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Juggling GMOs: Balancing Benefits, Risks, & Unknowns

by George Kidd, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-George-Kidd.jpgThe recent multi-billion dollar loss as a result of the 5th worst drought ever recorded in U.S. history adds fuel to an already raging debate over genetically modified organisms ("GMOs"). Amanda Welters, in "Striking a Balance: Revising USDA Regulations to Promote Competition Without Stifling Innovation," delivers a fantastic overview of key issues in the GMO debate while also introducing novel legislative ideas garnered from the pharmaceutical industry. Ms. Welters' article provides important insights into the continuing struggle to provide society with an optimal outcome.

While recent documentaries such as "Food Inc." and "King Corn" give informative, although one-sided, analyses of the GMO debate, GMO's may indeed be necessary for the future. The recent drought only emphasizes why utilizing GMO crops may be so necessary. Benefits of using these crops could include increased resistance to severe weather, increased food production from less land, and decreased pesticide use. With so many benefits it is easy to see why these types of crops may have a lasting future.

But the road to societal riches as a result of using GMOs may be a tightrope walk with a long fall. Most of the pushback comes from the fact that the effects of consuming GMO products are largely unknown. Further, when all farmers use GMO seed, biodiversity is reduced, opening up problems if a disease were to effectively eradicate a particular GMO crop. Lastly, while Monsanto has done a good job of creating essentially "self-destructing" seed, reducing the crop yield of further generations of their soybean to encourage farmers to purchase new yearly seed, introduction of modified genetic material may have an irreversible environmental impact.

In light of the World Bank issuing a global hunger warning, perhaps we should accelerate our efforts in moving toward a legislative balancing act in either moving forward with GMO crops or looking elsewhere for innovative ideas. Producers of new GMO technology need to remain adequately incentivized to make GMOs more effective and safer for human consumption. But competition also plays an important role in improving GMO's future viability. Expiration of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean patents in 2014 will allow generic brand competition to spur price drops and competitive innovation.

In the end, when we do find that optimal balance between innovation and competition, the only winners are us.