Earlier this year, the earth scientist Jon Foley wrote an article that laid out why he was skeptical about agricultural biotechnology. Among other things, he said “that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential” because of the way they have been deployed:
GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.
This struck me as a shortsighted, wholly incomplete view of GMOs, which I and others, such as Ramez Naam, commented on at the time. I thought of Foley’s essay and his main argument while attending a recent conference called, Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World. One of the panels–The Quest for a “New Nature”–featured Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which for years has spearheaded opposition to biotechnology.
Since the 1990s, Kimbrell has been an influential biotech critic and at the forefront of legal and public relation efforts that have prevented the commercialization of various GMOs. “We think of Monsanto as a juggernaut, but it’s not,” he said during his talk at the recent conference in New York City. He then ticked off the anti-GMO movement’s successes. “We stopped GMO potatoes, we stopped GMO wheat, we stopped genetically modified rice, and we stopped genetically modified salmon,” he said. (The last one has been in regulatory limbo for over a decade.) It’s impossible to quantify how much credit biotech opponents should receive for the failed commercialization of the aforementioned GMOs.
But there is little doubt that “frankenfood” scare tactics has poisoned public perception of GMOs and that continuous legal challenges and a high regulatory bar has dampened investment in R & D, particularly for public institutions, as an article in The Nation recently discussed.
In any case, next time you hear someone say GMOs haven’t lived up to their potential, much less contribute to food security, remember the biotech crops and foods that never made it to market, and how Kimbrell and his fellow anti-GMO activists proudly take ownership of that.