GMOs: It’s Complicated

Here’s a tremendous attempt to make sense of the competing science and analysis surrounding GMOs, by Maya Montenegro, a food systems researcher at UC Berkeley, writing at ensia:

The GMO debate is one from which I’ve kept a purposeful distance.

For one thing, it’s an issue that has already garnered more than its fair share of attention. For another, when you consider that many domesticated crops resulted from seed irradiation, chromosome doubling and plant tissue culture — none of which are genetically engineered — the boundaries of “natural” are more porous than they initially appear.

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But I study seed science and policy, in which genetically engineered organisms — more often referred to as genetically modified organisms, aka GMOs — are pervasive, so it’s an issue I cannot ignore. Most recently, the director of a science communications program asked if I could engage her students on a few topics: Is there a scientific consensus on GMOs? How is the media doing when it comes to covering biotech in the food system? Where are the biases and blind spots in reporting?

Swapping emails, we discussed the retraction of a study on “golden rice,” a Slate feature calling the war against GMOs “full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud,” and the infamous tangle among Vandana Shiva, David Remnick and Michael Specter in the aftermath of “Seeds of Doubt,” a critical New Yorker profile of Shiva’s crusade against genetically modified crops. (Read Shiva’s response to the profile, and Remnick’s counter response.) Anyone who examines these stories will appreciate the thicket of fact, interpretation and framing that makes the GMO terrain explosive.

Why do the merits or demerits of GMOs grab more headline space than systemic food and agriculture concerns?

Let me begin with a frank admission: I am a proponent of agroecology, food sovereignty, and the rights of farmers to save and reproduce their seed. But I am not anti-GMO. In agreement with my colleagues at various universities and non-governmental organizations, I believe that some GM crops could have some benefits. What I object to is a lack of complex evaluations of the technology, the overzealous selling of its benefits and the framing of cautionary skeptics as anti-science scaremongers. The tendency to treat GMOs in isolation from their historical, social and political contexts is also of no help: The technology was developed as a tool to enhance the scope and scale of industrial agriculture. I don’t argue that GMOs cannot be — and never will be — extricated from that context, but that discussion is very different from the more common debate about health benefits or risks…

[continues at ensia]


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