GMOs: Days of Future Past

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Photo of a March Against Monsanto protest sign in Madison, WI, taken on May 24, 2014 – one day after the new X-Men movie came out. Click to see the full size photo. Credit: KJHvM

What if you could go back in time to change the course of history for the introduction of GMOs. What would you do differently?

The debate over genetically engineered crops has raged for more than twenty years. While most people are still not very aware of GMOs, nor do they have strong opinions about them, there is a fierce, harsh opposition to these crops being grown and eaten as food. This opposition is politically active, and perpetuates many outlandish myths about these crops, both expressing and trying to generate fear to motivate people against them. On the other side, there is a debate about the road to acceptance.

X-Men: Days of Future Past just came out in theaters, and offers an interesting thought experiment: what if you could go back in time and change the course of history to change or prevent a conflict that you are fighting today. What if we could go back and change the debate over GMOs? What would you do differently? What do you think would be the outcome? Or would it be the same no matter what you did?

The parallels between the debate over GMOs and the treatment of mutants in the X-Men series are striking. Of course, one is in reality and the other is in an exaggerated fictional universe, but putting these differences of degree aside, I think we can learn a lot from thinking about these similarities. Keep in mind, while I know my way around plant genetics and the public debate over GMOs, I only know a little about the X-Men franchise from films and some Wikipedia and other pages that I have read, so please forgive any mistakes I may make when talking about that area! Let me list some of the strong similarities that I see between the X-Men and genetically engineered crops.

Special powers achieved through genetics

The mutants in the X-Men Universe have awesome powers from random mutations in their DNA. Genetic engineering is used in agriculture to give plants new traits that they did not have before to improve agriculture in some way. Plants that defend themselves against insect pests or diseases they never could before are certainly awesomely powerful for the farmers who grow them. While the genetic explanations for the mutant powers are often techno-babble or remain mysterious, the genetic changes made in GMO crops are well understood and predictable. However, for most people these genetic alterations and their real impacts are not easily understood and are equally mysterious, contributing to fear.

Fear

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A strong theme that runs through the X-Men series is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of misplaced trust, fear of hidden or unseen dangers, and fear of losing the world that you know. We see each of these with opponents of GMOs: people fear their food or lives changing in ways that they don’t want, they fear companies and individuals who they don’t feel they can trust, and they fear harms that they cannot see. In both situations, there is a relative lack of moderation in the dialog, mostly dominated by vocal and extreme opponents on one side with very few who enter the debate trying to find the middle ground.

GMO Labeling and Mutant Registration

MRA

One of the early issues explored in the first X-Men film was the idea of mutant registration. Faced with the existence of novel and often unseen powers that could be used to commit crimes or do harm to others, politicians pushed to have a registry of all mutants so they would know what to expect (or who would be in your lineup of usual suspects). With GMOs, labeling is pushed with very similar arguments – that stamping “GMO” on foods will provide security for people who fear them. While there is an important difference between the two – that one concerns the identity of human persons and the other, the labeling of plants and their products, they derive from the same fear of hidden or unseen dangers. One might say for both mutants and GMOs, “If there’s nothing to hide, why not label them?” And the response is the same, “Because labeling is a pretext for getting rid of them.” The moral implications in each world are different at first glance – getting rid of mutants is a violation of human rights, while doing the same for GMO plants is not seen that way. However, if some of these plants are being developed specifically to save lives, like biofortified crops such as golden rice, getting rid of them can have very similar morally problematic outcomes.

Often, education and understanding is suggested as a third path to achieving trust and allaying fears of both mutants and GMOs, rather than compelling speech or keeping information hidden.

Internal conflict on acceptance

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In the X-Men story, there is a conflict amongst the mutants on how they should respond to fear hatred, and persecution. On one side, the Brotherhood of Mutants led by Magneto seeks to dominate non-mutants and avenge the deaths of their comrades. Their perspective is understandable as they believe that they will forever be in conflict with non-mutants and will never be trusted, so they feel it would be best to win early rather than drag things out. This motivation was compellingly expressed in the new film. On the other side, you have the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier, who seeks the resolution of this situation through education, awareness, and understanding, and through training mutants to use their powers for good. This side would argue that domination as a means to end the struggle for mutant rights would instead only make matters worse, and seek a pacifist strategy to civil rights. It is fitting that the X-Men live and work in an educational institution.

