Does GMO denial come from a place of privilege?

Let’s have a chat. The health-conscious and enviro-conscious among us have likely heard of the genetic modification of food. In short, it’s a breeding method which adds a specific gene to a food or turns off a specific gene already present. This is in comparison to traditional breeding methods (such as crossbreeding) which mix two different food types together – mixing thousands of genes in an uncontrolled environment – to try and breed certain characteristics into a new variety of food.

Humans have been selectively breeding for nearly ten thousand years. It allows for the creation of more hardy traits such as drought resistance, greater yield, and disease resilience. Using the tradition process of mixing thousands of genes and hoping for a specific outcome is incredibly slow, unreliable, and uncontrollable.

Credit: The Royal Society, 2016.

Eventually, technology was developed to a point which allowed us to discover what DNA was and how it contributes to the traits of foods. Norman Borlaug, an agronomist, was hired in 1944 to improve the US’s maize and wheat. He figured out how to get the gene from a disease resistant wheat and add it to a stiff-stalked wheat (which was important for effective yields). He successfully created the new variety of wheat just in time to combat huge food shortages that were hitting the US at that time.

Credit: Art Rickerby.

After a great deal of research, development, and ample safety testing, we have been able to control exactly which gene we are targeting and can accurately place it within another food. This allows us to achieve the same results, in basically the same process we have been using for ten thousand years – but in a much shorter timeframe!

Thanks to this technology, Ugandan banana breeders are saved from poverty and death due to ruined crops. Nigerian cowpea farmers can fight off diseases which wipe out their crops every year. Burkina Faso cotton farmers can enjoy greater yields which lift them out of poverty. Children in Bangladesh can finally have appropriate dietary levels of vitamin A and will now no longer go blind. Corn farmers in the Philippines no longer stress about their crops being wiped out by diseases.

Credit: Cornell University, 2016.

Why then, in the face of such wide successes around the world, do a small portion of Western country populations fear this specific breeding technique? Long-term safety ramifications are often cited as a major concern, that more research and safety studies must be conducted before allowing genetic engineering into our food supply.

Fortunately, thousands and thousands of studies have been conducted over the past decades. Much of this research was independently funded (so no fudged numbers from Monsatan!) and a strong consensus arose showing the safety and efficacy of this breeding technique. Hundreds on government and independent research organisations around the world now accept these findings. But why do those, who often quote the consensus on climate change, now choose to deny the consensus on GMO safety?

Some suggest denial of GMO safety stems from Western privilege.­ Citizens of wealthy nations simply aren’t exposed to the realities of agricultural livelihoods in their own country, let alone poorer countries. I encourage you to look up the stories of farmers in other countries, and how their lives have been saved from ruin thanks to the quick action against agricultural diseases. Rest assured, genetic modification is just as safe and helps to feed millions of people.

Further reading

An introduction to GMOs, 2019, SciMoms.

Are GMOs good or bad?, 2017, Kurzgesagt.

Compilation of studies on GE food safety, 2015, The Credible Hulk.

GMOs in South Africa, 2017, Farmer’s Weekly.

GMOs in Uganda, 2018, Genetic Literacy Project.

GMOs in Burkina Faso, 2019, Cornell University.

GMOs in Bangladesh, 2019, Neurologica.

GMOs in Philippines, 2019, Cornell University.

One Response to “Does GMO denial come from a place of privilege?”

  1. ddnguyen says:

    I personally do not think GMO is a bad thing, this is indeed something that will have a serious impact on the future.