Genetic engineering is one of the most hotly debated topics on the global agenda. Here in the UK, the Tory government’s gung-ho push to introduce GM food has reawakened concerns about its safety and renewed public discussions on the topic. In the States, the overturning of Prop 37 in California in 2012, which required labelling of all food with GMOs, has led 26 other states to get labelling initiatives on their ballots.

The division between people who think GM is a vital technology for the 21st century and those who think it should be banned (or at least labelled) is pretty vast. The polarisation of positions means there is very little middle ground between them. You are either for or against. The onslaught of mis-information from both sides has further made it difficult to really understand the issues at stake. Without this informed understanding, the debate has largely become a free-for-all of name calling and accusation, increasing public mistrust in the technology.

This past summer, The Grist columnist Nathanael Johnson took on the GM debate and in a series of blogs, attempted to pick apart its pros and cons and make some sense out it, in order to form a fair and informed position.

He starts by asking ‘Where do we begin?’ At the centre of pro- and anti-GM positions is the question of whether GMOs are safe for human consumption? Johnson takes a stance that has angered many who are against GMO and says, unequivocally, that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe for humans. He further points out that humans have been eating genetically modified food for twenty years and there’s been no obvious impact from them.

In the big picture, he’s right. GMOs are not acutely dangerous. But whether they might be affecting our health in subtler ways is still up for debate. While there is no conclusive evidence of the danger of GMOs, some studies, albeit controversial ones, have found inconclusive indicators that GMOs may affect health. There is certainly more research to be done to build a wider consensus on the matter. The public remains wholly unconvinced and consequently mistrusting of safety trials done by biotech companies with vested interests. Johnson post on ‘The GM Safety Dance’ looks in depth at what companies are asked to do ‘voluntarily’ to ensure the safety of their product and points out that it’s not as bad as we think.

Johnson also explores the idea that genetic engineering is an extension of traditional plant breeding, asking ‘Is this process simply a minor extension of plant-breeding techniques? Or is there a way in which genetic engineering represents a fundamental discontinuity with the age-old practice of farmers selecting seeds?’ It’s a good question to ask and an important relationship to understand. Traditional plant-breeding also includes irradiating plants and dousing them with chemicals to see if any useful mutations appear, so it’s not always organic in its approach even when it’s labelled ‘organic.’ Johnson is unconvinced that genetic engineering is radically different from traditional plant breeding except in the ability of genetic engineering to bring the genes of radically different organisms together. He makes the point that there is risk involved in both, but also that that risk is not significant and it can (to a greater or lesser extent) be managed.

What Johnson does point out, with a brilliant little clip of Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference on the Iraq war, is the issue of ‘unknown unknowns.’ Genetic engineering is a new area of exploration; it’s complicated and we haven’t been working with it that long. We have a certain amount of knowledge about it. But, there is a lot we don’t know yet, and more concerning, is that in many cases we don’t even know about things that may be important and impactful and are as yet unknown. There are questions we may not know we need to ask, to understand it better; things we should be looking for, that we don’t know are there. It’s a bit like the astrophysics of space, filled with strange things we’ve never encountered and with extremely complex relationships between them. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of our knowledge of how it works. Genetic engineering isn’t something to think we understand.

It can start to feel as you read through the blogs that Johnson is building a pro-GMO position. However, he’s really staying true to his journalistic ethos. Good journalism shouldn’t shelter or privilege certain facts over others (though it often, inevitably, does). It should attempt to lay out what information and informed opinion there is on a subject and allow its audience to make their own decisions. In the case of a blog, which is a form of editorial journalism, a position may be mapped for the individual writer, which Johnson gently does. He’s not particularly bothered by the health and safety concerns of GMOs. He’s more concerned with the socio-economic and environmental impacts of genetic engineering.

The series is ongoing at the moment and his latest posts have moved on to broader issues than GMO safety. In ‘Is extremism in defence of GM food a vice?’, Johnson questions whether the devastating attacks on scientists whose research didn’t tow the pro-GMO line, has actually damaged public trust of the technology. Conspiracy theories abound in the anti-GMO lobby, no doubt fed by seeing researchers tarred and feathered for daring to have research that indicates GMOs may be problematic. These incidents, because of the extremity of the reactions, has made it seem that biotech firms are suppressing anything that contradicts the golden picture they paint of genetic engineering. They are their own worst enemy in this respect, and Johnson makes the point well.

Johnson’s most recent blog post, subtitled ‘Following the money on GMOs’ asks who has benefitted, financially, from GMOs. Moving away from the extensive discussions with GMO scientists for and against the technology, Johnson looks at a range of economic research on whether GMOs offer a win-win pay-off, or a win-lose one, with biotech taking away the prize. The picture is not as black and white as you might expect. The money’s not just all gone to the bio-tech companies; large-scale industrial farmers have seen their profits increase. However, as you move down the scale of production, the dividends become smaller and they draw farmer’s into a deeply problematic cycle of dependence. Consumers might be getting marginally cheaper food. So while the picture is grayer, it’s still benefitting big business rather than small, and that means there are fewer beneficiaries rather than many.

Next Johnson is on to environmental questions. Is genetic engineering helping farmer’s use less pesticides? With the chemical industry booming, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

Photograph by United Soybean Board

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