Anna Sumi, George Washington University
A few weekends ago I made the four-hour drive from my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin to Northfield, Minnesota to visit my best friend. As I drove mindlessly past the cornfields of anywhere-that’s-not-a-city, Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River, I didn’t even pause to think about the passing scenery. It wasn’t until the sky began to darken, and I passed a large building that I really noticed my surroundings: the building I passed was clearly labeled Monsanto.
I think a lot of the confusion over GMOs comes from a lack of understanding within the public. My view of GMOs was marred by years of science fiction tales and growing up in a hippie town. Part of my hesitation came from the idea of big food companies messing with my food. When I thought of GMOs and gene modification, I used to picture something like the rasquat Jackson created in the first season of “Gilmore Girls,” a cross between a raspberry and kumquat. Over the past year the ‘dangers’ of Genetically Modified Organisms have practically been shoved down my throat, so much so, there’s even a game that simulates a bunny killing “mutant” GMO crops. Not only are GMOs all over, so are warnings about the evil that is Monsanto. Yet I still felt like I didn’t have any factual knowledge on what GMO actually means.
When I finally took the time to research and understand exactly what it means for a crop to be genetically modified, the idea became a little less scary.
People have practiced the modification of plants for thousands of years—thousands! Foods with genetically modified organisms have been around for over 20 years.
More traditional modifications of plants, through selective breeding, can result in new plants, such as Jackson’s rasquat. Genetically modifying organisms does not create a new, freak plant but aims to take an advantageous trait from the gene of one plant and implant it to the gene of another, generally making the modified plant better suited for growing.
Why would anyone think of that as a bad thing? There is no evidence of health risks from GMO foods. The potential of GMOs includes increased yields of crops, in a time when nearly a fourth of Americans have trouble getting food on their tables. Why wouldn’t we make it easier to feed people?
Watch: Researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center are studying how tomato plants endure drought conditions. This research may help develop crop strains that can survive the extreme conditions that could become common as our planet’s climate shifts.
So can we really afford to dismiss this technology? As a planet, we need to accept the reality of the future; we will reach 9-10 billion people by 2050, and we will need to feed them. If GMOs will help us effectively do that, then it would be a shame to cast aside this technology based on negative public opinion.
What changed my mind? The truth—what Genetically Modified Organism truly means, and the goals of modifying the genes: increased crops. This doesn’t seem like the end of the world to me. In fact it could prove to be extremely beneficial to the growing population. When I see a world with people struggling to feed themselves, and the predictions of a huge population by 2050, I think it would be ridiculous to completely dismiss this technology.
I believe we should take each of these cases of GMOs on a case-by-case basis. We have to accept that agriculture is going to have to change if we are going to feed the growing population. Maybe GMOs can help make it a bit easier.
Read how genetically modified food prevented a food crisis, and how scientists are working to prevent similar crises, in the October issue of National Geographic magazine.