It makes me feel like a bad liberal sometimes that I’m pro-GMO crops. My Facebook lately has been going crazy with links and images and impassioned posts about the evils of GMO crops. According to the FDA, 88 percent, 94 percent, and 93 percent of all corn, cotton, and soybeans, respectively, planted in the US in 2012 were GMO. And I think that’s great. But I also think that a lot of people are still relatively in the dark on the science behind them and what makes certain crops worthy of the GMO title at all.
GMO crops are ones that have been genetically engineered. For instance, RoundUp Ready crops have been engineered to be resistant to glyphosate (brand name RoundUp), which inhibits a necessary enzyme in plants. This enzyme has been subbed out in RoundUp Ready crops for a glyphosate-resistant one so that farmers can treat their crops with glyphosate to kill only weeds, not crops.
Golden Rice is a GMO crop that was engineered to produce higher levels of vitamin A, under the reasoning that vitamin A-supplemented rice would be useful in Asian countries where rice is a dietary staple but vitamin A deficiency is common. Once again, by swapping out a few key enzymes in rice for ones from other plants, scientists were able to improve the nutritional value of plain rice.
A final example are the infamous Bt crops, which express a crystalline protein from Bacillus thuringeniensis (Bt). The protein is toxic to insects but not humans due to differences in our guts. Humans have acidic digestive tracts while insects rely on an alkaline digestive tract. The toxic protein that Bt crops express is only active when exposed to alkaline conditions, which means that our guts don’t activate it; it passes through us benignly. Bt crops have gotten a bad rep as toxic, but have been scientifically proven to be harmless to humans.
GMO crops are an amazing technology and an essential component of our future if we expect to support the nutritional needs of a growing global population. I honestly believe, as a scientist and food enthusiast, that GMO crops are safe. But a huge part of that statement is the “scientist” component: I have access to a lot of the primary source materials surrounding GMO crops, and, importantly, I have the scientific literacy to interpret them. Most Americans do not, and it’s difficult to provide good, quality information to the public given the spectrum of data and the current politics surrounding GMO crops.
The United States does not currently require labeling of GMO crops. The infrastructure in place to get a GMO crop approved in America is time-consuming and expensive. It’s designed to ensure health stringency, but instead favors a few large corporations that can afford both the wait and the cost. These corporations end up having disproportionate power in the market. All of this adds up to something that looks like a lot of secrecy and corruption to the average American. And maybe looks are deceiving, or maybe they’re not. But whether or not GMO crops are our saviors or a slow and silent killer, there needs to be more transparency from the companies that engineer our crops. There must be better regulations on the part of the government to ensure that Americans are getting the information they need and deserve from these companies. This way, Americans can make educated decisions about what they’re eating that aren’t based in either ignorance or fear.