Decolonizing the GMO debate

Members of Universe City, a decentralized food hub in the Brownsville neighborhood that is working to build food sovereignty while also promoting community healing practices, pack bags of fresh produce from Green Top Farms which will be distributed to area food banks, community leaders and other places to serve New Yorkers in need of food on July 22, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. December 2021

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Food systems reform has moved toward food justice. Discussions about GMOs have not. 

I had the fortune to teach a food studies class last spring. It had been about a dozen years since I did so, occupied as I was teaching courses in technology and environmental studies more generally. The differences were stark. In the late 2000s, I built the class in the middle of the “Pollanated” era of reform and Food Inc., when readers still wondered about buying local and debated the new U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label. As with the broader local food movement of the era, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the class’s centerpiece. It fit the time. It went well.

Pictured above: Members of Universe City, a Brooklyn-based food hub, pack bags of fresh produce for community distribution. GMO proponents tend to focus on “fixing” food via bioengineering, without considering efforts of community-based food and racial justice initiatives.

In 2021, the centerpiece is food justice. Despite my lazy teacher’s impulse to recycle the earlier syllabus, it turned out that the old one was barely usable. It lacked enough attention to the questions today’s students are clamoring for on justice, equity, and inclusion within food systems. I knew many of the new class’ students from other work at our college farm and from a weekly reading group we hold on campus, where we argue over everything from climate change to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Our group was pushed along by the turmoil of Covid-19 and the racial reckoning gaining traction after George Floyd’s murder. We stopped merely referring to racial justice and started acknowledging that it had to be the guiding anchor for our discussions about the future. The students’ commitment to systemic reform put food sovereignty, Indigenous knowledge, and racial justice as central issues. They were (and are) motivated by the goal of decolonization. Their leading lights are people like Leah Penniman, Ron Finley, Karen Washington, Eric Holt-Gimenez, and a generation of food justice-oriented voices.

As I put together a new course plan, I was surprised to keep running into reform arguments that ran in a different direction. I’d seen a certain kind of GMO defense brief cropping up over the years, but a new Exhibit A plopped down on my desk. There, in the middle of the summer, was a July New York Times Magazine centerpiece profile by Jennifer Kahn, “Learning to love G.M.O.s.” It was provocatively titled, colorfully illustrated, and well publicized. It had an air of techno-boosterism that felt oddly out of sync with evolution in reform debates. Maybe this was just The New York Times walking several years out of lockstep with on-the-ground practitioners. But it hit a nerve as yet another new entry to a longstanding and, I thought, stale argument.

A photo of Leah Penniman in front of a greenhouse row. December 2021

Leah Penniman is a farmer, educator, author, and food sovereignty activist. She argues for decolonization and respect for Afro-Indigenous agricultural knowledge, while the GMO debate avoids engaging with history or culture.

Instagram/ leahpenniman

Broadly speaking, the GMO debate asks whether improving crop yield with genetic engineering is the way to feed our ever-growing population or an avoidable threat to health, culture, and the environment. It’s a meaningful debate to have, for sure, as policy makers grapple with changing land-use patterns, pressure from export market demands, northerly moving growing zones, worries over farmer autonomy and self-sufficiency, and the like. It’s a lot.

The hitch isn’t so much that there is a public argument about the place of GMOs in the future of food. Genetic modification will play some role in agricultural policies of tomorrow. It already does. 

The hitch is that the framing of the pro-GMO stance has not evolved enough to keep up with justice-oriented work. As one of my students wrote when she saw The New York Times piece, “What the … ? What is this?” It felt like there were two conversations happening, in different worlds.

I don’t want to pin this all on the Times, an easy target. It was but the most recent and vibrant of the GMO defense genre. But the fact that the genre is still here caught me off guard. By arguing that efficiency, quantity, and scale are the most important features of a food system—that’s how you feed an ever-growing population, this argument goes—it rests comfortably on a century-old production-focused ideal that itself relies on colonial relations, export market metrics, and certain types of oppressive knowledge production. It relies, in other words, on commitments that run counter to the justice-oriented evolution I’d read about and taught.

