I’m a plant evolutionary biologist. The problem with the GMO debate is, as others have said, the conflation of many issues.
1) The modification in approx. 75% of GM foods is RoundUp resistance. Both seed and RoundUp have to be bought from Monsanto, which strikes everybody who isn’t Monsanto as a conflict of interest. Result: besides chaining farmers to Monsanto, a whole mess of environmental issues, bad farming practices, etc., etc., etc. Triple-plus Ungood.
2) The evidence is unclear on the transferability of the viral vectors used to introduce foreign genes to the target plants. The initial dogma was that lateral transfer was about as likely as being hit by a meteor. However, it’s come out that the companies (Monsanto primus inter pares of course) seem to have designed their experiments to get no results. Then they said, “See? No problem.” More carefully designed experiments, especially studies that last longer than three months, and newer more sensitive methodology indicates there may be real cause for concern. Nobody’s going to glow in the dark or grow two heads. But developing allergies, cancers, certain liver conditions, are not out of the question. (Yes, I’ll scare up the links and come back and put them in comments.)
3)Things like golden rice were the original promise of GMOs. That idea has been around for some 20 years. They’re just barely testing it now. But RoundUp resistance is everywhere. Interesting, isn’t it? There’s no big profit in golden rice. It’s merely good for you. (I don’t know if it runs the same viral vector risks as the RoundUp-resistant crops. That depends on how it’s made.) It and its benign cousins are something like 2% of GMO trade / farming / activity. They’re very useful, though, when Monsanto and its ilk need to wrap themselves in the mantle of wanting only to Help People™ and Feed The World™.
None of this changes Ophelia’s point that an awful lot of anti-GMO agitation is anti-scientific and poorly informed. But it is a way more complex issue than, say, the anti-vaccine loonies. They’re just plain, flat-out 100% wrong. Ripping up golden rice is plain wrong, too. But being anti-GMO in general is not so simple. They have a point, just not the one they think they have.
A follow-up comment with links.
. https://www.es.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/article/21406/?nocache=1759778285 . 2012. Nancy Podevin*, Patrick du Jardin. Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants. This is the fairly recent article that caused a splash.
. http://foodpoisoningbulletin.com/wp-content/uploads/Toxicity-of-Roundup-Ready-Maize.pdf . 2012. Seralini et al. [Toxicity of ToundUp-Ready Maize]. This was the first widely reported recent article on this topic, and was criticized. The main critique is behind a paywall, but this: http://gmoseralini.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Seralinial-AnswersCritics-FCT_2013.pdf is Seralini’s response.
. http://www.bioscienceresource.org/docs/BSR1-MutationalConsequences.pdf 2006. Latham, A.R., Wilson, A.K., Steinbrecher, R.A. The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation. Latham, as far as I know, is strongly anti-GMO. The article is fairly old for a fast-moving field. However, interesting to see the doubts and their basis raised as far back as 2005-2006. . (And now for something different….) 2012. Reeves, R.G. et al. Scientific Standards and the Regulation of Genetically Modified Insects. I find it fascinating to see how widespread some of the testing is (often in a good cause). The people pulling up golden rice have got no idea.
. A few popular articles that may be useful for more background: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/can-biotech-food-cure-world-hunger/ “Can Biotech Cure World Hunger?” Includes points of view from five authorities, pro and con. Note 2009 date. So old-ish by now. It’s pretty much impossible to stress enough how fast the field moves.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=food-fight 2011. Brendan Borrell. The case *for* GMO.
http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2012/12/plant_patent_law_why_overhauling_it_will_do_more_to_help_the_food_movement.single.html On the role of IP in making the situation worse. Pretty much what @8 R. Johnston said with many fewer words.