Dangerous perversions of nature. The solution to the global food shortage. Evil. Tasty. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been called many things since the introduction of the Flavr Savr—a tomato with an extended shelf life—20 years ago.
With the agriculture industry's increasing reliance on mutant seeds, which were used in 90 percent of American corn last year, counteracted by the recent passage of mandatory GMO-labeling laws in Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut (with Oregon and Colorado likely to follow suit), GMOs are on the tips of our tongues—and at the bottoms of American stomachs—like never before.
As with most deeply polarizing subjects, the pros and cons are manifold (and don't get us started on the gray areas). Which is why we asked three authorities on the topic to answer this question: Should we avoid GMO food? Their answers follow.
Lee Quarles, public-affairs lead for Monsanto, the agricultural giant whose nearly $15 billion in 2013 sales included $10.3 billion in seeds and genetic licenses
"With decades of testing for government approval, this is the most comprehensively studied food science man has ever seen," Quarles says. "And consider this: Pharmaceuticals only need FDA approval, but we need FDA, EPA, and USDA." So why does Monsanto rally against labeling laws? "There's an absence of demonstrated risk, yet laws imply danger." While opponents argue that the increased pesticide use GMOs allow for harms the environment, Quarles counters: "If you shut off the switch and say, 'No more GMOs tomorrow,' you need an additional 300 million acres to make up for the crop-yield advantages lost. Farmers need places to tap those acres. Where? Wetlands? Rain forests?"
Karen Batra, director of communications for the biotech industry's national trade organization, BIO
"Labeling laws are meant to scare. It's the equivalent of a skull and cross bones," Batra says. And while activists dismiss Big Agriculture's anti-labeling stance as profit-maximizing, Batra suggests that the true costs of labeling—including keeping genetically modified crops separated from the rest of the stock—would be borne by consumers. A claim supported by a recent Cornell University study, which found that mandatory labeling in New York would equal an average increase of $500 in yearly grocery bills for a family of four. At a more macro level, Batra notes that many states' reluctance to enact mandatory labeling (a movement was shot down in California last year) stems from a realization that in doing so "the state would put itself at an economic disadvantage versus neighbors not bound by legislation."
YES. BE LEERY.
Ari LeVaux, syndicated Flash in the Pan columnist, who writes regularly about food science
"It's dangerous when the primary rollout for this kind of wide-reaching technology is done by for-profit industries with a vested interest," LeVaux says. "I find it obnoxious that Monsanto came out against even optional labeling. I don't think companies are hiding anything, but if that's the case, then just let the labeling happen. There's no convincing evidence that anything currently on the market causes health problems in humans, but most of the testing has been short-term with a regulating framework that doesn't account for unknowns. And products in the pipeline that use DNA from organisms that couldn't otherwise breed are a lot more complicated—there are more chances for things to go wrong."
Peter Hoffman, executive chef at Back 40 in New York City
One of hundreds of prominent chefs across the country, including Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame, who look at GMOs suspiciously, Hoffman focuses on the wider-reaching environmental concerns. He points out that GMO crops are often designed to better withstand pesticides, and asserts "the question is whether increased use of poison on the land is the way to go about being better farmers. That's a solution that provides short-term benefit for the companies, but for us as eaters, it doesn't pencil out." Just like the health concerns, Hoffman fears that not addressing the environmental impact is short-sighted, insisting that the increased use of pesticides "isn't efficient in the long-term or appropriate for balancing the ecosystem."
NOT EXACTLY. BUT LABELING IS A GOOD THING.
James Dale, Ph.D., of Queensland University of Technology in Australia
"In 2004, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put out a call to create crops with enhanced micronutrients, like our 'golden banana,'" Dale says. "To date, my team has received close to $10 million in funding." The fruit has been engineered for higher levels of vitamin A to combat a deficiency that blinds or kills nearly a million children worldwide annually. "It's not dissimilar to pharmaceutical companies," he says. "Everyone complains about Big Pharma until they get sick and want the best medicine. But where labels provide important information, I think that is very worthwhile."