Musings from the In-Between: My Coming to Terms with the GMO Industry

by Laura Barley

Monotony. Uniformity. Cataclysmic Tragedy, Subsequent Death. As a self-identified liberal attending an institution built on the premise of promoting social welfare through nutritional outcomes, this is how Laura Barley has historically described images of technologized agriculture. Her take on GMOs now? Read on. 

As we’re all too aware, the genetic modification of food is one of the most polarizing innovations in agriculture, placing tech-absolutists against agro-ecologist hippies and scantly leaving room for anyone else in between. Quite honestly, it’s a cultural scandal and a public relations nightmare. Never before have humans been able to penetrate so deeply into the fabric of our consumption and manipulate it for our own gain. Think about it: scientists have figured out how to take splices of nanoscopic DNA from one species, most commonly Bacillus thurgensis, then coat those splices onto gold particles, and use a gene gun to blast the gene-coated particles into plant cells that will then replicate and express the desired trait(s). Kind of crazy, right? Frankly, it feels weird that we’d ever have to go to such lengths just to grow food efficiently, but I suppose I’m learning how far a psyche of reductionism can take us.

As esoterically impressive as this technology may seem, it’s been integrated into seeds sown across millions of acres of farmland in the United States and 28 countries across the world. The extent of genetically-modified corn and soybean’s success is apparent in the magnitude of its planting, but I’ve always been inclined to wonder—just because something is massively popular, does that make it inherently successful or positive? Besides concerns for biological safety, which have largely been debunked, the proliferation of genetically-modified food has elicited a persistent sense of ecological and cultural doom in the general public much more than it’s elicited any sense of technological optimism. Where exactly does this aversion stem from?

As ‘liberals’, we are inclined to believe that a sense of the common good should prevail over the interests of a small handful of individuals. Arguably, this foundation informs many of our deep suspicions of the heavily consolidated seed and agro-chemical business—that they must not care about small farmers, that they must not care about the impoverished citizens of the world, because they’re driven so singularly towards massive profits.

Through my work with Ellen Messer, the Friedman school’s impressively well-informed professor of anthropology, I’ve looked into the careers of various scientists and biotech institutions who’ve set the business of genetically engineering food into motion. And honestly, their sh*t didn’t stink as bad as I’d hoped it would. Perhaps my lips are red from the Kool-Aid I’ve just drunk, but underneath the dark, tainted veil of their corporate monikers, I can see that these people are simply scientists. Take, for instance, Beatriz Xonocostle, researching the genes involved in drought tolerance to preserve maize cultivation in an increasingly dry Mexico, or Dennis Gonsalves, the developer of Rainbow Papaya that revived the Hawaiian papaya industry after years of serious blight – are these people who I should consider ‘enemies’? These are people attempting to experiment with and innovate the most sophisticated technology possible to make growing food easier. When I get down to it, I see (mostly) earnest people doing the best they can to solve continual global problems of food insecurity and hunger quite literally from the inside out. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand there are certainly much more vibrant ways of achieving food security that promote biodiversity and empower farmers at smaller scales. It all looks good and feels beautiful. I’ve simply begun to understand that there are tangible and highly nuanced reasons for the successes of agricultural biotechnology, and that these innovations aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Conveniently, this moderation leaves me at the crossroads of empathy and apathy. In fact, nearly all of my classes at Friedman so far have. I seem to be sitting smack-dab in the middle of the ‘it’s complicated’ intersection, watching rush-hour traffic zoom around me. Given the wealth of information and perspectives lent out to me, I’m no longer afforded the luxury of advocating holistic remedies from my isolated Californian, organic-farming-community bubble. Instead, I’m left to look critically at individual successes and failures to determine exactly which agricultural circumstances merit the use of genetic technology, or any technological or political intervention at all for that matter.

My argument is this: we’ve got to understand these people and corporations both for the results they produce and the intentions they carry. It doesn’t behoove us to assume ignorance on their part; it only stunts our own understanding of the axioms on which the global food system rests upon. A crucial part of our education is to properly consider the sets of choices we will undoubtedly face in the various roles we will all play in our careers, as farmers, policymakers, advocates, consumers. The middle of the road can be an uncomfortable place to be, but I’m ready to embrace it for the responsibilities it renders.

Laura Barley is a first-year Agricultural, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. Further dialogue and questions can be asked at laurabarley88@gmail.com.