Difficult Choices

The issue of genetically modified foods is bound to be controversial, simply because it is new and its long-term implications are uncertain. Those in the specialty food industry will probably, on balance, be a bit negative on the whole issue. In part, this is because of the tremendous influence of the organic and natural food movements in the specialty food arena.

As are all issues at the nexus of science and politics, food biotechnology is a complicated issue, and industry members should hold their fire until they are really sure where they stand. There is a lot of misinformation around, and the relationship between GMOs and the environment can be complicated.

There is a fear that new plant varieties may spread and this may have unpredictable environmental consequences. This is a reasonable concern. The problem is that this it is not a slam dunk argument, even speaking strictly from an environmental perspective.

The population of the planet has just passed six billion people. Although demography is always uncertain, the best estimate we have is that the population of the planet will peak at around 8.5 billion in approximately the year 2035. This means that we have to confront the challenge of feeding about 2.5 billion more people than the world does today. Even more alarming, from an environmental perspective, as worldwide incomes rise, large Third World populations that basically subsisted on vegetarian diets are now able to afford meat and dairy products.

This combination of increased population and increased prosperity means that utilizing today’s farming techniques, we will have to double, maybe even triple the amount of land devoted to raising food if we are to be able to meet the increased demand for food over the next 35 years.

Now if we were to switch to all organic farming, we would need to increase the amount of farmland even more, as the yields from organic farming are far lower than conventional growing techniques. If we don’t want to increase acreage devoted to food production, we have to remember that just as the “Green Revolution” tremendously increased yields by creating “high-input” agriculture with hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and insecticides, and mechanization, so the “Genetic Revolution” is the best bet for producing the kind of high yielding crops that will enable us to meet the world’s food needs with current agricultural acreage. Friends of the environment should care deeply about this because the most likely place for the world to get additional agricultural acreage is by chopping down forests, particularly the rainforests that are the planet’s great havens of biodiversity.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if, in our anxiousness to prevent any possible environmental risk from GMOs, we implemented bans that will lead, inexorably, to the destruction of our rainforests?

Equally, the concern that consumers will be ingesting potentially harmful food needs to be looked at more carefully.

In an article in the July 1999 issue of this magazine, columnist Rabbi Clein wrote a piece on GMOs, cotton particularly, emphasizing the role of cottonseed oil in kosher foods. The piece drew heavily from an article in the Sierra Club’s magazine and included a seemingly damning quote from Will Allen, founder of the Calif.-based Sustainable Cotton Project:

“Chemicals that have been banned for food crops are still being used on cotton.”

Yet, this quote, so agitating on the surface, actually means nothing at all. The quote is a good example of how susceptible scientific and regulatory issues are to propaganda. There is no regulatory agency in the United States that goes around banning pesticides and the like. There are various jurisdictions, most notably with the EPA and FDA, but the crucial point is that the manufacturer has to make an application for a particular use of a product.

Manufacturers don’t make applications on every item for many reasons: Sometimes a pesticide that works great on soybeans, for example, doesn’t work at all on wheat. Importantly, however, some pesticides are never submitted for approval for financial reasons. A new pesticide, perfect for both soybeans and radishes, must have an application submitted proposing usage on these two separate uses.

These applications are not just filling out a form. An application must include relevant research on which the relevant regulatory bodies can make its decisions. Aye, but there’s the rub, for this research costs money, a lot of money. So many pesticides that are both needed and would work well on many crops are only submitted for a particular higher volume crop.

So, the fact that a chemical has been approved for use on cotton and is “banned” on rutabagas tells us nothing about its safety. It only tells us that it may not work on rutabagas, or that there is a better option for rutabagas or that the manufacturer didn’t care enough to spend the money to register the pesticide for rutabagas.

Consumers and government officials may look to our industry for leadership. We can’t let emotions substitute for some hard-headed thinking.