Genetically Modified Crops: Creating a fake controversy when real ones exist

3/07/2013 12:00:00 PM
NPR has a piece about a type of rice that was genetically modified to produce vitamin A, a nutrient most rice lacks, and that could greatly improve the life-long health of young children who are fed diets of mostly rice in many parts of the world. Of course, the piece would not be complete if we just looked at the specifics about this strand of rice--the authors won't miss a chance to write a sentence like this:
"It's a statement that rouses emotions and sets off fierce arguments. There's a raging, global debate about such crops."
They aren't wrong. There is a raging debate about it. But it is a fake controversy, in a world where there ought to be a lot of real controversies about the way we grow food.

Genetic modification of plant and animal species for domestic use is nothing new. It goes back the to the Holocene epoch, around 12,000 to 7,000 years ago. In fact, save for some types of fish and a wild venison, almost none of the food we eat today bears any genetic resemblance to any wild species. Ancient Peruvians genetically modified corn so much that archaeologists cant even figure out for certain what wild species corn (maize) was even cultivated from--it has been an exclusively domestic plant as far back as the fossils will go.

Of course, we are talking about a different form of genetic modification. Ancient farmers had to rely on cross-pollination and artificial selection to work its magic, whereas Monsanto simply splices the genes they want directly into the DNA. Gene splicing and breeding hybrids are the same thing, its just that the former is more precise, and more flexible, than the latter. Either way you are taking genes from one species an inserting them into another.

Sure, it is possible to use gene splicing to create a plant that is less healthy. Just as it is possible to breed a plant that is toxic. This is an irrelevant argument.

What I find so frustrating about the fake controversy over gene splicing is that there are lots of legitimate issues in agriculture that should be controversies, but don't get nearly as much attention. Consider for example the intensive use of pesticides. Pesticides are neurotoxins, and every bit as toxic to humans as insects. While humans' larger body mass means they can survive a larger dose of the neurotoxin than can insects, the fact remains that every year 10,000 to 20,000 people are hospitalized or even killed due to acute exposure to pesticides, to say nothing of the many health problems induced by chronic, non-acute exposure that rural residents receive on a daily basis. We need ways to keep insects from destroying our crops, but spraying organophosphates on our food ought to cause outrage. Indeed, genetic modification of crops to make them more bug-resistent might actually allow us to use less pesticides, representing a huge leap forward in enviromental and public health.

There are a variety of other ways in which modern agriculture is destroying our planet. Tilling fields causes three centimeters  of precious top soil to erode away each year, while "no-till" chemicals pollute and poison the environment. Fertilizers get carried by streams into lakes and oceans where they fuel massive algae blooms, which in turn cause once-thriving fisheries to collapse into even more massive dead-zones. The list goes on and on.

But people are only outraged by gene splicing, the one thing that's actually going right in modern agriculture.