June 11th, 2014
Technology is everywhere – in our phones, in our cars and now, in our corn flakes. Biotechnology promises weed-resistant crops, bigger yields, more food for a growing population. But are genetically modified fruits and vegetables safe? Are they healthy? And should foods containing GMOs be labeled as such?
Those were some of the questions on the minds of the audience members who gathered at the Commonwealth Club for a lively discussion on GMOs – genetically modified organisms.
Monsanto Company, a major developer of GMO technology, has long been at the center of this controversy, and for Monsanto’s Robert Fraley, it’s all about better living through science. “Man has been improving crops from the beginning of time, whether it's the tomato or the corn or all of our fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says. But with modern technology, “we can do what man has been doing for thousands of years really more precisely, and I think it's a powerful tool…that we're going to need to be able to meet the challenge of food production for the future.”
Lundberg Family Farms still uses time-honored farming methods to improve its crops year upon year. But recently, says Jessica Lundberg, the rate of modification by commercial growers has accelerated – and not necessarily for the better. “We have been modifying these crops in a way that is different from what we've ever been able to do before…to the point that they're exhibiting traits that they wouldn't be able to exhibit in nature,” she says. “While it can be awesome from a science and technology perspective…I think from a farming and a consumer perspective, that's not always something that we should be doing.”
While advocacy groups have questioned the safety of GMO foods, their effects on crop diversity, and their efficacy in eliminating hunger, the motivation of companies like Monsanto comes into question as well. “This is about chemical companies selling chemicals,” says Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. “It's not about feeding the earth. We have yet to see a GMO crop that has greater yield, that does anything about malnutrition…that does anything about a better taste [and] a lower cost.”
Nathanael Johnson, a writer for Grist, is a self-identified skeptic towards both sides of the argument. In researching GMOs, he found no hard evidence that proves they’re harmful. “There are some studies that you probably heard about, because they are the ones that get reported on, that suggest there's some health hazards,” Johnson told the Climate One audience. “But you have to weigh that against the hundreds of independently funded studies that suggest just the opposite. When you do that, they really start to look pretty safe.”
Towards the end of the hour, the discussion returned to its core question: in the face of climate change and its challenges, how will we feed a growing population? According to Fraley, the world’s appetite will double in the next four decades, and they’ll be looking to the U.S. to find ways to satisfy it. “That's why we need the breeding tools, we need the biotech tools, we need the precision ag tools. That’s where we should put our focus.”
Kimbrell agrees that the problems are great, but favors more holistic solutions: “Not growing commodities but growing food, concentrating on the 2.1 billion people, the poorest in the world who are living in rural areas, how to strengthen their farm communities and their farms.” In the end, he says, “biotechnology offers at best a meager opportunity.”
When it comes to world hunger, Johnson favors a balanced, big-picture approach. Humans should be able to feed themselves “in a way that's equitable and sustainable, and make the earth a more beautiful and delicious place in doing it,” he says. Technology is only part of the story - we should also be looking at politics and food waste. “And then we'd be looking at individual GMOs, and we’d be saying, "That disease-resistant banana is going to be really useful. I want that."
– Anny Celsi
June 11, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California