The Vagaries of Vagueness

GMOs are the red dye #2 of the decade. Vilified as poison, sanctified as nothing but yield increasing. As with everything outside the soundbite universe, it’s a bit more complicated.

The basics: A “genetically modified organism” includes every food plant and animal, and all the service animals humans have touched in the past 14,000 or so thousand years. GMOs in the protested context are ones where scientists have diddled with the genes to create changes in a single generation, tinkering in ways nature couldn’t. The unintended consequences of these changes are what’s at debate, not the initial intent. After all, it’s not as if we’re trying to invent a carnivorous plant.

It’s what you add. There’s a tomato, one of the first GMOs, that’s had a salmon gene added so that the tomato’s flesh is firmer and less likely to go soft in transit. Aside from the weirdness of having different kingdoms’ genes muddled, there’s not too much of an issue.And there are a lot of fish for which modification is in their future.

The most popular GMO to hate are the Roundup Ready™ soybean and corn and crops. Economics aside, adding pesticide resistance to the genome is a question of the unknown: there have never been any long-term very large scale, double-blind studies of any side effects. It looks good, but that’s as far as it goes.

The other kind of modified food is exemplified by adding not a gene to change the food’s taste or portability, but defenses. While organic crops are sprayed with microbial agents that produce the Bt insecticide, they can be washed off. The GMO versions cannot, as the active chemical in Bt is part and parcel of the plant.


The bottom line (and this is a post on writing, not organic farming), is that lumping a huge swath of anything under a single banner muddies the waters for all and creates a monolithic concept from which it’s harder, as a writer, to finesse nuances that give a scene, character, or even a more interesting reality.

Oh, and check out a mythbusting blog post on GMOs in Scientific American, as well as a whole raft of responses.