An Industry on the Brink: Consumers Need to Wake Up and Smell the Genetically Modified Coffee
By Graham Watson
A recent upsurge of opposition to the production of genetically modified crops has farmers all over America asking themselves one question: To modify or not to modify? Genetically modified (GM) crops allow farmers to use fewer pesticides while still achieving the same yields. American farmers have planted GM crops since 1995 and, at least for the first few years, had no problems selling these products to the public. Recently, however, there has been a movement by several activist groups, some of which have the support of accredited scientists, to make a distinction on grocery store shelves between GM foods and those that were produced normally. This process, called labeling, strikes fear in the hearts of most farmers who are afraid that an uninformed American public will steer clear of the GM crops “just to be on the safe side.” The fact of the matter is that Americans have been eating these altered crops since 1995 and no one has been harmed. This simple albeit somehow debatable fact did not stop one interest group from taking out several full-page ads in the New York Times warning of the dangers of these newfangled foods (Isserman, 2001). This, like many technological advances has met much resistance, but it will ultimately be accepted and change the face of agriculture.
The decision of whether to produce GM crops is based more on politics than on practice. Farmers are not interested in deciding which type of crop is better for consumers, better for the environment, or better for the world, but instead are only concerned with which type of crop consumers are willing to buy. Farmers were once faced with the less that simple dilemma of how to increase crop yields. Once harvested they were almost certain that they would be able to sell their wares at a fair market price. With genetically modified organisms, a new twist has been added. Farmers must now gamble on which type of crop will be most accepted by consumers and face the possibility of losing everything if they guess incorrectly (Belsie, 1999). To American companies it is not important which process is better, but only which product will sell. As one company executive put it, “We are in the business of selling food. We are not in the business of championing a particular technology.” (Belsie, 1999) So, the question remains, which method is better? Should businesses shy away from this dangerous innovation or will the benefits it offers make it the next great technology?
To better understand the debate over whether these new genetically modified organisms are safe, lets look first at the facts. When this technology was first introduced, the level of concern voiced by the experts was so small that genetically modified crops were sold in grocery stores with out any knowledge by the average American citizen. By 1998, the US was growing GM crops on 20.5 million hectares of land, more than five times as much as the next highest country, Argentina with 4.3 million hectares (BBSRC, <http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/society/discussion/gm_ag_uk/2.html>). At a recent OECD meeting (Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation), many presenters noted that over 300 million Americans have consumed genetically modified food and that there have been no cases of serious injury or harm due to the genetic modifications of the food (Institute of Science and Society, <http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews/i-sisnews13-31.php>). Skeptics reminded OECD members that a lack of long term effects has not been proven, but scientists have no reason to believe that there would be any.
The prospect of inserting a foreign gene into an organism and then consuming the organism, foreign gene and all, may sound less than appetizing to some. In fact, it’s really not much different from what people do everyday at mealtime. Every living organism is made up of cells and each of these cells contains every gene that is used to make up the organism. This is something that scientists have known for years. The genes of other organisms, corn for example, are not integrated into our genomes when eaten and expressed along with the genes in our cells. Instead they are broken down very easily by stomach acids and digested much like all of the other molecules that we eat. The same process occurs with genes that are inserted into GM crops. This analysis makes it easy to understand that any fear of a foreign gene reeking havoc on the person dumb enough to eat is unsubstantiated and silly. However, the problem for American farmers remains because most Americans are not informed about the biology behind GM crops.
According to Sheehy et al. (1998) the majority of American consumers falls into one of two categories with respect to the decision to purchase genetically modified foods; information-seekers or institutionalists (Sheehy, 1998). An information-seeker is just what the name suggests; someone who seeks information about the subject and then makes a decision on the matter based on that information in relation to his or her own personal beliefs. An institutionalist, however, relies heavily on outside agencies to make decisions for them, especially regarding complicated or high-tech issues such as genetically modified organisms. The vast majority of Americans fall into the second of these two categories leaving the fates of farmers of genetically modified organisms in the hands of advertisements and buzzwords as opposed to facts and studies.
It is this trust of the American public that skeptics play off of. Instead of trying to convince people by educating them as to the costs and benefits of genetically modified organisms, they use the tendencies of an easily influenced public to accomplish their goal.
There are valid arguments against the development of genetically modified organisms. Some worry about gene flow, which is the spread of a gene from one organism to another, sometimes unintended, organism. For example, if a resistance gene that was inserted into a tobacco plant spreads to a prolific weed species, the growth of this species that could once be stopped by using a chemical would then be resistant to the chemical and even harder to control (Kwon, 2000). An overall decrease in biodiversity has also been raised as a problem in many communities. Since plants modified for herbicide resistance genes allow the use of more potent pesticides, one negative result could be the removal of untargeted species of plants and animals (Watkinson, 2000). Another socio-economic concern is that if genetically modified seeds are sold or given to farmers in third world countries that they will become dependant on the seeds and will not be able to afford them in future years.
While these concerns are legitimate, they pose obstacles that have been identified and overcome in the past when new technologies were applied. For years, farmers have been using harsh pesticides that will, through evolution, select for the organisms that are resistant to its effects. In the same vein, these pesticides have not been picky about which organisms in the ecosystem they kill. This raises the same concerns with biodiversity as with genetically modified organisms. With regard to third world countries, the difficulties that may arise with the allocation of the seeds are a small price for the ability to engineer foods with vitamin and vaccine supplements that will save the lives of thousands of people. While these applications have not been perfected at this point, it is only a matter of time before the benefits of genetic modification will be felt by these suffering people.
