Monsanto chief technology officer Robert Fraley was awarded the World Food Prize (the agrarian equivalent of a Nobel Prize) for his technological contributions to food. In other words, for his work developing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). He won this prize because many people (including the illustrious Bill Gates) think that GMOs will end the world hunger problem. Then there are other people who think GMOs will just end the world.
First thing, we need to talk about what GMOs actually are. They’ve been around (technically speaking) since the first herder of animals paired his strongest and healthiest male animals with his strongest and healthiest female ones. Through selective breeding and hybridization, humans have been manipulating the genetics of domesticated organisms and crops for thousands of years. Even Jacob did it in biblical times to gain an economic advantage over his grasping father-in-law (Gen. 30:25ff). Technically speaking every ear of corn and grain of wheat in the entire U.S. has been genetically modified through selective hybridization. These are things proponents of GMOs will bring up. But there’s more to this story.
What Monsanto (among others) has been doing is a different thing than cross-pollination or selective breeding. They would like to talk like it is in the same category, but it really isn’t. What they are doing is gene splicing. In other words, they are manipulating the genetic material of an organism without using creation’s preferred method of genetic recombination. The argument from GMO proponents is that the natural method is slower (you have to wait for multiple generations to develop) and it isn’t possible to achieve some desirable characteristics through selective breeding and hybridization. GMO scientists have therefore experimented with gene splicing within the same species (called cisgenic recombination) and splicing genes from plants and animals that are not sexually compatible (called transgenic recombination).
Obviously, it has been the transgenic variety that has been most hotly contested, since people tend to be afraid that such an abberant tampering with nature could trigger an apocalyptic outbreak of mutant organisms. It is hard to know what impact such organisms could have on our health if they are introduced into our diets, and almost impossible to determine what impact such organisms will have on the future of our food supply should an unintended consequence be crop failure or disease a few unforeseeable years down the road. Many of the opponents of GMOs have less of a problem with cisgenic modification, since such changes could conceivably be achieved through the normal process of reproduction after a kind.
And of course, the companies responsible for producing genetically modified food can produce a slew of studies indicating that GMOs are not bad for you or for the world. The cigarette companies did the same thing, by the way. And for the same reason: money. Even Jacob did it for the money. And that is what the real problem here is. So that’s what we should really be focusing on.
I don’t know what GMOs will do for or against our food supply. I am wary of human tampering in ecological matters. If our previous attempts to “improve” on the ecological status quo are any indication, we should probably quit while we’re behind (rabbits and dingos in Australia, kudzu as a fix for soil erosion, etc.). But that is not really what worries me.
Monsanto got (somewhat) famous for being the first company to patent a living organism. They have also become the ugly face of big agriculture and crony capitalism. This is not about world hunger. It’s about money. And dirty money at that. I have no problem with pursuing the bottom line if the way to achieve a higher bottom line is to provide a better service. But Monsanto isn’t doing that. Most studies have shown that GMOs do not yield more crops than “normal” organisms. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. But GMOs are very effective at making more money for the companies that copyright them. Monsanto has a track record of suing family farms out of business. They have a track record of getting their lobbyists and former executives into places of political power. And they have used this power to make even more money and strong arm people in spite of the fact that their products are dubious at best and diabolical at worst. We need more research into GMOs for sure, but in the mean time, we need to excise the mutant corporations that are bleeding traditional farming dry, purportedly in the name of science and progress.