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ALJASSAR: The merits of GMOs

Genetically modified foods should not require distinguishing labels

A new brand of Luddism has erupted in America. In spite of ample scientific evidence that corroborates the biosafety of genetic modification of crops, over half of Americans believe genetically modified foods are unsafe, with 93 percent in favor of mandatory labels on genetically modified food.

Part of the objection to genetically modified crops stems from a belief that “natural” foods are superior to “unnatural” foods — a naturalistic fallacy. Nothing is intrinsically virtuous about consuming food crops that are grown “naturally.” Unfortunately, appeals to nature and tradition have hijacked the discourse surrounding genetic modification.

It’s important to note that all agriculture is unnatural. Any claim about the extent to which food crops are natural is meaningless. Agriculture is the largest and most enduring human intervention into the natural world. Through selective breeding, farmers have artificially created several crops for human consumption. Kale and kohlrabi were developed from wild mustard after decades of careful heredity manipulation. Artificial selection has given rise to high-quality strains of soybeans, wheat and corn, all of which have been a boon to civilization. Artificial selection and artificial mutation through genetic engineering both alter food crops on the same microbiological level. The primary distinction is that the latter method can be used to obtain desired traits with greater speed and efficiency.

Genetic modification of organisms is not a novel concept. We have been doing it for thousands of years. Genetic modification through DNA extraction, gene cloning, gene design, transformation and backcross breeding is simply a faster, better way to achieve the results sought through traditional artificial selection.

Despite left-wing insistence that the right wing is anti-science, some of the most strident opposition to genetic modification of food crops comes from progressives. Although liberals are often stalwart supporters of clean energy laws and evolution education, many are fervently in favor of mandating labels on genetically modified foods. Vermont became the first state to enact such legislation, and pressure currently mounts for similar laws in liberal states such as New York, California, Oregon and Massachusetts.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin defended his state’s GMO labeling law, maintaining that “consumers have the right to know what they buy.” The problem with this line of thought lies in the fact that it suggests dangers immanent in genetically modified food. The scientific consensus, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is that “crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” After allocating over €300 million to research, the European Union revealed in a report its findings on the safety of genetically modified crops: “the main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects…is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” Among other organizations that have affirmed the biosafety of genetically modified crops are the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society.

For liberal legislators to yield to the public’s fears about genetic modification only advances scientific misinformation about an agricultural innovation that provides plants resistant to infectious disease, superior foods with longer shelf lives and large crop yields to permit more efficient land use.

There are legitimate criticisms of genetic modification. Economically, introducing genetically modified food to market demands significant time and cost, endangering smaller farms that cannot afford to compete with large agricultural biotechnology companies. Genetic modification also presents a few environmental risks such as reduced biodiversity through genetic homogeneity and resulting from extensive monoculture crop production.

But we shouldn’t ignore its efficiency because of these few flaws. Like any scientific advancement, genetic modification will continue to improve with research for which public and political support is crucial. In the face of concerns about genetic modification, we should not jettison the benefits of genetic modification of crops, nor should we propagate the falsehoods that infect scientific discussion by encouraging labels that imply biohazards associated with genetic modification.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at n.aljassar@cavalierdaily.com.


Published August 28, 2014 in Opinion







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