Interestingly, activist groups do not use these arguments to persuade the American public to refrain from supporting genetically modified organisms. Instead they use the “fear factor” to scare the uncertain population into choosing the less controversial of the two varieties. Opponents of genetically modified organisms do not need to convince a consumer that genetically modified corn will cause them harm. They simply need to illicit some sort of reaction, so that when a consumer sees the label “genetically modified” on an ear of corn beside a normal looking ear, the consumer will choose the unlabeled corn. The customer may not know the details of the debate, or even understand what the phrase “genetically modified” really means. The small bit of doubt regarding two seemingly equal products is enough to tip the scale.
One example of a large group of people who have made this seemingly uninformed decision is the governments of many struggling third world countries. America has offered aid in the form of genetically modified food and in more than one instance, the countries have refused it because they feel that the genetically modified food will hurt their people. They do not care that Americans have been eating the products for several years now and have not shown any negative effects. They would rather let their people go blind or starve than to bring the crops inside their borders.
Some countries such as Brazil resist the technology for different reasons; reasons that play off of the very fear that holds the technology back in America. Because of the fear of genetically modified organisms, there is still a large market for naturally produced crops. If they can garner a reputation for producing only GM free crops, they will be able to get good prices for the crops that they produce. Recently elected Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva cited this reasoning for uphold Brazil’s ban on genetically modified food crops. The President’s advisor said, “We want to establish a reputation as GM-free. We get premium prices on specialty markets that our competitors – the U.S. and Argentina – don’t because they plant GM.” (Ewing, <http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/18069/story.htm>).
Because Americans who see a tagged fruit and a normal fruit are more likely to choose the normal one, the debate turns to the issue of labeling. This brings with it an entirely different set of conditions. This debate has spawned some new terms (actually very old terms that are just recently being used in the farming industry) such as “differentiation,” “segregation,” and “identity preservation.” (Belsie, 1999) People demand to know whether they’re buying GM crops; however, they don’t realize the incredible cost that goes into changing the entire system that sorts crops as they come through retailers and onto grocery store shelves. A complete system of infrastructure will have to be changed. Many farmers are worried that they won’t be able to afford the mechanical changes that would be necessary (Belsie, 1999). One solution would be to only produce one type of crop, but that sounds an awful lot like “putting all of your eggs in one basket,” something most farmers are not willing to do.
Many foreign countries are already making the change. Japan has been requiring labels on all GM foods since April 1, 2001 (Belsie, 1999). Fear of GM crops in Europe abounds. It almost seems as if their fears are what started Americans worrying in the first place. Although there has been little talk of American companies requiring labels on food, many companies such as Gerber and Heinz do not accept GM ingredients (Belsie, 1999).
Most investors hope that the benefits of genetically modified organisms will eventually overcome the fears that people have towards using the new technology. To reference another technological advancement, if there was no benefit to flying in an airplane, most people would never take the risk. In this day and age with an exponentially increasing world population and a growing concern for the environment, a high premium is placed on solving world hunger and environmentally friendly technology; two of the problems addressed by the proliferation of GM crops.
If convincing people the old fashion way does not work, biotech companies will have to resort to something else. In the tough world of business, image is as important as anything, and many of the biotech companies work very hard to maintain a good one. Monsanto is the largest company that produces genetically modified organisms. Two of their leading products are Roundup Ready crops and Bt crops. Roundup Ready crops have a gene that makes them resistant to the active ingredient found in Roundup, Glyphosphate. Spraying Roundup kills all of the weeds and other plants that might inhibit the crop from growing. Bt crops produce their own toxin, Bt, which kills the pests that threaten their growth. President and CEO of Monsanto, Hendrik Verfaille, recently committed his company to a “new way of doing business.” Mr. Verfaille claims that Monsanto will “listen more, consider our actions and their impact broadly, and lead responsibly.” (Monsanto, <http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/layout/our_commitments/default.asp>) The truth of the matter is that Monsanto will do whatever it takes to sell its product. In this case, however, they should be attempting to educate the public as to the reality behind genetically modified crops and not make empty promises that lead to mistrust.
In the big picture, the world is hitting what could be thought of as a stumbling block for genetically modified organisms. The major drawbacks right now consist of nothing more than consumer anxiety and short term economic lag. The economies that maintain bans on GM crops are relying on the same consumer anxiety that keeps their economy viable. One will wear off with the other. For now, it will be a battle of images, skeptics trying to sensationalize the use of GM crops and biotech companies, such as Monsanto, trying to garner acceptance in the public eye. Although America may be taking a step backwards in comparison to where she was in 1998, confidence in this new and viable technology will grow and will eventually dominate the agricultural market like no technology has done before.
It is difficult to say what will happen with this technology once people realize that adding a gene here and deleting a gene there poses no health threat. One might envision a grocery stores much like they are today only with ten different sections of cantaloupes, each labeled as producing a certain vitamin. Making a salad will be a veritable alphabet soup with vitamin A lettuce, vitamin B carrots, vitamin C cucumbers, and vitamin F dressing. In whatever direction the biotech industry takes it, the benefits of this new technology and the variation that will arise from it will be felt by our generation.
No matter where we end up in fifty years, the nation and the world certainly seem to be increasingly concerned over the possible effects of genetically modified organisms. Europeans continue to resist allowing GM foods onto their dinner tables. Latin American countries continue to take advantage of this market by producing only GM-free crops, and Americans have yet to make a final decision with regard to the new technology. “The future contains opportunities and constraints, and above all uncertainty.” (Braunholtz, 1981) Let’s not let the uncertainty get the better of us.
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