Genetic meddling is nothing new

Two Steps Forward

UC Berkeley has been on the forefront of genetic engineering research since the subject’s birth. Our university, known as both a scientific powerhouse and a moral anchor, has produced much scholarship and innovation on the subject, including, more recently, both support for and opposition to Proposition 37, the failed 2012 ballot measure that would have required many companies to label any genetically modified foods they sold. Professor Michael Pollan, esteemed author of works such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” has been published in the New York Times in favor of the proposition, while professor David Zilberman has written extensively about why he thinks it’s a bad idea.

The debate over GMO labeling is only one piece of a much larger issue, but it’s the piece most in the public eye at the moment. Much of the media’s coverage focuses on labeling at the expense of any other aspects of genetic modification, resulting in widespread support for labeling initiatives. Capitalizing on this trend, the makers of products such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Clif Bar, and Honest Tea have taken steps against GMO ingredients — though, as always, the situation is more complicated than it seems. Ben & Jerry’s supports labels but is owned by the anti-labeling company Unilever; Honest Tea is owned by Coca-Cola, which is a major supporter of genetic modification. This is a symptom of the larger issue: that of misinformation and media fear-mongering.The public, as a whole, is very poorly educated in the matter of GMOs.

Many hold the assumption that genetically modified food is a corporate money-saving scheme, a way to leach the nutrients out of our fruits and grow inferior crops to make a quick buck — an opinion bolstered by years of back-and-forth in the media and dedicated smear campaigns from both sides. In fact, independent organizations the world over have published research saying that while we don’t see the whole picture yet, what we do see is fairly benign. The World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Union and 1,783 other independent groups have all come to similar conclusions: Genetic modification of food is safe, but we don’t know everything about it yet, and we have to keep a close eye on it. The precautionary principle is, as always, advisable; that does not mean we should blacklist everything that casts a shadow.

Unfortunately, this balanced and reasonable view is seen by many as overly corporation-friendly. This is a good instinct: Corporations have shown over and over how willing they are to fund “research” regarding their products, and Monsanto is proving no less resourceful. Though I don’t doubt that some of the science in those reports is good, the fact is that Monsanto is a huge (and, by many accounts, evil) corporation, and this is what huge, evil corporations do best: eat whatever good comes of their creations and spin it back into the production cycle. Monsanto, knowing that genetically modified crops are not in themselves unhealthy, uses that scrap of goodness to cover up its less-wholesome facets.Several of its factories are so toxic they’ve been relegated to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund, the government initiative to “clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites,” it created Agent Orange, the pesticide mixture used to blind and incapacitate enemy soldiers during the Vietnam War, and, most famously, it is steadily creeping toward a seed monopoly, meaning farmers will have to pay exorbitant prices for plants whose seeds they can’t reuse and face lawsuits if they try.

Despite all this, it is a mistake to write off the concept of genetically modified crops because of the misconduct of Monsanto and companies like it. Humans have been genetic engineers for millennia — we domesticated wolves and bred crops for productivity long before anyone was even capable of understanding the idea of genetics. Gregor Mendel famously showed just how easy it is to select for traits in peas; from his research sprang a fountain of productive innovation that has not ceased to this day. County fair contests for largest pumpkin, dogs bred for a specific coat or snout, even picking an attractive spouse — all these are examples of humans’ abilities to engineer our environment. Genetically modifying our food is not a new concept — we’re just doing it in a new way.

What’s more, over the next decades genetically modified crops will become increasingly important for our survival. The number of human mouths is growing fast, and the amount of agricultural land to feed them is shrinking faster. In the near and far future, we will likely rely on such crops as blight-immune potatoes, pesticide-resistant corn and insect-repellent soybeans to produce the kind of yield we’ll need to sustain our burgeoning population. These revolutionary advances, and many like them, are the true benefit of genetic engineering — a far cry from the abominations most people associate with the phrase “genetically modified.”

There is a fine line to walk between supporting progress and despising its manufacturers — it’s true. That means we have to be even more careful not to obscure the good while rooting out the bad, lest we lose a hard-won advantage in our fight to remain alive, sustainable and productive.

Jacob Straus writes the Monday column on progressive issues.