The term “GMO” rhymes with “glow,” but there are a lot more reasons to be scared of GMO food than its creepy-sounding name.
GMO is, of course, an acronym for a genetically modified organism. People’s attitudes about GMO range from: “It sounds complicated, I don’t want to think about whatever it is,” to “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” to “Woo-hoo! Better living through technology.” While I’d like to think that GMOs are our friend, I just don’t buy it, at least where our food supply is concerned.
A GMO is created when the genetic material of an organism has been altered using genetic engineering. The technology dates back to the ’70s and is responsible for medical breakthroughs such as gene therapies and pharmaceuticals that have saved a lot of lives. Even the medical GMO stuff has some creepiness factors, but the sake of argument (and brevity), let’s say that genetic engineering for medical purposes is a good thing.
The most widespread use of GMO technology is in agriculture. While GMO proponents argue that messing around with plant DNA is just an extension of the traditional methods for plant breeding through hybridization, it’s taking place at a pace and scale beyond our ability to track and contain. Until human beings fully understanding the consequences–intended and unintended–of introducing irrevocable changes to our ecosystem, I think we need to put the brakes on GMO food.
So what’s the big whoop? In a nutshell, companies like Monsanto have spent years developing crops that supposedly produce higher yields, can be grown in harsh climates, have greater nutritional value, or are resistant to herbicides, pests, and other bad stuff. In theory, that’s a good thing, right? More and better food at cheaper prices? Not so fast.
Unlike self-propagating plants that produce seeds that can be saved and replanted each year, most genetically modified plants are bred to have sterile seeds, so farmers who use them must buy new seeds every year. It’s like the cheap razors and expensive razor blades; once you’ve gotten in, you’re hooked. (Can you sing, “I owe my soul to the company store?”)
Even scarier: there’s no way of protecting the GMO crops from contaminating non-GMO crops planted in neighboring fields, so eventually, all of our natural food crops could lose their ability to produce their own seeds.
Think our government is protecting our food, so farmers and eaters at least have a choice whether to grow or eat GMO foods? Think again. The GMO industry and the FDA have firmly resisted requirements to label GMO foods, and efforts to regulate GMO crops have encountered similar resistance.
For much more in-depth coverage of GMO–and other important food–issues, I highly recommend food and ag journalist Tom Philpott, a former editor at the wonderful environmental site, grist.org and now blogging for Mother Jones.com.