GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree

A field of soybeans awaits harvest. Much of the soybean and corn crop in the United states is genetically modified to be herbicide- or pest-resistant. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
November 12, 2013

When it comes to genetically modified foods, you don’t have to look hard to find issues that supporters and opponents disagree on. After all, they’re supporters and opponents; they’re supposed to disagree. But does that mean they have to disagree about everything? 

It doesn’t, and they don’t. Although there’s scant common ground between those for and against, I figured it must be ground worth exploring if we’re ever to make any progress here.

I set out to explore it. I asked a dozen organizations across the ideological spectrum three questions about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs: 1) What are their three most significant benefits? 2) What are the three most significant problems? And 3) Where are you on the opinion spectrum? The point of that last was to provide context for their answers; a benefit coming from a supporter is to be expected, but a benefit coming from an opponent raises eyebrows.

I got fascinating, information-rich responses, and there was plenty of disagreement. But there were also three clear areas of near-universal accord, and, taken together, they offer some clue as to how to narrow the divide in the public discussion.

1. GMOs have contributed to the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant insects.

The two biggest uses for genetic modification have been to create crops that resist the herbicide glyphosate (used to control weeds) and crops that generate their own internal insecticide (Bt, widely used by both organic and conventional growers). Both of those traits are popular with farmers, and the vast majority of corn, soy and cotton grown in the United States has one or both of them. 

Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (which he rates as slightly supportive of GMOs), says: “Overuse and misuse have led to the resistant weeds and pests. You now have millions of acres of resistant weeds, and you’re beginning to see resistant pests, and farmers have to go to other insecticides and herbicides.” Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety (which “strongly opposes” GMOs), calls glyphosate resistance an “epidemic.” Cathy Enright, an executive vice president with the Biotechnology Industry Association (who describes her organization as strongly supportive of GMOs when it comes to health and food safety, and neutral with regard to “agronomics” issues), is just as blunt.  “We’re in the soup,” she says. “About 15 of the 215 weed species resistant to any herbicide are resistant to glyphosate.  We’re taking this challenge very seriously.” Kelly Clauss, a spokeswoman for Monsanto (who describes the company’s position as seeing GM traits as “one piece of the puzzle” but not the entire solution), echoes the concern: “Researchers and farmers must be aware of and take steps to reduce the likelihood of resistance developing.” 

Resistance happens with or without GMOs, and it’s all but inevitable for chemicals as popular and effective as glyphosate and Bt. Nevertheless, there’s broad agreement that the widespread adoption of the genetically modified crops in question has been part of the problem.

2. Most of the benefits of GMOs accrue to biotech firms and farmers, leaving little to balance consumers’ assessment of risks.

While there is some upside for consumers, like the availability of papayas that are resistant to the ringspot virus, most advantages accrue to food producers. Jaffe says the No. 1 benefit of genetic modification is that “it has helped farmers farm. It simplifies their weed control; it has increased some of their income. One of the most interesting benefits to farmers is that Bt corn has reduced pest populations so much that even farmers who aren’t using it are seeing decreased pest problems.”

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, mentions that farmers have seen some reduced labor costs and higher profits, and that some farm workers’ exposure to pesticides has been reduced. “There have been no consumer benefits to speak of,” he says. (Gurian-Sherman took issue with my last column’s characterization of his organization as “anti-­GMO” and clarifies that the group is “critical of the current engineered crops” but not opposed to genetic engineering per se.)

Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source (who characterizes her group’s position as opposing “any uncontained use of GM technology . . . including the cultivation of GMOs in open fields and their release into the human and animal food and feed chains”), follows the money upstream: “The benefits of GMOs accrue to a small but powerful group of seed/chemical companies and those who depend on their profits.” 

This issue is an important contributor to what the biotech industry’s Enright calls, in something of an understatement, a lack of consumer confidence. “Consumers feel like it’s been sprung on them,” she said. It’s not hard to see how that would make opponents angry.

3. We need to evaluate GMOs on a case-by-case basis.

Genetic modification is a tool, and any tool can be deployed for good or ill. The Union of Concerned Scientists was among several groups pointing that out, and Robin Shoen of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (which she characterizes as neutral) seconds their emphasis on the bright line between genetic modification as a technique and any specific GMO. “The biggest problem with GMOs is that they all get lumped together,” says Shoen, who directs the academy’s Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Each has a different characteristic, so each interacts with the environment differently.” Most of the problems attributed to GMOs are pegged to the traits that resist glyphosate and produce Bt, but other GMOs, both existing and in development, get tarred with the same brush.

At the feed-the-planet level, the GMO debate comes down to this: Proponents say GMOs provide security in the form of a dependable food supply in the face of climate change, and opponents say they increase our dependence on unsustainable, chemical-based agriculture. And if we look at Roundup Ready corn and soy, it’s easy to see the opponents’ point. But then there are the disease-resistant papayas and plums. There’s a pig whose manure contains less phosphorus, a substance that can cause environmental damage. There’s rice with beta-carotene. There’s an orange that’s resistant to citrus greening. There’s a grass with lower lignin levels, which cuts the methane produced by the cows that eat it. Each, of course, has to be evaluated for safety, but it’s obviously a list with benefits.

To shift the GMO discussion into a more constructive direction, perhaps we have to focus more on the O and less on the GM.

There is a Catch-22 in imagining a GM landscape more richly populated with clearly beneficial products. One of the objections to GMOs is that they put power, money and control of our food supply in the hands of a few big companies. But one of the hurdles to the development of kinder, gentler genetically modified crops is that the expense, legal exposure and regulatory system involved in bringing them to market guarantee that only the largest companies, with the deepest pockets, have the resources to do it. Finding the balance between ensuring safety and fostering innovation won’t be easy.

Megan Westgate is the executive director of the Non-GMO Project (committed to preserving a “non-GMO food supply” so that people have choices). When I asked her about the shortcomings of GMOs, she focused on a lack of transparency and a reliance on chemicals.  When I asked her about benefits, she paused. “I’m out of my comfort zone here,” she said, but soldiered on.

“The only not-negative thing I could say is that there’s potential for it to be beneficial,” Westgate said. She added caveats about safety, oversight and transparency, and expressed serious doubt, but also said, “It’s a good thing to pursue advances in agricultural technology.” 

I think that’s something we can all agree on.  

Next month, barring breaking developments, Unearthed will explore the link between antibiotic resistance and factory livestock. Haspel, a freelance writer, farms oysters on Cape Cod and blogs at She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon:

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