Does the debate about genetically modified food matter?

Sugarbeet field

Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson has been writing an excellent series of pieces on genetically engineered crops, called “Panic-free GMOs.” The series as a whole has been excellent, and that is not just my opinion. Keith Kloor, another journalist who has often waded in to the GMO debate, said of Johnson’s Grist series:

The overwhelming consensus judgement of science journalists is that Johnson has done a spectacular job of sifting through all the claims and counterclaims and the technical density of a complex field of science to render clear-headed assessments. And he’s done this while buffeted by the great sound and fury of the quarrelsome GMO debate. It really is an impressive feat.

Johnson has tackled many of the issues surrounding GMOs, and come to very reasonable conclusions on each. In what I assume is the final piece of his series on GMOs, though, he has come to a conclusion that I think very few people expected: None of it matters. Johnson makes some very apt observations in his piece that make his conclusion seem justified, at least at first. He recounts when his wife said to him “No offense, but who cares?” I can relate to this. If I had a nickel for each time my wife said that to me about this topic I’d have at least twenty five or thirty cents.

Johnson takes us through his thought process that allowed him to come to this unlikely conclusion. He imagines two polar opposite scenarios, one where opposition to GMOs ceases and the technology goes on, and another where use of GMOs completely ceases. He imagines that the end result of these two scenarios are basically the same. And you know what? He may be right. We might make enough advances in other areas of breeding that genetic modification through current means is unnecessary. And perhaps we will never really see any major breakthrough from genetic modification that transforms agriculture as we know it. These are very real possibilities that Johnson discusses.

Because of his reasonable approach to the GMO debate, I have come to trust him as someone who brings very little ideology to the discussion. When Johnson previously came to a conclusion that I initially didn’t agree with, I was forced to examine my own biases to see if my current position was adequately supported by data. Upon reflection, I have softened my stance on several GMO-related topics because of Johnson’s series. So when I read Johnson’s declaration that the GMO debate “doesn’t matter,” I tended to agree with him at first. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter.

But after re-reading his piece, and having some time to reflect on this idea, I think that he couldn’t be more wrong. I acknowledge that at a large scale, the idea that the future of agriculture will be similar with or without GMOs has merit. In discussing his piece on twitter, he said this:

I think he has a point. On a large scale, almost any single technology won’t have that great an impact. But when we look at agriculture on a large scale, we miss most of the details that make this technology, or any technology, valuable. What really made me start to think about this, was his comment about how farmers he had talked to felt about GMO crops:

My past experiences have been very different from Johnson’s. The farmers I’ve talked to about biotechnology derived crops could be described as many things, but “nonchalant” is certainly not one of them. Farmers are as diverse as any other group of people, and so one would certainly expect a diversity of opinions on any given topic, including this one. But how could our samples be so different? I don’t know all the farmers that Nathanael talked to, but the ones he names in his series are corn and soybean farmers. Which makes sense, because corn and soybean make up a vast majority of GMO acres in the US. But I think if Johnson had talked to some farmers growing some different GMO crops, he may have found a much more passionate group.

Johnson cites anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone for the idea that “each side of the debate has agreed to talk about GMOs as if “GMOs” are a single entity.” Although Johnson has gone to great lengths to avoid doing this throughout most of his series, I think to some extent, Johnson has fallen into the “GMOs as a single entity” trap in his latest piece. By viewing the GMO debate on such a coarse scale we inevitably lose sight of what makes the currently available GMO traits valuable, and also what risks they truly pose. While activist groups, scientists, and journalists yell past each other in this debate, the people who are actually using and benefiting from the technology are largely ignored. So too are the potential beneficiaries of the future.

“The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.” –Nathanael Johnson at Grist

The group of farmers I interact with most are sugarbeet growers. And sugarbeet growers have benefited a great deal from GMO technology. They have benefited financially, no doubt. But a year ago I also wrote about some of the social benefits of GMO sugarbeet, such as farmers being able to see more of their kids’ softball and baseball games. This technology has completely changed sugarbeet production in the US, and in doing so has changed the lives of sugarbeet growers for the better. Over the last several years, the “vicious public brawl over GMOs” threatened to take these significant gains away from sugarbeet farmers. The debate prevented some farmers in Colorado from taking advantage of these benefits for several years. And the debate was almost enough to force some sugarbeet growers in Wyoming and Montana off the farm completely. An article from the Powell Tribune in Wyoming (since removed, but archived here) explained:

