The Echo Chamber: On GMOs

The Flavr Savr tomato became the first FDA-approved genetically-modified food in 1994. While the product itself flopped, it opened a market that’s been growing ever since. According to the Department of Agriculture, over 90 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the U.S. in 2014 were genetically modified. But what exactly are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

There are two main types of GMOs. The first type is created through an accelerated form of selective breeding. The second type is created by removing a gene from one organism and placing it into another to create a new strand — one that may be insect-repellant, weed-killer resistant, nutrient-filled or even disease-resistant. But even with all of these possibilities, GMOs remain incredibly controversial. Why?

There are three main arguments against GMOs: Humans shouldn’t blindly experiment with nature, increased usage of GMOs leads to excessive use of weedkillers (which can lead to the creation of super-weeds), and Monsanto — the main supplier of GMOs — is pure evil. Each notion may have a kernel of truth, but exaggerating these ideas can be very dangerous.

Humans aren’t blindly experimenting with our food supply. The process of developing and getting regulatory approval for a GMO can take up to a decade and cost up to $100 million, with each product undergoing rigorous testing before reaching the market. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be cautious — there’s always the potential for something bad to be created — but there is little evidence of any potentially harmful GMOs on the market today.

One of the most prevalent types of GMOs are Roundup Ready GMOs: plants that have been modified to tolerate Roundup, a powerful herbicide. Roundup is much less toxic than other herbicides and has been shown to decrease both harmful run-off and soil erosion. But when farmers use Roundup as their sole method of killing weeds, weeds become resistant; this creates “superweeds.” The rise of “superweeds” has led many to question the worth of herbicide-resistant plants and has embroiled Monsanto, the creator of both Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, in deep controversy.

Monsanto was named the third most-hated company in the U.S. by a “reputation quotient” poll in 2014. Their profits ballooned from $149 million to more than $2.5 billion between 2000 and 2013. But these profits come at a cost. Monsanto’s seeds are licensed, so each year farmers must start with a new batch. Theoretically, Monsanto can sue any farmer caught using off-contract seeds, even if the seeds happen to blow into their field. But between 1997 and 2014, with over 250,000 Americans using Monsanto seeds every year, there were only 145 lawsuits. Monsanto, like any company, is trying to get a return on investment for its more than $1.5 billion spent yearly on research and development.

GMOs are here to stay. But how far should we go to regulate them? And when do the costs outweigh the benefits? That’s for you to decide. For now, I just hope that you’ve enjoyed some time outside The Echo Chamber.

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