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Of Course GMOs Are Not Harmful, But Maybe . . .

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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History laughs at the losing teams whose scientific theories crumble under the weight of evidence. The Sun orbits the Earth. Continents stand still. Surgeons can’t spread germs between patients. Food and crops grown from genetically modified or engineered seeds do not, in any way, harm human or ecosystem health. Or do they, in some, tiny, yet-unknown way?

Last autumn, I stood in front bright and mostly eager  — there were occasional stage whispers, like, “I’d rather be talking about basketball!” — middle-schoolers to discuss three letters that seem to inspire either vitriol or respect: GMO. We opened up the discussion with Bt cotton, familiar, but not necessarily safe, ground. (Please see If you are interested… links below.) Yet we could all grasp the fact that Bt cotton has been used for many years to no reported detriment to human or animal health. We did, of course, solemnly and briefly discuss The French Study On Rats.

Image source: WikiMedia Commons

And then I opened up the floor to questions. One question repeatedly cropped up, modified slightly with each different group of kids: “How do we know what we know about GMOs to be true?” It was the circular reasoning question I hoped would be asked. At the time, I secretly wished for a definitive and final answer. But, outwardly, as the umpire of the discussion, I was careful not to quash arguments on one side or the other. I wanted everyone to question all of the scientific data they could find and ask questions researchers haven’t asked yet. “If GMOs are safe, then why did Germany ban them?” asked one particularly worldly student towards the end of the last meeting. I shrugged my shoulders. (It would have been nice to have had on hand a detailed essay by Diethard Tautz of the Max Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Munich.)

Image source: WikiMedia Commons

By the middle of the afternoon, the students and I reached two conclusions shared by many thoughtful science writers, scientists, researchers, farmers and policymakers:

1. GM technology is far too nuanced to refer to simply as one catch-all term; and

2. Biotechnology will likely be a tool in our approach to feeding roughly 9 billion people in 2050.

Meantime, history, with its 20/20 vision, will tell us the winning team.

If you are interested…

My collaboration with the middle-school students took place at Mount Vernon School in Atlanta. The school runs quite innovative programs like the Center for Global Competitiveness. My guest lecture was part of an initiative within this Center.

One of the most detailed treatises on Bt cotton I’ve ever seen is written by Dominic Glover of Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Development and Change 41(6): 955–981. 2010.

David Biello, environment and energy editor at Scientific American, has weighed in on pros and cons of Bt cotton (published June 15, 2012).


Credit for title inspiration goes to comedian CK Louis.





Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. mem from somerville 9:43 am 02/24/2014

    I read this piece from an actual cotton farmer a while ago, and I thought her experience was very valuable.

    “Thanks to the genetic trait in our cotton that makes it resistant to the boll worm, we did not spray one drop of insecticide on our fields this year. Not one drop.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. greenhome123 8:30 pm 02/24/2014

    I love the thought of genetically modifying crops for drought tolerance, disease resistance, and for use of less pesticide. But, I’m not a big fan of genetically modifying crops to be resistant to herbicides, like Roundup or 2,4-D, so they can be repeatedly drenched in herbicide on a regular basis. I think that GMO’s have a lot of potential for good, like Bt Cotton for instance, but I don’t think that crops, like Roundup Ready corn or soybeans, are long term sustainable method of weed control. I prefer alternative weed control methods such as soil steaming, mechanical weeding, cover crops, and hydroponics / aeroponics / aquaponics. Please look up recent study on Roundup, aka glyphosate, persistence in sea water). Roundup runoff persists long time in sea water and can kill coral reefs. This is especially a concern in developing countries who have less runoff regulations and heavy rainfall.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:38 am 02/25/2014

    “Biotechnology will likely be a tool in our approach to feeding roughly 9 billion people in 2050.”

    Much as I love biotechnology, GMO crops are niche for high-yield farmers in moderately rich countries. Poor are no market – they cannot afford “licence” for their grain or pesticides which come with the deal. Rich want to eat organic food and minimize pollution in the environment.

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  4. 4. z34aa 6:51 pm 02/25/2014

    @ Jerzy

    New expensive technologies have a habit of reducing in price as time goes on, they become easier to make and by more people/companies. I expect that, unless big companies put a strangle hold on the industry, in 36 years the situation will be much different. The prices will have probably gone down drastically, the availability and verity will be much greater, and view of GMO crops will have changed to see them as healthier and better for the environment. (Well, I’m not 100% about that last one, people have a way of disappointing when it comes to them acting logically.)

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:50 am 02/26/2014

    Objective price or simplicity of technology mean nothing if it is monopolized by IP laws.

    For now, big companies solidify their hold on GMO market through the IP system. EU made no change in GMO in 10 years. Subsistence farmers in the tropics improve their lot by traditional means.

    In 36 years everything may change, you are absolutely right here. But for the last 10 years, it is hard to see an indication of it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. MischaPopoff 3:34 pm 02/26/2014

    I’m always amazed by some people’s obsession with perceived harm and absolute safety.
    When asked to defend the organic farming movement back in 1940, Lord Walter Northbourne (one of the preeminent forefathers of the modern-day organic movement) said the following:
    If we waited for scientific proof of every impression before deciding to take any consequential action we might avoid a few mistakes, but we should also hardly ever decide to act at all. In practice, decisions about most things that really matter have to be taken on impressions, or on intuition, otherwise they would be far too late…. We have to live our lives in practice, and can very rarely wait for scientific verification of our hypotheses. If we did we should all soon be dead, for complete scientific verification is hardly ever possible. It is a regrettable fact that a demand for scientific proof is a weapon often used to delay the development of an idea.
    (Source: Lord Walter Northbourne, Look to the Land, 1940, p. 31.)

    If such reasoning was good enough to help launch the organic movement, then surely it’s good enough for the science of genetic engineering. Isn’t it?

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  7. 7. z34aa 8:19 pm 02/26/2014

    @Jerzy v. 3.0.

    True enough, when I said people have a way of disappointing when it comes to them acting logically, sadly, I should also have added that people have a way of disappointing when it comes to acting ethically.

    That being said, I think the future when it comes to GMO’s will be different than the last 10 years, at least at some point. For one thing if the skills and finances needed to develop GMO’s decrease, other countries, who don’t care much about US IP laws, will begin to produce them.

    Something else I think might make a difference is that the last 10 years are still relativity early in the life of the GMO industry. The early years of most industries, though not all, are slower in growth as the technology or product is perfected. Once this sector is more mature and larger, I hope there will be more movement from both governments and NGO’s, as well as the companies themselves (for self preservation) to get the product out there.

    Of course, I might just be being to optimistic.

    Link to this

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