Rebecca Rupp: I’m Pro-GMO and Here’s Why

We all know that there are topics that are best to avoid at public dinners.

Religion and politics usually top the list because we’ve all seen the awful effect these can have on family Thanksgivings. Invasive inquiries about age, weight, and personal finances are no-nos, and asking someone if they’re pregnant, especially if they’re not, can be a fast track to social disaster.

Increasingly, though, these days, another addition to the to-be-avoided list is the touchy subject of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—predominately in the form of bioengineered foods. Impassioned rhetoric between pro-GMO and anti-GMO camps brings to mind the murderously hostile Montagues and Capulets, Campbells and MacDonalds, and Hatfields and McCoys.

So—I might as well be right up front here—I’m pro-GMO. I think the potential positives greatly outweigh the potential negatives. (We’ll come to those. First, let’s talk.)

Everything is Genetically Modified, Always

Since the dawn of agriculture, human beings have done nothing but genetically modify their food. Everything  we eat today has been genetically modified—traditionally by selecting peculiar varieties that we like and propagating them—which is why we’re no longer eating potatoes the size of peanuts, cucumbers as prickly as sea urchins, cyanide-laden lima beans, or peas so tough that they have to be roasted and peeled like chestnuts. Nowadays, however, we don’t have to wait around, kicking our heels, for a beneficial mutation to serendipitously show up in the field. Useful genes can be biochemically snatched from any organism and plugged into another where they have a chance of doing some good. (See “That GMO Cancer Study—It Gets Worse“)

An example is Golden Rice, created by Ingo Potrykus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, by co-opting a couple of genes from daffodils and one from a bacterium that enable the rice to produce beta-carotene—the stuff that makes carrots orange, an essential building block of Vitamin A. (Normal white rice contains no beta-carotene.) Vitamin A deficiency is common in the U.S. in low-income groups –an early warning sign is trouble seeing in the dark—and is a serious problem elsewhere, notably in Africa and Southeast Asia, causing over a million deaths annually, and half a million cases of irreversible blindness. Despite its potential, however, Golden Rice—an easy dietary fix to this wholly preventable problem—has, primarily for political reasons,  failed (so far) to get off the ground.

Genetically modified papayas, on the other hand, engineered to resist the devastating papaya ring spot virus that nearly wiped out the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s, are thriving. Last year, when Hawaii’s Big Island (somewhat ungratefully) passed a bill banning GM crops, they exempted their lucrative and highly productive GM papayas. GM crops, present and future, include fruits and vegetables that carry vaccines—we may prevent cholera and hepatitis B, for example, by simply eating bananas; crops containing genes that allow them to flourish in poor soils or in conditions of drought or high salt; or plants with genetic batteries that allow them to combat pests or—like Hawaii’s GM papayas—fatal diseases.

GMOs Aren’t All That Odd

To a lot of people, GMOs sound freaky. Unlike traditionally hybridized plants, they’re transgenic—that is, they’re cobbled together using genetic material from sometimes widely disparate organisms. Researchers have implanted jellyfish genes in potatoes, which makes the plants glow when they’re thirsty, thus helping to conserve water. Rat genes in lettuce boost the plant’s Vitamin C content by 700 percent, and fish genes in tomatoes confer resistance to cold.

Frankly, this isn’t as odd as all that. Our own genome, the sum total of DNA coding for any one of us, is an evolutionary patchwork of weird foreign genes. About 8 percent of our DNA comes from viruses. We share about 18 percent of our DNA with baker’s yeast; 47 percent with fruit flies; 65 percent with chickens; and 88 percent with mice. And the human genome—far from being set in stone—is changing all the time. Each one of us is born with somewhere between 100 and 200 mutations—that is, new and quirky changes in our DNA sequences. Nature continually mixes things up, which is a tried and true survival mechanism.

GMOs: Feeding 9 Billion

And no, just because nature does it, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should, too. Worries about GM food include the movement of transgenes into the environment, perhaps infiltrating non-GM crops or creating unstoppable “super-weeds;” the creation of new allergens, carcinogens, or toxins that may have adverse effects on human health; and GM-generated unexpected or unpredictable harm to ecosystems. But all new technologies have potential dangers, and these—like everything from antibiotics to the ubiquitous mobile phone—call for caution, care, and a lot of well-designed scientific tests.

The vast bulk of reputable evidence currently shows that GM food is healthy and safe and that GM crop plants are productive and able to grow in places where non-GM crops die. I think it’s important to remember that genetic modification–despite a lot of outraged rhetoric to the contrary—is not solely the purview of supposedly unscrupulous corporations out to take over the world. There are some big-business dealings here that have left bad tastes in all our mouths—but there’s a lot more to GMOs than manipulative monopolies. There are researchers who are trying to solve global problems. There’s some real hope for the future here.

