Today the general public is more ecologically conscious than it has ever been. The market for goods produced and sold under the sustainability banner is growing, and the push to become "green" permeates virtually all economic sectors. Areas such as manufacturers of automobiles, cleaning solutions, apparel and even fossil fuel products are bringing their billions to bear upon pollution, or so the marketing teams and advertisements claim. But out of all economic sectors, agriculture is the most intimately connected with human welfare.
Consumers rightfully desire to know what they are eating. The thought that even fresh, healthy foods could be laced with agrochemicals or biologically contaminated at the genetic level has driven an increasing preference for foods billed as organic or natural. Lumped into this category of ostensibly healthier foods are those billed as being free of GMOs—genetically modified organisms. Genetic modifications to crop plants are implied to be innately unnatural and therefore, somehow, detrimental to both human and biosphere health.
There are legitimate grievances to be made about modern industrial agriculture, but the use of modern biotechnology for the development of new crop varieties is not one of them. The marketing push for non-GMO foods is just that, a marketing push. The push is fortified through advertisements rooted in pseudoscience, anti-intellectualism and the romanticization of premodern agriculture. Consumers are right to be wary about potentially harmful food, but ecological problems must be solved by judiciously using science, rather than dispensing with it.
Genetic engineering is a maligned piece of terminology, avoided at all costs by manufacturers and vehemently shunned by some. In the context of modern agriculture, genetic engineering refers to the use of recombinant DNA technology to produce new crop varieties. Before this technology's introduction, plant breeders used the traditional methods of careful parent selection and crossbreeding to develop new crop varieties to improve crop yield, stress tolerance and disease resistance.
Ancient farmers selected plants with preferred traits when saving seed for the next planting. After many generations, this artificial selection domesticated relatively unappetizing crops into high-yielding, nutritious staples. Today, these procedures are augmented with a modern understanding of genetics.
Traditional breeding is a mixing of genetic material from within the same genome between closely related species of the same genus. Recombinant engineering, however, can transfer genes from distantly related plant lineages, and even material from bacteria, into other crop plants. As Ania Wieczorek and Mark Wright note in 'Nature," recombinant DNA technology was applied commercially beginning in the 70s, with the first engineered plant entering the market in 1982. Exogenous DNA, which is DNA found outside the original organism, can be transferred into the target genome in a variety of ways, some of which can even occur naturally. These methods have led to substantial improvements in many crop species. So what is the problem then?
One common critique is rooted in a longstanding public distrust of science by deeming it "unnatural." Sentiments of this kind are rife in marketing materials. For instance, a recent advertisement for Garden of Life brand probiotic supplements boasts that the pills contain no "bioengineered whatever-they-call-it," while showing a scientist enrobed in a full-body protective suit and respirator holding a sinister-looking test tube containing a sprig of parsley. The corporate website goes so far as to include the bogus remark that "In layman's terms, GMO is a nice way of describing a plant that comes from a seed that has been injected with bacteria or pesticides to help it stay alive when the land it grows in is doused with chemicals."
Another anti-GMO group, The Non-GMO Project, appeals to scientific consensus, but ultimately rehashes the aforementioned anti-intellectual sentiments when it alleges that "there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs."
It might be tempting to think greedy biotech corporations have no regard for safety or sustainability, but this is far from the truth. In reality, the precautionary principle has been judiciously applied to GM crops. New varieties undergo extensive testing prior to introduction, and transgenic materials are heavily regulated. In fact, protocols dictate that every transgenic scrap be labeled and sent off to the autoclave to be sterilized after use.
Genetic modification, in all its forms, is the key to creating new plant varieties that require fewer damaging inputs including fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, while also providing for the ever-expanding global population. While some valid critiques can be made against some of modern agriculture's practices, the use of GMOs is, by contrast, a scientific triumph. It is especially important to eschew arguments of emotional and anti-intellectual basis. Progress comes through a deference to precaution coupled with an openness to the possibilities of science. Deliberate ignorance concerning genetic modification technology, however well-intentioned, is ultimately misguided.