Food for Thought on GMOs

GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods
Sheldon Krimsky
The MIT Press, 2019, 216 pages

In the 1990s, biologists developed the Flavr Savr tomato: a tastier, juicier, and longer-lasting version of a natural tomato, and the first whole-food product developed through biotechnology. It lasted only three years on the market. But to bioethicist Sheldon Krimsky, the Flavr Savr represents a turning point in American agriculture. It was one of the “product pioneers of a new biotechnology agricultural sector,” says Krimsky, a sector that now defines our industrial food system, for all its benefits, and despite all its flaws.

photo of corn field
The scientific community agrees that genetic engineering produces unintended phenotypic outcomes, but isn’t sure how often or how harmful these are. Still, more than 90 percent of US soy, corn, and cotton is genetically modified. Photo by SungKyong Un.

In his new book GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods, Krimsky looks at the Flavr Savr tomato and other examples of food biotechnology and finds, unsurprisingly, controversy. The debate over whether GMOs are good or bad, he says, is prone to “falsehoods, exaggerations, assumptions, fear-mongering, and uncertainties in the claims found on multiple sides of the issue.” By separating the science from the politics, Krimsky aims to clear the air on genetically modified foods. Are GMOs safe? Are they beneficial? What are the health and ecological risks? And why the controversy?

Following a framework he calls “organized skepticism,” Krimsky presents the extensive scientific literature behind different aspects of GMOs, shedding light on the grey areas without pushing evidence into black or white. “The approach I have chosen will succeed if it allows the readers to understand why there remains disagreement about the health, environmental, political, and social impacts of GMOs,” he writes in his introduction.

To achieve that goal, Krimsky starts from the beginning. Agriculture by definition is a process of human control of nature. The earliest farmers bred plants by selection, guided by desirable traits like disease resistance, fruit size, color, and taste. They discovered the best genetic variants for their farms’ unique environments.

But like any other technology, agriculture advanced. Farmers sought efficiency and dependability, starting first with naturally occurring methods like hybridization before eventually bridging the gap between the farm and the lab. Krimsky traces this scientific history from start to finish, offering his readers detailed definitions of various traditional and molecular breeding methods, as well as processes of risk assessment and government approval for each method.

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GMOs Decoded is no light read. Chapters are densely packed, albeit digestible, with Krimsky’s research. Readers may not find it to be a cover-to-cover nail-biter, but at the very least, it belongs on the shelf as a reference guide.

Throughout his scientific survey, Krimsky offers two elucidating arguments. First, plant genomes are complicated. “The genome in which the foreign gene is placed acts more like an ecosystem than a Lego system,” he writes of the genetic modification process. The scientific community has largely approved GMOs as safe, but also agrees that genetic engineering can produce unintended phenotypic outcomes, which can be hazardous. The question is, how frequently and how harmful? The jury is out on that question, even though today more than 90 percent of US soy, corn, and cotton is genetically modified.

His second and arguably most assertive point comes late in the book, in the penultimate chapter. “Science shapes society, and society shapes science,” he writes, meaning that GMOs don’t exist in a vacuum. Beyond the scientific questions surrounding genetically modified foods lie social ones. For instance: Even if the Flavr Savr tomato was tastier and longer lasting with absolutely no unintended hazards, for what kind of biotech food regime did it pave the way?

“GMO skeptics are as suspicious of corporate power as they are of the health and safety of the transgenic crops,” writes Krimsky. “For some agricultural communities, adopting GMOs means that they are buying into a new corporate-centric food system where farmers become serfs to the seed producers and the patent-holding companies.” Should we be arguing over GMOs themselves or the systems in place around them?

GMOs Decoded defines the terms, presents the literature, and calls for a deeper understanding from all sides of the debate — recognizing that, like the plant genome itself, the GMO discussion exists in an ecosystem of countless variables and innumerable unanswered scientific questions.

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