Vaishak Kumar | Planted myths about GMOs

Guest Column | Paranoia and a lack of critical thinking are ruining debate on this complex matter

· July 8, 2014, 6:08 pm   ·  Updated July 9, 2014, 5:20 pm

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A classmate and I decided to get lunch together as a break from our frantic finals study sessions. She suggested a vegetarian restaurant that specialized in food made from local organic ingredients. “I’m just trying not to pump chemicals into my body and die of cancer at 40,” she explained. Her words came to me as a surprise. I had always seen her as a very critical thinker, and I never expected her to make such a baseless statement.

She choked a little when I asked her if she knew that organic farms use pesticides as well and that there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs have any harmful effect on human health. “No way! Wait, we have to Google this,” she said and whipped out her iPhone. After perusing a few reputable websites, her face turned a little red. “I never knew that. I just always thought that organic was 100 percent chemical-free and that GMOs were bad for you,” she said in a sober tone.

I’ve had many a conversation like this. I find that many people — who are otherwise well-informed — seem to have a very misinformed view on GMOs. A professor once told me, “It’s disgusting what they do with food in this country.” “The Europeans are smart. They’ve banned all of those engineered mutant crops,” she continued. I just smiled in response, hiding my disapproval. It was then that I wondered: If some of the brightest minds in the country are so misinformed about this issue, then how can we expect the general public to participate in this conversation in a mature manner?

“GMOs cause cancer.” “The DNA from the GMOs pass to human DNA.” “GMOs are less nutritious than their organic counterparts.”

These are just a few of the many myths that people cite as valid points when debating on the issue. Sometimes the conversation is steered away from the efficacy of GMOs to the legal history of big biotech corporations. To a few people, the alleged campaign by Monsanto to sue farmers whose crops have been contaminated with patented genes through pollination is evidence enough to prove that GMOs are bad for mankind. The “Terminator” seed technology, a proposal that never came into existence, is also fair game. Amidst all these myths and fallacies, the debate suffers.

The anti-GMO propaganda machinery has been highly successful in misleading the public. With a great incentive to discredit GMOs, there are many scientists around the world — using questionable methodologies — working hard to prove that GMOs will kill you. A prime example is the GMO corn rat study led by French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini. The study, which is often quoted by GMO skeptics, was actually retracted by the journal after it drew censure from the scientific community. There are also scores of anti-GMO websites and social media accounts disseminating false information to advance the cause.

The last few years have seen a lot of interesting developments on the policy front. It is very disturbing that various state legislatures and other councils have time and again been considering blanket bans on GMOs. While it is certainly understandable that certain GMO products or related practices might be harmful, it baffles me that someone can consider banning an entire technology that has helped not only millions of farmers, but consumers as well. This is definitely the direct result of fear mongering and misinformation from the anti-GMO camp. This is highly dangerous because it not only threatens to decrease the food output of the country — which is still grappling with California’s severe drought — but it may also make encroaching on forests and woods inevitable to meet the demand for more cultivable land.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that organic is bad or that GMOs are the key to our salvation. I’m not suggesting that the anti-GMO camp is the antichrist either. Food is an important issue, and we definitely need to have a lot of caution and discussion when acting on it. All I’m saying is that there is a dire need to educate people about the issue, and there is no place for myths and lies in this critical debate.

Vaishak Kumar is a College junior from Mysore, India, studying political science and economics. His email address is vaishak@seas.upenn.edu.

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