If we follow the need for racial reckoning in society writ large, then reform again demands us to ask the “whose knowledge” and “under what conditions” questions.

To go a step further, the heart of the issue is a particular boilerplate GMO defense that has two main pieces. One suggests that “the science is in” and, thus, any resistance to GMO technology is resistance to science. The other is the assumption that GMO technology is but a physical bag of seeds, somehow divorced from capital, labor, farmwork organization, resource requirements, scale demands, maintenance, heritage, or cultural context.

I had seen that framing during the earlier 2000s-era food studies class. In the years after, I found it popping up again and again. Journalist Michael Specter once sought to take down well-known Indian ecofeminist and prominent GMO critic Vandana Shiva with that approach. It’s been the anchor for various op-eds by ecomodernists. I saw it in think pieces decrying anti-science, one titled, baldly enough, “Are you anti-GMO? Then you are anti-science.” I heard it in popular TED Talks. And there it was again this summer.

Rather than attend to justice or sovereignty, GMO advocates frame the issue first as a matter of scientific literacy. Those who raise concerns about genetic modification do not understand the science. It’s not just a feature of the commentariat, but a central plank in GMO advocacy outlets like the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS). That’s a Gates Foundation-funded training center that brings people to Ithaca to learn how to advocate for GMOs in their home countries, with a heavy emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. (Salon called it a PR firm “for junk food, GMOS, and pesticides.”) In that Times article, Kahn quoted religious and food studies scholar Alan Levinovitz to the same end. He noted that “the anxiety around GMOs is almost entirely untethered to an understanding of what’s happening at a scientific level.” 

[The GMO proponents’ version of reform] puts nature in the position of an “Other,” a separate sphere to be fixed or improved not just by humans but by Western, market-oriented humans.

Here’s the thing, though. The issue isn’t science or no science. That binary is tired. We need all the scientific knowledge we can get. It’s whose science, as part of which research program, that matters. The GMO defense hasn’t advanced enough due to a troublesome fidelity to a certain type of science that continues oppressive forms of knowledge production, not because of anti-science. 

What’s more, that isn’t even how science operates in this case. As I have written in an epilogue elsewhere, proponents assume the science in debates about genetic modification is about measuring whether GMOs make people sick. By “science,” they mean medical science. They’re talking about biology and public health data sets. Indeed, there is no substantial body of evidence that genetically modified foods cause illness.

Yet claiming resistance to an abstract science is too simplistic. Questions of food and land use are complex cultural, environmental, and scientific issues. Knowing “the science is in” may help with the health part of the conversation, but avoids confronting how we imagine outside-the-lab issues like land use, culture, and foodways. Nor does it help to overcome the colonial agricultural patterns of the prior century that, in many cases, led to the problems GMO technology ostensibly seeks to resolve. 

It’s also the case that we’re talking about sciences, plural. There is no science, singular, that can be “in.” There’s ecology, crop science, soil science, agronomy, water resource management, plant nutrition, plant pathology, agricultural chemistry, and more. That’s not to mention that if we follow the need for racial reckoning in society writ large, then reform again demands us to ask the “whose knowledge” and “under what conditions” questions. As scholar Taylor Dotson recently argued, “Ignoring questions regarding the right of traditional societies or organic farmers to uncontaminated crops, simply for the sake of keeping the debate ‘rooted in science,’ advantages biotechnology companies at the expense of other groups.” The difficulty here is scientism more than science.

Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products, in Los Angeles, California, October 19, 2012. California could become the first US state to enforce labeling of genetically modified foodstuffs also know as GMO's, in a vote next month pitting agro-chemical manufacturing giants against die-hard opponents of so-called

Cohen says proponents assume the science in debates about GMO is whether it makes people sick. However, there is no substantial body of evidence that genetically modified foods cause illness.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Looping back to the twinned premises of the boilerplate GMO defense, my worry over scientism is only the half of it. Pair that with a technological fix mindset, and I grew even more unsettled at a mismatch in debates over food systems reform. 

