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.
It's true that agricultural productivity has been growing steadily in the past century, even before biotechnology produced seeds. And many of today's GMO seeds don't themselves increase yields; they are designed to reduce the need for pesticides. Proponents say that using fewer pesticides is not only good for health, it is good for the planet. In addition, some of the next generation of GMO seeds are being designed to deal with the pressing issue in the years ahead: climate changes and more drought. Drought-resistant seeds may be the key to avoiding large-scale famine as the global population grows and arable land shrinks. It's either that, or people getting by on less food.
Better to go with the former. And yet consumers seem to be struggling with the choice. Part of the mistrust around GMOs stems from the companies that make them - Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta - companies that have not always engendered the support of farmers. Monsanto in particular, having produced the toxic deforestation chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and taken a strong hand with price fixing for small farmers has been vilified as the worst of corporate greed and indifference. Though Monsanto's culture has changed dramatically in recent years, these images take a long time to fade, and as its recent Supreme Court case against a farmer who tried to copy its seeds demonstrates, it still has an adversarial relationship with its customers.
There's also the familiar fear of technology that has run through Western society for centuries. Fear of the printing press, fear of the telephone, the television, and the Internet as destabilizing forces is on the same spectrum as fear of biotechnology. Playing with the DNA of what we eat raises specters of "Frankenfoods" and humans rolling the dice with nature's code, with unpredictable and destructive results. Though humans have been manipulating the genetics of animals and crops since at least the early 19th century (when Silesian monk Gregor Mendel began experimenting with green seeds and yellow seeds), the fear that we are messing with an equilibrium has never been far from the surface.
With GMOs, we are faced with a greater-good question: Should we use all means available to allow billions of new inhabitants of the planet to enjoy adequate and even abundant food, so they can have the same opportunities and advantages as the affluent developed world? Or should we shun these technologies because of concerns about resilience and diversity, risking widespread famine if alternate tools do not produce sufficient yields? Or is there a third way, hoping that human behavior and patterns of consumption change on a global scale more quickly than we are able to exhaust the food supply?
These are individual mores, to be sure, and we should go ahead and empower ourselves to make informed choices through better labeling of foods. But the ease with which the developed world is rejecting the tools of biotechnology speaks to its affluence, and not to the conditions that are still prevalent for the billions in India, China, Africa and Latin America who are poised to enter the middle class. Facilitating that demands whatever solutions we can bring to bear. In biotechnology, we have, for now, an answer.
"The Edgy Optimist" column is initially published at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.