Division of Bioethics at New York University’
Genetically modified food has had a rough year in what has been a fairly miserable decade. In August, 400 farmers in the Philippines stormed a government-owned GM (as it is known) research field. The protesters destroyed 1,000 square meters of Golden Rice, a variety genetically engineered to cut down on vitamin A deficiency.A 2013 poll in the New York Times found that three-quarters of Americans have concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food; most are worried about health effects.
Thirty-seven percent of those with worries fear that GM foods cause cancer or allergies.On the Web site Counter-Punch this summer, Katherine Paul wondered what happens when animals are confined in cramped, filthy environments and force-fed monoculture diets of genetically modified corn and soy. A lot, concluded Paul, who is with the Organic Consumers Association: “Calves are born too weak to walk, with enlarged joints and limb deformities. Piglets experience rapidly deteriorating health, a ‘failure to thrive’ so severe that they start breaking down their own tissues and organs—self-cannibalizing—to survive.”The article described animals with weak bones, dairy cows with mastitis, beef cattle with liver abscesses. “It all adds up to a lot of misery for animals unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of industrial agriculture’s Big GMO Experiment,” Paul wrote.5 A documentary, Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives, proclaims GMO “the most dangerous thing facing human beings in our generation.” And a headline in Pravda sneered at the decision to expand GMO agriculture in Russia, under the headline “Russians to proudly poison themselves with their own GM food.
”But at the same time, the Times also noted that commercial farming of oranges and grapefruit is in dire peril from an insect-borne bacteria that causes a disease known as “citrus greening.” An uncontrollable fungal blight is destroying the banana crop around the world. Coffee rust is knocking out plants in Central and South America. Diseases like rice blast, soybean rust, stem rust in wheat, corn smut in maize, and late blight in potatoes destroy at least 125 million tons each year of the world’s top five foods. The damage done to rice, wheat, and maize alone costs global agriculture $60 billion per year. The effects are especially catastrophic in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people rely on these foods.There is a way to get rid of such otherwise unstoppable plant diseases, which waste scarce resources, bring about malnutrition and starvation for hundreds of millions, and cost the world economy billions of dollars. Genetically modified organisms.Specifically, engineering plants to resist the diseases.
So why don’t the folks bearing the bad news about GMOs make a connection to the huge problems that could be fixed by genetic engineering? The answer is the bungling mismanagement of a potentially useful breakthrough technology by the GMO industry, alongside market forces that produce GMOs friendly to pesticides rather than hostile to fungi.On September 10, 1999, I found myself in Switzerland, on a mountaintop overlooking Lake Geneva. A pleasure trip? Nope, I was giving a talk to CEOs about the ethics of GMOs. I spent my time at the summit yelling, literally, at the CEO of Monsanto. He was yelling right back at me—neither of us calmed by the beauty of the setting. Or the horrified looks on the faces of other guests.10 The subject of the craggy debate was whether foods that contain GMOs should be labeled as such. The head of Monsanto said absolutely not.