“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” asks Glinda, the Witch of The North in the Wizard of Oz. In fact, this is one of the first things she says to Dorothy after her crash-down in Oz, and some people would argue this is the first thing we should be asking about our food. Don’t take a bite just yet—is that food good or bad? Organic or not? Does it contain GMOs? Do we really need to know? Do you care? And what is a GMO, anyway?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and put simply, they are any organism that is modified genetically in a way that would not occur naturally. WHO (World Health Organization) has a very informative page all about GMOs. And why shouldn’t they—there are those who think GMOs are the answer to ending world hunger. Maybe they are the answer, but people all over the world have a lot of questions first. Philanthropist and Microsoft wizard, Bill Gates, pledged $200 million dollars in 2012 to finance research on a new breed of drought-resistant maize. He said, “If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture. We believe that it’s possible for small farmers to double, and in some cases even triple, their yields in the next 20 years while preserving the land.” Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to support that claim.
John Vidal, a reporter for The Guardian, says no dice. He asserts, “Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of “super-weeds,” according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.” In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that genetically engineered seeds have not significantly increased crop yields in spite of 20 years of research and 13 years on the market. In fact, they say, “”In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results.” Ouch.
Ronnie Cummins, International Director of the Organic Consumers Association, takes the point even farther, and says,
“Bill Gates may be a smart guy in terms of computer programming, and an expert on how to become a billionaire, but he obviously knows nothing about agriculture other than what Monsanto and the biotech industry have told him. Eighteen years after the introduction of the first genetically engineered crops, there is no evidence, including data from the pro-biotech USDA, that these energy and chemical-intensive crops increase yield, improve nutrition, or provide greater yields under adverse weather conditions of drought or heavy rains. On the contrary, hundreds of studies, including those by peer-reviewed scientists and the U.N.’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) indicate that organic crops provide significantly higher levels of vitamins, nutrients, and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants; that organic crops have significantly higher yields during periods of drought and torrential rain; and that agro-ecological or organic farms produce 2-10 times greater yields than industrial-scale chemical and GMO farms. In others words, not only can organic farming and ranching feed the world, but in fact it is the only way that we will ever be able to feed the world.”
Gates has other suggestions though; for instance, he’s a huge proponent of bringing the digital age to the world—the whole world. He’d like to see military sattelites documenting data about individual fields and videos of farmers giving advice on best practices in their area that could be shared easily with others in an effort to increase the success of their crops. Perhaps these ideas will be an easier sell than GMOs.
There are some countries, though, that aren’t asking so many questions. Their people are hungry, they want to feed them, and they see GMOs as a feasible solution. In 2004, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki stated, “We must embrace and apply modern science and technology in farming. Indeed, there is evidence that countries that have embraced modern agricultural technologies have improved economic performance, reduced poverty and ensured food security for their people.” He also argues for better irrigation, which seems a common-sense solution but, of course, faces obstacles of its own. Scientists in Kenya argue that traditional African crops are nutritionally and genetically superior, and they want to make sure that the untainted gene pool of these crops is preserved.
Honestly, the argument is never-ending, but generally what people seem to want is more research of the long-term effects of these foods—to human health and the environment. Some people are pushing hard for foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such, and of course, the companies that produce the GMOs are pushing back. The Brown Bag is curious—do you want to know?
GMOs are fairly common in this country and Canada, and you’ll find them in everything from baby formula to meat and dairy products. In Europe, where labeling is required, they’re easier to avoid. What we can say is that if you’re eating organic, you are reducing your consumption of GMOs, but no one is really immune to their influence. So, are GMOs good or bad? We don’t have a definitive answer. They’re a little like Dorothy—depends on who you ask—a wicked witch, a flying monkey or a munchkin? We don’t know where this particular yellow brick road of science will take us—the haunted forest or Oz—so do your own research. Get informed and choose your own direction.