Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The GMO deception?

I received a review copy of The GMO Deception: What you need to know about the food corporations, and government agencies putting our families and our environment at risk, Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, eds. Skyhorse publishing, 2014. $24.95.

Major disclosure: Shelly Krimsky was my master's thesis adviser and I also took his course in environmental policy at Tufts. Ralph Nader, who wrote the foreword, was my employer in my now distant youth and I met him on a few occasions.

GMO means genetically modified organisms, but that's a bit of a misnomer since humans have been genetically modifying organisms since the dawn of agriculture, originally through selection and eventually through deliberate cross-breeding and selection. But GMO refers more specifically to organisms -- most public attention is on food crops -- that have been genetically engineered, that is they have had specific genes inserted into their DNA using modern laboratory techniques. These genes may come from different species or even different phyla or even kingdoms. It is possible to insert animal or bacterial genes into plants.

GMO foods are banned completely in Europe, but are pervasive in the U.S. food supply. Any product in the supermarket that contains corn or soy that isn't labeled "organic" will likely contain GMO products. As you probably know, there is currently controversy about whether manufacturers should even be required to label foods with GMO content. Right now, they are not. The conventional wisdom in the United States, including scientists who you likely respect such as PZ Myers and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is that any objection to GMO crops is anti-scientific nonsense equivalent to climate change denial or creationism.

Krimsky and Gruber and the dozens of contributors to The GMO Deception beg to differ. The objections fall into three major categories.

  1. Has it really been adequately established that GMO organisms are safe to eat, or at least as nutritious and healthful as conventionally bred organisms, and are regulations to insure this adequate?
  2. Are there possible harmful environmental impacts of GMO crops and again, is research and regulation adequate to prevent them?
  3. GMO crop systems are ultimately harmful to the agricultural economy in that they displace farm labor, promote capital intensity and larger scale thereby driving smaller farms out of business, and make farmers dependent on seed and pesticide purveyors at cost to their incomes and independence.
Each of these issues is complicated, and I'm afraid I do agree that they are far more complicated than Dr. Tyson believes. He is an astrophysicist so he has no more expertise about this than I do. The book has some serious shortcomings, which I will address. But first, in the coming days, I will take up the three areas of controversy in turn. There are some additional controversies involving GMO animals, which have a distinct ethical dimension. These are mentioned much less prominently in the book, but I may have a few words to say about this subject as well. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or opinions about these controversies before we begin, please comment.

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