A genetically modified organism (or GMO) refers to a lifeform that has been altered in its genetic structure through the techniques of science. This critical analysis provided by Ultius will discuss the dangers of GMO foods by addressing recent political events surrounding GMO foods and the argument in favor as well as the argument against GMO foods in order to reach an informed position on this subject.
Overview of GMO foods
A GMO has been defined in the following, somewhat partisan but still largely accurate way by the Non-GMO Project:
“GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods” (paragraph 1).
So, the very possibility of a GMO coming into being has fundamentally been created through modern innovations in biotechnology. A GMO food is a type of food that has been modified in some way. In principle, this would be a product that people of the past have not consumed for nutrition, insofar as the specific product in question would not have existed prior to recent technological developments.
Genetic modification is not a new concept
In a certain sense, the suggestion can be made that GMO foods are actually nothing new, insofar as people have been attempting to favorably alter the genetic makeups of their foodstuffs since the very beginnings of agriculture itself. As Prakash and Conko have written:
“Our ancestors chose a few once-wild plants and gradually modified them simply by selecting those with the largest, tastiest or most robust offspring for propagation” (paragraph 2).
This could in fact be identified as a primitive form of genetic modification, insofar as it involves human beings applying what scientific knowledge they have in order to alter the genes of agricultural crops in order to better suit their own purposes. Modern genetic modification is a much more technologically sophisticated process, often involving direct manipulation of the genomes of organisms and perhaps making more drastic changes than would be possible or viable through crossbreeding methods. The old techniques and the new, however, do share a basic foundation, at least at the conceptual level.
Recent political events surrounding GMOs
Recently, there have been significant protests in the world against GMO foods. This is perhaps exemplified in the anger that has been targeted against Monsanto, a leading producer of GMO products and reputed for lax ethical practices. As the Agence France-Presse reported in May 2015:
“Tens of thousands of people marched in cities across the world on Saturday to protest against the American biotechnology giant Monsanto and its genetically modified crops and pesticides” (paragraph 1).
The protesters held signs and made allegations that the products sold by Monsanto, especially an herbicide called Roundup, could potentially constitute a serious threat to the health of human beings. This protest seems to have also spurred counter-protests by people who support GMOs, who by and large would seem to believe that the protesters against GMOs are just simply irrational and do not understand the subject matter at hand.
Activism against GMOs
The annual March Against Monsanto, as this protest is known, was initially affiliated with the Occupy movement, which was launched by a small group of activists in the city of New York but then spread all across the United States, having apparently hit a national nerve regarding economic circumstances a few years ago. This protest, along with other protests against GMOs, have since come to be associated primarily with the left wing of the political spectrum.
The critique of GMO foods from this angle, especially against multinational corporations such as Monsanto, have since been informed not only by the belief that the products themselves are concretely dangerous, but also by the belief that the globalization process has led to the increasing exploitation of the people of developing nations by companies like Monsanto (Scheurman).
For example, if farmers in the developing world begin buying GMO seeds, then they become dependent on multinational corporations for their well-being over the long term, which clearly diminishes the autonomy of their community. Now, though, it will perhaps be appropriate to focus on the arguments regarding the specific dangers of GMO foods as such, independent from the broader economic context as well.
Argument for existence of danger in GMOs
The common-sense reason for believing in the danger of GMO foods to human beings would seem to consist simply of the perception that such foods are “unnatural,” in the sense that their production involves human interference with the autonomous processes of Nature. Much of the argument against the safety of GMO foods relies, either implicitly or explicitly, on this prima facie assumption that when human beings begin to tamper with Nature in this way, they are likely to produce serious unintended consequences, one of which being the unintended consequence of colony collapse in honeybees. From this perspective, even the lack of evidence regarding danger would be irrelevant, since the entire point would be that the GMO foods are probably dangerous in ways that will not be detected or even wondered about by people until it is too late.
Dangers to the body
There are, however, also concrete points that can be made regarding the potential dangers of GMO foods. One of these dangers consists of the possible effects that the modified genetic material in the foods could have on the bodies of the human beings who consume them. Levaux, for example, pointed out in 2012 that
“Chinese researchers have found small pieces of rice ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the blood and organs of humans who eat rice” (paragraph 1).
If this finding is valid, it would suggest that human beings assimilate more of the foods they consume than previously suspected, including the genetic materials of the foods. The implications of this for the dangers of the genetic modification of food are unclear. However, it would clearly present a cause for concern, insofar as it is a question that has not been adequately considered prior to the actual implementation of GMO technologies.
