Last summer I attended the annual fourth of July parade in our local town with my family. We enjoy watching the floats, pageantry (I am embellishing a bit here), and the copious quantities of candy thrown at us. Nearly every local business has a float — well a truck with the company name on it serves as a float in many instances. The local politicians, constabulary, high-school marching bands, queens of various vegetable festivals, local junior baseball teams, etc. join the queue. The obligatory paper advertisements are handed out by the business participants lauding their merchandise.
During the parade, I had a paper shoved in my face about the problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I had just heard a wonderful Ted talk about how safe GMOs were by genetic scientist Pamela Ronald so the proclamation caught my attention. I realized that the polemic was being passed out by a local health-food store. There was an obvious conflict of interest – by creating suspicions that GMOs were unhealthy or even harmful the store benefited by encouraging people to buy the non GMOs they sold. Disinformation to make a buck? The World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, National Academy of Sciences (US), American Medical Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Food and Drug Administration, American Cancer Society, and more than 270 other prestigious groups including many Academy of Sciences in other countries have gone on record through numerous reports that GMOs are safe.
I spent a bit of time in my last essay on global warming bemoaning how the subject has become a political hot potato because of disinformation by Exxon (and I mentioned other examples such as Big Tobacco, the National Football League with concussions, and creationists). Was the radical left on a disinformation campaign also? It certainly appears so. As a scientist I know how difficult it is to achieve a consensus on a hypothesis. Scientists have no time for unsupported opinions – they demand empirically supported results. I don’t deny that politics plays a role, but I like to think, at the end of the day, that the accepted theories that make it through the labyrinth of scientific scrutiny are extremely sound. Let’s not forget that scientists have egos and you get intellectual brownie points for debunking someone’s work. It’s a jungle out there as I have discovered first hand as a research professor. When I see the community of scientists fundamentally agreeing on a topic, I find it fairly convincing (scientists agreeing is an amazing thing in itself). I don’t mean to imply that science cannot make mistakes – there are some notorious examples. But I cannot think of a better way to make educated decisions – based on the research from the experts in the scientific community. Unsupported opinions just don’t cut it even if the people are well meaning.
The case of Golden Rice demonstrates the horrendous impact anti-GMO groups can have in a rush to prevent GMOs from reaching the marketplace1. According to Scientific American Golden Rice had passed the health and safety issues for commercial use by 2002. Syngenta had genetically engineered Vitamin A from corn (beta-carotine) into rice. Syngenta altruistically turned over all the monetary interests for the use of the rice to a non-profit organization to avoid any interference from anti-GMO groups that fight biotech companies for profiting on GMOs. The only hurdle left was regulatory approval. In 2015, Golden Rice was among seven products that won the Patents for Humanity award, but the rice is still not in use anywhere (The Golden Rice Now advocacy group tells me that the Philippines and Bangladesh are expected to have Golden Rice available in 12 months – some time in the middle of 2017). Amazingly, the life-saving rice is strenuously opposed by environmental and anti-globalization activists who object to GMOs.
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
In 2014, Justus Wesseler of the Technische Universität München and David Zilberman of the University of California quantified the economic impact caused by the resistance2. They estimate that at least $199 million dollars were lost per year over the previous decade just in India. They likened the loss to a metric called life years which they calculated to be 1.4 million in India alone which reflects deaths, blindness and related health disabilities from not having access to Vitamin A. Unfortunately children are the hardest hit.
I want to emphasize that the Golden Rice case is more than a battle over perceived danger by the anti-GMO movement in the face of contrary scientific evidence. There are people dying while Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other misguided organizations wage war over unclear principles and leftists ideals. And of course there is always the Non-GMO Project which was created by health-food retailers to sow seeds of doubt (I don’t know if the pun was intended or not) “who oppose a technology that just happens to threaten their profits” according to Scientific American. I should make it clear that my criticism of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club is not done lightly. They serve a real purpose in helping to preserve our environment. But when the science argues against them and lives are at stake, we need to bring them to task. Let me dive into the science that argues against radical and mindless battles over GMOs.
The National Academy of Sciences has just released a consensus 407-page report entitled Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects which reviewed decades of research on genetically engineered (GE) crops. Their conclusions find that GE crops are economically beneficial, safe for humans and livestock, and have adequate regulation. The data is overwhelming impressive and I will take the time to summarize some of the major points.
Humans have been modifying crops for 10,000 years. A good example is the domestication of maize in Meso-America. Teosinite, shown in the left of the diagram below, is a grass that went through a series of human selections of rare mutations to develop modern-day maize grown throughout the world (shown in the right part of the diagram). The point is that humans have been modifying crops through selection of beneficial traits for millennia.
In 1985, the United States was the first country to approve a GE crop, and by 1994 a GE tomato, which delayed ripening, was produced for sale. Through 2015 about 12 percent of the land available for crop production contains GE crops (the number goes to 50% in the US). The figure below shows which GE crops are currently being produced and where. Europe, Russia, and most of Africa have been particularly resistant to GE crops as you can see from the map.
There are three major types of GE crops: 1) Herbicide resistant traits which allow the crop to survive herbicide application to kill weeds or insects. 2) Insect resistant traits which typically incorporate a gene code from Bacillum thuringiensis (Bt) to the crop, killing insects when they feed on the plant. 3) Virus resistant traits which keep the plants from being susceptible to specific plant viruses. It is important to note that most of the crops are modified to resist one insect, virus, or herbicide. Drought tolerance, nonbrowning (e.g., with potatoes and apples), various colors in flowers, stability of oil to suppress trans-fats, enhancement of omega-3 fatty acids are other examples of GE traits in commercial production.
