A few weeks back, I wrote about a new approach to talking about what we do to others not in the industry, particularly those who question the safety and honesty of our work. When you run into that person at a dinner party, or in the airport, or during a Little League game, I encouraged you to simply be yourself and tell your good story. One article can’t quite contain all that I have to say about this though so I’m hoping you’ll humor me a second today and let me share a bit of my perspective about the GMO issue that seems to be some people’s favorite grenade to lob our way.
While GMO is the term that people prefer to run with—and go after as we outlaw GMOs (eh, Hawaii) and “earth-friendly” food companies market their products with “GMO-free” labels—it’s actually a bit of a misnomer considering the issue at hand. In truth, all crops are GMOs. The selective breeding we’ve used over centuries to domesticate crops is genetic modification in action. We’ve been genetically modifying our crops since the dawn of agriculture. Today’s corn in the product of ages (not decades, not even centuries, but ages) of selective breeding. Everyday common foods like bananas have been so carefully bred for characteristics that they are unrecognizable in relation to their banana ancestors. Kale wouldn’t even exist today except for selective breeding. The same can be said for papaya (ironically, Hawaii’s biggest cash crop).
Biotechnology is the more apt term for the thing that Hawaii wants to outlaw and that so many people want to avoid in their diets. Whereas selective breeding increases the chances that offspring will have certain desirable characteristics, biotechnology allows us to manipulate genes, giving us the power not simply to increase chances that offspring will have a certain desirable characteristic but to predict with certainty that they will.
Biotech’s bad rap seems to spring from the notion that it “unnatural” in a way that selective breeding is not. The thing is though that it’s not as unnatural as it seems. Many characteristics that we’ve advanced with biotechnology occur in nature, like BT resistance, for example. BT resistance exists naturally—biotechnical manipulation of genes simply ensures that a plant has the resistance.
Even with this reasoning though, people still take issue with the safety of crops genetically modified through biotechnology. In our age of bike helmets, car seats, sunscreen, etc, “safe” is clearly an important notion, and to those people concerned about the safety of biotechnology, I would first point to the 718 scientific studies that have all reached that very conclusion. But because I know that the science argument doesn’t go the distance with everyone, I’d also point right back to our bike helmets, car seats, sunscreen, etc. Just a generation ago, we used none of these things and considered ourselves very safe nonetheless. In just a few decades, our idea of safety has developed far beyond the idea we had of it in the 70s and 80s and that’s because our ability to sniff out the things/people/actions that aren’t safe is better than ever. A couple centuries ago, the only way to know if those berries were poisonous was to get somebody to eat them and see what happened. Today, we measure and model, we predict probability with algorithms and risk assessments. We take all we know of math, science, psychology, history—all of it—and bring it bear on the question of safety.
That’s the force behind those 718 studies. That’s the crucible biotechnology has survived to be deemed safe.
Very certainly, our metrics of safety will continue to improve—as they do, so will biotechnology, ensuring that our food source is consistently as safe as we can possibly measure. Will we ever be able to guarantee that something—anything—is 100% safe? I’d be lying if I said yes, but we have brought the entire weight of science and technology upon biotech and so far, it’s passing the test with flying colors.
Still people wonder why we have to mess with our food in the first place. They’d prefer traditional farming or organic. And that’s okay. I think that the answer to the world’s big food question includes these ways of practicing farming as well. But biotech is the only of these ways that confers one very large reward upon us: it allows us to grow more food on an ever-shrinking land mass, an ability that grows in importance with the explosion of the global population. With biotech, everyone can eat tomorrow and next week and so on.
And that’s a pretty fine reason to do what we do.