Is it possible to object to meat-eating but support the use of genetic engineering for food crops?

Most anti-industry activists would cry, ‘No!’ But I would argue that they’re dead wrong.

Those who’ve been faithful (or even occasional) visitors to this website know that I’ve made it one of my life’s missions to refute the anti-industry, pro-veggie lifestyle activists who’ve made careers out of slinging mud at livestock producers and meatpackers.

One of the ways to do that is by publicizing facts that puncture the meat-is-killing-people-and-the-planet argument that always seems to lead any discussion of diet and health among born-again believers in vegetarianism. Honestly, that doesn’t work too well when the issue for most veggies is emotional: Their focus is the “horrors” of animal abuse and environmental destruction which they attribute to “industrial” agriculture.

Another way to take the offensive is to promote the benefits of animal agriculture — economic opportunity for billions of people in the developing world, eco-benefits from scientific range management and the value of providing high-protein food products that enhance the human diet. Those positions are hard to refute, but like most politicians, activists are really good at simply ignoring data they don’t like.

Here’s a third way: Connect activists’ principles with industry activities in a way that can be framed as advancing the vegetarian cause. Let me share a great example of how that tactic works.

Ask 100 veggies who’ve sworn off the consumption of animal flesh, and 99 of them will express vehement opposition to genetic engineering. The other one will reply, “I don’t know.”

Raising cattle and growing GMO corn are pretty much the Siamese twins of issue management for the well-heeled strategists who manipulate millions of otherwise well-meaning consumers to embrace a vegetarian lifestyle. Both are the handiwork of Satan himself.

One way street

But here’s the question: If you believe the world must subsist on plants alone, wouldn’t it make sense to develop the most nutritious staple crops possible? If all animal foods are removed from humanity’s diet, obtaining adequate nutrition suddenly becomes a critical priority.

And that leads to a discussion about the world’s No. 1 vegetarian staple -- rice. As ubiquitous as it is among several billions of people in Asia and elsewhere, it’s not necessarily a source of complete nutrition.

“There are 100,000 varieties of rice in the world, and not a single one has any Vitamin A in the grain,” said Channapatna S. Prakash, a professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University and one of the world’s leading advocates of genetic engineering. He told the Voice of America during a Greenpeace-funded attack on rice research in the Philippines in 2014, “The only way you can add beta carotene [the precursor of vitamin A] in rice is through genetic engineering.”

A project underway in the Philippines and elsewhere aims to develop Golden Rice, which provides enhanced Vitamin A content that supports proper nutrition and could prevent the tens of thousands of cases of childhood blindness due to vitamin A deficiency that are experienced across the developing world every year.

If someone is opposed to consumption of animal foods for either ethical or dietary reasons, then they should support, not condemn, genetic engineering as a way to optimize the nutritional value of the world’s important plant foods — especially when there is no other way to do so.

Of course, it is extremely difficult to convince GMO haters that the scientific precision with which genetic engineering is done ought to be reassuring, not frightening. Without a basic understanding of genes and their functions in living organisms, most people can’t get past the Frankenfoods rhetoric designed to prey upon such ignorance.

But when the well-being of so many people is at stake, and the only solution is to apply our best science, shouldn’t the folks who believe so passionately that plants are the only thing humans should eat be leading the charge to make food crops as nutritionally beneficial as possible?

The answer, which few veggies can stomach, is yes — yes they should.

If you believe in vegetarianism, then you have tens of thousands of reasons to support genetic engineering.

Or else admit that you’re a hypocrite and fool.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.