The NAS report reviews studies conducted comparing the production of GE crops to non-GE crops in mind-numbing detail. But some clear important conclusions have been summarized below (I quote to avoid any misrepresentation of the information). Please note that I have not included all the findings because many are quite esoteric. I refer the reader to the NAS report for more details.
- “Although results are variable, Bt traits available in commercial crops from introduction in 1996 to 2015 have in many locations contributed to a statistically significant reduction in the gap between actual yield and potential yield when targeted insect pests caused substantial damage to non-GE varieties and synthetic chemicals did not provide practical control.” Potential yield is the theoretical yield a crop could achieve if water and other nutrients are in adequate supply and there are no losses to pests and disease.
- “In areas of the United States where adoption of Bt maize or Bt cotton is high, there is statistical evidence that insect-pest populations are reduced regionally, and the reductions benefit both adopters and nonadopters of Bt crops.”
- “In all cases examined, use of Bt crop varieties reduced application of synthetic insecticides in those fields. In some cases, the use of Bt crop varieties has also been associated with reduced use of insecticides in fields with non-Bt varieties of the crop and other crops.”
- “The widespread deployment of crops with Bt toxins has decreased some insect-pest populations to the point where it is economically realistic to increase plantings of crop varieties without a Bt toxin that targets these pests. Planting varieties without Bt under those circumstances would delay evolution of resistance further.”
- “Planting of Bt varieties of crops tends to result in higher insect biodiversity than planting of similar varieties without the Bt trait that are treated with synthetic insecticides.”
- “Although gene flow has occurred, no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect of gene flow from a GE crop to a wild, related plant species.”
- “Crop plants naturally produce an array of chemicals that protect against herbivores and pathogens. Some of these chemicals can be toxic to humans when consumed in large amounts.” I emphasized naturally here because the statement pertains to the production of chemicals by non-GE crops.
- “Conventional breeding and genetic engineering can cause unintended changes in the presence and concentrations of secondary metabolites.” This is not only important but emphasizes the need for oversight in the approval of GE crops. However, NAS also concluded: “U.S. regulatory assessment of GE herbicide-resistant crops is conducted by USDA, and by
FDA when the crop can be consumed, while the herbicides are assessed by EPA when there are new potential exposures.”
- Regarding safety, NAS concluded: “In addition to experimental data, long-term data on the health and feed-conversion efficiency of livestock that span a period before and after introduction of GE crops show no adverse effects on these measures associated with introduction of GE feed. Such data test for correlations that are relevant to assessment of human health effects, but they do not examine cause and effect.” In others words, GE crops appear to be safe for the animals that consume them and for humans that consume either these animals or the GE crops directly.
- “The incidence of a variety of cancer types in the United States has changed over time, but the changes do not appear to be associated with the switch to consumption of GE foods. Furthermore, patterns of change in cancer incidence in the United States are generally similar to those in the United Kingdom and Europe, where diets contain much lower amounts of food derived from GE crops. The data do not support the assertion that cancer rates have increased because of consumption of products of GE crops.”
- “The committee found no published evidence to support the hypothesis that the consumption of GE goods has caused higher U.S. rates of obesity or type II diabetes.”
- “The committee could find no published evidence supporting the hypothesis that GE foods generate unique gene or protein fragments that would affect the body.”
- “The committee did not find a relationship between consumption of GE foods and the increase in prevalence of food allergies.”
- “The similarity in patterns of increase in autism spectrum disorder in children in the United States, where GE foods are commonly eaten, and the United Kingdom, where GE foods are rarely eaten, does not support the hypothesis of a link between eating GE foods and prevalence of autism spectrum disorder.”
- “On the basis of its understanding of the process required for horizontal gene transfer from plants to animals and data on GE organisms, the committee concludes that horizontal gene transfer from GE crops or conventional crops to humans does not pose a substantial health risk.”
- “The available evidence indicates that GE soybean, cotton, and maize have generally had favorable outcomes in economic returns to producers who have adopted these crops, but there is high heterogeneity in outcomes.”
- “Exploitation of inherent biological processes—DNA binding-zinc finger proteins (ZFNs), pathogen-directed transcription of host genes (TALEs), and targeted degradation of DNA sequences (CRISPR/Cas)—now permit precise and versatile manipulation of DNA in plants.”
- “New molecular tools are further blurring the distinction between genetic modifications made with conventional breeding and those made with genetic engineering.”
- “Treating genetic engineering and conventional breeding as competing approaches is a false dichotomy; more progress in crop improvement could be brought about by using both conventional breeding and genetic engineering than by using either alone.”
- “In some cases, genetic engineering is the only avenue for creating a particular trait. That should not undervalue the importance of conventional breeding in cases in which sufficient genetic variation is present in existing germplasm collections, especially when a trait is controlled by many genes.”
- “Although genome editing is a new technique and its regulatory status was unclear at the time the committee was writing this report, the committee expects that its potential use in crop improvement in the coming decades will be substantial.” I think this is an extremely important conclusion. If we want to continue to feed the world we are probably going to become more dependent on GE crops particularly if population continues to increase at present rates.
- “Genetic engineering can be used to develop crop resistance to plant pathogens with potential to reduce losses for farmers in both developed and developing countries.”
- “Genetic engineering can enhance the ability to increase the nutritional quality and decrease antinutrients of crop plants.”
- There are similar accounts of environmental groups shutting down a genetically modified eggplant in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Another involved a genetically modified potato which was resistant to specific herbicides. A large food chain under pressure from environmental groups refused to purchase genetically modified potatoes and the project was shut down. Farmers then introduced a new herbicide for the non-genetically modified potatoes grown instead ↩
- Wesseler, J. and Zilberman, D. (2014) The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition: Environmental and Development Economics: 19, 724-742 ↩