photo via United Soybean Board (Flickr creative commons)

photo via United Soybean Board (Flickr creative commons)

Last fall, I was invited to “debate” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer, at the St. Louis Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics meeting. Our topic: GMOs. As expected, Fraley was firmly in the “pro” camp. I was framed as “con.”

However, in my introduction to the audience, I asked that our meeting not be called a debate, because doing so implies that both sides offer equally legitimate evidence.

I wanted to pull back the curtain, and expose the truth on what genetically engineered crops mean to those of us living in the Midwest’s corn and soy belt, namely: increasing use and exposure to herbicides; the loss of biodiversity; and, harm to human health.

In a remarkably overly friendly fashion, Fraley assured his audience that the science was settled: GMOs are safe, he said, and necessary to feed the world. Nothing, in other words, for dietitians and the public to fear.

However, my sources revealed no scientific consensus on GMO safety.

In fact, the World Health Organization states, “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Exactly my point: Each application of genetic engineering needs to be assessed individually, with independent research, and replicated to have confidence in conclusions.

The biotech industry would like us to think there is no need to ask more questions, no difference between GMOs and non-GMOs, and no need for GMO food labels. But we have evidence showing engineered crops are different, and good reasons to label them.

Beautiful heirloom maize from Latin America. (Photo by Keith Weller, USDA)

Beautiful heirloom, non-GMO maize from Latin America. (Photo by Keith Weller, USDA)

Those who dare question the safety of GMOs are often deemed “anti-science.” Yet, as Naomi Oreskes, Ph.D., co-author of “Merchants of Doubt” explains, “nothing in science is ever 100 percent.” Science is based on continuous questioning.

Before we simply say “yes” or “no” to GMOs, let’s ask the following questions about each GMO crop or animal to find the best answer for our families’ health, and the future of farming:

  1. What is the genetic modification, exactly, and how does it change the crop or animal? Why is it necessary or advantageous?
  2. Are there any alternatives? For example: Can traditional plant or animal breeding methods, or nutrient fortification be used instead?
  3. How will safety be proven? Who is responsible for testing, and will the results be made available to the public?
  4. What are the risks and benefits? Think about possible “unintended consequences.”
    For example: How might the microbes in the soil or even our own gut bacteria — our “microbiome” — be affected? Would new plant proteins cause food allergies? Could the GMO lead to an increased use of pesticides, or a reduction in biodiversity?
  5. How does the GMO differ in nutritional content?
  6. Are the new genetic traits contained in a lab, or can they escape into the environment? How will GMO pollen drift be measured and managed? Who pays for environmental monitoring and damages?
  7. Will the GMO be accepted or rejected by global trade markets?
  8. Is transparency (labeling) supported by the owners of the GMO? Why/why not?
  9. How might the GMO impact or limit farmer and consumer choice?
  10. Who owns and profits from the GMO? Who loses? For example, would the GMO harm organic, non-GMO farmers? What are the full costs,  including social, environmental and economic costs?

This may seem like a lot of questions, but they are very important to consider. This isn’t just about Yes or No to feeding GMOs to our children — it’s also about the effects on our environment, economy, farming models, and farmers’ self-sufficiency.

###

Representatives from the biotech industry will be attending my annual professional meeting of dietitians this month, answering questions and reassuring us that GMOs are modern, safe, and a necessary innovation, in light of climate change and population growth.  While there may be beneficial applications of genetic engineering, especially in medical research, nutritionists and consumers alike should keep in mind that good science depends on critical thinking, continuous inquiry and independent research. We must be cautious, as a society, not to let commercial interests run ahead of scientific knowledge, and common sense.


Want more? Read on about heirloom Floriani Red corn, which disappeared from the Americas for centuries but was found in an Italian village and has recently returned home.