In defense of genetically modified (GM) foods, Nina V. Fedoroff – a professor of biology at Penn State and the former science and technology adviser to the secretary of state – has penned a fascinating look at the benefits of GM in The New York Times. She reminds readers that GM doesn’t mean people are eating filet of Frankenstein, but it has demonstrated huge benefits for both human and planetary health.
Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.
Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
The last point is particularly noteworthy because these big companies are so often the target of activism. They were a major source of hyperventilation in the documentary Food, Inc. and a favorite punching bag of the green fringe like Greenpeace, despite the vast potential that biotech holds for solving world hunger. Yet if the most ardent activists could admit to that much, the “regulatory thicket” would perhaps be more easily navigable for scientists who could put their energy toward finding real solutions to such major problems.