Why I'm not pro-GMO (in the way anti-GMO people think)

Science and technology have provided humans with many advances. Some have been very beneficial, some have been horribly destructive, with everything in between. Many advances have both positive and negative aspects, which can make discussing and implementing them really complicated. I’m not the first one to say that science is neutral, and humans are the ones that implement it in good or bad ways.

The various methods of generating electricity are a great example. Humans have become dependent on energy for so many things, some frivolous and some necessary (depending on your point of view). Unless we are all willing to forego electricity, we must find some way to power our lives. Current methods, including coal, have harmful unintended consequences that many of us would say outweigh the positives that we get from the electricity that is generated. Water power, once thought to be one of the cleanest methods of generating electricity, has been found to cause problems big and small. Nuclear has its own set of problems, as does wind.

Because each solution has positive and negative effects, the best we can do is examine each situation individually using the best science available and decide how to achieve the most positive effects while decreasing the negatives. Plant genetics is no different from power generation in this respect.

Every individual plant trait obtained with biotechnology, mutagensis, wide crosses, etc has its own set of positives and negatives. This means that sometimes a biotech solution will work well, sometimes a low-tech traditional solution is best, sometimes the necessary solution is totally out of the box. It makes no sense at all to be “pro-GMO” or “anti-hybrid” or anything like that because those stances don’t take into account the intricacies of individual situations. There might be times when using a hybrid is a bad idea and times when using a GMO is a good idea, but there will also be times when the opposite cases are true!

To complicate things further, plant traits can’t just be considered on their own merit. There will usually also be a complex set of factors including psychology in the form of tradition, fears, education, and so on. There’s economic factors from the individual level all the way up to local, national, and global levels. There’s environmental factors of course, since any agricultural methods can have an effect on ecosystems near and far. And that’s just a few of the many factors that might be involved. We also have to consider what our goals are and how they fit into the big picture.

Considering all of these factors isn’t easy, which I think is a big part of why some people like to sum things up and be anti this or pro that. Easy isn’t always right, though.

How about you? Are you pro-GMO? Anti-GMO? How about pro- or anti-mutagenesis or tissue culture or any of the other techniques out there? Does it make more sense to be pro- or anti- a specific technology or method or to consider an application of that method?

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