THE BLOG
07/17/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

CON GAMES: Do GMOs Make Us Gods or Monsters?

Were you to genetically engineer the chief technology officer (CTO) of the Monsanto Company, you might have to manufacture Robb Fraley.

The only thing slick about him is his head: The rest is solid, stolid, plain-speaking, look-you-right-in-the-eye Middle American farmboy. He grew up on a farm in Illinois, and then he went on to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where he began research on the relationship between genes and crops. Thirty years ago he started with a group of a half-dozen researchers at Monsanto, and now he manages 5,000 scientists in the company worldwide. He also won the prestigious World Food Prize in 2013 for his work as a scientific research in the field of genes and foodstuffs. If there be monsters within Robb Fraley, they must have been genetically engineered out of existence.

And then there's the vegetables. It's not that he won't eat meat, but as we go through the buffet conga line here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he layers his plate with every available vegetable before he grabs a sandwich that is all vegetable -- "balsamic-glazed veggie muffaletta with olive relish on focaccia." (This is Aspen, after all.) Then he plants this whopper: Monsanto is producing 40 percent of all the seeds for vegetables in the world.

Fraley comes to Colorado all the time, to his second home in Steamboat Springs, where he grows his own crops. He came to Aspen this July to engage in a strategic "dialogue" with any and all comers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the products Mother Nature never would have dreamed of. The heart of the dialogue is a whopper, too: people around the world are afraid of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made possible in large part by Monsanto technology licensed to 300 countries around the world.

Should people be afraid? Should they be very afraid because humankind in the guise of Robb Fraley is playing God?

Fraley has a basket full of compelling answers. For one, GMOs are "heavily regulated," he says, by a trio of government agencies -- the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); in Europe, individual countries and the European Union (EU) provide multiple layers of additional oversight; worldwide, so do the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Academy of Science (NAS), and other agencies foreign and domestic.

"Those oversights are important," Fraley says on the rooftop of the Doerr-Hosier Building here at the Aspen Institute. "The track record is important. And the benefits are important."

In fact, he insists, there is "a scientific consensus," built over 30 years, that indicates GMOs are safe and sound. He likens it to the debate (or non-debate) over climate change, with profound implications for companies that dominate the food chain like Monsanto.

"The important point is this," Fraley says. "There's never been a single food or feed safety issue ever associated with this technology."

The magazine Popular Science just published "Core Truths: 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked," a piece that corroborates much of what Fraley says about unfounded GMO fears.

"[T]he truth is," writes Brooke Borel in the magazine, "GMOs have been studied intensively, and they look a lot more prosaic than the hype contends. To make Arctic apples, biologists took genes from Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties, modified them to suppress the enzyme that causes browning, and reinserted them in the leaf tissue. It's a lot more accurate than traditional methods, which involve breeders hand-pollinating blossoms in hopes of producing fruit with the desired trait. Biologists also introduce genes to make plants pest- and herbicide-resistant; those traits dominate the more than 430 million acres of GMO crops that have already been planted globally. Scientists are working on varieties that survive disease, drought, and flood."

"So what, exactly, do consumers have to fear? To find out, Popular Science chose 10 of the most common claims about GMOs and interviewed nearly a dozen scientists. Their collective answer: not much at all."

Borel says more than 1,700 peer-reviewed scientific studies have been published establishing the safety of GMOs. The writer quotes Pedro Sanchez, Agriculture and Food Security Center director at Columbia University's Earth Institute: "GMOs are just one tool to make sure the world is food-secure when we add two billion more people by 2050. It's not the only answer, and it is not essential, but it is certainly one good thing in our arsenal."

Back on the rooftop, Fraley says the world will have to "double the food supply between now and 2050," when the global population swells from 7.2 to an estimated 9.6 billion people. Not surprisingly, he stresses the impact of Monsanto seeds and information technology on "the smallest farmer in Africa or India or China."

Should GMOs at least be labeled?

"Absolutely," he says -- and so should natural or organic products because "consumers should have a choice."

It turns out Monsanto also produces a huge chunk of organic seeds to feed the world -- organic is good business for the company associated with the GMOs. No matter what or how you eat, Monsanto is likely to have staked out your plate.

Neither God nor monster, Robb Fraley's seeds are feeding the world. Even if you don't like it, you still have to eat your vegetables.