Rats versus GMOS

Perhaps you’ve seen the unhappy rats? If you’re interested in GMOs (genetically modified organisms) those sad little rodent pictures might have found their way through your web browser at some point.

Last year some scientists published photos of rats that were afflicted with hideous, bulbous tumours. They claimed the tumours were caused by feeding the rats GM corn. The ugly rat monsters became poster victims for anti-GMO campaigners.

Much of the scientific community lambasted the study’s methodology. Even for me, with barely a scientific bone in my body, it seemed a bit dodgy. For a start, they’d used a strain of rat that is known to get cancer fairly easily. That’s stacking the deck a bit.

Then, when the rats developed their inevitable tumours, they were kept alive for much longer than necessary until the tumours reached gigantic proportions, all for the sake of some sensational photos.

At least one commentator had a word for it which I can’t use in the Bay of Plenty Times.

Last week the study was retracted by Food and Chemical Toxicology, the journal that published it, on the grounds that it is inconclusive. A resulting anti-GMO grumble is that Monsanto conspiracy is at work here. (The journal’s new editor used to work for Monsanto.)

Some good friends of mine marched against Monsanto earlier this year. Ever since then I’ve been trying to decide what my own opinion is of GM technology. It’s a fraught issue because, if the doomcasters are right, our health and our planet might be at stake. Or not.

There’s a lot of noise out there and the rat study sure didn’t help. If you measure the pulse of any anti-GMO activist you’d think this is a battle of mythic proportions, a war that is raging between virtuous earth lovers and evil overlords of corporate greed.

As a long time fan of the middle ground, I’m not so sure. I’ve not seen anything yet that convinces me to take up a placard either way. I’ve read some books and way too many internet articles, and we all know how reliable the internet is.

Who to believe? It’s hard enough getting perspective when your own kids fight over the lego, let alone when passionate interest groups start shouting at each other.

When it comes to genetic engineering I’ve decided that both sides are over-confident in their claims. The activists pluck at sensationalist straws while the pro-team place too much faith in GMO as food messiah.

Nothing is ever that simple.

Yet if I’m pushed, I seem to be leaning on the GMO side of the fence. Yes, I am a disappointment to environmentalists. Go on, slap me in the face with your organic broccoli.

But actually, I’m a cheerleader for organics too. I am several shades of green, not just one. This is my middle ground, a position that holds GM, cautiously, to be one technology among many. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s how and where you use it.

That doesn’t automatically mean we should welcome it into New Zealand agriculture, in fact, I suspect we probably shouldn’t. It’s all very well watching arguments play out overseas but I’m unconvinced when it comes to our home turf.

I do think that if we reject GM from the Bay or from the country, it needs to be for the right reasons. It’s unfair to demonize an entire branch of science over anecdotal spook stories and fearful conjecture.

I’m all for cheerful disagreement over this. Everywhere I turn there’s a new perspective one way or the other and I’m already in over my head just by trying to think about it out loud. This discussion never gets any simpler.

So far the only thing I’m sure of is that I disagree vehemently with anyone who has a vehemently polarized view.

It’s not a straightforward topic so if you’re as earnest as me, I’ve put a few interesting links here.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 December 2013. Reproduced with permission.