What are the arguments against genetically modified crops?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 18 2010 7:10 AM

Seeds of Discontent

Should environmentalists just say no to GMOs?

(Continued from Page 1)

Sounds great, right? But if farmers rely on glyphosate as their only means of weed control, then those weeds might become immune to it—at which point farmers may wind up tilling more often, spraying more often, or treating their fields with additional chemicals. According to the NRC report, at least nine American weeds have developed the ability to survive glyphosate since the introduction of herbicide-resistant crops in the mid-1990s. But again, it's important to note that the problem of herbicide-tolerant weeds isn't unique to G.M. crops: It's a risk farmers run any time they rely too heavily on one form of weed management, whether the seeds are genetically engineered or conventionally bred.

What about consumers' concerns about the health risks posed by eating G.M. crops? Once more, blanket statements are hard to make. According to a 2004 report from the National Academies of Science, genetic engineering isn't an inherently risky process, nor does it pose any unique health issues for consumers. Any method used to create a novel food crop can cause unexpected changes in the final plant, which may in turn give rise to new allergens or toxins.

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The report did conclude that genetic engineering ismore likely to cause unexpected changes than most types of conventional breeding. At the same time, scientists' ability to determine whether changes in a plant's composition will lead to adverse health impacts remains limited. So far, there have been no confirmed health problems from the G.M. crops currently on the market—though critics also note that we don't have good, long-term epidemiological studies of subtle, chronic effects. But then again, that's true for all kinds of food products.

Unfortunately, there's no way to conclusively prove that a food, genetically engineered or otherwise, is 100 percent "safe." And the current regulatory framework around G.M. crops—a confusing hodgepodge of agencies, often hampered by a lack of independent research—isn't likely to inspire much confidence in those already inclined to be skeptical. But none of this means that G.M. food products are somehow categorically "unsafe" or that health concerns should earn them a blanket condemnation.

What should we make of all this? When it comes to genetically modified crops, each one should be considered on its own terms. For her part, the Lantern is intrigued by the many promising applications of genetic engineering. At the same time, she doesn't believe that it's some kind of magic bullet that will single-handedly solve all of the world's agricultural problems or food security issues. It may be that G.M. seeds play only a small role in rethinking our food systems. But so far, she doesn't see any reason to take them off the table entirely.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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