Many Americans are surprised to hear that about 60 percent of the foods on grocery store shelves contains genetically modified ingredients (most from GM corn and soybeans). Responses to the news tend to be negative; even now that we’re eating them, the idea of GM foods can cause some alarm.
According to Nina Fedoroff, science and technology advisor to the U.S. secretary of state and author of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods, we can relax. As she recently told the New York Times, “There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution. Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.
“In the last century, as we learned more about genes, we were able to devise ways of accelerating evolution. So a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop. That’s how plant breeding was done in the 20th century. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.”
But critics point out it’s that very difference that creates uncertainty about the effects of GM foods: While conventional breeding operates either within one species or between closely related species, GM crops can bring in genes from completely unrelated species, even from a virus. Not all the effects of such modifications are (or could ever be) tested, so little is known about what consequences GM crops could have in the long term on the environment or people.
Proponents like Fedoroff point to GM foods as part of the solution to our upcoming food production requirements: According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, food production needs to double in less than 50 years. There’s no way to do that with our current methods, unless we press a great deal more land into agricultural production. In short, we need to find ways to increase productivity.
As Fedoroff told the Times, “We’ve gotten so good at growing food that we’ve gone, in a few generations, from nearly half of Americans living on farms to 2 percent. We no longer think about how the wonderful things in the grocery store got there, and we’d like to go back to what we think is a more natural way. But I’m afraid we can’t, in part, because there are just too many of us in this world. If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth’s current population — maybe half.”
Yet currently, the priority of most genetic modifications has not been increasing crop yields (some even say that unmodified strains have higher yields); instead, greater emphasis has been given to making the crops resistant to pests or herbicides.
In agriculture, we can’t go backwards, at least on a large scale. It seems inescapable that technology will play a crucial role in agriculture’s future. GM foods are already part of that in this country. The question is what role they’ll play in helping produce safe, healthy food on the scale we need.