Oasis Magazine Articles

The Story Behind GMOs

By Amy N. Pugsley

This article was originally published as "Playing with Fire".

Like an Olympic game of table tennis, the debate regarding the safety of GMOs goes back and forth with tenacity. From the science to the politics behind GMOs, this is a confusing arena where the contenders are smart, well-dressed, powerful, and rich. The bottom line is, this is not some irrelevant science being performed in a fancy lab, but a science that dramatically affects the way the world eats. GMOs are in the news for a reason, and the stakes are high. The big question remains: why do so many people have a powerful say in what you’re eating?

What are GMOs?

The acronym GMO is thrown around a lot in the media, but what exactly is a GMO? Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), sometimes referred to as Genetically Engineered (GE) foods, are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered in various ways that do not occur in nature.

Unlike the way plants and animals have been changing and evolving for hundreds of years, this process is done in a lab using advanced scientific techniques. Most commonly, these genes are altered in order to resist pesticides or produce an insecticide. For example, creating a seed that can grow in adverse conditions is a great idea for countries facing unpredictable weather patterns. In North America, GMOs are commonly found in crops like soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya, and canola and are present in much of the processed food sold.

Feeding the world

On the surface, nothing seems sinister about the creation of a GMO seed that has been altered artificially. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have to water your tomato plants less? Isn’t it better to invent a peach that never bruises? What about a drought resistant potato? Superficially, it seems like a science fiction movie or a game of make believe. Creating things that exist in nature but revamping them, making them more practical or appealing, and it seemed like an offer no one could refuse. After all, science was going to feed the world, and why would anyone want to say no?

Between the 1930s and 60s, Green Revolution scientists wanted to abolish subsistence farming and move towards large scale industrial farming practices in order to increase output and feed more people. This led to a strong need for more pesticides, fertilizers and seeds that could perform in any conditions. While the Green Revolution was noble in theory, it yielded unfavorable results for the poorest of the poor. Instead of feeding the world, the revolution that promised to bring millions of people out of extreme poverty actually landed many people in poverty and created GMO super crops. This unfortunate result has been linked to global increases in food intolerances, cancer, infertility, autism, allergies, and gastrointestinal diseases.

Smoke and mirrors

 Many lobbyists and biotech companies want to push the idea that debate and dialogue about GMOs and their safety is for conspiracy theorists. Millions have dollars have gone to creating a smokescreen around GMOs. This is probably because GMOs are big business and certain companies make millions of dollars each year by owning the rights to seeds and the pesticides that they require in order to grow.

These companies hire private sector scientists to conduct research in their favor that showcases their products safety. It is like asking a student to mark their own test; it kind of defeats the purpose of academic integrity. If a scientist is being paid by a corporation standing to make millions from the sale of GMO seeds, it would be very difficult to be unbiased or forthright about their safety. Think back to the 1950s when scientists began to realize the adverse health effects of smoking, and Big Tobacco fought hard to have these voices silenced.

Companies that manufacture GMO seeds have a large stake in what you eat, and there is concern that their profit margins will shrink if people are suspicious. Today, most developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe for the environment, the food chain, or the people consuming these products. 64 countries around the world require genetically engineered foods to be labelled before they hit store shelves. Countries like Australia, Japan and the EU region have taken political action to ensure consumers have the right to know what is in their food. However, North America has yet to demand GMO labeling. Bottom line: people deserve the right to know what they are eating; labeling is a small step in a much larger conversation.

You are what you eat

The modern world we live in has allowed us to outsource parts of our lives in order to focus on more immediate areas such as our jobs, families and leisure activities. People live in urban cities where they are not intimately involved in the farm to table process of food production. This has caused humans to move, physically and mentally, away from their food sources.

As family-owned farms gave away to large scale industrialized farming, so did the connection that many people had to the land their food was grown and raised on. Today, many people do not know where their food comes from, how it is prepared, what ingredients are in it, or if these ingredients are safe. The discussion around GMOs is complicated because it forces us to ask fundamental questions like, who owns seeds? Therefore, who owns the right to life? As social scientist Abraham Maslow brilliantly explained in his famous theory Hierarchy of Needs, humans at their core cannot survive without their basic needs being met. If seeds are owned by multinational conglomerates, how do people have autonomy over the very basic elements of survival?

How does the earth survive with large amounts of chemicals being dumped on millions of acres of land? At this point, there are far more questions than there are answers, and that needs to change.

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