One of the topics I spent some time on during my TEDx talk this past weekend was genetically modified foods, and the fear and ignorance surrounding them. It was almost an early Christmas present when, just two days later, news broke of a company in British Columbia seeking regulatory approval for an apple that has been genetically modified not to turn brown after being sliced.
The response online was predictably stupid. The most-recommended comment on the CBC story: “We should ban outright any and all GM foods. If you don’t want your apple slices to brown then use lemon juice.” Yes, how utterly smart and scientific.
For kicks, I thought I’d throw the topic out for discussion on Twitter. Hey, I’m a freelancer now so I don’t see people as much. I’ll take conversation any way I can get it.
So I said: “I wonder whether all the people opposed to genetically modified apples that don’t turn brown can name a single thing wrong with them.”
One fellow took the bait and pithily said: “Other than being un-natural?”
Woo-eee, did that ever kick off a heated argument. I pressed him to explain what he meant by “unnatural,” and like all opponents of GMOs, he kept dodging the question and moving systematically to every criticism lobbed at such foods – and thoroughly disproved – for over a decade. To run down the checklist:
- GMOs are unnatural: If you’re going to make that claim, you’re going to have to draw some pretty fine lines about how technology is used in food production. If manipulating an apple’s genes is unnatural, then isn’t using ethylene gas to ripen it or spraying it with wax to make it shiny also unnatural? Moreover, how about using specialized storage bins to preserve apples for months at a time? Bottom line: if Canadians want to eat apples in the winter, they’re going to have to resort to some level of “unnaturalness” being applied. I didn’t even get to asking him whether he thought taking Tylenol was unnatural, but you can probably get my drift as to where that line of thinking leads.
- The long-term effects of GMOs are not known: Untrue. About two-thirds of the foods found in grocery stores are GMOs or have been created using them, and we’ve been eating them for more than a decade with no ill effects. More to that point, as I said during the TEDx talk: they’re just genes, we eat millions of them every day! I’m no scientist, but why would inserting genes from one organism to another be any more dangerous than eating those two organisms together? Put another way: would inserting a potato gene into a cow be any more harmful than eating a steak-and-potato dinner? In the case of the non-browning apple, there aren’t even any new genes that have been added. It’s a simple case of the “brown” gene being reversed. Logically, how can that be harmful?
- If they’re not harmful, why don’t we label GMO foods? There are two reasons, actually. One is that environmentalists have been fear-mongering about GMOs for well over a decade, so the damage to perception is done. The public simply won’t buy such foods if they’re labelled despite there being nothing wrong with them, or despite them actually being better for the environment. This is the ultimate fallback position of GMO opponents, and it’s essentially unfair because they’ve created the conditions for such foods to fail. This won’t always be the case and the perception is changing, but there is still widespread fear, if the CBC comments are any indicator. Two: there is that issue of fairness. Non-GMO foods that have been created through selective breeding, like hybrid wheats, aren’t labelled as such yet we’ve been eating them safely for decades. Why should we label one kind of food and thereby imply it’s not safe and thereby give the advantage to other kinds of foods?
Ultimately, I suspect someone is going to voluntarily label a GMO product as such. It will probably be something that offers significant benefit, like maybe a fruit that fights diabetes (I just made that up) so the GMO label will be used as part of its marketing. The non-browning apple will actually be a good case study, if approved, because it would come with a de-facto labelling: we’ll know it’s GMO because it doesn’t turn brown.
It’s funny though, because by defending genetically modified foods, my Twitter “buddy” automatically labelled me as sounding like a lobbyist. Anybody who knows my thoughts on lobbyists knows that’s about the worst way to insult me. I like to think of myself as someone who has done considerable research into GMOs and talked to people on all sides of the issue, and I’ve come to my own conclusions that just happen to come down on the pro side. A lobbyist, of course, is someone who is paid to have an opinion. If that’s the case, then I’m still waiting on my cheque, Monsanto.
As it turns out, anti-GMO activists are losing the wind in their sails, and many are recognizing their errors. Stewart Brand, an American activist and former editor of Whole Earth Catalog, recently said in regards to GMOs: “Environmentalists did harm by being ignorant and ideological and unwilling to change their mind based on actual evidence. As a result we have done harm and I regret it.” Dr. Jason Clay, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund, also said the organization has reversed its views on GMOs and that “We need to use less to produce more … to restore the planet.”
The only thing unnatural about this whole situation is how irrational and illogical some people are about it.