Eating Frankenfish? The GM Seafood Debate
The latest chapter of the debate over genetically modified organisms centers on the FDA’s recent decision to approve genetically modified salmon. The decision prompted Friends of the Earth to launch a new campaign to encourage grocers to refrain from stocking the new salmon, which matures in 16 to 18 months rather than the 30 months required by traditional varieties. Already, several major grocers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Aldi, and Marsh have said they will not stock GM seafood. Activists are pressuring larger chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, and Safeway to follow suit.
Blogging at the Atlantic, Zachary Karabell recently encouraged activists to drop their campaign, calling on them to “drop their war on genetically modified foods.” Karabell’s post was interesting, but fell into the traditional framing of opponents of genetically modified foods as luddites with an irrational fear technology that will condemn millions to starvation. According to Karabell, “GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.”
Yet as Karabell concedes, the problem of hunger is not one of supply but of distribution; there is enough food to feed the world’s seven billion people, yet millions go hungry every day. And what’s more, Karabell also concedes that the current generation of genetically modified foods do little to address the real challenges faced by the global poor. And yet Karabell still concludes,
With GMOs, we are faced with a greater-good question: Should we use all means available to allow billions of new inhabitants of the planet to enjoy adequate and even abundant food, so they can have the same opportunities and advantages as the affluent developed world? Or should we shun these technologies because of concerns about resilience and diversity, risking widespread famine if alternate tools do not produce sufficient yields? Or is there a third way, hoping that human behavior and patterns of consumption change on a global scale more quickly than we are able to exhaust the food supply?
The fundamental problem with Karabell’s framing of the question is that envisions all opposition to genetically modified foods as a simple binary; people either are willing to accept all genetically modified foods, or they reject all such foods as “Frankenfoods.” But, as the final question Karaball poses suggests, a third way is possible.
My opposition to the current generation of genetically modified foods is not a function of the technology itself, but of the broader context of its development and adoption. The current framework within which GM foods are developed does little to address the challenges faced by the world’s poor. I would be supportive of drought tolerant, higher yielding GE seeds developed using public funding and made available without patent restrictions to farmers in the global south.
But that’s not what our current system of plant breeding is really intended to produce. Commercial plant breeders like Monsanto are concerned above all with producing profits. This is why we have (patented) Roundup Ready and Bt crops, not (unpatented) drought and saline tolerant crops. This is why research focuses on soy, corn, cotton, and canola and not sorghum, millet, quinoa, and cassava.
What we need, in other words, is not a yes or no on genetically modified crops. What we need is a smart strategy of addressing the needs of the world’s farmers. And that means quality seeds suited for local conditions and dietary preferences that come without the high cost of patent rights. And that’s precisely the thing that our current system of plant breeding—particularly with its focus on genetically modified seeds—is unlikely to produce.