Against my better judgment, I’m dipping my toe into the genetically modified organism debate.

These are rough waters. GMOs seem to polarize people more than almost any other topic, including evolution or climate change. And the debates around GMOs — especially whether they are safe to eat or safe to grow — can get very fierce. While it takes a lot of effort, I try to stay open-minded on the topic, because this isn’t a simple black and white issue.

But it should be obvious to everyone that the use of GMOs in agriculture — so far, at least — has come with some big problems. Even strong GMO proponents, if they stop and think about it, would have to acknowledge that important difficulties have arisen.

From where I sit, the biggest problem associated with GMOs isn’t the technology per se; it’s how they’ve been deployed. Despite early promises, as GMOs move from lab into the real world, they end up being very disappointing.

In theory, GMOs sound very useful. They are supposed to help us “feed the world” because they will improve food security, dramatically boost crop yields, combat weeds and pests using fewer chemicals, make crops more nutritious, and have tremendous benefits to society. But have they?

No. Not really.

To begin, GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

GMOs can claim some successes, but a widespread quantum leap in the yield of important food crops is not one of them.

Furthermore, GMOs have had uneven success in boosting crop yields. For example, in the United States, where they are in widespread use, it appears that GMOs have not dramatically improved the yields of corn or soybeans. That’s probably because GMOs in use today have not actually changed the biology behind photosynthesis or crop growth. Instead, these GMOs, in the U.S. anyway, mainly replaced older forms of conventional pest control (spraying older, more toxic pesticides) with new ones (planting Bt and Roundup Ready crop varieties and spraying new pesticides). However, it seems that the introduction of Bt cotton did substantially improve yields in India, probably because it was an effective means of combating pests that were limiting yield there before. Canola in Canada is also seeing a measurable boost, and GMOs likely helped the Hawaiian papaya crop, which otherwise might have been hard hit by disease. And, as Amy Harmon points out, future GMOs may be helpful in combating citrus greening disease that is becoming widespread in American orange groves. So GMOs can claim some successes, but a widespread quantum leap in the yield of important food crops is not one of them. Here, I think a lack of systems thinking — and asking, “What is truly limiting yield to food crops in different locations and different farming systems?” — has hampered the effectiveness of GMOs in this regard.

One of the other purported benefits of GMO crops is that they use fewer chemicals to combat weeds and insects. While this is true in some situations, it turns out that it may not always be the case. Since the late 1990s, there appears to have been a net increase in total pesticide use for GMO corn, soybeans and cotton in the U.S. While insecticide application was down for crops using Bt traits to combat insects, this was apparently offset by a substantial increase in total herbicide use on U.S. croplands (although, to be clear, this is only an estimate of the total volume of pesticides, which may be a poor indication of their impact), likely because more weeds have become resistant to Roundup. And now industry is proposing a new set of GMO crops that are resistant to the more powerful 2,4-D herbicide. But what’s to stop weeds from becoming resistant to 2,4-D, just as they did to Roundup, creating an herbicide treadmill? Again, a lack of systems thinking — which would have anticipated these “rebound” problems with silver-bullet approaches to weed control — seems to have been a problem here.

Why not put more effort into improved agronomic approaches instead, which could yield results today? Why is the unproven, high-tech silver-bullet approach better than simpler efforts to address the same problem?

And, unfortunately, the effects of GM cropping systems seem to be having an impact on habitats and the environment. For example, ecologist Karen Oberhauser, a University of Minnesota colleague, recently documented a major decline in monarch butterfly habitat in the Upper Midwest, due at least in part to the use of GMO crops and their associated pesticides. “Tragically, much of their breeding habitat in this region has been lost to changing agricultural practices, primarily the exploding adoption of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” Oberhauser said. “These crops allow post-emergence treatment with herbicides, and have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from agricultural habitats.” Again, GMO technology per se wasn’t the problem here. The problem was how the technology was applied — without a deep appreciation of the landscapes and environmental systems within which GMOs are deployed.

I also become skeptical when GMO proponents talk about developing more sophisticated crops, including those that could be drought tolerant, fix their own nitrogen, be better acclimated to higher temperatures, and so on. Again, these sound great, but we’ve learned a lot about genomics since the early days of GMOs; we now realize more complex plant behaviors cannot be turned “on” or “off” by changing a single gene. So it may be a long while before these crops are ready for the real world. Why not put more effort into improved agronomic approaches — such as using cover crops, mulching and organic-style techniques — instead, which could yield results today? Why is the unproven, high-tech silver-bullet approach better than simpler efforts to address the same problem?

