CornGenetically modified organisms (GMOs) were introduced into commercial farming in 1996, and their effects are still being studied. Food journalist Michael Pollan and food advocate Anna Lappé examine the GMO issue.
What are GMO foods?

Michael Pollan: GMO foods come from crops that have been genetically engineered. Basically, a gene is taken from one species and put into another species to give that plant some quality, such as herbicide tolerance. For example, if you spray a field with herbicides, all the crops will survive and all the weeds will die. You can also genetically engineer insect resistance into a plant. Certain genetically modified corn can produce a toxin called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which poisons any bugs that try to eat it.

GMOs have been presented as an important breakthrough in helping to fight pests and limit pesticide use. They haven’t really had that effect, though. In fact, GMOs have led to more pesticide use, since the most popular products are these herbicide-resistant crops. The spraying of pesticides has multiplied.

Corn field sprayed with pesticidesWhat effect do GMOs have on farmers in developing nations?

Anna Lappé: Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been able to save seeds and plant them the next year. Because GMOs are based on seeds that are owned by companies, farmers are not legally permitted to save them from year to year. For many of the farmers I’ve met in the developing world, this is a huge concern. These farmers live year to year with barely enough to eek out a living, and they are now beholden to a company halfway around the world to buy their seeds.

Why are some people wary of GMOs?

Michael Pollan quoteMichael Pollan: GMOs present a certain unquantifiable risk, since there’s a lot we don’t know about these crops. They have not been extensively tested on eaters. They’re more lightly regulated than people realize. Supposedly, they offer farmers certain benefits, but they don’t offer consumers anything. The problem is, consumers don’t get much choice about eating GMOs, since the industry adamantly refuses to label their crops.

Anna Lappé: There are a range of concerns about GMOs from the scientific community, public health community, and the farming community. There are concerns about the effects of having fewer varieties of crops being grown on our food safety and food security, as well as a concern about what impact GMOs will have on farmers around the world.

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