Argument against existence of danger in GMOs
By and large, many reputable sources have tended to converge on the consensus that the argument against GMO foods is based largely on myth rather than fact, and that there are in fact no serious demonstrable dangers surrounding GMO foods. Brody, writing for the New York Times, has summarized this position in a characteristic way:
“A review of the pros and cons of G.M.O.s strongly suggests that the issue reflects a poor public understanding of the science behind them, along with a rebellion against the dominance of food and agricultural conglomerates” (paragraph 6).
The implication is that the perception of danger surrounding GMOs is animated far more my ideology than by empirical fact, and that even if there were in fact serious dangers present, these would likely not be the ones that the anti-GMO movement generally has in mind.
Facts about GMOs are largely ignored by the public
Entine has likewise suggested that anti-GMO activists are ignoring the actual scientific evidence regarding the safety or danger of GMO foods:
“Although there have been more than 2,000 studies documenting that bioengineering does not pose an unusual threat to human health and genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods, questions remain in the minds of many consumers” (paragraph 3).
Following this train of argument, Kloor has somewhat sarcastically drawn a comparison between the people on the Left who oppose GMO foods on the one hand, and the people on the Right who do not believe in climate change on the other. The point would be that neither position would seem to be supported by the extant scientific evidence that has been generated thus far on the respective subjects.
Dangers seem to be more perceived than actual
On the basis of what has been discussed above, the conclusion can be drawn that thus far, no serious evidence has emerged regarding specific dangers that GMO foods pose to health of people who consume them. Much of the belief in the danger of GMO foods would seem to be based less on the actual facts of the foods than on how they are produced, and potential facts about the foods that people do not yet know.
This kind of approach to any subject matter, however, could only be described as unscientific and even superstitious. As one gives credence to scientific research studies on the subject, it becomes difficult to ignore the scholarly consensus that there are in fact no inherent health dangers that inhere to GMO foods, relative to conventional foods. In short, there would seem to be no evidence thus that GMO foods are in fact empirically dangerous to public health.
One could, of course, still oppose them for any number of reasons—even the aesthetic reason that one prefers simplicity in one’s foods. But this would not be quite the same thing as affirming that people who consume GMO foods are actually causing real harm to their health.
Opposition seems to be more economic than nutritional
In fact, much of the argument against GMO foods that emerges from the Left would seem to be based not on GMO technology per se but rather the way in which this technology has been integrated into the contemporary globalized economic system. For example:
- A case perhaps could be genuinely made that Monsanto is dangerous to human beings—not because of its GMO food products per se, but rather because of the economic function fulfilled by the company
- It actually is a fact that when farmers come to rely on multinational corporations such as Monsanto, they lose their own autonomy
- This could have potentially significant political and economic consequences, including consequences that may well be considered dangerous for the human species as a whole
The problem with the current argument against GMO foods would seem to consist of the fact that activists tend to conflate these two different levels of danger. The fact that GMO foods are in fact dangerous given how they are presently made and distributed does not imply that they are intrinsically dangerous, as such.
The scientific evidence thus far indicates that GMO foods are not intrinsically dangerous, but are also certainly not organic foods. However, this does preclude the possibility that the proliferation of GMO foods would in fact be dangerous within the context of the contemporary globalized economic system.
In summary, the present essay has discussed the dangers (or lack thereof) of GMO foods. An important conclusion that has been reached here is that to a large extent, it would seem that ideological struggle against the purveyors of GMO foods has become mixed together with the actual science of GMO foods. From a scientific perspective, there would seem to be no reason thus far to be as suspicious of GMO foods as so many people have become. From a political or economic perspective, though, a different analysis could perhaps be made, and GMO foods could be called dangerous in a different way that is unrelated to physical health per se.
Agence France-Presse. “Tens of Thousands March Worldwide against Monsanto and GM Crops.” Guardian. 23 May 2015. Web 27 Oct. 2015. worldwide-against-monsanto-and-gm-crops
Brody, J. E. “Fears, Not Facts, Support G.M.O.-Free Food.” New York Times. 8 Jun. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. free-food/>.
Entine, Jon. “The Debate over GMO Safety Is Over, Thanks to a New Trillion-Meal Study.” Forbes. 17 Sep. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. over-thanks-to-a-new-trillion-meal-study/>.
Kloor, Keith. “GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” Slate. 26 Sep. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. ng_the_science_to_scare_people_.html>.
Levaux, Ari. “A Potential Danger of Genetic Modification.” Atlantic. 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. genetically-modified-foods/251051/>.
Non-GMO Project. “What Is GMO?”, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. .
Prakash, C. S., and Gregory Conko. “Genetically Modified Foods Are Nothing New.” AgBioWorld. 6 Oct. 2003. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. info/articles/agbio-articles/GM-food-nothing-new.html>.
Scheurman, William. “Globalization.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. .