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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

GOZUN: Bans on GMOs need more biological evidence

gozun colorDespite being 4,000 miles away for college, I still like to keep up with what is going on in my home state of Hawaii. On Tuesday, a judge approved a measure that would allow voters in Maui County, which consists of the islands of Lanai, Molokai and Maui , to vote on a measure prohibiting “the cultivation or reproduction of genetically engineered organisms within the County,” until an environmental and public health study is carried out. The County Council will later be able to overturn the law should these studies find that “genetically engineered organisms” do not have negative effects on society and the environment.

Maui voters will choose in November whether or not to ban genetically modified organism farming on their islands. There are two side-by-side narratives in this story. The first sees people protecting the land from greedy corporations like Monsanto, who seek to exploit and destroy the “aina” (Hawaiian for “land”) for profit. Advocates have already found some success with partial GMO bans on the Big Island and Kauai.

The other narrative sees the fight as one between small farmers who rely on GMO crops for their livelihoods and out-of-touch environmental activists. They point to the papaya industry, which was ravaged by the ringspot virus in the 1990s, causing the state’s production to halve until new virus resistant breeds, developed via genetic engineering, were introduced. A ban on GMO farming would likely lead to many farmers shutting down or making costly adjustments to stay in business. Should another epidemic hit the island, entire harvests now composed of non-virally resistant crops could be entirely lost.

On the other hand, the island would be free of GMOs and those evil corporations.

While companies like Monsanto have their issues (such as copyrighting their seeds and claiming infringement should another farmer’s crops accidentally cross-pollinate with theirs), supporting a widespread GMO ban requires one to accept the premise that GMOs are inherently bad. However, such conclusions are based on a combination of a misunderstanding of science and environmental idealism.

Contrary to what some think, humans have been carrying out genetic engineering for as long as agriculture has existed. By selectively controlling which plants (or animals) crossed with each other, humans have been able to ensure that certain desirable traits were carried into future harvests. Broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce and Brussels sprouts are not vegetables that can be found in the wild. In fact, they are all variants of the same species, Brassica oleracea, differentiated through artificial selection to emphasize certain traits of that wild plant that farmers found desirable.

Traits in organisms are, of course, controlled by genes. Today’s genetically modified organisms are created by splicing genes that code for favorable traits, such as increased fruit production or viral resistance, and inserting them into the genome of the desired plant. This can be done naturally, but would require years and years of breeding due to the haphazard process through which genes are handed down every generation. The process used today simply cuts a few steps.

And despite the claims of some activists, most peer-reviewed studies on the subject have found GMO foods to have little to no effect on human health. A recent report summarized 24 studies that followed the effects of genetically modified feed on animal health, and all 24 studies found  the nutritional values of GMO and non-GMO foods equal. Like vaccines, the argument against GMO foods has been increasingly based more on emotion than evidence.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the “Green Revolution” made use of new agricultural techniques such as hybridized crops, fertilizers and pesticides to grow more food than ever before. Thanks to these scientific techniques, food today is more abundant, secure and affordable for people worldwide. According to some, these techniques have saved more than a billion lives from starvation. With hunger still an issue for millions around the world, it makes little sense to ban technology that could help lower that number–unless, of course, one thinks everyone can afford to go to Trader Joe’s for organic produce every weekend.

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