To modify genetically or not to modify genetically; that seems to the big question these days.

To be perfectly honest; I began researching this article with a clear stance on how I felt about GMOs. I was against them. I began by reading articles that backed up and supported my stance. I read countless Facebook campaigns trying to have GMOs labelled on packaging or even banned outright. The common catchphrase I saw for the rejection of GMOs was “until they are proven safe”. But then something twigged. Article after article I read on the subject repeated the same claims over and over, yet with very little proof to back them up, and what proof there was listed could only be described as spurious at most. Not that there weren’t a few gems in there with legitimate science, but these were sadly few and far between.

For example, there were many comments about a recent study which suggested that rats fed GM corn over their lifetime (2 years) grew horrifying tumours and 70% of the females died earlier than their life expectancy.

At first, like everyone else, I thought “this is it!” Proof positive of what I thought I already knew, but looking into further, I found this article (backed up by this one) which points out that the researchers refused to allow reporters to seek outside comment on the paper prior to it being published. Why would they do that unless they were expecting backlash? Admittedly, said backlash they were trying to side-step could come from the big corporations’ own scientists who would, no doubt, pepper the study with criticism and “pro-GMO rhetoric”, which is fair enough. The issue here, as these other bloggers suggest, is that for any scientific study to be taken seriously, it needs to be opened up to scrutiny from all sides. That’s part of the peer review process, and not doing so reeks of dubiousness.

Apparently there are other issues with the study, such as the specific breed of rats used, the albino Sprague-Dawley. It’s been said that these rats are prone to developing tumours spontaneously, in fact, many tumour and cancer researchers use these rats for that very reason.

[Interesting aside: I noticed that quite a few people who are dead-set anti-GM are also supporters of animal rights etc, yet I’ve not seen a single complaint about testing GMOs on rats.]

More research led to another study – actually a study on studies –  which found “no sign of toxicity in analyzed parameters […] in long-term studies” and “no sign of toxicity in parameters […] in multigenerational studies”.

So where does that leave me and my anti-GM stance? On shaky ground, that’s where. I thought this was going to be clear cut, but the more I read on the matter, the less convinced I am that GMOs are bad.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still against big corporations modifying food crops simply to make more money without concern for the environment (or the farmers who chose not to grow GM crops, yet are prosecuted by big corporations when their crops are accidentally cross-pollinated). Not to mention that the very idea of patenting seeds is abhorrent to me, but then again this idea is not new and isn’t limited to GMOs. It’s been happening with hybrid seeds for decades.

There is, howeveranother side to this issue; modifying food to improve human health.

For example, globally there is a huge deficiency in basic nutrition, especially Vitamin A – in fact approximately 250 million pre-school aged children are Vitamin A Deficient (VAD). Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s population. It seemed logical to Professors Peter Beyer and Ingo Portrykus to put two and two together and developed a type of rice that produces β-carotene in the grain, which the body converts into Vitamin A.

The nice part about this story is that there’s no patent on the grain. The farmers who need it most are the ones who can least afford it, so Prof Beyer and Portyrkus have made the grain “available for humanitarian use in developing countries, free of charge” [emphasis mine]. You’d think this would solve the problem, but alas, as with any GMO issue, controversy followed close behind. They’re still trying to get the rice to the people who need it.

But what really changed my opinion on GMO, was a speech by Mark Lynas, addressing the Oxfam Farmers Conference in January of this year. He opened with these words:

 “My lords, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start with some apologies, which I believe are most appropriate to this audience. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

You see, back in the ’90s, Mark was part of  an anarchist, anti-capitalist environmental movement. He was a co-founder of the magazine Corporate Watch who’d written the first article about the evils of GMOs and Monsanto. He and his cohorts would sneak into farmer’s fields at night and destroy the GM crops. He was that passionate about it he was willing to become a criminal. Mark is still an impassioned environmentalist and writes for the UK newspaper The Guardian on climate change, only now, he’s changed his tune completely on GMOs. I urge you, whether you’re pro-GM or anti-GM, to go read or watch that speech. It’s an eye opener.

My favourite line from the whole speech is this:

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”

Break it down even further and you get “I did some reading and I discovered”. Words I live by.

So my conclusion from all this? The technology itself is pretty damn amazing, but the political and ethical issues surrounding it are very murky. The bottom line, for me at least, is that governments should fund more research into it. This will stop big corporations having such a monopoly on it and uses could be found for things other than greedy profits. Genetic engineering has the capability of delivering so much good in the world and so we shouldn’t lump it all into a single ‘it’s all bad’ box.

What do you think?