10 April 2017
Genetically Modified Foods: Biblical, Ethical, and Empirical Perspectives
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a hot button topic in the United States and abroad. They became more or less accepted in an under-the-radar fashion before critics began pointing out the possible health related or ethical problems of genetically modifying our food. Now companies with enormous followings, like Chipotle and Whole Foods, promote that they are “GMO Free” and a movement has started to remove GMO products from shelves. A number of food companies pay to have their products certified “non-GMO.” Some concerns stem from religion and a general fear of the unknown, while others are scientifically based in the fear that the organisms are harmful to the health of consumers. However, there is a severe lack of research to support these concerns. GMO products should be allowed worldwide with proper regulation because the benefits of developing better quality food products outweigh the ethical or supposed health based costs.
There tends to be confusion surrounding the terms GMO and GM crops because of the lack of readily available information for consumers. By definition, a GMO is any organism produced through genetic modification (“Glossary”). This explanation leaves the door wide open for numerous products to be considered genetically modified. In practice, the process of genetic modification of crops takes place when one or more genes are removed from one species of plant and placed into another, forming a sort of hybrid strain. The purpose of this practice is to idealize the crop strains that are produced. In other words, to take the best genes from different strains of a crop and create one super-plant that combines aspects of its derivatives.
Genetic modification is a much more common practice than it is generally conceived to be. The cross breeding of crops has been taking place in some form since the 1700s, when the technology was limited to literally splicing pieces of different plants together to see if it would grow as one plant (Ehrenberg 23). One popular product created through this process is the tangelo (a fairly common citrus fruit). Some critics differentiate between hybrid species, like the tangelo, and truly genetically modified foods that are the result of directed genetic alteration. The actual DNA modification of plants has been taking place for more than 60 years (Freedman). These modifications have led to strains of many diet staples like wheat, rice, and peanuts that are now so pervasive they are not considered “modified” (“Freedman”).
Current genetically modified crops are popular because they can be herbicide- and pest-resistant. At this point, about one tenth of crops grown in the world are genetically modified in some way (Freedman). More crops in development promise draught-tolerant, bacteria-resistant, bio-fortified, and higher-nutrition food products in the future (Ehrenberg 23). These benefits are the reason that further scientific inquiry into genetic modification could help the agriculture industry and numerous other groups.
There is no reputable evidence that genetically modified crops pose any threat to global health or agriculture. There are numerous possible benefits for the domestic community and abroad if further developments are made such as those that will bring more nutritious foods. In addition, continuous scientific development is healthy for society. If the negative attention that GM crops are receiving continues, the sector may no longer be profitable, meaning research would halt. Regulation of GMOs varies drastically by location. While some countries in Africa have banned them outright, genetically modified crops are generally allowed but monitored in the United States. However, the media movement to remove GMOs from the food supply is problematic. With no evidence to support the movement, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a media campaign to increase sales and stir up dissent among consumers.
In order to combat the negative media and promote the development of genetically modified organisms where they are productive and helpful to society, the FDA and USDA – two of the regulatory bodies in charge of GMOs - should run government sponsored media campaigns. Assuming that, perhaps, it is the right of the consumer to know whether their food is genetically modified or not, there is nothing to be done about the mass labeling of food as non-GMO. Thus, the best plan of action is to undermine the importance of this label: prove to customers that GM products are just as safe as non-GM. The campaigns should address the safety of eating genetically modified foods, as well as meats from animals fed GM crops. In addition, they should highlight all of the benefits of genetically modifying foods, including larger harvests, tastier, healthier foods, and any future developments that may come.
This campaign should be carried out on a national scale. One way the plan may be executed could be through partnerships with food companies. If some companies would put a seal, similar to the non-GMO marking, stating that their foods are genetically modified and still safe and wholesome, it might get the point across to consumers. Another problem to be addressed are the well presented websites against genetically modified organisms, like The Non-GMO Project. There is substantial research arguing that the GM foods are safe, but none is presented in a user friendly way like that of the opposing side. A new website that actually appeals visually to consumers, is sponsored by the government, and easy to access will help consumers learn enough to make educated decisions about GMOs.
