Genetically modified foods have been a worthy topic of debate for the past several years and California Proposition 37 on the ballot this coming election, the discussion has heated up.
Many of the arguments against GMO’s focus on the practical and ethical sides of “messing with nature.” Most people don’t have a degree in genetics and so the idea that science has reached a point of being able to tinker with the building blocks of life can make anyone nervous and wary. Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clark explains the tendency to view science as having malevolent underpinnings. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he wrote in his essay collection, “Profiles of the Future.”
Yet, scientific breakthroughs and discoveries are benign in nature, as are the developments in genetic modification. Politics and name-calling aside, understanding a bit more about how, and for what purpose genes are modified can lead to a perspective that will clear away the fog of “dark magic” from scientific ideas.
For example, a popular tuber cassava is a great source of carbohydrates, but lacks pretty much everything else in terms of protein, fat and vitamins. It is, however, a very hearty plant which can grow in poor soil and requires little water.
Claude Fauquet of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo. has found a way, using bean and corn genes, to boost the protein and vitamin content in a species of cassava. According to Fauquet, this could save, “…one in four African children from a potentially fatal condition.”
Developing nutrient-rich plants is just one of many positive applications of GMO’s, along with built-in resistances to severe climate, disease and pests. However, many big agribusinesses have stirred up much controversy due to a lack of oversight over GMOs and the bullying tactics that have been employed against smaller farmers. To give a Mr. Hyde perspective, a certain agribusiness has developed seed strains that, when the plant is fully mature, will not produce seeds, thereby forcing other farmers to continually buy seeds from them. GMOs are still relatively new to the world stage and, like many emerging scientific breakthroughs in the past, they too have been subject to profiteering and questionable business practices in recent years. By having at least a semblance of regulation for powerful new sciences, we can keep those who would exploit them from running rampant in an already loosely-restricted area.
Prop. 37 may be key in ensuring that businesses are held to a high standard of ethical accountability. Think of this: GMO labeling will enable consumers to question from whom the food is coming from, and in turn they will be given the option to choose which businesses to support. If people see “GMO” on a box of cereal and decide not to buy it, big agribusinesses will be forced to assess why their products aren’t selling. Agribusinesses may discover that people in general like to be informed, and hate to be deceived.
Prop. 37 can provide California with a double-edged sword, both to inform the public and be able to effectively fight back against corruption and misinformation. New strains could be developed that would provide enough food for everyone worldwide, as well as lessen the already heavy environmental impact by modern agriculture. Prop. 37 may be an essential first step toward a brighter, healthier, and more informed public in the future.