By 2050, we’re going to have over nine billion people to feed, and small traditional farms simply aren’t going to be able to do the trick. People are hungry. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.


Comments (23)

  1. Dee francis (April 29, 2014)

    We still have massive amount of UNUSED good land to grow natural foods. Nature and the human ENVIRONMENT TAKES care of the evolution of plants, vegetables, fruits that the body can easily absorb and get nourishment. No need fro man made gmos. May take some time before humans find out the negative effects of gmos. dont mess with nature leave it alone.. we DON’T need the short cuts.. BOOOO

  2. Emily (April 29, 2014)

    This is an interesting article about being pro-gm. This actually makes it possible to use less land to grow crops which means that the land could be put back into use for endangered species and other ecologically threatened species.

  3. suzee (April 29, 2014)

    if its so good for us, why don’t you proudly label the food gmo?

  4. sharon (April 29, 2014)

    Currently it has not been proven that GMO food produces any more crops than non-GMO and it is prven that gmo’s have caused an increase in the use of pesticides. I agree with suzeee that if the supporters of GMo’s think they are so good for us, why doesn’t monsanto and the likes spend all that money they use fighting the labeling laws and prove how good the product is. I wonder if ms. rupp feeds gmos to her children.

  5. CC (April 29, 2014)

    “Unlike traditionally hybridized plants, they’re transgenic—that is, they’re cobbled together using genetic material from sometimes widely disparate organisms.”

    You said it yourself, and i dont want to eat that. i dont care what they have done, it will come back to bite us when we mess with mother nature. we are already killing the bees, when they are gone, this wont matter.

  6. megan (April 29, 2014)

    it will only further encourage mono-cropping. we throw out so much food. the problem of quantity production is antiquated, it is more about distribution and eating foods in season/closer to home and not throwing it out.

  7. Paul Daley (April 29, 2014)


  8. Rebecca Rupp (April 29, 2014)

    Vermont is about to pass the nation’s first GMO labeling law. Here’s an interesting article from the Washington Post on the pros and cons (and the federal objections that may crop up):

  9. uneeb (April 30, 2014)

    I live in pakistan, where 70% of the population earns from agriculture. We DON’T have research labs for producing genetically modified fruits or crops. however, i think this is a plus point since genetically modified plants are seen to lack in peculiar taste as compared to the original ones. Example is that of an apple imported from china and one grown at pakistan. no doubt, the apples from china are larger and juicier. but they lack the sweetness/sourness. the taste is a bit flat.
    now to cater for 9 billion hungry people, genetic modification is the solution provided by science. however, we should look into our practices. most of the food in developed countries is wasted and nobody cares. so, conserve food, we should know the adequate use of it without wasting it. We might get an alternative to GMOs.

  10. noname (April 30, 2014)

    Great article. Too bad people don’t (want to) understand it and keep saying “GMO’s” are so bad…

  11. Valerie (May 1, 2014)

    People are against Monsanto and other companies engineering foods to withstand herbicides and pesticides, or even include pesticides in the plant. We’re against engineering salmon that will devastate the wild population when they inevitably cross with them.

  12. MvP (May 1, 2014)

    “Since the dawn of agriculture, human beings have done nothing but genetically modify their food.”

    yeah,through a natural process!!.

    It happens too among humans just to light things up.

  13. adriano (May 2, 2014)

    wEll done! i have been a pro gm crops since i heard about it the fiRst time more than 10 years ago. it can be a lot more devastating to the planet trying to overcome Demand for high production by deflorestating more and more due to low yiElds of non improved varieties plus their increased need for water and pesticides, for instance, than having a well controlled, scientifically driven and sound Food production to feed the grOwing world. tHose against it will change their minds sooner or Later anyhow. thanks

  14. moni (May 2, 2014)

    well written article for all those idiots out there who don’t have a clue as to what is really going on in this world. i challenge anyone to do a little research of your own about gmo. if you dig deep enough, what you will find is very scary. monsanto is a monster, who is taking control of all the food supplies.
    rebecca rupp and people like her are ignorant to the truth, and should be held accountable for the lies they tell

  15. Teri T. (May 2, 2014)

    I’m shocked to see National Geographic publishing an article containing such dubious statements as, “The vast bulk of reputable evidence currently shows that GM food is healthy and safe….”

    In order to prove any GMOs safe beyond doubt, it would be necessary to have numerous large-scale, rigorous, independent studies conducted over the course of probably 20-30 years for each and every GMO food. If no undesirable effects were found in that time, it might be considered to be safe. However, this hasn’t happened, and it isn’t likely to happen. While there are undoubtedly dedicated researchers who are genuinely working to help humanity, corporations like Monsanto have often been found to have taken great pains to conceal the true results of their studies, to silence whistleblowers, and to pressure the FDA and USDA into approving GMOs without rigorous proof of their safety. In any case, there is sufficient evidence to the contrary that no one can reasonably make a sweeping statement such as this, and it’s absolutely enough to warrant a lot of further study before allowing GMOs to pollute our food supply. The danger is that, in stark contrast to other substances that have to go through their approval process, once GMO crops are released, there’s no possible way to withdraw them if we find out later that they have devastating consequences. Unfortunately, this is a very real possibility.

