A standout among the Brooklyn Food Book Fair‘s more agreeable events — a talk about the Midwest’s culinary identity, a conversation on social entrepreneurship — was a contentious panel discussion on genetically engineered foods, presented by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). Two scientists, a journalist, and an industry representative hashed out the finer points of what “GMO” actually means, how genetic tinkering with crops might impact ecosystems, and ways to better inform consumers about the origins of their food. But what became clear from the discussion, held before a mostly young and left-leaning audience, is that the controversy over GMOs is about far more than fears of runaway technology, encompassing issues of poverty, politics, and food distribution.
Panel moderator and MOFAD founder Dave Arnold began by noting that though “the issue has been presented monolithically,” the world of GMOs is a highly complex one. Indeed, even the term “GMO” might refer to any number of genetic modifications, which can render crops more resistant to herbicides, pesticides, or diseases. Two of the panelists painted a relatively benign picture of GMOs; Amy Harmon, a science writer for the New York Times, defined the genetic modification of food as simply “moving DNA from one organism to another.” Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of the food and agriculture division of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, described it as “the newest way breeders are modifying plants,” which has been an agricultural practice for thousands of years.
This was met by skepticism from Dr. Margaret Mellon, a science policy consultant and Ph.D. in molecular biology, as well as Dr. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for the Consumers Union. Both claimed that GMOs are neither as successful in increasing crop yields, nor as unthreatening to ecosystems, as they have been portrayed. Hansen noted that the U.S. is the only developed country with no safety assessments required for GMOs, and called for more testing, as well as labeling. Enright countered that labels would play on public prejudice by suggesting GMOs are of lesser quality than traditionally cultivated foods.
Harmon and Enright both said that the use of genetic engineering in agriculture has the potential to address increasingly urgent issues of hunger. With the global population projected to grow by two billion by 2050, Enright said, gains in crop yields are essential to feeding the world. GMOs can combat serious malnutrition, Harmon suggested, citing an ongoing project to create “golden rice,” which will implant beta carotene into the crop in order to contend with Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.
Hansen disagreed, saying that biotechnology companies are motivated primarily by profit, not altruism — the main outcome of creating herbicide-resistant crops, for instance, has been to build larger markets for herbicides, he said. Besides, Hansen argued, increasing production doesn’t necessarily lead to more people being fed: The real obstacle to defeating hunger lies in poor food distribution. Mellon agreed that there are easier and cheaper ways of dealing with deficiencies.
This assertion was echoed by some audience members, who accused the biotechnology industry of being disingenuous in presenting problems of poverty and food insecurity as issues that can be resolved with engineering. “Is the fear,” Harmon asked, “that multinational corporations are controlling the food supply?” This was met with an overwhelmingly affirmative response from the audience.
There’s risk in inaction, too, Harmon said, and GMOs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Noting the crowd, Harmon called liberals’ fears of GMOs “the climate change denial of the left.”
Mellon refuted the comparison, noting that unlike climate change, the debate over GMOs is not purely scientific: There is also a strong social component. This was clear from the arc of the discussion, which swiftly moved from hard data on crop yields and pesticide resistance to issues of global inequality and corporate control. The GMO debate, with its deeply human implications, is an inherently emotional one. Whether it’s possible to achieve consensus on GMOs’ merits and applications is uncertain at best, but meanwhile, biotechnology continues to surge forward.