Safety of Genetic Engineered Food Argument: Not a Scientific debate but Rhetorical dispute

Throughout history, the essence of technological progress has been its unpredictable applications (e.g. polluting industries and printing presses). Innovations are always a double-edged sword. In the past, technology innovations have taken humanity forward beyond anyone’s imagination. Thus some people argue that if we always relied on long-term safety data instead of short-term practicality (provided by innovations) to determine what technology should be and shouldn’t be used, then very little science can actually be applied. (Mokyr 1) Other side argues that some of the new technologies today, such as genetically modified (GM) food, are far too dangerous to allow chances to determine its future.

As with other inventions, GM food does not have enough data to predict its long term safety. Much of the current debate on this subject relies on rhetoric instead hard data and facts. The set of rhetoric on both sides can be divided into 2 value-laden sections: first, trust the advanced experts and leaders who boost their ability to control and manipulate life for our own gains vs. the common wisdom that life cannot be controlled and a more harmonious relationship with the environment should be sought; second, unregulated, profit-maximizing market is always right (Adam Smith) vs. the more complicated notion that long term safety and environmental health needs be guarded sometimes from corporations and the free market system by government control for the common good of all.

The essence of genetically modifying food involves taking the DNA from one organism, purifying its characteristics in a lab, and then putting it back into a host organism’s genes to produce new and useful genetic expressions. GM food relies on this basic procedure to “upgrade” a host’s genomes to give us a better product (e.g. food, animals, bacterial, you name it). “Agricultural [genetic] technology leader” Monsanto Corporation ensures us that the GM food they produce have ‘long-standing commitments to safety, environmental protection, and first-class research.’ (

Monsanto’s website also tries to impress its readers through the website’s impressive statistics. By stating that they spend $1.5 million a day on 17,000 employees worldwide, Monsanto promises us that their R&D process is the most cutting-edge worldwide and that we have nothing to worry about in our GM foods. Their scientists screen and test tens-of-thousands of genetic candidates through 5 long phases before their GM foods reach the consumer market. These phases include gene optimization, trait integration, trait development, regulatory submission, and etc; all these phases with impressive names lead up to Monsanto’s crown rhetoric of giving farming plants a “software upgrade” (Pollan 3).

Monsanto website’s image-presentation and its rhetorical-appeal speak to a cultural instinct called “faith in the expert” – such as our natural instinct to trust our white-coat doctors (an image everywhere on Monsanto’s website). Monsanto’s website presents an atmospheric state that Monsanto commands a field of the brightest thinkers in this world, pouring ungodly amount of money into their research, and as a breakthrough result, gained command over our nature’s most precious commodity – our food. Because Monsanto’s bright geniuses and their hard work, we’re able to have more nutritious and price-competitive food as a result. And regarding the actual safety of this breakthrough, Monsanto’s PhD, biotech scientists in the white-coats – again, shown everywhere on their website – are saying “Trust us” – as the experts in this arena – just like how we trust our caring, white-coat doctors whenever we are sick (Pollan 2).

The people who are skeptical of Monsanto’s technology – whose rule-of-thumb tells them that GM food cross the line that is put there by nature – believes that Monsanto is taking “mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone” (Pollan 4). These people (some who are religious, other who are just skeptical) took a stab at Monsanto’s claims by taking their own trip to one of Monsanto’s $150 million research facility. And immediately, these skeptics started accusing Monsanto of being swashbucklers in their research and people of hyperbole in their claims. The skeptics’ first statement dumbfounded the vital technology (in the first 3 phases out of the 5 total) that makes Monsanto’s “software upgrade” work (DNA hybridization). They described a “gene gun” — used for the new DNA’s insertion — in the following fashion.

The gene gun is a strangely high-low piece of technology, but the main thing you need to know about it is that the gun here is not a metaphor: a .22 shell is used to fire stainless-steel projectiles dipped in a DNA solution at a stem or leaf of the target plant. If all goes well, some of the DNA will pierce the wall of some of the cell’s nuclei and elbow its way into the double helix, a bully breaking into a line dance. If the new DNA happens to land in the right place – and no one yet knows what, or where, that place is – the plant grown from that cell will express the new gene. That’s it? That’s it. (Pollan in the Potato, 207)

Then the skeptics attack the last 2 phases of Monsanto’s 5 phases (before their GM foods reach the consumer market). Monsanto describes these 2 phases — “trait development” and “regulatory submission” — as a meticulous process where “tens of thousands of candidates are screened and tested for every project” ( After the skeptics examined these 2 phases, they described the screening and selection of tens of thousands of DNA insertions (candidates) as the following: “‘So [they] grow out thousands of different plants… and then look for the best.’” (Pollan in the Potato, 209).

