BY EXTENSION: GMOs – solution to hunger or against our values

By Troy Downing, Dairy Specialist, Oregon State University

It might be easy to assume that the whole world is overweight because of an abundance of food and water. This is not really true for everyone. In 2015, almost 800 million people where undernourished according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)*. Much of this is an insufficient access to a balanced supply of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) but also an inadequate intake of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.

The United Nations estimates the current world population as of April 2017 to be around 7.5 billion people. Can you imagine the natural resource challenges we face as a planet to feed this many people? Look at the estimated number of people on planet earth over time.

How does the planet have the food and water to support this many people? How have we been able to feed so many to this point? No matter how you look at it, modern agriculture has a serious challenge trying to balance input resources like land, water, and labor and the demands of feeding 7.5 billion people today, and 11.2 billion people by the end of the century.

Plant and animal breeding practices are credited with increased production of numerous food staples while requiring fewer resources. For example, the US dairy industry has 21 million cows in 1950 and production estimates were around 5,300 lbs. per year per cow. Today, we only have around 9.3 million cows in the US but production per cow is greater than 23,000 lbs. per year. This magnitude of increased productivity can be found with most crops. However, as plant-breeding techniques have become more advanced, like genetic modification, there has been some vocal push back against it.
It is surprising how eagerly most Americans adopt technology in all walks of life, like gene therapy for cancer, computers in home appliances, and artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. However, using technology in animal and plant breeding appears to be different, and I wonder, why is that?
Food companies have started labeling foods as “non-GMO” because consumers are interested in using this information for purchasing decisions. My question is why are people concerned about this? Is it because of worries of food safety? Is it for concern about nutrition?
A few years ago, Dr. Gary Stephenson, Director of the Small Farms program at Oregon State University wrote a paper as part of a series on understanding genetically engineered organisms in agriculture. His paper is entitled “How human values affect views on GMOs”*. He asks why assurances from the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture and most scientific organizations has not convinced everyone to accept genetically engineered crops in agriculture and foods? Why do people across society see the same situation in different ways? He argues people are judging the creation and use of genetically engineered crops based on their values.

Values obviously affect how we see things and accept things. They are the lens in which we see the world and make judgements. Sometimes differences in values are hotly debated. In the case of GMOs, we have had numerous debates about possibly banning them all together like in Jackson County, to labeling them and so on. Dr. Stephenson reminds us there is a continuum of values for every issue which makes talking and debating GMOs a popular and sometimes confusing subject.
Looking in the scientific literature there has been many specific moral or value-based reasons why some people oppose GMOs. In this white paper Dr. Stephenson illustrates many that are in the literature. For example:
1) Concerns about corporate control of agriculture
2) Concerns about patenting genes and restricting access to the genome
3) Advance the consolidation of wealth and power
4) Concerns the biodiversity available to farmers is controlled by seed companies
5) Desire for a natural agricultural future
6) Religious concern of creating or patenting new life forms to name a few
There are many arguments people can and do make against GMOs. These listed above are only a portion of what you might find in the scientific literature but they help me at least understand why some people have concerns about GMOs. I think its imperative we work hard to ensure any GMO doesn’t cause problems but rather solves problems or gives us choices. Looking at GMO debate through the lens of human values reveals that concerns are not strictly scientific.
FAO, 2015. State of Food Insecurity. FAO, Rome.
Stephenson, G. 2014. How human values affect views on genetically engineered crops. In: OSU- CAS white paper series “Understanding Genetically Engineered Crops in Agriculture”.This article is part of a series of articles about GMOs.
Want to read more from OSU Extension on this topic?
• Jessica Linnell PhD, Cutting through the Confusion focuses on the relationships between GMOs and health.

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