The idea is to educate the consumer so that they are able to make valid decisions. If upon learning that GM foods are safe, the consumer still chooses to buy non-GMO, that is their right. However, with the anti-GMO media preying on the generally uneducated nature of the consumer, a true understanding of what GMOs are and why they are not harmful may change many consumers' minds. After implementation of this campaign in the United States, the message should be spread to regions like Europe and Africa where the restrictions on genetically modified foods are much stricter. In light of better media, a policy change may take place in those regions.
In the United States, there is quite a large body of support for genetically modified organisms. Reasonable policies exist to regulate the crops and ensure consumer safety. For this reason, the question of feasibility of the proposed media campaign does not lie in actual scientific support but in the government's willingness to get involved. It is not uncommon for the government or government agencies to run campaigns to promote awareness. For instance, in 2013, the USDA started a campaign called “Water: You Are What You Drink,” one of many the agency has put together in past years. These campaigns generally center around topics of education, which is exactly what the GMO campaign would entail. Consumers have a right to know that GMOs are generally considered as safe as non-GMO products. The main obstacle for the proposal is funding. The government does not have excess cash to run extra educational campaigns. The genetic modification issue must somehow be brought into higher priority before the USDA would consider educating consumers about it.
Numerous arguments exist for the production of genetically modified crops and for the protection of that production by the government. The primary reasons to keep genetically modified organisms in production are the practical benefits that they offer. GM organisms are created for the prevention of crop diseases, among other perks, which increases harvest size. This leads to larger, healthier harvests, which could decrease food prices domestically and, eventually, abroad (Freedman). According to David Zilberman, a U.C. Berkely agricultural economist, the production of GM crops has “lowered the price of food,” and “increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide,” in addition to raising the total production quantity of crops like corn, cotton, and soy which has allowed easier access to food in food scarce nations (Freedman).
The organisms also generally have a natural pesticide effect, which allows for a decreased amount of pesticide to be used (an added bonus for environmentally friendly critics). Future GM crops could be able to “grow in dry and salty land, withstand high and low temperatures,” and more, allowing crops to be more accessible in places with little arable land now (Freedman). A recent development called Golden Rice is a genetically modified strain of rice that has higher levels of beta carotene, a nutrient that is rich in vitamin A, an essential vitamin that prevents blindness and lethal deficiencies (“Golden”). Golden Rice alone could change the way people in poor countries get their nutrition, especially considering the number of countries whose poor survive on rice as a main food supply.
One common fear that GMO critics have is that the foods are unregulated and unstudied. There are actually a number of regulatory agencies that determine which GM products are and are not allowed to be produced and sold in the U.S. markets. First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates biopesticides – the category that pesticide resistant GM crops fall under – and requires that the developer checks the biopesticide for environmental safety and allergenicity (“U.S. Regulation”). The Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) has legislation in place that require GM crops to be “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops and conducts a food-safety assessment to measure any toxic or allergenic qualities of the crop before giving the developer the “ok” to produce. In addition, the FDA states that it generally considers GMOs to be safe for human consumption (“U.S. Regulation”).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also plays a role in the regulation of genetically modified crops with its legislation, specifically the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. This 2016 Act of Congress requires, among other things, that genetically modified foods intended for human consumption be labeled as such (“National”). This alone negates the necessity of the Non-GMO propaganda. It is analogous to labeling all clearly green apples as “Non-Red”. In addition, the Act clearly states that approved genetically modified products are to be treated with the same regard as non-modified. Section 293.A.(3) reads:
“SAFETY.—For the purpose of regulations promulgated and food disclosures made pursuant to paragraph (2), a bioengineered food that has successfully completed the pre-market Federal regulatory review process shall not be treated as safer than, or not as safe as, a non-bioengineered counterpart of the food solely because the food is bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering (\"National”).”
This quote represents the level of confidence that the USDA places in the testing procedures that GMOs face before reaching the market. Robert Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist, says that the risk of a dangerous strain of a GMO is highly unlikely, as the developers can monitor all of the genes around the gene they have changed and are able to eliminate anything concerning (Freedman). The U.S. legislation concerning GM crops is quite clear; the crops are closely regulated but allowed.