Even Monsanto’s crowned and precious metaphor of “software upgrade” for our food becomes the following in the hands of the skeptics: “throw a bunch of DNA against the wall and see what sticks; do this enough times, and you’re bound to get what you’re looking for” (Pollan in the Potato, 209). So in summary, the skeptics describe Monsanto’s sophisticated technology that costs $1.5 million a day as the following: you dip bullets in the new genes that give you the traits that you want in your plant; then you shoot thousands of host plants (candidates) with bullets dipped in new genetic material; finally you grow them all out and see which ones actually inherited the new genetic expression. The skeptics make Monsanto sound like a bunch of kids messing around in the genetic darkness with a lot of uncertainties unseen and unsolved.

The actual truth of this argument is very complicated despite of both sides’ hyperboles and rhetoric. Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin says that “software upgrade” is a ‘bad metaphor in biology: the genome is very noisy.’ (Pollan 3). Favorable and critical experts of GM food alike have decided that “it may be impossible ever to conclude once and for all that this technology is intrinsically sound or dangerous.” (Pollan in the Potato, 209). And the people actively engaged in both sides of this debate are painfully aware of this. Thus they know how effective rhetoric is used may be the determinant factor of the truth on this subject.

Despite of its uncertainties, should we allow GM Food to be on our markets – guided solely by the capitalistic principle of offering a better product at a better price? To start, the new technology of genetic engineering has already allowed biotechnologists to create numerous novel creations, “such as potatoes with bacteria genes, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes, and thousands of other plants, animals and insects…. Currently, up to 45 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as is[sic] 85 percent of soybeans. It has been estimated that 70-75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.” (Kimbrell) As statistics show, genetic engineering is a very practical technology for improving our daily lives.

America is also country that is known for its values of practicality and scientific progression, even if these values are sometimes risky and detrimental. Our culture has already taken into account the unsustainable nature of our future in terms of energy, garbage, global climate changes, and weapons-of-mass-destruction, just to name a few issues. Monsanto is trying to encourage their GM food into our markets using the language of our existing culture. To the farmer whose margins are too low and are bounded to expensive chemicals that ‘saddles him with debt, jeopardizes his health, erodes his soil and ruins his fertility, pollutes the groundwater, and compromises the safety of the food he produces’ (Pollan in the Potato, 190), Monsanto’s GM food promises a practical solution: higher margins, fewer chemical spays, and a healthier spud. And to the everyday consumers who can’t tell the difference, a better plant at a better price makes the deal, despite of uncertainties on its long term safety.

Relying on such American values as the short term practicality, Monsanto hope the immediate gain of cheap and efficient supply-chain of food will entice people over the current uncertainties of safety revolving around GM food. “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GM foods] that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender… The total acreage devoted to GM crops around the world is expanding. That may be what eventually brings this debate to an end” (SourceWatch 6).

The skeptics and critics of Monsanto’s GM food invoke upon the values of collective and long-term wellbeing of the human health, global environment, and sustainable ecosystem, all which Monsanto may be violating. Their rhetoric accuses Monsanto of performing a “massive, irreversible experiment with the planet.” (Domingo 1748) Even though no one can empirically prove that GM food is actually harmful, but “is this worth the cheap food and the other slight, modern conveniences brought about by so much uncertainty on our long-term safety?” (Domingo 1748), the critics ask.

Some scientists project that the GM food’s long term problems may consist of our world being contaminated with “biological pollution.” (“Biological pollution” is self-replicating GM pollen spread by the wind. If crossed with other plants, “biological pollution” can create “super-weed”: weed that produces its own pesticide – BT. (Pusztai)) Also the GM food that has pesticide built into its organic structure may be harmful to the human body in the long run. (Mansfield) Finally by pre-emptying so much BT (the only safe insecticide on the market right now) into the environment, bug resistance to BT in the near future is very likely. Without an alternative, safe pesticide in the supply line, the critics charge Monsanto with being irresponsible to the wellbeing of our common environment, our health, and our future.

