Don't Fear the 'Frankenfish': Why Rich Americans Should Drop Their War on Genetically Modified Foods

Upper crust grocery stores like Whole Foods are taking a moral stand against genetically modified meat and vegetables, even though these products could help solve hunger for billions.

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(Reuters)

While tiny Cyprus teeters on the brink, dominating much of the news, and elusive peace in the Middle East remains in the headlines, there is another battle going on -- the latest in a long war that is shaping our planet far more than the events in Nicosia or the West Bank. Food and water are essential to human existence, yet in the last few decades the ability to increase food supply by technological means has stirred fear and passion. Cyprus' woes may come and go; the food wars are going nowhere.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe's just announced they would not sell a soon-to-be-approved genetically modified salmon called AquAdvantage. That follows Whole Foods' recent announcement that it would require all items sold in its stores to include information on "genetically modified organisms" by 2018. Popularly known as GMOs, these are foods whose genetic code has been scientifically altered. The recent steps are just the latest salvo, and follow a failed ballot initiative in California last fall that would have mandated all GMO foods to be clearly labeled.

These measures were presented as part of ongoing efforts to allow consumers to make more informed choices about their foods, but they also take a clear moral stance against GMOs. In announcing the salmon ban, a Whole Foods spokesperson stated: "We believe all farmed animals -- whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes." A number of Whole Foods shoppers were already outraged that the chain has been selling products containing GMOs, particularly corn produced from Monsanto's Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds. One advocate labeled Whole Foods "Wholesanto," claiming that it only agreed to labeling after too many customers threatened to boycott the store. There was also reference to the policies in the United Kingdom and much of the European Union, where public attitudes towards GMOs are overwhelmingly negative.

Why be so concerned? On the plus side, GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries -- namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.

The animus toward GMOs is widely shared, and yet, the prevalence of GMOs has been part of the massive increase in agricultural production over the last few decades. Yes, that point in not without controversy. Critics of the biotechnological advancements in agriculture claim that decades of use have not increased yields and instead have weakened the organic food chain, eliminated crop varieties and actually decreased the resilience of the food chain worldwide by reducing natural diversity.

Still, it's undeniable that as the population has exploded in the last hundred years, so has our food supply. That is especially true in the last 20 years, which have seen the sharpest rise in acres planted with genetically-modified seeds. In 1992, there were about 5 billion on the planet; today that number is in excess of 7 billion and climbing. Yet far from there being food shortages, much of the world is in surplus. Not everyone has enough food, but it's not for lack of supply, but because of distribution. Potable water is a far greater issue.

Over the last two decades, crop yields have increased significantly in countries that have high levels of biotech crops. In the United States, close to 90 percent of corn and soybeans are genetically modified, with seeds made by Monsanto leading the way. Since 1992, yields have climbed as much as 75 percent. Similar effects have been seen throughout the world, from Brazil to Russia to South Africa.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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