Genetically Modified Food: A Golden Opportunity?

Author:Susan Johnson
Position:J.D. Candidate 2014, American University Washington College of Law
By Susan Johnson*
Genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) entered the
commercial marketplace in the early 1990s with the
introduction of the infamous yet ill-fated Flavr Savr
tomato.1 Since then, scientists, scholars, journalists, and con-
sumers have debated GMO safety and sustainability. On one
side of the argument are those who maintain that extensive sci-
entific research and regulatory endorsement from entities such
as the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration has established the safety and integrity of
GMOs.2 On the other side are those who cite lingering scientific
uncertainty, environmental burdens, and mistrust of the biotech
industry generally.3 These opponents to GMOs point to the mul-
titude of concepts and products once thought safe and scientifi-
cally sound that ultimately proved anything but, such as tobacco
and DDT.4 Still, despite this persistent debate over the virtue of
genetically engineered food sources, their prevalence in the U.S.
food system continues to increase.5 It is therefore crucial that
thorough analysis of GMO safety and sustainability continues
until more questions are answered.
Genetic modification (“GM”) is the alteration of an organ-
ism’s DNA through the synthetic introduction of new traits that
allow manufacturers increased control over genetic structures,
purportedly strengthening the final product’s viability and
appeal.6 In turn, GMO seeds appeal to farmers for their promise
of economically beneficial higher crop yields.7 Consumers may
similarly benefit, as engineered fruits and vegetables are created
to have longer shelf lives and smaller price tags than their unal-
tered counterparts.8 Given the fact that U.S. biotech companies
produce approximately half of the world’s GMO crop seeds,9
generating billions of dollars in annual revenue,10 the biotech
industry has much to gain from scientific confirmation and pub-
lic acceptance of these purported “benefits.”
Despite persistent skepticism, GMOs dominate the domes-
tic market, largely due to powerful initiatives that insulate the
industry.11 Independent scientists who publish studies showing
negative or abnormal phenomena implicating GM products have
frequently endured criticism and backlash from scientific peers
working to preserve GMO-friendly public policies.12 In this cli-
mate of debate, members of the biotech field aggressively defend
industry practices and relentlessly contest any perceived opposi-
tion or legal violation. Industry giant Monsanto, for example,
has sued more than 410 farmers in twenty-seven states,13 in some
instances destroying multi-generational farms in the process.14
By contrast, anti-GMO activists have comparatively fewer and
less powerful legal mechanisms at their disposal, limiting the
ubiquity of their critical message.15
Recently, the decades-old GMO debate has flared again with
the introduction of “Golden Rice,” a genetically modified strain
of rice intended to combat worldwide hunger and disease.16
Articles in The New York Times, Forbes, and Slate (among oth-
ers) have featured the controversial product, prompting support-
ers and opponents to reassert their positions on GMOs in a new
context.17 Golden Rice is fortified with the Vitamin A precursor
beta-carotene, and its creators assert that it will save countless
lives and combat malnutrition and disease on an unprecedented
global scale.18 Beta-carotene is a powerful nutrient found in fruits
and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach that
strengthens the immune system, protects and improves vision
and dental health, and delivers cancer-fighting antioxidants.19
Vitamin A deficiency significantly compromises the immune
system and causes blindness in up to half a million children
each year.20 Alarmingly, millions of people in Africa and Asia
who lack this nutrient die annually from diseases to which they
would not otherwise be susceptible.21 Golden Rice skeptics view
it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a way for biotech companies
to further infiltrate the global agricultural marketplace under an
altruistic guise with little regard for broader human health and
environmental impacts.22 Activists urge that the real purpose
of Golden Rice is to gain widespread public support for GMO
crops, ultimately producing a windfall for biotech corporations
to the detriment of farmers and consumers.23 They bolster this
assertion by questioning Golden Rice’s viability,24 emphasizing
that target African consumers do not traditionally eat rice25 and
that many of the countries that purportedly stand to benefit have
stringent anti-GMO policies.26
Further criticism is aimed at the unsustainability of GMO
crops.27 For farmers to maintain optimal production they must
apply powerful pesticides, which are genetically modified to
resist the chemicals.28 This unnatural cycle has the potential to
create “super pests” and “super weeds” that may threaten tradi-
tional crop varieties and alter the soil’s chemical composition.29
Though it is difficult to ascertain how extensive or lasting the
damage from these cycles will be, many argue that this uncer-
tainty alone is reason enough to proceed with caution (if at all).30
With the spread of GMO-sourced crops into the human food
chain, a growing number of consumers and activists who oppose
GMO proliferation are using every legal, regulatory, and grass-
roots tool at their disposal to slow the trend.31 In August 2013,
farmers and environmental activists destroyed an experimental
plot of Golden Rice in the Philippines in protest.32 Domestically,
* J.D. Candidate 2014, American University Washington College of Law
continued on page 69