait was too long.

This continues to be a topic that I’m personally evolving on. My nature is to look at GMO with the utmost skepticism. I prefer ‘natural’ foods to ‘modified’ ones. That does bring up the question of which foods are which? Most everything you and I eat never existed in nature in the first place. They were modified by our ancestors through selective breeding. Cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens are all the result of domestication. Corn is engineered to such a degree it cannot reproduce without humans.

If basically everything I eat is ‘engineered’ then how can I oppose GMO in its entirely? That is the question I need to answer for myself. The more I research this topic, the more my opposition wanes. I will always feel the need for intense oversight of this technology, but to oppose it entirely seems to be based on irrational fears derived of my own ignorance, not on the reality of evidence.

I do not wish to look back and be seen in the same light as climate change deniers who ignore evidence. Confirmation bias is a powerful force inside of us; the desire to support our pre-existing beliefs runs deep inside our biology. Only by challenging our most cherished beliefs will get us close to the truth in these matters.

More on GMO’s here and here. For balance, Greenpeace’s opposition to golden rice is worth a read as well.

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14 Responses to Can Genetically Modified Food Save Millions Of Lives?

  1. The GMO issue isn’t just about pro versus con. Some of the other comments here addressed the real concerns. We should be discussing monoculture, corporate monopolization (e.g. Monsanto), herbicide and pesticide use (e.g. Roundup), and food labeling laws.

  2. chankyr says:

    I am hopeful for the potential of GM foods, but I see many problems in the way things currently operate in the US. For one, we do not require adequate safety testing. Companies can self-report to the FDA the results of whatever tests they may conduct, but they are not subject to peer review. And while the fact that they can be held liable for detrimental effects down the line ensures to some degree that they will take measures to verify the safety of GM foods, I fear that in their zeal to turn a profit they will not be as thorough as they ought to be, especially with respect to the potential for long-term malignancies. This concerns me most with respect to the common use of the gene gun method. This is not a surgical procedure by any means. They bombard cells with radiation to introduce the new genes which are inserted in several places. Out of that process you will get a few viable cells, but you may have also have disrupted the expression of another gene or may have created prions in the process.

    On the business side of things there is the use of terminator genes to make plants sterile and force farmers to continue to buy GM seeds. Biotech companies have also patented GMOs (& other naturally occurring organisms) and have prosecuted farmers who have opted out of using GM seeds but have “allowed” the pollen from GM crops to crossbreed with their own non-GM crops.

  3. My problem does not lie with the idea of adding a vitamin to rice.
    My problem is what that does to the rest of the plant. For example, that A vitamin may (I have no idea, really) come from a gene found in shellfish and now you find people with shellfish allergies are also developing rice allergies. Or in the case of corn and soybean alterations they’re modified to be resistant to pesticides which means farms dump more pesticides on them and they both take in and release more toxins on a daily basis adding to soil degredation. Or a gene could be added from apples to increase productivity from another plant by making more seeds per head of grain, but then suddenly the plant becomes a gateway for other diseases like tar spot and now every grain of wheat in the world has to fight a new disease.
    If they can make GMOs as low impact as “This has a new vitamin but is otherwise NO different than the original” that would not be so bad. But even if you do that, suddenly the ecology of the plant has changed. For example if corn farms in africa started growing GMO corn with extra phosphoros in them, they would be raided by wildebeest that rely on phosporos quite heavilly in their diet.
    So there’s no “good” way to do GMOs, frankly. If you need some vitamin C, just eat an orange.

    • Thanks for talking the time to read and comment! I appreciate your thoughts and share your concerns.

    • Alastor says:

      Allow me to clear up a few misconceptions:

      1) Food allergies are auto-immune responses to food proteins. Genes are not proteins. Furthermore, all genes–regardless of host organism–are all made of the same amino acids. If you are allergic to a shellfish gene, then you should also be allergic to your own genes. They are the same stuff.

      2) Engineering food to be resistant to pesticides is an issue, but one has to counter that with the fact “organic foods” typically require more pesticides than non-organic, or GMO crops. At the end of the day, mass-produced food is necessary for an ever-growing population, which pesticides are an absolute necessity. We must choose the lesser of two evils.

      3) Humans have been genetically modifying foods for tens of thousands of years. Wheat, grapefruit, and peppermint are cross-bred organisms. Scientists have merely discovered a method to make hybridization faster and more precise.

      While there are some ethical concerns over how this technology is being employed by the agriculture industry, much of the criticism leveled at GMOis is that they are “genetically modified”, and biologically illiterate people really have no conception of what that means.

      • Excellent comment. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      • I think you must have a misconception of “organic” if you think pesticide use INCREASES because of organic gardening techniques. In fact employing things like crop rotation, cover crops and organic fertilizer have been proven to reduce the need for pesticides by %88.
        Personally, I don’t approve of humans genetically engineering things through hybridization. It opens up the same issues. It’s why we have issues with things like swine flu and bird flu. I grow heirloom organics for that reason.
        And unless you can prove in a study presented by a third-party NOT funded by the agricultural company that produces it that the gene is restricted SO heavilly that there is NO risk whatsoever of them mutating in a way that would cause problems (such as producing the protiens found in shellfish from a GMO using shellfish genes from an unforseen interaction, or like the one french study showed, causing an increased rate of cancer) we have NO right to be putting these plants in the environment where they will spread and infect crops that AREN’T genetically modified and cause permanent damage to the world’s ecosystems.

  4. john zande says:

    It’s a double-edged sword. I’d be perfectly fine with GM foods if they were grown exclusively in verticle farms; sealed away from the natural environment.

  5. We’ve had this discussion. I don’t know if I ever will be okay with eating GMO foods. It is probably an irrational fear, but scientists have a knack for saying something is healthy and then twenty years later saying it can cause cancer.

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