It's a Mistake to Condemn All GMO Foods


Condemning GMO foods because they have been genetically modified is like refusing to buy shoes because some of them are made by slave laborers. If you know that a particular pair of shoes was made by slaves, don't buy it. But that doesn't mean you need to go shoeless.

Humans have been genetically modifying our food for centuries. Every time a farmer chooses a large, tasty fruit to use for next year's seeds, he adjusts the genetic makeup of his crop. It's a safe bet that every human on the planet older than an infant has eaten genetically modified food. The truly "wild" varieties of corn, wheat and other common foods are nearly inedible.

Modern GMO technology, though, goes far beyond what a farmer in his field can do. We can directly manipulate genes to create desirable traits that would otherwise take many generations to cultivate. And we can do more, much more: we can insert genes from one species directly into another, creating something that nature would never have produced.

Sometimes this can be a good thing. For example, in the 1990s papayas were threatened by a virus that could have wiped out the entire species. Papayas were saved by scientists who created a GMO plant that allowed the papayas to resist infection.

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Unfortunately, GMO technology can be used in much more selfish ways. Perhaps the most visible use of GMO technology on the planet is Monsanto's Roundup Ready® line of soybeans, corn, alfalfa, cotton, and other crops. These plants cannot be killed by the weed killer called Roundup – manufactured by Monsanto – which makes it easier to keep fields clear of weeds. Of course Monsanto argues that this is good for farmers. But who benefits from more sales of Roundup? And does it make our food any better?

Further irritation comes from Monsanto's patents on its Round Ready® seeds. Monsanto has aggressively gone after farmers who use seeds from their own crops for the next season. The patent, it seems, not only covers the seeds, but also the seeds produced by plants that were grown from those seeds, ad infinitum. Monsanto has even sued farmers whose fields were accidentally cross-fertilized by a nearby field. So for Monsanto, GMO crops have a double advantage: They allow it to sell more herbicides, and because they are patented, they shut out the competition.

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It's enough to make you condemn all GMO foods. But that would be a mistake.

Consumers who don't like the excessive use of herbicides, or who object to patenting plants and animals, have good reason to avoid Roundup Ready® crops. But painting all GMO foods with a "Monsanto" brush also shuts the door to a fantastic range of opportunities that can feed the planet with a gentler impact on the environment. If we're to preserve our planet, we need to continue to innovate in how we feed ourselves. GMO foods like the new AquAdvantage salmon, which grows faster than conventional salmon, offer hope that we can save the world's wild fish populations, many of which are critically endangered.

GMO technology has good uses and bad, and it takes work to distinguish them. Let's not go the lazy route and throw out the technology because of one bad actor.

Steven Salzberg

About Steven Salzberg Director of the Center for Computational Biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

food safety

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