CBS Sunday Morning: Is GMO Fear Justified?

Dr. Pam Ronald, a proponent of GMO crops. CBS NEWS
Dr. Pam Ronald, a proponent of GMO crops. CBS NEWS

“The big question is: Is all this fear justified?”

CBS Sunday Morning aired a cover story on the Safety of GMOs this morning that takes a look at the origin of genetically engineering food and the opposition to the idea of genetically altering our food. The story features perspectives from plant pathologist, Dennis Gonsalves and his work to save Hawaiian papayas, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, and Dr. Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California – Davis.

Take a few moments to read the story from CBS and watch the video below. Three key things that stand out to me from Barry Petersen’s story:

1) Genetic engineering as we know it today, began by saving Hawaiian papaya farms. The debate on GMO safety persists despite support from scientific communities (while most of us agree Americans fall behind in scientific education).

2) We have so many possibilities ahead for Genetic Modification – drought, flood, disease tolerance. These are especially important as we experience changes in weather patterns combined with a growing global demand for food. Pay attention to Dr. Ronald’s comments, then take time to watch her TED Talk: The case for engineering our food.

3) One of the most promising fields is aiding nutrition in third world countries – example: Golden Rice. Hunger is a real concern, both at home and abroad. To restrict our ability to raise food in adverse conditions is to deny opportunity to those who need access to food most. You have to appreciate the sentiment that closed out the segment:

Faced with increasing anti-GMO public opinion, the push to ban them is accelerating in rich countries where there is so much food that obesity is a major health issue.

Yet, their biggest impact could one day be on the increasingly hungry third world — a lesson not lost of Dennis Gonsalves, the man whose genetic engineering saved Hawaii’s papayas.

“We in the United States, we’re rich, we have a lot of food, no problem,” he said. “But a lot of these people in these other countries don’t have much food. And that reaction is really harming the people most in need.”

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8 Comments

  1. So I liked the video, and I actually shared it on my site. It didn’t really reduce my own uncertainty, though, and here’s why:

    1) They mention that more scientists said GMOs were perfectly safe than people who questioned them – something like 86% of scientists. Problem for me is that a majority of scientists also said margarine was perfectly safe – for 50 years – until they decided it wasn’t. They also said for years that lack of fiber was a non-issue. Now we know it is. Most of them still claim sugar is no issue.

    2) The commentary created a false dichotomy when they pitted rich countries with an overabundance of food and an obesity epidemic against poor countries with starving people — as if that proves anything or, perhaps, as a way of creating guilt among those in “rich” countries who object to GMOs. Problem is, those who follow nutritional issues know that obesity isn’t a function of abundant food but of the WRONG abundant food, that is, denatured processed foods with no fiber, wrong fats and way, way too much sugar. You can eat an emormous quantity of vegetables — an over-abundance in fact — and not get fat.

    We have plenty of poor in our own country who are obese. In fact, you’re more likely to be obese if you’re poor because you can’t afford the good stuff. And every country to which we’ve exported our diet has developed the same health problems we have. The life expectancy in Mississippi is 10 years lower than the rest of the country. That’s largely a function of higher levels of obesity and all the attendant problems.

    This kind of distortion and hype on the pro-GMO side makes the presentation, finally, not credible for me. That means it’s hard for me to take what might be very good information in other parts of the video at face value, and I’m still back at needing to find time to do my own research on all sides, trying to understand original sources. I’m not a scientist, and it irks me that the issue is so politicized that I have to try to be one in order to make any kind of decision.

    Europe takes another route. They are as intelligent there as we are here, and they apparently see research that satisfies them caution is in order, and they exercise it. Anyway, I’m just frustrated with this whole issue. We need to put the stupid labels on – at least Monsanto agrees on that point – and let people decide for themselves based on what they want to take time to learn. Or not.

    1. I’ll respectfully disagree with several of your statements based on my experience working with a variety of farmers and growing up in an area where most (75%+) children in school were on free or reduced lunch programs and obesity rates are high.

      How exactly do GM traits like drought tolerance, disease resistance or improved nutrient content (Golden Rice) not help farmers in third world countries? The obesity problem in American isn’t due to availability of GMO crops. There are SO MANY other factors that go into that. Hunger problems in other countries are both political and environmental. If we can create crops to help them grow food more efficiently in difficult climates, that is a good thing. The story had it right when it concludes that it’s easy for us to judge when we have too many food options on our plate.

  2. Ryan, the GM traits you describe may well help farmers in third world countries. And GMOs may well be healthy. I haven’t read enough, nor do I know enough, to be able to confirm the truth of the statements about GMOs.

    What I was trying to say, perhaps not clearly enough, is that what could be perfectly fine information about how good GMOs are is discredited by the presentation, which includes other information that I know not to be true. It leaves me needing to look further To answer my own questions.

    I surely didn’t say that GMOs make people fat. Those kids in school lunch programs are, for the most part, getting institutional food, which is about as bad as commercial food. I never had weight issues growing up. I went to college and ate dorm/institutional food and gained weight. When you add sugar and remove fiber, you end up fat. Unless, as you once pointed out to me, you exercise like crazy — but unfortunately, the fact that you don’t get fat doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t developing other problems as a result of eating commercial food products.

    The point is well taken, though, that it’s easy for us to judge when we have so much and so many options. I agree with that. Some of us have the luxury of choosing expensive solutions to the problems we’ve created in our food chain, and that’s not right.

    As for GMOs, I still really don’t know what to think. I read the articles to which you referred me last time we connected (although my brain doesn’t hold information for long, sadly, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you now what they said) – and then I read other material from other people I also respect – and I see what decisions they’re making in Europe. And it’s confusing and frustrating for someone who is not a scientist. I just eat organic when I can, don’t when I can’t, try to enjoy my food and not worry that much about it and hope the experts aren’t leading us into more health problems than they’ve already created.

    I suppose it’s basically a matter of trust. I asked a friend what he thought about GMOs, and he said he thinks it’s the most amazing technology, one that has the potential to do wonderful things – but he doesn’t trust what industry may do with the technology. That’s been my experience with a lot of things related to food.

    Btw, I obviously do read as many of your posts as I can get to, and they’re very good. I learn a lot, and they do prod me to consider other perspectives — which is what I had hoped. Thank you for all the good educational work you do.

  3. I’ve long said that part of the reason for food snobbery in this country is the fact that most people here have never truly been hungry. There’s a complete lack of empathy when it comes to food and how what happens here truly can and does affect others.

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