For GMOs, the debate over the approach to acceptance is there, but it is much more subtle (and does not include the violence dimension seen in the mutant superhero series). Amongst proponents there are two main approaches to ending the debate. The first is through pushing the technology and pouncing on any opposition to GMOs or limitations to their use. Local bans, labeling campaigns, are seen as steps down a slippery slope to outright bans. While I think that there are relatively few proponents of GMOs that fit firmly into this category, I do notice a similar thread of frustration over opposition to GMOs, especially humanitarian crops such as golden rice.

It goes something like this: Crops such as golden rice are being developed to help people who are malnourished, and impoverished. They are a force for good, yet, there are groups that dedicate their time to trying to prevent it from being released. Trying to sink a life raft that is being sent to people who are drowning is morally repugnant, and brings about an understandable response. From this perspective, we get the accusation that people who are opposed to golden rice are selfish, callous, or even equivalent to murderers. It is wrong to paint all GMOs as bad, dangerous, or evil, and there have been few signs that this practice is slowing down anytime soon – but is the solution painting one’s opponents as uncaring? Some proponents of GMOs have taken to attacking other aspects of agriculture – such as Organics – as a means to win the debate over GMOs. But will that instead perpetuate the conflict?

The other, more Charles Xavier-type path to GMO acceptance, is through education and open discussion. Helping people to understand – and not fear – GMOs, while providing training for scientists and others who are involved or interested in this subject to help reach out to everyone else is the other path that can be taken. This requires careful consideration of approaches, and keeping your cool when faced with people who are strongly opposed. This more accommodating approach also opens up the possibility of peaceful coexistence between organic and non-GMO agriculture and GMOs, but may also result in an erosion of available options as time goes on. This approach also considers how GMOs can be used badly, and what must be done to use them wisely. But being accommodating can also be seen as vulnerable to attacks, and missing opportunities to prevent harm while seeking compromise. Ultimately, long-term acceptance is the goal, despite short-term setbacks.

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What path do you choose?

I’d like to think that we try to take the second path here in the discussions we have on the Biofortified Blog, and I can tell you that we have received some criticisms from a couple people who would rather do the first. (Even one who said something like where were you when the first GMO county bans in California took place!? If you watched the new X-Men film, that’s right out of the airplane cabin scene.) Are there skirmishes between these two approaches? Well, few people probably fall entirely into one camp or the other. Real people are more complex than fictional archetypes!

Exploiting controversy

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The 2012 “Right2Know” march from New York City to Washington D.C., complete with corporate advertisement banners. The organizers denied their existence at about the same time they posted the photo. The march was funded by non-GMO food companies to the tune of more than $120,000

The final similarity I would like to mention is how controversy is exploited in both situations. In the new film, fear of mutants is being aggressively promoted by a weapons developer, Trask, who argues that his products are needed to save the world from mutants. He may believe he is bringing peace to the world, but paradoxically, is trying to do this through creating conflict. Today, there are companies and nations using the controversy over GMOs to make a profit, feeding money into organizations that drum up fear, and then promote their products (or testing services) as the solution. Nations may cite GMO safety as a reason to set up de facto trade barriers despite free trade agreements, exploiting loopholes for political purposes. I should emphasize again, the difference between selling weapons for a war between people and using controversy as an edge for economic conflicts – these are not the same. However, I see a similarity in how selfish interests exploit and perpetuate conflict.

GMOs: Days of Future Past

The vast majority of people are still undecided about genetically engineered crops, despite the polarization of vocal groups and people on either side. It also seems that progress in the debate is very slow overall. But what if you could go back in time and change the approach at key times in the history of this debate? Should the response to a particular study have been different, or how about the traits and crops that were engineered? Would labeling and outreach early on have changed things for the better, or made it worse? Would we have a different debate today if genetic engineering was primarily used by public institutions instead of companies, or would it be the same? What are some of the key historical events in this debate, and what can we learn from them as we move forward? I’d like to hear from you!

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.