Originally defined by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the acronym GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” and more specifically to “any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.” With the rise of the organic and locavore movements, GMO foods have faced harsh criticism.
Organic, local foods command a premium for a two major reasons. First, such crops and livestock do not have the economies of scale that GMOs have, which means that it’s more costly to produce them. GMO plants and animals are optimized to grow faster, yield more usable parts, and resist disease; without these advantages organic farmers must mark up their products in order to make the same profits that a GMO farmer would.
Second, the demographics that organic foods are marketed toward have more disposable income and therefore a higher willingness to pay. People who shop at farmers’ markets and Whole Foods have more cash to spend. Indeed, these are the same shoppers that frequent Starbucks – they’re willing to pay a premium for a certain marketing claim / shopping environment and the associated social cachet despite the fact that the product being purchased is essentially the same as the next best alternative.
The price premium associated with organic foods essentially prices poorer people out of the market. People lacking tons of surplus income will purchase food that doesn’t break the bank so that they can also make rent and keep the lights on. Of course some opponents of GMOs will say that if one looks hard enough they can find relatively cheap organics; however, most people that can’t afford organics are generally working one to two full time jobs to make enough money to buy their regular food and pay rent and utilities.
This actually becomes a lot grimmer when you think about GMOs in an international context. In fact, the situation without GMOs would be so dire that 107 Nobel laureates felt compelled to write a joint letter to Greenpeace, urging them to end their condemnation of GMOs:
We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular … Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption.
So many scientists speak out against anti-GMO activists because GMO crops have saved literally billions of people from starvation. Dr. Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who launched the Green Revolution, created a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf Mexican wheat to replaced standard wheat plants. Compared to the fragile, spindly, low-yielding traditional wheat stalk, Borlaug’s incredibly resilient, high-yielding, dwarf wheat provided comparatively huge amounts of edible kernels.
Golden rice, modified with a gene that produces excess Vitamin A, could save up to a million children per year from death due to Vitamin A deficiency. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10 percent (300 million) at risk for vitamin A deficiency. Many of these people would go blind or die without golden rice, which is also considerably cheaper than other programs to prevent Vitamin A deficiency.
Ultimately, opposition to GMOs comes from a place of privilege; if subjected to the conditions faced by those who need GMOs, a staunch anti-GMO position would be untenable. GMO products are not nearly as bad as they are made out to be.