Where Food Comes From

, Isabel Mittelstadt, 1 Comment

Though likely unbeknownst to many, much of the food sold in grocery stores today has been genetically altered. Three esteemed scientists in the genetically modified organism (GMO) arena spoke on a panel at the CATO Institute on June 4th, discussing the reasons why GMO foods can and should be the future of the world’s food supply.

Jon Entine, founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project, began the panel by describing the need for genetically modified food. “Global food security is a complex challenge,” he said. “We’ll need 70 to 100 percent more food by 2050 to match population growth.”

Entine, who uses his nonprofit organization to get the food technology conversation flowing, believes GMO food will be the key to securing an abundant food supply in a world with a growing population. “We are literally in crunch time and organic farming will simply not feed enough children,” he said. “One thing we know is that technology must play a central role.”

But despite the extensive research done to guarantee the safety of genetically altered food, many around the world still protest against the mixing of technology and crops, the three panelists said.

Activists, especially those in Europe where GMO foods are heavily restricted, “paint a scary picture of modern technology,” Entine said. “It’s portrayed as untested and risky.” And, American media organizations help to spread the unwarranted paranoia concerning genetically engineered food, Entine said.

One New York Times podcast describes the dangers of GMO crops but only references Europeans with no scientific backgrounds, he said. “[Because] what happens when you talk to scientists about this?” he asked. “We have every major scientific organization in the world that deals with these kinds of issues releasing statements about biotechnology and about its safety,” Entine said.

Genetic engineering, the inserting of specific genes into crops in order to maximize size, amount or nutritional value, is often criticized for not being natural, Kevin Folta added.

Folta, the current chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, reminded audiences that even without GMO foods, very few crops used around the world today remain natural.

“Humans have intervened in the breeding and growing up crops for 20,000 years,” he said. “None of our food actually comes from here – the original domestication of most crops comes from other places in the world – so none of these naturally belong here.”

And, other arguments made by anti-biotechnology activists have little merit as well. Often confusing correlation with causation, activists say “because allergies are increasing, because autism is increasing, because ADHD, asthma and a plethora of other conditions are increasing, it must be due to GMO foods,” Folta said.

“That kind of thinking is just flawed,” he added.

And perhaps the benefits of biotechnological crops are large enough to overlook the system’s unnatural characteristics, the panel’s third contributor said.

Karl Haro von Mogel, the co-founder of Biology Fortified Inc., explained that with biogenetic engineering, corn ears can be grown with more kernels, black bean plants can become resistant to harmful viruses, calcium levels of carrots can be increased and plants are able to absorb water more easily.

Haro von Mogel, who uses Biology Fortified to create an “a civil place on the internet where people can talk about this issue,” explained that not only can the quality of food increase – medicines and vaccines have developed from GMO foods as well.
Whether people decide to agree or disagree with GMO foods, all three panelists urged audiences to look at the scientific data before making a decision.

“Whether it’s policy or whether it’s what your own personal beliefs are, don’t make a decision based on fear,” Folta said. “You make it on evidence. You make it using science. Fear is everywhere and it’s pervasive in the anti-biotech movement.”

Isabel Mittelstadt is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Academia and its sister organization, Accuracy in Media.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.