GMOs Could be a Key to Sustainable Farming

Someone once told me you could survive on just peanut butter sandwiches and oranges. I have no idea if that's true, but the advice suggested a tasty lunch for a road trip. It was a freezing, foggy day last December, and I was preparing to drive from my home in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to California's Central Valley, the great agricultural heartland of a state that produces a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. As I spread my peanut butter, I read the packages on my counter. My nine-grain bread promised, vaguely, that it was “made with natural ingredients.” My oranges were “locally grown.” My peanut butter jar assured me twice, once on each side, that the spread was “NON GMO.” It was even “CERTIFIED NON GMO.” The inspection must have been a rather cursory affair, given that there are no genetically modified peanuts on the market.

The grocery aisle is a testament to our attachment to “natural” as a signifier for all that is good. And as many consumers become increasingly concerned about global warming , there's a tendency to assume that these same labels also mean a product is good for the planet.

See more from The Climate Issue | April 2020. Subscribe to WIRED . Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez
But unfortunately, the packages on my counter and elsewhere in my kitchen, like my fancy organic sauerkraut (“Our passion for healthy, natural living is reflected in all our products”), told me very little that was relevant to climate change . My bag of local (that is, California) oranges presumably required less fossil fuel to get to my store than if they'd been from Mexico or Spain. But beyond that, I knew nothing.
Some labels—like “natural”—don't mean anything. A USDA organic certification is meaningful: It says the food was grown without certain forbidden synthetic chemicals and wasn't genetically modified. But the label in no way guarantees that the food was grown in a manner best for the climate. For one thing, many organic crops use more land than their conventional counterparts. When you clear land for crops, you often cut down forests—destroying a valuable carbon sink and turning it into a carbon leak. On the other hand, some conventional farming techniques use less land but rely on artificial fertilizer, which can make its way into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide.
Which foods generate the fewest emissions? No federal certification will tell me that. And what's worse, even when consumers are presented with information relevant to climate change, they seem blind to it. One study suggested that, on average, “sustainability-conscious” American consumers will pay $1.16 more for a package of organic coffee, but they won't pay a premium for a less familiar “Carbon Footprint” label that quantifies the emissions associated with the product. This may simply reflect how 20 years of the organic label have conditioned public consciousness, but it also suggests something else: that our moral intuitions about food are out of whack with the demands of a crisis that is right on top of us.

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Organic GMOs Could Be The Future of Food — If We Let Them

This is a problem. Agriculture, including livestock and forestry, accounts for 24 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. We face a formidable challenge in the years ahead. We need to reduce those emissions and also sustain a growing population in a world of increasingly extreme conditions. And it would be nice if we could do it without expanding agriculture's footprint, so the rest of Earth's species can live here too.

To do so, we're going to need to abandon some of our attachment to what we perceive as natural, and not just at the supermarket. After all, we're not going to stop global warming merely by chasing after premium versions of food that only a few consumers can afford. We need to revise our thinking about food so that, as citizens, we can push for the regulatory policies that will meaningfully shift our entire food system's effect on the climate.