Playing God? The Morality Behind the GMO Debate

by Brian Liberatore

Wheatfield

The perils of playing God have weighed on humanity’s conscience  for millennia – from Icarus’s fateful flight to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  But hubris is seldom a straight-forward moral issue.  And the faster science races forward, the more complicated these issues grow.  Few have sparked so much controversy among environmentalists as the question of genetically modified food.

With the recent retraction of a provocative study linking the impact of GM corn on health, it’s time again for environmentalists to ponder the implications.

Last month the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a 2012 article which linked the consumption of Roundup Ready corn to ill health effects.  “Post-publication members of the scientific community have challenged the paper, citing serious concerns about the study design, data presentation and related issues,” the editors wrote.  The debate is far from over, but the retraction adds a new element.

The Economist, an influential British weekly, has come out in favor of GM foods, despite Europe’s general disdain of the practice.  In a recent article, the publication’s writers site the retraction and link environmentalists opposed to GM foods with “unscientific and dangerous” climate-change deniers.  Strong words certainly, but food for thought.  GM plants, the publication argues, are more productive.  If a farmer can grow the same yield on less land, it follows this would be an environmental benefit.  If GM crops require less fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides it also follows that the earth benefits.  And if these plants are more productive they can help feed the world’s hungry – a problem that will only grow with the population.

Those opposed to the practice, have as fodder decades of deadly agricultural practices deemed safe at the time – think DDT – and the arguably immoral behavior of GM practitioners like  industrial food giant Monsanto.

This is a moral issue.  It’s also a spiritual issue.  Vatican officials are largely supportive of GM crops.  The Episcopal Church has resolved to address its concerns about the practice’s impacts on ecological sustainability and global economic justice.  Amish farmers have been using GM corn for years on the basis that it uses less land.

As environmentalists – perhaps with no religious affiliation – who rightly see the planet’s health as an ethical issue, this is something that warrants a closer look.  The debate over GM foods is not one to be solved overnight, but it something that can’t be ignored.

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About the Author

Brian Liberatore was a newspaper journalist for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps in 2011. He and his wife served in the northern Peruvian sierra. Brian has been a lifelong environmentalist. Humanity cannot survive without a healthy planet. Brian sees it as our moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth.
  • The idea of GMO science as akin to playing God aside, there’s a number of other considerations worthy of discussion here. First is that GMO agriculture is, by definition, wrought with externalized costs that society bears. (just google “Economic argument GMO”). Putting health care costs onto society (by making people sick with pesticide drift and infiltration of groundwater) makes the whole field of GMO agriculture against everything that I believe God would stand for.

    Some other things to note in your article…GMOs may increase yield and they may produce more food per acre, but it’s only for the short term. By depleting the soil’s natural ecosystem, GMO monocrops deplete soils and make the farms dependent on chemical fertilizers. You simply can’t increase yield and decrease fertilizer. The nutrients just aren’t there, no matter what kind of frankenplants the GMO companies may create.

  • I think those are good points, but “GMO” is a very general term. It can apply to crops with good, bad, and neutral qualities. As Brian’s article points out, some GMO crops — like the ones produced by Monsanto — have countless economic, health, and environmental problems. On the flip side, GMO Golden Rice may help some countries battle Vitamin A deficiencies. Then there are the olallieberries we get here in northern California – a cross between the loganberry and youngberry. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine ALL “frankenplants” are bad.

    In terms of bad agricultural practices (no crop rotation and not letting the land lay fallow) – wouldn’t that be an issue with any type of factory farming? It’s not necessarily unique to GMO crops, right?

    • Some genetic manipulation of plants is a good thing, for sure. Mendelian breeding of plants to select for good genes is something we’ve been doing for a long time. But the type of GMO we’re talking about here is a different breed–injecting pig genes into plants, or plant genes into salmon…that is what I think brian’s referring to in terms of playing God. The golden rice thing definitely puts a band aid on a societal problem, but doesn’t root out the underlying cause, which is monocropping good farmland to produce commodity export crops and moving millions of people away from an agrarian lifestyle which gave them all the balanced diet they needed, and moving them into slums to work in factory jobs. Stanford Social Innovation Review did a piece on this a while back–all people need is to incorporate a bit of diversity into their diets…SSIR found that people who were still eating shrimp and crawdads from rice paddies were getting all the nutrients they needed, but those who had made the switch to packaged and processed white rice as their main staple were deficient. I imagine the same thing is going on with Vitamin A deficiencies. By putting a bandaid on something, it’s just masking a bigger problem, and next, it’ll be some other deficiency, and then the GMO companies will splice in some rat genes, and declare victory. 🙂

      The other point that Brian makes that needs to be clarified is the “feeding the world” bit. The Monsantos of the world claim that GMOs are needed to feed a growing population, but nothing could be further from the truth. More than 90% of GMO corn is not even edible for humans. A similar stat goes for GMO soy…something like 85% of it is not grown for human consumption. It’s all animal feed, and it goes to subsidize factory farming. There is no other way for Big Macs to be 99 cents. So I equate, rightly or wrongly, GMO agribusiness and their grip on the FDA, food politics and governments around the world, with creating a very very broken global food system–one that gives us cheap high fructose corn syrup, cheap factory farmed meats, and is completely dependent on petrochemicals to lubricate the whole process, from pesticide and fertilizer to transporting commodity products around the world (vs. producing local food and being more self-sufficient).

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