You’re at the store you see two bags of spinach. One of them is “non-GMO certified.” Of course you’re picking that one, right? After all, no one wants food that was bred by some science experiment. You want the natural stuff.
Whether or not you opt for the non-GMO option is no one else’s business. However, whether or not you agree with the practice of genetically modifying organisms actually turns out to have bearing on the lives of countless other people. In other words, regardless of whether you buy GMOs or not, your opinion about the general use of genetic engineering is, in fact, other people’s business.
Who would care about your personal consumption preference? Well, it isn’t me, it isn’t your neighbor, and it isn’t the person next to you at the grocery store who bought the GMO spinach instead. Or rather, their opinions about you do not matter. The people who care about whether or not you support GMO technology have never met you.
Every year, millions of people are affected by vitamin A deficiency, particularly in the third world. Right around the turn of the century, researchers and scientists developed a type of GMO rice that contained extra beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. The rice, which was planned to be cultivated in the vitamin A-deficient areas, saw its progress impeded by five years amid anti-GMO protests.
The point is, GMO products can be more than just useful to people stricken by vitamin deficiency, sickness, or famine. They can be the key to their survival. Scientists have already developed insect- and drought- resistant crops, as well as edible vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B. But why haven’t we seen them used yet? Well, that’s because the main impediment to the deployment of GMO technology is the public’s negative perception of it.
At this point, you must be thinking something along the lines of he’s only talking about the positive aspects of GMOs. And, indeed, that’s exactly what I have done. I’m not saying there are no problems with GMOs, because they bring up a whole host of ethical issues.
For example, genetically modifying an animal—say, creating a sheep with no tail—could bring all sorts of suffering upon the resultant creature. The sheep with no tail may suffer because it cannot comprehend its lack of tail, or because its lack of tail may cause it to lose its balance and harm itself. Though one sheep may seem trivial, genetically modifying entire strains of creatures that are prone to these kinds of suffering is clearly unethical and wrong.
Additionally, two anti-GMO scientists deliberately applied for the patent of a “humanzee,” or half-human, half-chimpanzee hybrid creature, to protest the humanity of GMOs. Their application for this patent made the compelling argument that mixing genes is cruel—after all, no one would want a person dehumanized down to a chimp’s evolutionary level.
GMO technology clearly has the potential to cause great harm to creatures, and the welfare of the creatures involved is certainly a very high priority for genetic engineers. The thing is, the realm of GMO technology involved in delivering food and nutrients to impoverished areas is almost completely confined to plants, so no creatures capable of suffering (as we know and define the word) will be directly affected.
However, despite this knowledge, many still oppose GMOs, simply for the reason that they find it unnatural. Defining what is “natural,” though, is spotty at best and hypocritical at worst. Is building cities unnatural? What about getting vaccines? What about eating corn? Yes, corn! Corn is a product of longtime genetic engineering by our human ancestors. Beginning with the biological precursor to corn, a grain called teosinte, early humans saved only the kernels that produced the most desirable plants. Over time, the genetic selection of humans changed the grain into what we today call corn.
Defining things as natural or not is simply a personal opinion that cannot be objectively assessed. However, what can be assessed is the number of people who are jeopardized each year by disease, famine, and nutrient deficiency. The GMO argument isn’t about whether or not you want to buy GMO spinach or not. It’s not about what you define as natural or not. It’s about whether or not you are willing to let go of your own beliefs to promote the practice that can save people’s lives.
You can continue to put down the GMO spinach at the supermarket—but that alone shouldn’t cause you to scorn GMO technology simply because you do not subscribe to a lifestyle that involves consuming GMOs. So go ahead, add the non-GMO spinach to your shopping cart—it doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things. But ask yourself this question: if you were starving, would you want a bag of GMO spinach, or nothing at all?
Erik Schrunk is a student at Columbia University who recently wrote a research essay on the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.