In addition to legislative support for genetically modified crops, there are several ethical arguments that provide additional backing. Assuming Christianity is an ethical and moral point of reference, the Bible offers encouragement for genetically modified organisms. Of course, there was no scientific modification at the time the Bible was written, but the interpretation applies as it does to any other modern problem. In Genesis, God gives humans power over the earth and all organisms on it. An interpretation of this could be that humans have the power to do as seen fit to provide for the needs of Gods people. In general, followers of Christianity (and other religions with similar moral statues) have a God given responsibility to care for those that are less fortunate than themselves. Genetically modifying crops to fit the agricultural conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, could be one answer to this responsibility.
With draught resistant crops, African farmers would not have to worry as much about one of their biggest concerns: water. Numerous projects treat the symptoms of this problem, building wells and irrigation systems in Africa to assist farmers. However, none treat the true problem, a general lack of water, by promoting the use of a more hydro-efficient crop. The production of genetically modified foods could, in time, lead to developments that help solve the food crisis in our world, wherein nearly 800 million people live in hunger (“The State”). Because of this crisis, in 2013, it was estimated that 161 under-five-year-olds were stunted due to prolonged hunger and 51 million were “wasted” (UNICEF). Granted, the world already produces enough food to feed the entire population; the problem is more about lack of access, which strategically developed GM crops could help to solve (“World”). Anything that can reasonable aide people in a situation of dire hunger is an option worth exploring.
In addition to religious ethics, the ethical theory of Utilitarianism also applies to the GMO scenario. Utilitarianism states that the morally right thing to do is the action that brings the most collective good, in the long term, for everyone concerned. Two critical parts of that argument are “collective good” and “long term.” The collective good is important because if focuses not only on the individual, though humans are often predominantly self motivated. The idea behind Utilitarianism is thinking of the greater good for the whole of humanity above oneself. In relation to GM crops, “the collective good” means that if genetically modified crops help more people than they hurt, the option should be pursued. Second, “long term” refers to the fact that not all actions have immediate positive or negative consequences. GMO research may not help the hungry people of sub-Saharan Africa tomorrow, but it might in 20 years.
With no evidence found that GM crops cause widespread harm, the Utilitarianism theory would support their development. Although there are concerns about the problems that could be caused by producing GMOs, it is in the best interest of humanity to provide ways to feed the hungry. The answer may not be to produce more food in the United States, as the U.S. is not likely to undergo a food shortage but rather a flooding of the market, but developing the crops for production in food starved nations will help feed the hungry and save lives of starving people.
While the overwhelming majority of research suggests that genetically modified crops are safe, there are still a variety of arguments against them. The first is that there is simply a stigma surrounding genetic modification of any organism, whether it be plant, animal, or human. This stigma stems from a moral belief that modification is unnatural and is reinforced by the media, religion, and legislation. Though the Bible contains possible arguments for GMO development, there are also people who believe the Bible stands against it. For instance, Leviticus, verse 19:19, says “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.” Though the literal definition would suggest that this verse simply means it would not be wise to plant corn and peas together in the same field, there is an internet presence that suggests this verse as biblical evidence against GMO development (Norris). It is a stretch, but is one possible interpretation. This argument is invalid, however, because it is one of many verses that is simply not applicable in the world today. Verse 19:19 goes on to say that followers of God should not wear clothing made of more than one material. Whether God intended that rule to be explicitly followed forever or not, it is not, and therefore its predecessor need not be.
A second ethical consideration is the opposing side of the Utilitarian theory. It is up to the individual which side of the argument they stand on, as there is not an empirical consensus at this time. There is an argument that if world hunger is solved, there would be so many more people on Earth (as people die of hunger every day, thus maintaining a lower population) that the population would be unsustainable. Since, in the long run, all of humanity would suffer from a depleted Earth, this would not be the utilitarian choice. Since the true consequences of overpopulation can not be known yet, evidence for this must be based on what is known about global warming and resource exhaustion. Given this information, there is not much to combat this aspect of Utilitarianism besides a belief that there is still more good in saving those who are starving.
The main force behind the movement to stop the production of genetically modified organisms is the media. Nationwide food chains like Chipotle and Whole Foods advertise themselves as non-GMO retailers. Chipotle uses negative language on its website to describe GM foods and why the retailer decided to eliminate them from the menu. This is one example of how companies like Chipotle are capitalizing on the fact that many consumers will not look further into the research, but will take Chipotle's message at face value and thank them for it. Non-GMO marketing has led major food producers to label their products as “Non-GMO” as an attempt to keep up with the trend and profit from the movement. With no concrete evidence that GM products are harmful, it is difficult not to see the non-GMO movement as a media ploy designed to get people on board and make money, much like a fad diet.
