The two faces of GMOs


photo by Newtown graffiti
photo by Newtown graffiti

When I’m wearing one of my other hats, as a nutrition educator for a local natural-foods store, I have dealt with several customers who are horrified about GMO foods, or genetically modified organisms (a.k.a. genetic engineering, or GE). That’s when scientists in a lab splice plant and animal cells into the DNA of an unrelated organism to create something brand-new. Usually depending on your perspective, it’s done for reasons ranging from pure profit to better nutrition.

On May 25 in New Paltz close to 400 people protested the practice, which has been around since 1996. They called out for labeling so consumers could make more informed choices about what they consume.

Marchers dressed as bees and ears of corn and carried signs with messages like “Free the Seed” and “F*** Monsanto.” The march was part of a much larger worldwide protest that day that involved some two million people, which was taking place in 52 countries and more that 436 cities.

As a culture we love to fall in love with or demonize food products. We like chia seeds and hate high-fructose corn syrup. But the fear of GMOs seems to go beyond the good-or-bad duality. It seems more fundamental than that.

Proponents — from large corporations to the federal government — claim that they can improve the nutrition, yield and disease resistance of our foods by genetically engineering them, saving the world from malnutrition. They declare that they can make foods with more iron to treat anemia, that they can increase the vitamin A content of rice and improve health that way, especially in developing nations. They say they can increase the milk production of cattle by putting the right genes in them. They claim their products are robust, healthy, and more nutritious than non-GMO crops.

It goes further. They profess to be able to protect crops from failing due to pests or harsh conditions, such as overly saline soil or drought-prone areas. They also claim to not only benefit our health but the environment as well. If crops are bred to use less space, they reason, less land is broken up. They claim they can reduce global warming by making GMO grass that makes cattle less gassy.

The claims of benefits go beyond even that: GMO crops can need little to no pesticide because it has been genetically spliced into them. The makers assert they can reduce waste by creating products with extended shelf lives. They even plan projects like the creation of useful biofuels from specially bred organic matter. They boast about the creation of wonderful new vaccines and medicines.

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