Dr. Mehmet Oz has drawn recent criticism from others in the scientific community for his unwavering stance on the need to label genetically modified organisms. But he is not alone. Opposition to GMOs finds steadfast, bipartisan consensus in the United States, with a supermajority of Americans consistently expressing their skepticism towards the altered crops. Perhaps America, where diabetes and obesity are prominent diseases, it is heartening to see the public rallying against what it believes to be an affront to health and the food system. Many of the claims deployed by anti-GMO activists, however, are scientifically unfounded, based entirely on anecdotal evidence for which the details are shady, at best. Though there is certainly reason to believe that the corporate cultures of big agricultural companies like Monsanto are of ethical questionability, the consensus on GMOs themselves — the scientific consensus, that is -— posits safety and necessity. As we confront the challenges of a ballooning global population, a loss of arable land, and the effects of climate change, it is important that we use the technologies available to ensure the viability and nutrition of our crops for decades to come.
Scientists first began to develop GMOs — organisms engineered through the combination of genetic material from biologically different parent species — in the 1970s, with genetically modified potatoes, corn and cotton introduced on the market in the mid-1990s. These early genetically modified crops included genes from a bacterium capable of producing its own insecticide, such that when inserted into the genome of a potato, that potato too would become toxic to insects. Researchers saw great potential for the creation of crops capable of withstanding drought, blight, extreme cold and high salinity. Such feats could yield the elimination of harsh pesticides and fertilizers.
But with this new wave of science came widespread concern over the essentially boundless capacity of scientists to re-engineer life. Opponents have focused their worries primarily on the human health impacts, for which no scientific studies have concluded adverse causalities. Despite this, activists frequently tout a controversial 2012 paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that linked genetically modified corn to cancerous tumors in rats. The journal retracted the paper in 2013 due to weak evidence and poor research methods.
Many in the anti-GMO camp would be quick to label this retraction as just another tactic of the large-scale conspiracy headed by Big Ag to suppress the science tying GMOs to poor health. But even if such a scheme were capable of manipulating the boards of the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission and England’s Royal Society of Medicine — all of which have concluded a benign, even beneficial impact of GMOs on health — it seems implausible that Big Ag would also be responsible for the verdicts drawn in thousands of independent studies by scientists — that is — GMOs are not dangerous.
Despite the science, many companies have fueled baseless rumors on GMOs by committing to their elimination from store shelves. Whole Foods and Trader Joes are two such companies. Arguably, their decision constitutes a business-savvy pandering to populist misunderstandings. That’s fine. It certainly isn’t the first time business has profited from public ignorance. The problem is that by rejecting GMOs, these companies — which emphasize consumer and environmental health — suggest that GMOs are a threat to these values.
In actuality, GMOs have proven extremely effective at supporting health, particularly in some of the world’s poorest regions. In Southeast Asia, where vitamin A deficiency causes half a million children to go blind (and often die) each year, Golden Rice — a rice strain modified to produce vitamin A — has helped diminish the problem. Elsewhere in the developing world, the use of GMOs will be essential in ensuring that burgeoning populations have access to the needed calories, nutrients and minerals to sustain adequate health.
Meanwhile, on the home front, the GMO war seems a misplaced effort. In a country where obesity, heart disease, overconsumption of refined sugars and an epidemic of inactivity are very real issues, it seems our time could be better spent fighting health hazards for which there is actually a scientific mandate.
Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” ran Mondays.