Interestingly, even organic food companies are critical of the movement. Organic foods are, as a rule, non-GMO, but the reverse is not true. Some organic food suppliers are against the non-GMO propaganda because they believe the marketing is misleading and that consumers may not realize how little significance the non-GMO label has compared to organic (Charles).
The Non-GMO Project is one of the top agencies that food companies use to have their products certified “non-GMO.” The company charges a fee to test and verify products, then allows the product to be labeled with their seal (See Appendix B.i). The company's reputation is called into question because it has done questionable things such as verifying salt (a non-living substance with no genes to possibly be modified) as non-GMO (Ettinger). This fuels the GMO witch hunt and removes even the tiniest shred of responsibility from consumers to educate themselves about what they eat. This label is confusing and could easily lead to a misunderstanding of what GMOs truly are.
The Non-GMO Project web page “Verification FAQs” leads to even more confusion. The page states that the products that it verifies as “Non-GMO” do not even have to be GMO free. They simply have to follow the “best practices for GMO avoidance (“Verification”).” That presents a problem not only because it further misleads and confuses consumers, but if for some health or other reason a person truly needs to avoid GMO products, even The Non-GMO Project seal cannot be completely relied on. The educational campaign suggested could alleviate some of the confusion caused by the dubious Non-GMO seal.
The media storm surrounding GM foods must have its backing somewhere. There are several scientifically based concerns about genetically modified products. The first is a supposed correlation between the rise in genetically modified organisms and a rise in food allergies (Rotman). There is simply no available evidence to suggest that this is anything more than a correlation – not causation. Upon discovery that this is a founded result of the GM products, certainly some action would be taken to correct the problem.
It is important, at this point, to make a distinction between GM crops intended for animal consumption and those intended for human consumption. They face the same level of standards, but the actual products vary by intended consumer. For instance, a strain of GM corn called Starlink containing a pest-repelling protein, Cry9C, is intended only for animal consumption and is not sold directly to consumers because of a increased likelihood of Cry9C allergic reactions in humans (Xu). Cattle do not face the same issues and are able to digest the protein normally. When some of this GM corn was accidentally used to make corn tortillas, the tortillas were promptly recalled upon discovery (Xu).
Not only are consumer market GMOs not known to cause allergic reactions, the technology may actually be able to reduce the allergenicity of current highly allergenic foods like wheat, dairy, and more. A 2012 experiment reported that researchers were able to “suppress the enzyme responsible for making gluten in wheat, leading to a resulting GMO wheat with a 76.4% reduction of gluten in its seeds (Xu).” This provides yet another reason to end the anti-GMO propaganda and continue development of these organism.
Care for the environment plays a significant role in the minds of GMO critics. Of course, it is important; many farmers and consumers alike have a concern for the environment. Due to this concern, one science-backed argument against growing genetically modified foods is the theory that because the some of the crops are modified to be herbicide resistant, farmers are applying more herbicides than before which causes extra chemical pollution. The increased use of herbicides is a true consequence of the GM crops (Hsaio). Because they are able to resist more, farmers use more to keep better control of invasive plants. However, there are tradeoffs that make the herbicide increase less daunting. First, there is the obvious benefit of having large, healthy crops of food that grew without interference and crowding from weeds. Second, GM crops are not only herbicide resistant, they are also pest resistant. That feature reduces the amount or or eliminates the pesticide that needs to be used, offsetting the increase in herbicide (Hsaio).
One final concern about the scientific nature of genetically modified organisms is the risk of cross pollination. Cross pollination affects both non-modified and other modified crops. Non-GMO farmers do not want their crops contaminated by nearby modified crops, while GMO farmers do not want their approved for export crops to be contaminated by others that are not approved for export (Thomison and Allen). The Agriculture Department at Ohio State University researched pollen movement and proposed three methods to avoid significant cross pollination: “Isolation and Border Rows
If run out of room, go back and specify benefits of different GMO crops. And add in some transition paragraphs
I have placed the feasibility section of the paper directly after the policy suggestion instead of the place you suggested in the outline. If you'd like me to move it back, I'm happy too, I just thought it made more sense there.
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