GMOs for Thought

— Written By

After plenty of study, safety worries haven’t surfaced, but big promises remain unfulfilled
BY RACHEL EHRENBERG 12:00 p.m., JANUARY 29, 2016

Arriving home after work a few summers ago, agricultural economist Matin Qaim found several disturbing messages on his home phone. A study by Qaim had shown that small-scale farmers in India who grew genetically modified cotton had larger harvests compared with conventional cotton growers. Those better yields resulted in greater profits for the mostly poor farmers and more disposable income to spend on basics like food and education.

Several media outlets had covered the results, which had been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But journalists weren’t the only people contacting Qaim about the research. “Don’t support this irresponsible destruction to the environment,” implored one caller on Qaim’s answering machine. “Think of your children, think of the world’s children,” a woman pleaded.

Qaim, of the University of Göttingen in Germany, has been studying the social and financial impacts of genetically modified organisms for years. Yet he is not blindly pro-GMO and his interpretation of his own study’s results was nuanced. The GM cotton planted by the farmers was Bt cotton, which contains genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium often used by organic farmers. Adding the Bt genes gives the cotton a built-in pesticide against the cotton bollworm, a scourge that can
decimate crops.

Among the farmers Qaim studied, those who switched to the Bt cotton lost fewer plants and saw their profits increase by 50 percent. But the adoption of Bt cotton in that part of India was relatively recent and the positive impacts wouldn’t necessarily last. Area bollworms might become resistant to Bt toxins, Qaim noted both in his paper and in interviews.

Such caveats didn’t matter to the hostile callers, Qaim says. He has learned to keep quiet about his work in his casual conversations with parents at his daughters’ school. In the heated debate over genetically modified organisms, there’s little room for nuance.

“We are in a world that’s painted black and white,” Qaim says. “In Europe in particular, people are deeply convinced that GM crops are bad for the world. If you say anything in favor of GM crops, you are talking in favor of evil.”

That designation of evil is one of the two prevailing narratives concerning genetically engineered foods. GMO opponents tell the story that “Franken” organisms are a new technology that poses known and unknowable dangers to human health, the environment and society at large. On the other side, proponents argue that GMOs are a harmless and necessary tool for saving a world threatened by over-population and a changing climate. The loudest voices on the proponent side are typically cast as shills for Big Agriculture (some of them are), while the loudest on the anti-GMO side are typically cast as fear-mongering luddites (some of them are).

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