Fate of Roundup Ready beets in judge’s hands

Written by Yancy Bonner – Thursday March 11, 2010

After an early-season freeze last fall crushed hopes for what could have been a record-setting sugar beet crop, area farmers now are hanging in limbo as they await a federal judge’s decision. Environmental groups, organic sugar beet growers and others have asked Judge Jeffrey White to prohibit the planting of Roundup Ready beets until the U.S. Department of Agriculture can reassess the environmental and economic impact of the genetically-modified plant. Roundup Ready beets were approved for planting in 2005.


Park County ranks No. 1 in sugar beet production in Wyoming. Last year, about 95 percent of the nation’s sugar beets were of the Roundup Ready variety — that percentage may be even higher in Wyoming. Farmers have long since ordered their Roundup Ready seed for this year. Now, as area farmers prepare to plant, the fate of this season’s crop rests in the hands of a California judge, who said on Friday he would take the request under advisement and issue a ruling shortly. While the economic impact of such a ruling is speculative, it’s clear that such an injunction would have dire consequences for local farmers — and to the area’s economy.


The injunction, if granted, could sound the death knell for many area farmers already reeling from the blow wrought by Mother Nature last fall. While the USDA needs to fully assess the safety of genetically-modified crops, including Roundup Ready beets, a blanket injunction at this point would have catastrophic effects on the sugar industry — and on the existence of family farms throughout the West.

Note the date on that article: March 11, 2010. Sugarbeet growers in Wyoming typically begin planting beets in early April. Three weeks before planting, these farmers didn’t even know if they would have seed to plant. And for those farmers who lost their 2009 crop due to weather, it could have very well meant financial ruin. I remember talking to sugarbeet growers during this time frame, and they were all very worried. And not just typical farmer worry; I mean genuinely concerned that their next farming decision might be when to hold the auction. The stakes in the GMO debate for these farmers during this time period were exceptionally high.

And the most frustrating part about the sugarbeet situation relates to Nathanael Johnson’s observation that the this debate was “the setting for a proxy war,” and not even necessarily about Roundup Ready sugarbeet. If the sugarbeet case were really about potential problems with Roundup Ready technology in sugarbeet, perhaps the situation would have been justified. But check out this excerpt from another Powell Tribune article from March, 2010 (also removed, but archived):

One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, organic seed grower Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., has expressed concern that genetically-modified pollen could cross with his crops. However, testing of his seeds over the past two years has not turned up any genetic contamination, a fact the USDA says shows that “there is no evidence that gene flow has occurred or is imminent or likely.”


However, the plaintiffs contend they don’t necessarily need to show direct environmental harm. “(B)ecause NEPA is a procedural statute, violations may be purely procedural, without any specific environmental consequences,” says a response brief. Further, they maintain the threat of contamination is harm enough. That no contamination has been detected in organic crops “is of little significance,” says the brief.

The Roundup Ready sugarbeet litigation is a perfect example of the “proxy war” that Johnson calls out in his article. So while Nathanael Johnson uses the GMO proxy war as support for his conclusion that the GMO debate doesn’t matter, I think this is the perfect example of why this debate does matter. The plaintiffs in the sugarbeet case (Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, and others) basically admit their case wasn’t really about any specific environmental consequences. They wanted an injunction that would remove the GMO crop completely from the market purely based on procedural grounds, the impact on farmers or consumers be damned. It didn’t matter to the anti-GMO activists that actual people could lose their livelihoods. All that mattered is whether or not they “won” this round of the proxy war. When your goal is to “halt the approval, commercialization and/or release of any new genetically engineered crops,” there is no room for a nuanced debate. There is no willingness to concede on any issue, no matter how strong the evidence.

Michael Eisen recently wrote that by saying the GMO debate doesn’t matter, Johnson “is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook” for allowing their ideology to trump evidence. Until this debate becomes more about evidence and less about ideology, there will be innocent people caught in the middle of the proxy war. Perhaps the stakes are low for the loudest voices in the GMO debate. But the stakes of this proxy war are much higher if you happen to be sugarbeet growers in Wyoming, papaya growers in Hawaii, or vitamin A deficient children in developing countries. And as long as they are caught in the middle, this debate matters.


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