Gauging GMOs: A Critical Approach

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Sometimes an opinion is one of the hardest things to form. There are, as the saying goes, always two sides to a coin. There can be two arguments, using similar logic, but purporting two completely different lines of thought. One clear example of this is the debate over the use and proliferation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the United States. The debate over this new combination of technology and agriculture has been on-going for close to 25 years and shows no signs of abating. After reviewing the evidence presented in this class, I find that GMO products may not be as much of a threat as detractors of the process and products make them out to be. 

GMOs are, simply put, the product of a unique combination of science, technology, and agricultural practices. As the name implies, GMOs are plants and food products that have had additional genetic material introduced into the organism for a specific purpose. This purpose may be to provide a natural pesticide (such as the introduction of the BT toxin to many corn crops in the United States), prevent against potential viruses (such as the introduction of an antidote to Mango crops in Hawaii), or attempt to increase the nutritional value or growth capability of certain crops (for example, the addition of sugar on the growth rate of arabidopsis). As the PBS documentary shows, the process involves a ‘crude but effective’ method of inserting genes into a plant. This is accomplished with a ‘gene gun’, which attaches the new genes to microscopic balls and then shoots the balls through a sprout or leaf, leaving the gene attached to the organism at the molecular level. The plant is then reproduced, leading to an entire crop of genetically altered plants, vegetables, or fruit. As the introduction highlights, there are several ‘pros’ and several ‘cons’ to this process, outlined below.

Depending on who you ask, GMOs have either very beneficial or very harmful implications for agriculture, ecosystems, human health, and society. On one side, academic scientists, government, and industry companies argue for the benefits, while on the other, environmental activists, religious organizations, consumer groups, and some scientists warn of the dangers of GMOs. Therefore, the arguments for or against GMOs are not simply differentiated ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, but rather selective evidence-based arguments designed to further a specific perspective.

These arguments are based around the health risks, health benefits, productivity, safety, regulation, innovation, and economics of GMO production. On one side, proponents of GMOs argue that GMOs promise many health benefits for consumers, pointing to the fact that GMOs hold a higher nutritional content, have a longer shelf life, and are safer to eat because they require fewer pesticides. This last point is especially prominent, as one of the major reasons for using GMOs is to avoid having to use chemicals in preventing against pests. Proponents also argue that genetic modification is a very natural process – essentially fast-paced evolution or crossbreeding, which is the basis of agriculture. Furthermore, this leap forward in agriculture can provide the innovation needed to account for a fast-growing world population. 

In contrast, detractors of GMOs have argued that GMOs may pose health risks for people, given that they can introduce unknown allergens into widely distributed food products. They also argue that it can be economically detrimental, forcing small farmers out of business because they cannot afford the new technologies. For this reason, opponents of GMOs often directly dismiss proponents’ claim that GMOs are a form of innovation for the good of the world, arguing instead that the development and prevalence of GMOs on big farms is based purely on business profits. Finally, detractors point to poor oversight on GMO products, saying that regulation of the new technology in food production is too weak to ensure the health and safety of consumers.

Ultimately, I am convinced that GMOs pose the potential for greater good rather than harm. I am not persuaded by the logic of one argument over the other – I simply find the evidence supporting the use of GMOs to be stronger than the evidence that points to its potential dangers. I believe that GMOs will, in the long run, greatly aid in improving our food supply, ensuring food security and eliminating food waste. The innovative technology is a step forward in the use of human scientific knowledge, rather than an unnatural attempt to subvert nature. Of course, GMO products ought to be carefully regulated – however, the past 25 years has shown successful oversight. For these three major reasons, I find GMOs to be an acceptable (and even welcome) development in agriculture.