I worry that GMOs are sometimes the victims of reductionist thinking, where the focus is on technology and business models, and less on the social and environmental impacts they may cause.

Similarly, GMO advocates talk about how biotech crops can boost nutrition and help alleviate disease around the world. “Golden rice” is perhaps the best example of this, where rice is engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The lack of this important vitamin is linked to the death of hundreds of thousands of children each year. So while golden rice seems a very worthwhile goal, I have to wonder why GMO proponents feel it’s easier to change the fundamental biological character of rice (introducing a trait that could never arise in nature) than to simply grow more diverse crops, especially vegetables that already contain vitamin A? Why pick an expensive, high-tech approach — costing millions of dollars and decades of work, with no guarantee that people will accept and eat orange-colored rice — rather than low-tech, simple solutions that could work right now? Again, there seems to be an obsession with technical, silver-bullet solutions, where a simple approach might be more effective.

Finally, many GMO advocates seem puzzled by the strong social and cultural resistance to their products. This is perhaps best exemplified by the debate over GMO labeling in the U.S. Many GMO proponents criticize labels as “unscientific” because there is “no substantial biological difference” between GMOs and traditional crops. Maybe, but that’s not the point. It’s about respecting people’s deep cultural connection to food and their right to know what’s in it. To people who say GMO labels are misguided, I ask, “Would you be happy if all the meat in your grocery store was simply sold as ‘animal,’ whether it was beef, chicken, pork, horsemeat, dog or whatever?” Even if an “expert” assured you that these meats had no “substantial biological difference” from each other? You’d at least like to know if you were eating beef or horsemeat, right? It would behoove GMO proponents to include social scientists in the discussion to better understand these cultural issues.

What do all of these issues have in common? To me, they show that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential, not because they are inherently flawed, but because they have been deployed poorly into the complex social and environmental contexts of the real world. And I worry that GMOs are sometimes the victims of reductionist thinking, where the focus is on technology and business models, and less on the social and environmental impacts they may cause. Interestingly, this is where organic farming models have much to teach us. While not perfect (no system is), organic farms typically start with a systems perspective on weeds, pest management, soil nutrients and the larger interactions with society and the environment. I think we have a lot to learn from the organic paradigm, and many of these ideas should be folded into conventional farming.

Looking forward, I would urge GMO advocates to take a collective step back and think more holistically about GMO technologies and their implications for health, agriculture, economics, culture, society and the environment. This is a big job, and it won’t happen overnight. But a good start would be to build more interdisciplinary research and development teams — with social scientists, agronomists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, nutritionists, organic farmers and GMO critics as well as biotechnologists. This is clearly lacking now. In fact, I was recently in a friendly but intense debate about GMOs with biotechnology researchers, and I asked them, “How many of you regularly collaborate with ecologists, social scientists, etc., to try to anticipate and resolve these issues?” Silence. And then, after a long pause, a few admitted that maybe this would be a good idea.

Ultimately, no individual or small group will decide the fate of GMOs. We’ll have to work through this together, as a society.

I would also like to see GMOs developed with public funding, or through public-private partnerships, where the findings and intellectual property are put into the public domain, to be shared with anyone in the world. Supporting this work with more openness and transparency would help ensure that any potential social and environmental benefits of GMO technology are put ahead of immediate profits. And it would go a long way in improving the broader public understanding and trust of this technology, which is sorely lacking today.

Lastly, I would strongly urge both sides of the GMO debate to do a better job of engaging with each other and the broader public. Frankly, but for a few notable exceptions (including the recent debate sparked by Nathanael Johnson’s work at Grist), both sides leave something to be desired here. Both characterize the other side unfairly, and, frankly, I suspect there is a large, quiet majority in the middle — that is probably skeptical of the extremes on both sides.

Ultimately, no individual or small group will decide the fate of GMOs. We’ll have to work through this together, as a society. And that’s the way it should be, because how we decide to use, or not use, GMOs is too important to leave to just one way of thinking. View Ensia homepage

For more enlightened discussion about GMOs — from both sides — I would recommend reading recent work by Nathanael Johnson, Tom Philpot, Amy Harmon and Ramez Naam. They have all done a great job of engaging in this debate, thoughtfully and respectfully. We could all stand to have some more of that.

Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.


UPDATED 02.26.14: “Mammal” was changed to “animal” in the “no substantial biological difference” discussion.