Disease, pestilence and unforgiving weather patterns added to the seasonal lottery that governed crop production.
"G"enetic food modification came as a natural evolution of life cycles. Without it there would not have been a crop after bacteria, grasshoppers or thistle choked production. So it worked out well the first time it was tried.
Planting the best seed production from the most productive cereal crop season after season, and by cross-breeding the best animals, gene pools where changed but civilization was given its start.
The earliest known practitioners of biotechnology — Babylonians who added a variety of yeast fungus to grain about 5,000 years ago — produced beer and helped make civilization the fun thing it is.
Proponents of modern genetic food modification through biotechnology expect it to help keep civilization going by feeding people who otherwise might starve, but the public is wary at best. Genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s, are produced in a more systematic way today and create much faster changes to the food supply, often by adding genetic material from various species into others.
Scientists and laymen have very different opinions about these activities, typically done to boost yields or strengthen resistance to herbicides or insect damage.
The results suggest that there’s more to evaluating G.M. techniques than the food itself. Whatever its genetic code might say about the grain that it’s made from, man does not live by bread alone.
“It’s an issue that’s multidimensional and may generate opposition for a wide range of reasons,” said Dominique Brossard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies public perceptions of G.M. foods and serves on a National Academy of Sciences panel evaluating their use. “People are concerned over potential health and safety issues. Others bring up environmental concerns, and countries are concerned more about monopolies or the consequences of technology on small farms.”
Concern and harm aren't the same, however.
“We haven’t seen any scientific evidence of potential damage” from eating G.M. foods, Ms. Brossard said.
Her observation concurs with a 2013 review of research from the previous decade that concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use” of G.M. crops. The review, by a team of Italian scientists, focused on effects from eating the food and on biodiversity or other environmental repercussions. When studies have found some impact, it noted, either it was what had been intended — killing bugs, say — or else no different from what occurs with natural crops.
An analysis of 197 studies of G.M. foods by the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia, found that 24 showed them to be safer or healthier than ordinary foods, 11 showed them to be less safe or healthy and the rest showed no difference or produced inconclusive results.
Such benign findings make sense if you examine G.M. foods with the microscope cranked up to maximum. There is no meaningful distinction between them and other foods, as far as genes, proteins and molecules are concerned.
“From a genetic point of view, genes are genes,” Ms. Brossard said. “It doesn't matter where they come from.”
But it does matter when you zoom out and examine the issue from the perspective of human instinct and imperfect logic. Sentiments contained in the old admonition not to fool with Mother Nature, combined with an innate aversion toward things considered tainted or unwholesome, help make opposition to G.M. foods sensible psychologically, though not biologically and chemically, a recent paper by a team of biological and social scientists from Ghent University in Belgium concluded. “People intuitively interpret gene modification as an unwarranted and contaminating intervention into the essence of an organism, rendering the organism impure and, therefore, no longer consumable,” the paper said. “The effect will probably be enhanced when the introduced DNA derives from a different species.”
While tangible harm is hard to detect, G.M. farming has been found to produce tangible benefits. A 2014 German review of research much like the Italian one calculated that G.M. technology has reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent and increased farmer profits by 68 percent.
“The average agronomic and economic benefits of G.M. crops are large and significant,” said the authors, from the University of Göttingen. They expressed hope that findings like theirs would foster public trust in G.M. food.
Whether they trust it or not, consumers aren't exactly avoiding the stuff, at least in some places. It’s hard to find a soybean or a kernel of corn in North America that’s not genetically modified.
That G.M. foods are so prevalent in the region may not be realized because American food providers are not required to disclose G.M.O. content. There seems to be little clamor for such information, either; in a 2012 referendum in health-conscious California, voters narrowly declined to require labeling.
Labeling rules are stricter in Europe, and far less G.M. food is produced or consumed there. A European Commission decision in April allowing member states to restrict the use of G.M.O.s approved at the regional level suggests that the public isn't warming to them.
The developing world is also where a lot of hunger exists, and much hope is being pinned on the success of G.M. crops to alleviate it. Charitable foundations like those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have contributed significant resources to G.M. projects in Africa, for instance, and the United States Agency for International Development has financed numerous initiatives in poorer countries.
“Higher-nutritional-value G.M. crops are appearing on the market,” said Alessandro Nicolia, a biologist at the University of Perugia who coauthored the review of safety research. Examples include so-called Golden Rice, which has more vitamin A than ordinary rice, and strains of maize and soybeans rich in lysine, an amino acid important in building muscle tissue. He added that “products are in the pipeline” that consume water or nutrients more efficiently.
But as with other aspects of G.M.O.s, doubts have been raised about their utility in reducing hunger and increasing the global food supply. Some researchers contend that indoor farming can do both in a more benign way. Having total control over light, water and other factors allows food to grow much faster than outdoors, they say.
The United Nations World Food Program makes the case that limited supply isn't the primary reason for food shortages. Destruction of farm space and lack of investment in infrastructure that gets food from where it’s grown to where it’s eaten is a bigger culprit, the organization says, as are wastage and war. Why hoe vegetables when you just let the Blueberries grow. Genes are organic, and it doesn't change. Our habits do change and the search for illogical food resources only drives prices higher.
There are many competing viewpoints, each passionately held. But civilization’s got to eat, and G.M. foods, like it or not, naturally are a big part of diet.
“It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next five years,” Ms. Brossard said. “People become polarized about right and wrong, organic and natural on one side, G.M.O. on the other. I hope both technologies and common sense can be part of the toolkit that we use to create a sustainable food supply for the planet.”