Soylent, a Silicon Valley food startup with a cult following, proudly makes its meal-replacement beverages and powders with genetically modified organisms. In a detailed blog post complete with scientific references and accompanying charts and graphs, Soylent explains why. Their report is excerpted below:
As a society, we struggle to satisfy the global demand for food. One in nine people across the globe suffer from hunger, and in order to keep pace with the rate of population growth, we will need to be able to produce 70 percent more food by 2050.
We can increase agricultural output by allotting more wilderness to farms and pastures, or by making existing farmland more productive. Crop technologies such as genetic engineering – the transfer of foreign genes by nonsexual methods – can help to satisfy the global demand for nutrients by optimizing the productivity of agriculture to increase the accessibility of food worldwide.
The ethical debate about genetic engineering and its products, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has been divisive. Many of the criticisms of genetically engineered (GE) foods center on potential risks to human health, the environment, and socioeconomic dynamics, and are typically variations on the following statement:
"Nature is complex; the human body is a black box, ecosystems are chaotic, and socioeconomic networks are highly interdependent. Introducing variables into these systems can perturb them in ways that are difficult to predict, with consequences that may only emerge over time."
This principle is invoked liberally throughout anti-GMO rhetoric. It is ostensibly reasonable, scientifically impossible to disprove, and fundamentally flawed.
Rather than debate the relative merits of these inherently related technologies, let us examine how the genetic engineering of crops is being applied in the real world. Weighing the benefits of GE crops on their health, environmental, and socioeconomic risks can inform how they can play a role in improving our food system.
Hundreds of safety studies have established that GE crops present no significant safety hazard. After reviewing the body of scientific evidence, the National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, European Commission, and American Association for the Advancement of Science have all concluded, no credible evidence exists that any GMOs are unsafe.
Not a single verified case of illness, allergy, or adverse effect has ever been attributed to the genetic modifications in GE crops. There is no scientific basis for imposing standards on GMOs that are not applied to foods developed using substantially similar methods, such as selective breeding (which is known to give rise to unintended effects). Doing so would mean denying society the benefit of products that would not otherwise be available, when the perceived risk is not supported by the data.
Our agricultural system – including deforestation and land use change – accounts for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. By reducing the amount of crop lost to insects and weeds, genetic engineering of pest-resistant or herbicide-tolerant strains increases the productivity of existing farmland and resources. Furthermore, the cultivation of herbicide-tolerant crops mitigates the need to till fields, a mechanical method of weed control that erodes soil and releases greenhouse gases.
American farmers grow twice as much food per acre as the world overall, mainly because they can afford superior fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment. In the developing world, the positive impacts of GE crops on crop productivity, the environment, and health are even more pronounced. For instance, the introduction of Bt cotton in India in 2002 enabled increases in cotton yields by 24 percent, and gains to farmer profits of 50 percent.
The resulting income gains among smallholder farm households improves food security and dietary quality. Importantly, 90 percent of all farmers planting GE crops are resource-poor farmers in developing countries – amounting to 14.4 million farmers in 2010.
Although GE crops have been on the market for 20 years, are being grown on over 170 million hectares, and have concurrently been the subject of intensive research, consumer perception lags behind scientific consensus.
There is sufficient data from controlled studies and real-world applications to conclude that their adoption has been a net positive. The fact that there is still controversy over GE crops must then stem from an under-appreciation of their benefits and an over-estimation of their risks.
The pipeline of GE crops highlights the worthy efforts to continue delivering more nutritious, sustainable, and efficient crops, including vitamin-enriched Golden Rice, blight-resistant chestnuts, bacteria-resistant oranges, high-calcium carrots, non-allergenic peanuts, rice with lower methane emissions, and drought-tolerant corn, sugar, and wheat.
Grave challenges face the future of our food system. Our scientists continue to evaluate GMOs in light of the available data, and relative to the practical alternatives. If we as a society aspire to improve upon our existing food system, it is critical that consumers do the same.