Another set of rhetoric created by the opponents of Monsanto — in trying to drive GM food off the market — targets common consumer’s cultural fear of rogue scientists creating out-of-control, genetic-mutated monsters out of their own greed, ambition, or their irresponsibleness. These critics call Monsanto’s GM food “frankenplants” – think Frankenstein. Some fierce critics also physically label GM foods with mutants or skull and cross bones in our supermarkets to make their point and the association between genetic engineering and monstrosity. (Ozeki 86) All these rhetoric and symbols aim at invoking the long cultural fears of gene-manipulation becoming out-of-control, self-replicating and destructive monsters — hyped by both the media and mysticism.

The critics hope that by associating our culturally-iconic monsters with GM foods in the minds of consumers, then perhaps the general shoppers will perceive greater risks with buying and consuming Genetically Modified food. And on top of that – out of wishful thinking perhaps, critics hope such rhetoric will prompt the consumers to take greater responsibilities to balance their individual freedom to choose with the freedom to choose safely and responsibly against short-term gains offered by “frankenplants.”

The philosophical argument over risky progression versus collective stability has been a long one. The East and the Middle East region sought the later value, the West, the earlier. And today, the West (especially America) is far more technologically advanced and richer than most of the World, at the cost of global warming, garbage overflow, proliferation of weapon-of-mass-destruction, and unsustainable energy use, just to name a few of the Western problems. Monsanto’s scientists and leaders are a victorious branch and believer of the western ideology – the earlier value stated above. They believe that we are at the point of progression that even life – more specifically the code that describes life – is a solvable equation, pliable to human ingenuity. Thus Monsanto’s rhetoric in the GM food debate reflects this belief.

There are people on the other hand believe that life is sacred and mysterious. From their values and their under-whelmed, firsthand observation of Monsanto’s technologies, these critics challenged Monsanto’s self-claimed, scientific expertise with their rhetoric that Monsanto is taking a “random-shot in the genetic-darkness.” These critics push for a more harmonious, stable treatment of our food supply – the later value stated above. The critics argue that the food market should embrace a “post-materialistic” culture emphasizing environmental preservation, collective welfare, “quality of life,” and planet sustainability, in contrast of Monsanto’s practical, progressive, price-only emphasis. Therefore, these critics of Monsanto argue that GM food should be regulated (perhaps by the government) or even not sold for the collective wellbeing on the environment and human health.

Monsanto, however, speaks directly to the farmers whose price-margins are already too low, and who are bounded to expensive chemicals that are hazardous. Monsanto’s rhetoric promises practical answers: higher margins and fewer chemical spays. And to the consumer who doesn’t know what is potentially at stake, a better plant at a better price makes the deal for them. Monsanto hopes that business and consumer practicality trumps the uncertainties that come naturally with such a high leap in technological progress. And eventually, Monsanto looks forward to the day when “the market [is] so flooded [with GM foods] that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender” (SourceWatch 6).

1. SourceWatch: Monsanto. The Center for Media & Democracy. 15 Nov. 2006.

2. Monsanto Company Information. Monsanto Company. 15 Nov. 2006.


3. Pollan, Michael. “Playing God in the Garden: Fried, Mashed or Zapped with DNA.” New York Times Magazine Feb. 1998: 21-28.

4. Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

5. Pollan, Michael. The Potato. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

6. Ozeki, Ruth L. My Year of Meats. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

7. “Genetically Modified Food.” Wikipedia. April 12, 2008 . Wikipedia. 13 Apr 2008

8. Kimbrell, Andrew. “Genetic Engineered Food.” Center for Food Safety. 1 Aug 2007. The Center for Food Safety. 13 Apr 2008

9. Mansfield, Betty K. . “Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms.” Human Genome
Project Information. 24 Jul 2007. 13 Apr 2008

10. Pusztai, Arpad. “Genetically Modified Foods: Are They a Risk to Human/Animal Health?.” Actionbioscience. 1 Jun 2001. AIBS. 13 Apr 2008

11. Domingo, J.L. (2000) Health risks of genetically modified foods: Many opinions but few data. Science 288, 1748-1749.

Author: Charles L. Wang

I lived a good life - a hard one, but I sleep peacefully at night knowing that I have made a difference in someone's life... Oh by the way, I'm from China: Downtown, China... Read my full bio.