To that end, I should say that although I study the history of science, technology, and agriculture, I spend most of my time with engineers and scientists. In that capacity, I’ve spent more energy than I’d like to admit rebutting technical fixes to more-than-technical problems. Most of those other classes I was teaching the past dozen years have aimed at helping engineers-in-training come to their work with a more culturally attuned concept of technology. As in, technologies are not merely value-free objects sitting on the shelf. They are, rather, systems of people, activities, knowledge, and organization. They carry the history of their origins, the values of the institutions that shaped them, and the cultural context in which people use them.

Understanding that technologies are human-based systems counters a presumption that technology can ever be a value-free or value-neutral physical object. You can say your computer is a metal frame and plastic screen, for example, or your car is a steel hull with an engine bolted to it. But most people recognize that those are not very good descriptions of a car or computer. The computer is also the software, the maintenance, the aesthetics, the battery, the knowledge to navigate and manipulate it, and on and on. Those elements all come to us from human decisions about what to design and what is worth paying for. They are, that is, full of human values.

Too often, the GMO Defense genre misses that core tenet to promote a view of GMOs as a neutral technology. Recipient nations should accept them as obviously beneficial. Sure, there were problems in the early years, we read in the Times profile, but readers are asked to believe Monsanto has cleaned those up. GMO advocate and environmental writer Mark Lynas tells readers that seeing “a crop [of modified rice] that had such obvious lifesaving potential ruined” by anti-GMO activists was the angriest he’d ever felt, the suggestion being that resistance meant you were foolish or, worse, anti-modern. Yes, “G.M.O.s were [initially] introduced to the public … as a corporate product, focused on profit,” but they need not be that way still. GMO critics have long argued over the implications of monoculture and the environmental resource draw of the technology—water, Roundup, soil quality, etc.—but readers are told we need not worry about those anymore. 

The issue isn’t science or no science. That binary is tired.

Not only are those claims unclear, but they trap readers in a narrower argument that misses the larger point at hand: Anchoring the debate around scientific proof and unqualified acceptance of technology from outside your community blocks out considerations of cultural context, colonial legacies, Indigenous knowledge systems, and more. In that way, GMO defenders carry forward classic 20th-century tropes of development and technology transfer that I thought food systems reformers had left behind. Here, the difficulty is technocracy more than technology.

The GMO proponents’ technocratic version of reform is colonial in its reliance upon and perpetuation of the logic of conquest. It puts nature in the position of an “Other,” a separate sphere to be fixed or improved not just by humans but by Western, market-oriented humans. We are not part of ecosystems; we are in charge of them. Scientists are “designing” nature. Plant biologist Cathie Martin wants to design plants to “produce beneficial nutrients” and modify Canadian Arctic Apples to “resist browning.” Horticulturalist Joel Reiner told the Times that fruits must be altered because “berries always have some tragic flaw.” Plant pathologists at Penn State want to make anti-browning mushrooms too. Oxidation is an enemy to fight, not a feature of organic life to guide us. Rice that can be uprooted in floods is the problem, say the designers of the GMO “scuba rice” that can hold onto the earth more firmly as floodwaters stream over it. The floods that result from changes in land use, scale, and organization aren’t the problem. No, it is the rice’s fault.

Apples that turn brown when cut are not a problem to be fixed any more than soil that gets wet when it rains. They only become a problem when market structures deem them necessary trade goods shipped far and wide. To that point, Kahn said the quiet part loudly, “Meeting the needs of modern agriculture—growing produce that can be shipped long distances and hold up in the store and at home for more than a few days—can result in tomatoes that taste like cardboard or strawberries that aren’t as sweet as they used to be.” Those are not the needs of modern agriculture. They are the needs of global markets. 

I spoke with Purdue anthropologist Andrew Flachs about that tendency to blame nature, farmers, or both for not satisfying market demands, then swoop in with a technical fix that ignores context. Instead of addressing a world of toxins and pollutants that lead to cancer, for example, we engineer an indigo tomato to fight cancer. 

Field of golden rice. December 2021

One of the most advertised GMO propositions is “Golden Rice,” designed by Swiss scientists to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency. This strategy bears the assumptions of technical fixes to problems that could be addressed in ways less dependent on monocropped environments.


