Recently the debate over genetically modified (GMO) foods has heated up again. In just the past few weeks, articles about GMOs have appeared in Slate, the New York Times, and Grist. And over the weekend New York Times writer Amy Harmon wrote again of the saving graces of genetically engineered foods, this time citing "Golden Rice" as a clear example of the life saving abilities of GMOs.
Yet journalists on both sides of the argument seem to have forgotten there are many ways aside from " science" to describe the world around us, and that there are other highly effective tools out there to solve hunger and malnutrition besides genetic engineering.
Let me be clear - I am not "afraid of science," a claim that someone invariably writes at the end of an article like this one to try and discredit its argument. I, like millions of people around the world, am against genetic engineering, but not because of the proven or refuted science behind it.
So the question is why? Why am I part of a huge, and growing, group not willing to believe the "facts" (according to its proponents) about the benefits of genetic modification? Why am I against the creation of Golden Rice, even if it may stop millions of children from going blind?
The basic answer is simple: trust.
Science has a credibility problem. It has for too long been used to distort food and twist the natural into long lasting Twinkies and nutritionally void Lunchables. Tobacco was good for us, we were told, and DDT was fine to spray on our fields. Food dyes are all still considered safe for our kids to eat, and "natural" foods, we are made to believe, are made of naturally occurring ingredients.
In all cases we have been misled, and today it is not "false fears" that has bred skeptical consumers, it is experience.
Equally suspect is the ridiculous notion that anything in the world - be it love, or windmills, or children, or genetically engineered rice - can be all good. Regardless of what "scientists," Bill and Melinda Gates or anyone else involved with creating genetically engineered foods might say, and I am willing to bet the farm there will be unforeseen consequences, just as there are in every other aspect of our lives. 11,000 farmers in the southern United States found this out the hard way when they lost an estimated $150 million in rice sales in 2006 because of a contamination by a genetically modified strain, even though, claims Harmon, "science" says cross pollination will be "extremely limited."
And what about the assertion that we should all get over our hangups and embrace genetic engineering for the lives it can save?
Gerard Barry of the International Rice Research Institute is quoted in Harmon's article as saying that "critics who suggest encouraging poor families to simply eat fruits and vegetables that contain beta carotene [instead of Golden Rice] disregard the expense and logistical difficulties that would thwart such efforts."
This is the most audacious claim made by those who believe genetic engineering is the way to go. Namely the insistence that genetic engineering is somehow better, and in the long run, cheaper than other more natural ways of eating and that the logistical complexities of getting fruits and veggies to malnourished human beings are too large to overcome.
The amount of money it has cost to concoct a product like Golden Rice is enormous. Scientists first got initial funding for Golden Rice from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1984 and have now been supported (with monies to cover lab expenses, legal fees, teaching assistants, salaries, long patent processes, etc) for more than 30 years.
Meanwhile, again and again, simple low-cost, low-tech solutions like "kitchen gardening," improved agricultural methods, and cover cropping have been found to give outstanding nutritional and economic results quickly to farmers. If people can grow a carrot or yam for far less expense and trouble than developing a strange looking rice (it is bright yellow - and we think getting people to eat brown rice has been hard!) - why aren't carrots or yams the first stop for solving the problem?
Why are we pouring money into lab salaries, field trials and professional conferences instead of ensuring that people around the world have nutritious - and tasty (do you want to eat only rice?) - food to eat every day?
I believe the real question which needs to be asked is not "why is the public so reluctant to embrace the "science" behind genetic engineering?" but "why are scientists intent on solving problems in the most costly and complex way imaginable?" Why has feeding the hungry become a self-serving competition for lab funding when viable solutions to the problem (and the organizations to carry them out) are available now?
Why are we spending millions (billions?) of dollars reinventing the wheel when we already have several that work?
Just because science can improve nutrition by genetically engineering food, doesn't mean we have to.
NOTE: Also read the follow-up to this article - Golden Rice and GMOs: The Best Solutions to World Hunger ( via forbes.com )?