Are GE crops safe?

Depends on who you ask. Scientists universally agree that genetically-engineered (GE) crops are just as safe to eat as their non-GE counterparts. GE crops do not uniquely harm the environment and actually need fewer pesticides. 

“No food, (genetically modified) or non-GM, is absolutely safe,” said Robert Hollingworth, professor emeritus of the Michigan State University Department of Entomology and Institute for Integrative Toxicology. “However, it is very close to the universal conclusion of every expert who has evaluated it, that the GM crops we have at the moment are as safe to consume as the standard crops that we have been consuming for years.”

A large portion of the public, on the other hand, significantly diverges from this view. But before we discuss why they do, let’s talk about what genetically engineered crops actually are.

What counts as a GE crop?

According to the Pew Research Center, genetic engineering involves the introduction of new, desirable characteristics to plants, such as greater resistance to pests. In fact, the majority of processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one GE ingredient.

Bt cotton is a genetically engineered species of cotton that is naturally resistant to bollworm, a pest that has ruined many a cotton harvest. COURTESY OF ISAAA.

 

Humans have been genetically manipulating crops since the agricultural revolution, even if the practice was never recognized as such. Early farmers selected, grafted and hybridized crops, introducing beneficial traits that allowed for easier harvesting, uniform ripening and shorter lifespans. These traits usually translated into faster growth, loss of toxic compounds and productivity of the agricultural yield.

Genetic engineering is understood as the scientific extension of this practice. It involves the transplantation of specific, useful genes across species using modern and more efficient techniques. 

Bt cotton is one such example of a useful genetic modification. It is a GMO that contains genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which secretes a natural insecticide that combats bollworm but is harmless to other forms of life. Bollworm has a history of plaguing traditional cotton harvests. But, with the GE bt cotton now widely adopted across the world, bollworm has largely become a problem of the past. 

So why don’t people want GMOs?

There are several objections to GE crops, but the most common by far, as Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker, is “the persistent objection that, by cutting DNA from one species and splicing it into another, we have crossed an invisible line and created forms of life unlike anything found in ‘nature.’” We would, objectors contend, be playing God. And who knows what consequences that might have.

One of the most popular objections to GMOs is the contention that we might be playing God. If so, we’ve already been doing playing God for several thousand years. COURTESY OF THE GENETIC LITERACY PROJECT.

 

The fact of the matter, of course, is that we have been engaging in this sort of thing forever. The corn we grow and eat wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t, over many generations of deliberate selective breeding, “invented” it about 3000 years ago from related species. If we stopped growing corn, it would die out because it wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone reproduce, on its own. Synthetic insulin, which is the first genetically modified product, has saved millions of lives, and certainly no one is claiming we shouldn’t play God there.

Yet, there is one argument against GE crops worth hearing. 

There is a movement, spearheaded by environmentalists like Vandana Shiva, that actively resists the introduction of GE crops, especially in countries that are heavily agricultural. For Shiva, the problem with GE crops is not that they are somehow unnatural, but that they allow private GMO companies to monopolize entire sections of the agricultural industry. 

This is largely because companies, like American biotechnology company Monsanto, that create GMOs hold patents on the DNA sequences of those organisms. This means that it is illegal for farmers to use seeds from their previous GMO harvest for their next harvest. They must buy fresh seeds for every harvest from (usually) foreign companies. Some companies deliberately remove the ability of their GE crops to produce seeds. The way patents work with GMOs forces farmers to pay a kind of annual “rent” to these companies to work land they already own, binding them into a kind of indentured servitude.

Vandana Shiva is a tireless anti-GMO advocate with many controversial opinions. What isn’t controversial is her fear that farming in developing countries is being feudalized by big biotech companies like Monsanto. COURTESY OF BBC.

Bt cotton, for example, became wildly popular in India, where the bollworm pest had devastated one harvest after the other. 95% of the cotton now produced in Indian is bt cotton. But the patent for bt cotton is owned by Monsanto. When Indian farmers cannot afford to buy seeds from Monsanto, they simply do not have a harvest – and many die. 

“Farmers are dying because Monsanto is making profits – by owning life that it never created but it pretends to create,” Shiva said in 2014. “That is why we need to reclaim the seed. That is why we need to get rid of the GMOs. That is why we need to stop the patenting of life.”

Because of the way patent law works, any reliance on GE crops – no matter how beneficial to the consumer and planet – creates a reliance on GMO companies, something farmers in third-world countries cannot always afford.

The Takeaway

We must be careful, however, from entirely rejecting GE crops because of the way our patent system fails our farmers. The benefits that GE can and has offered us are real. If we can learn to effectively and fairly harness its power and shed our prejudices, GMOs may just enable us to become better stewards of this planet.

What are your thoughts on GE crops? Do you have reservations about consuming them? Let us know in the comments below!