In a similar vein, Flachs pointed to one of the most advertised of the GMO propositions, “Golden Rice,” designed by Swiss scientists (with the help of an agrochemical conglomerate, a global rice institute, and the Gates Foundation). It’s intended to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Because the body converts beta-carotene into Vitamin A, scientists designed the rice to contain beta-carotene and thus address the deficiency. But there are many plants and foods that have Vitamin A or its precursor. White rice is not one of them. That doesn’t mean the idea is ridiculous. It’s much the same strategy as fortifying milk with Vitamin D. But the strategy bears the assumptions of technical fixes to problems that could be addressed in ways less dependent on monocropped environments.

Instead of seeking to plant more diversified crops that could then provide a balanced diet for children—with vegetables that already have Vitamin A like, say, carrots, kale, or squash—GMO advocates say add the vitamin precursor to rice and be done with it. In fact, nutrition programs in the Philippines did achieve the former, reducing childhood VAD “from a peak of 40 percent in 2003 to 15 percent in 2008” by changing diets to include different vitamin sources, an article in The Ecologist noted, before Western corporations helped work to impose the latter. 

As Flachs and his co-author Natalie Mueller found in their recent study of genetic narratives, the implications for seed sovereignty and agrobiodiversity are stark. More culturally attuned narratives aren’t about accepting or rejecting science; they’re about acknowledging the deep colonial legacies in recipient nations. They’re about respecting the movement for food sovereignty. They’re about understanding the struggle instead of assuming those who struggle are ignorant.

Genetic narratives matter because debates about genetic modification aren’t going away. As a big, capital-intensive solution, the scale and global scope of GMOs gives them a special place in food systems reform. They also fit neatly into a well-trod genre of “the future of food” that holds production as its most hallowed virtue. From Malthus to the Green Revolution, from robot farming to insect-based ice cream, prognosticators have long reveled in debating how to feed imagined future populations through measures of efficiency. Nothing has occupied that space this century more than GMOs.

If GMO defenders truly want to help fashion that future landscape, they must engage with the intertwined cultural and ecological issues that are driving the vision of more justice-oriented advocates.

The failure of genetic modification debates to evolve in keeping with a more inclusive food justice ethos is bizarre to food studies students of the early 2020s. While Leah Penniman argues for decolonization and respect for Afro-Indigenous agricultural knowledge, the GMO debate avoids engaging with history or culture. While the National Young Farmers Coalition works for reparative justice, members of the Women, Food, and Ag Network advocate for queer farming equity, and the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust espouses a “community vision that uplifts global Indigenous, Black, and POC relationships with land, skills, and lifeways,” GMO advocates argue for ceding control of lands to multinational seed corporations. 

The framing is hardly a semantic worry. As Lela Nargi recently reported for The Counter, the recent U.N. Food Systems Summit splintered over those two directions. Entrenched powers seek to remain entrenched. They’re here for more of the same as GMO defenders encourage more capital-intensive, often proprietary knowledge-based “digitalization and gene editing and precision agriculture.” Others, Nargi pointed out, favor “solutions that are resilient, community-driven, and that impact the most vulnerable.” 

Is it even possible for the pro-GMO debate to evolve? I think it is. Advocates for genetic modification could have a place in these reform debates. It’s difficult to imagine any future for food that does not include GMO technology.

If GMO defenders truly want to help fashion that future landscape, they must engage with the intertwined cultural and ecological issues that are driving the vision of more justice-oriented advocates. The choice to genetically modify crops and seeds should follow from broader community-based arguments about agrarian livelihood, economic disparity, or household management, not lead them. We can’t dismantle a structure based on colonial assumptions—our dominant food system—while the other side continues to spackle the cracked walls of that very same edifice.

Benjamin R. Cohen Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. He is the author of Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (Chicago, 2019) and co-editor of Acquired Tastes: Stories about the Origins of Modern Food (with Michael Kideckel and Anna Zeide) (MIT, 2021), along with other works in the history of science, technology, agriculture, and food.