    The greatest concern is that by the time the harmful effects of GMOs are acknowledged to outweigh their benefits, the damage will be irreversible. Many countries have already banned GMOs after careful study and consideration by their own scientists. Would that be the case if the evidence was overwhelmingly positive? Certainly not. They recognize that unleashing GMOs is a risk that isn’t worth taking. They very intelligently and reasonably want them to be proved safe first.

    The safety of the world’s food supply must be protected. As long as there is any doubt about their safety, GMO foods should not be approved and released. Personally, I doubt that GMO foods will ever be proved safe. In any case, it simply doesn’t make sense to go ahead without full and rigorous scientific verification of their effects on people, animals and the environment.

    As far as feeding the world goes, it cannot be said conclusively that yields are increased. In fact, many farmers have experienced just the opposite; moreover, there is significant evidence of damage to the environment and health of animals and humans, directly or indirectly. There is also evidence that Roundup is giving rise to new super-pests that are far more difficult to control than the original ones. There is really no reason why it won’t be possible to continue feeding the world’s population with traditional farming methods.

    We inherited a world that evolved naturally in a synergistic manner. When we started mucking around with our food chain and providing food that is out of the loop, so to speak, we began creating imbalance in nature. Certainly the effects on human health of the widespread consumption of fast food—which now virtually all contain GMOs and synthetic ingredients not suitable for human consumption—should be a sobering reminder of this. It’s shocking to see the obvious effects of fast food on a large percentage of the American population. In some parts of the country, obesity is actually the norm. Obesity and other related diseases are growing at an enormous pace, and fast food is mostly to blame, with the careful, scientific manipulation of foods to make them addictive. People living on natural diets have much a lower incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. While natural isn’t always healthy, I personally believe that unnatural is always unhealthy (or, at the very least, less healthy) when it comes to food. It’s certainly not necessary. All our agricultural, technological, and medical advancement has not made us a healthier society.

  16. Floyd (May 6, 2014)

    & the anti nuTs Start throwing up their nonsense in the comments section…

  17. Freedem (May 6, 2014)

    The article totally misses the arguments. And misrepresents those who oppose GMO. I would be very happy to have high protien rice (even transgenic from nitrogen fixing bacteria) if that was all there was to it.

    Unfortunately that is not what all the fuss is about. If it becomes illegal to save seeds of other rice because pollen from other rice has polluted the rice of farmers who never planted your rice, or otherwise damaged their livelyhood, even though they were not involved, then that is a very dangerous thing, not addressed here.

    And while it is very nice to have high protein food, weaving in poisons or allergens to kill people or beneficial insects and other critters, is not a concept addressed here. Having plants resistant to chemicals, that creates moonscapes except for he favored plants, and then ties the farmer to such horrid practices, with reduced actual per acre production.

    Poisons, Monopolistic practices, fraudulent ADVERTISING, destruction of other varieties, and political chicanery, are all not addressed, and that makes this article also fraudulent. (Caps forced by web page was not caps in original)

  18. mike (May 6, 2014)

    this is a terrible article. I’ll grant that there are two sides to this issue, but how can we respect this content when the author equates traditional plant breeding with genetic modification (“everything is genetically modified, always) and makes sweeping assertions without any supporting data (“…and small traditional farms simply aren’t going to be able to do the trick.”)?

  19. Alitza Blough (May 8, 2014)

    Selective breeding has nothing to do with GMOs. With GMOs cells are peppered with the desired gene segments until a cell is found that is replicating the desired trait. That is NOT breeding. All manner of unexpected changes to the cell, from other bits that also “took” are left and cause allergies and unexpected consequences for the entity that eventually eats the GMO.

    So far GMOs have only given us plants which are tolerant to increased use of pesticides and herbicides… and then we put more pesticides and herbicides on our crops (food). Organic and permaculture agriculture have increased their yields right along with GMOs… because both are relying on being able to plant more in less space. No one has been working on more productive plants…. it’s time consuming and expensive.

    We don’t need bigger farms, we need more farms and more farmers… let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  20. Max (May 10, 2014)

    Good or not good, healthy or not … the people who are buying products to eat has the right to know if is GMO or no-GMO and decide if they want to buy it or not. GMO’s companies don’t want to tell this because they are not interested if “People are Hungry”, to screw the ecosystem, the Metabolic deseases they are generating … they just need to patent and produce a lot of Cereals, Fat and Sugar because from there is where it cames the big money. Please… don’t play with our intelligence.

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