It seems like every few months the term “GMO” – short for genetically modified organisms- pops up in the news, creating a fresh controversy, and focusing our attention on the issue. This time two events, a confrontation between television’s Dr. Oz, and a decision by high-end fast food purveyor Chipotle, are driving the news cycle and discussion.
Dr. Oz, who has been a long-time and persistent skeptic concerning GMO technology, was attacked in an open letter signed by ten other professors. They accused him of “repeatedly show[ing] disdain for science and for evidenced-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops.” Oz responded by pointing out his accusers’ relationships with GMO companies, and their connections to right-wing pro-corporate think tanks and funding institutions. The contretemps ended in a sort of stalemate, but the fight played out with a very high profile in the news media.
Then, almost as if on cue, rising and extremely popular food giant Chipotle announced that it will phase out use of all GMO-related foods as soon as possible. This has been portrayed in the media as grandstanding, but another way of seeing it is that Chipotle, whose brand screams “fresh” and “trustworthy,” is reacting to the views and desires of its customers. What remains to be seen is whether other fast food giants will join it, and if such a cascade might lead to a change in the supply chain that would actually affect the use of GMOs.
Part of the problem as the problem is debated is that the average American truly does not understand what GMO means, that it involves scientists entering the DNA of plants and altering or adding to it in order to enhance or eliminate various traits. There are strong arguments on both sides, but as is usual now when activists and corporations oppose each other, the facts become lost in a fog of doublespeak and recrimination, and it becomes hard to ascertain the true facts, and the most reliable research that might shed some light for the average person.
Until we evolve an ability to have serious conversations about serious issues in our society, perhaps it would be best to follow the lead of the state of Vermont, and label any food containing GMO ingredients and allow the consumer to decide whether or not to buy and eat it.
Aside from the disputed science there are other hugely troubling issues: Large corporations will own more and more of our food supply– literally own it. After thousands of years of humans using and sharing seeds, of seeds being sort of a common and widely shared good, suddenly private companies are increasing able to “fence off” foodstuffs. Plus, if their seeds cross-pollinate with yours, they own the plants that result. The only word for this is “scary.”
Finally, GMOs in agriculture have opened the door for genetic modifications in animals and humans- this past week, doctors in China announced that they had performed an experiment on a human fetus, altering its DNA to try and cure a blood disease in utero. Whether or not this is good science, or an advance in medicine that will alleviate human suffering, it feels like things are moving too fast, and that there hasn’t been nearly enough discussion.
Is this what we want for our future? Shouldn’t all of this be thoroughly debated in public, and by the public through our elected representatives before we go down these roads?