As an opinionated person who works in science, the GMO debate is one I have had many times. Often the people who bring it up don’t know much about how organisms can be genetically modified, and so the discussion usually begins with them asking me some questions about how it works, why it is done and what the consequences could be. I cannot give a simple answer, as the different ways of modifying crops each bring with them potential benefits and concerns, which usually confirms them in the belief that we should just forget about the whole thing. “Yea, well, what about Monsanto”, they’ll say to me, “We can’t trust them to be transparent and not cut corners. They’re a corporation, after all, they’re not in it to save the world, they’re in it to make money. I think it would be better to just drop the whole thing, why take the risk?”
In the context of this discussion, there is no argument that will infuriate me more.
Just because you take issue with the practices of a specific company, does not mean that you should disregard an entire branch of very promising research and science. If you are worried about the shady practices of Monsanto, you should push for your legislators to pass regulations that keep them honest. That has nothing to do with whether or not the research should continue in general. And yet, this conflation of legislation and research is one that is, in my experience, more prevalent in the GMO debate than in any other.
When it comes to pharmaceutical companies, for example, there have certainly been instances of fraud, selling bad batches of medicine, and downplaying side effects of drugs. Most people agree that tight regulations are necessary to keep pharmaceutical companies honest and to make sure, to the best of their abilities, that the drugs they produce are safe. Not for nothing drugs now take around 10 years to be approved and put on the market (and that’s if everything goes right), which was not the case decades ago. While most people acknowledge the need for these regulations, knowing that pharmaceutical companies will not go through all this bother out of the goodness of their heart, very few people make the argument “Yea, well, can we really be sure that the drugs they’re producing are safe? They are a company, after all. They’re in it to make money, not to cure diseases. Lets just drop this whole medicine thing, why take the risk?” And why is there such a disparity with the popularity of this argument between these two contexts?
Because anyone can get sick. You, your Mom, your kid, pretty much everyone you know is going to need medicine at some point in their life. All of a sudden, the research behind the development of those drugs becomes very important to a lot of people. When yet another pharmaceutical company is caught cutting corners or hiding data, everyone starts talking about how external oversight can be improved, or how the punishment for doing so could be harsher, so that it doesn’t happen again. Somehow, the argument “lets just forget about this whole medicine business” never seems to come up.
But trying to find solutions to feed people? Pfft I’m not starving, my Mom is not starving, I’ve never met anyone who was starving, or who is losing their livelihood due to climate change. That’s not my problem, sure someone will figure out some other way to face those problems some other time. Let’s just forget about this whole GMO thing, OK? I don’t understand it, and I don’t want to risk it.
What I say to that is, check your privilege.
Do you want to make the argument that there needs to be a certain amount of oversight when it comes to the development of GMOs? Do you want to make the argument that Monsanto is behaving in a shady manner, and thus more regulations need to be put in place? Fine, we can have this debate. Bring your facts to the table, and we can have a discussion about how many regulations make sense. But now we’re talking about law, not science.
This research is important and it needs to continue, despite the fact that it might not seem as important to those of you who are lucky enough to have a fridge full of food and a pocket full of cash. Please try to remember that, before trying to shit on a whole branch of genetics because you don’t like Monsanto.