Over the last ten to fifteen years, the presence of genetically modified foods in grocery stores and homes has increased exponentially. This emergence of genetically modified foods has impacted many different details of human life, including in the areas of farming, research, fertility, the environment, and pharmaceuticals, just to name a few. However, there remains strong opposition to the use of this technology in foods that will be consumed by humans, because long-term affects are unknown and the introduction of a genetically modified organism into the environment could have widespread and unforeseen consequences. Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, is the amount of disinformation and fear which surrounds the issue of genetically modified food, because this prevents the public from assessing the dangers accurately and effectively. When the risks are assessed from an objective, reasonable perspective, having cut through the excited public chatter concerning genetically modified foods, it becomes clear that while genetically modified foods likely do not pose a sever threat to humans, the potential for environmental disruption is severe, and thus any future expansion of genetically modified foods must be monitored for its potential environmental impact.
As mentioned above, the public discourse surrounding genetically modified foods is both intense and somewhat misguided, because there are too many groups with a vested interest in arguing for or against the safety of genetically modified foods for there to be a reasonable, equitable discussion. On the one hand are producers of genetically modified foods, who obviously stand to benefit if the production and consumption of these foods increases, and on the other hand are media organizations who directly benefit from the fear of genetically modified foods, because fear is almost always the best motivator in terms of getting people to watch the news. In the midst of this din, the academic and scientific discussion of genetically modified foods has been drowned out, so it will be necessary to dismantle these hyperbolic claims from either side if one hopes to effectively analyze the potential threats and benefits of genetically modified foods.
When considering corporations who stand to benefit from the expansion of genetically modified foods, there is not a lot of mystery concerning their motives and tactics, as businesses and trade organizations will always lobby for their own best monetary interest regardless of the safety of their product, whether it be orange juice, cigarettes, or genetically modified food. As such, their arguments in favor of genetically modified food are somewhat obvious, such as the fact that higher food yields can mean cheaper food. However, the notion that genetically modified foods might solve world hunger is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that, because it perpetuates the idea that there is simply not enough food in the world. In reality, there is plenty of food, but the global political and economic system is not set up so as to ensure that food is distributed equitably. Instead, richer countries have surpluses of food while poorer countries go without, and in some cases, may even export locally produced foods while generating shortages domestically.
The reason for this becomes a little clearer when one considers that despite the fact that "experts in the United States have welcomed GMF as the food of the future and as a way to reduce hunger in poorer countries; U.S. farmers produce about 75% of the world's GM crops, and 70% of processed foods in the United States have some GM content" (Laros & Steenkamp 889). Higher yields from genetically modified foods are not going to assuage hunger in poor countries, but instead are simply becoming part of the food chain in rich countries, the same as any other kind of food. Therefore, while genetically modified foods may offer a benefit in the form of lower prices, higher yields, and potentially new drugs and medicines, it is disingenuous to suggest that they can be some kind of magic bullet that will solve the global food crisis, and these kinds of hyperbolic statements only hinder the public discussion of genetically modified foods.
Despite the fact that, at least in the United States, genetically modified foods have become almost standard, public perception of genetically modified food still tends to revolve around fear. The effect of this fear cannot be understated, because "consumers' fear is enhanced by the numerous fear appeals concerning GMF that appear in the mass media" (Laros & Steenkamp 889). For the most part, "many of these messages appeal directly to consumer fears by using terms like 'Frankenfoods,' 'unreliable,' fears,' disaster,' and 'risk,'" and this is on top of the fact that "recent studies have shown that term 'genetically modified' itself elicits enough fear to dilute all the effects of the positive information around it, and that consumers rely mostly on the negative information they receive" (Laros & Steenkamp 890). The strength of this fear effect in the public discourse is likely why proponents of genetically modified food have resorted to extraordinary claims about the benefits of this food; because so many people are so afraid of the product, proponents likely feel that the only thing that might change public perceptions are hyperbolic claims regarding ending world hunger.
The fear of genetically modified food tends to stem from a belief that genetic modification is "an interference with nature that has unknown and potentially disastrous interactions with human genetics and natural ecosystems," and while this response appears reasonable at first, one must approach it with a grain of salt, because it ignores some fairly important facts regarding human beings and their relationship with food. Firstly, this position assumes that genetically modifying foods is a recent development, when in fact, human beings have been genetically modifying food for thousands of years, to the point that certain plants look almost nothing like their ancestors as a result of human intervention. The only difference is that "before genetic engineering, gene modification was accomplished through breeding," and "the traditional breeding method produces the same desired effect as genetic engineering, but it occurs over a much longer time span and is self-limiting" (Jefferson 33). This means that fears of genetically modified food affecting human health or genetics are dependent upon a complete disregard for the last ten thousand years of human history.
Obviously, genetic modification in the contemporary sense is far more precise, but the process cannot be understood as something distinct and separate from the larger history of human agriculture, despite the futuristic sounding name. The caveat, of course, is the recognition that for the most part, evolution, whether guided by natural or human selection, tends to take place over the course of thousands, if not millions of years, whereas the genetic modification undergone by foods today can take place in an evolutionary instant. The fact remains, however, that the difference between the genetic modification occurring today and the genetic modification which occurred over the last ten thousand years is a difference of degree, and not kind.
Thus, the fear that genetic modification of food might have "disastrous interactions with human genetics" has very little to do with evidence and much more to do with the fear of science-fiction type genetic monsters, because the idea that eating something which was itself genetically modified can substantially alter one's genetic makeup is strictly in the realm of fiction. There might be other long-term effects of eating genetically-modified foods that are unknown, but it is extremely unlikely that these effects would come in the form of genetic deformity or alteration; instead, they would be more along the lines of a certain genetic modification having an unexpected result, such as making a certain food more or less fatty. While this is an important concern, there is far more evidence that processed foods and unhealthy eating habits in developed countries are "associated with (unintended, particularly long-term) risks for personal health and human health in general" than genetically modified foods (Miles & Frewer 247).
This shows that much of the fear of genetically modified foods, at least in terms of human health, is based on a visceral reaction to the name, and "such judgments are common when individuals do not have a good understanding of the risks" (Nelson 1371). Despite the fact that it is well established science, the general public still tends to have a woefully lacking understanding of the basic functioning of evolution and genetic biology, so it is all to easy to whip up a panic about genetically modified food based simply on the name. While this lack of scientific understanding has resulted in the threats to human health being dramatically overstated, it has simultaneously resulted in the threats to the environment being dramatically understated, because the aforementioned speed with which genetic modification occurs in relation to natural selection or even human agricultural selection, while having very little to do with human health, can have dramatic effects on the environment.
As mentioned above, the only difference between breeding and genetic modification is that breeding "occurs over a much longer time span and is self-limiting," and…