“GMOs” are a hot topic these days, due mainly to the media attention given to a few advocacy groups, as opposed to those who actually understand the science involved in the development of genetically-modified plants. I find this unfortunate, since the future of many species on this planet depends upon whether our expanding human population continues to convert critical wildlife habitat into farmland, and additionally whether the agricultural practices on that land include water diversion, the addition of fossil-fuel-generated nitrates, and the use of synthetic pesticides.
The main cause of the extinction of species is habitat conversion. The only realistic way to arrest such conversion is to grow food and fiber more efficiently on existing farmland. One tool for doing so is the genetic engineering of domesticated plants. Genetic engineering, coupled with conventional plant breeding, holds the promise of providing us with plants that are more drought resistant, that use less synthetic fertilizer, are more resistant to diseases, that require fewer pesticides, are more productive per acre, and that provide more nutrients (such as vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids).
As with any technology, we must thoroughly investigate and regulate any negative environmental consequences. Unfortunately, the shrill fear mongering by certain anti-GMO advocates has dominated public sentiment. I’m putting together this page to expose the reader to the other side of the story. I’ve compiled a few good reads for those who want to approach the subject with an open mind, and learn the actual facts of the matter.
Of note, there is a growing body of environmentalists (myself included) who are looking at the Big Picture, and calling for a halt in the demonization of GMOs. Some of them, such as Mark Lynas, have been brave enough to publicly admit that they have changed their minds on the subject. Another environmentalist whom I admire is one of the original founders of Greenpeace itself, Dr. Patrick Moore. Greenpeace (whose activism I normally support) has taken the lead in trying to stop the planting of genetically engineered crops in Third World countries. Dr. Moore has broken with Greenpeace and now campaigns to help save millions of children from blindness and disease with the introduction of genetically engineered Golden Rice Allow Golden Rice.
These scientists bring forth the point that activists from wealthy countries, by demonizing genetically engineered crops, are causing great harm to the poor, and contributing to greater environmental damage The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice.
Ottoline Leyser, in a recent article in PLoS, points out common misconceptions about the genetic engineering of crops and calls for us to avoid the conflation of unrelated issues: read article.
“The world is a broken place,” says Laurie Zolth, professor of bioethics at Northwestern University. She says our responsibility, and obligation, is to fix it. The key is to create a transparent framework that allows scientific experimentation to flourish—one that both governmental regulators and nongovernmental organizations can use to pursue projects that are good and sustainable and just, she says.
We must not only focus on the solutions to problems, but also stay very aware of ethical considerations, as well as any direct, indirect, or possible consequences of unforeseen effects.
Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, imagines a world in which “humanity figures out how to reinvent the manufacturing of the things we need, so that we can do it in partnership with nature. Not to replace nature, but to dance better with it.”
From Draxler, B (2013) Synthetic Biology: Life as we grow it. Discover Oct 2013 47-52.
I especially respect the writings by Steve Savage, a well-informed independent agricultural consultant with 30 year’s experience. He blogs at http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/ and answers some GMO questions at http://gmoanswers.com/experts/steve-savage.
Another useful website is one by Jon Entine. I’ll be the first to state that Jon’s writing seems to be more about objectively defending agribusiness practices rather than in criticizing them. But his accurate writing is a good balance to the fear mongering by the anti’s: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org
Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? Good essay /2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/#.UsRmDfugZ7Q
Every day over a thousand children go blind; each year over a million children die; and every decade the numbers stack higher — all due to vitamin A deficiency.
The solution, according to Greenpeace and others, is an increase in vitamin A supplements and capsules — dispensed through programs that cost tens of millions or are impractical for the world’s poor. And yet, despite the deaths of millions of children, a solution, in the form of GM golden rice, waits at the doorstep of impoverished nations across Asia and Africa.
Syngenta’s role is often cited by critics as a clear sign that poor rice farmers will be lured in by golden rice promises and then fall victim to the greed of the biotech industry, but the claims don’t hold up to scrutiny. Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, writing at Project Syndicate: “… the company has stated that it is not planning to commercialize it. Low-income farmers will own their seeds and be able to retain seed from their harvests. Indeed, Syngenta has given the right to sublicense the rice to a nonprofit organization called the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. The board, which includes the two co-inventors, has the right to provide the rice to public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries for humanitarian use, as long as it does not charge more for it than the price for ordinary rice seeds.
“The irony is that glyphosate-resistant crops are grown commercially on millions of hectares of land, whereas golden rice (which has not been shown to pose any risk at all to human health of the environment) still cannot be released.”
Brian Hanley, writing at International Policy Digest, brooks no tolerance for Greenpeace’s tactics: “With Greenpeace activists screaming to poor farmers that golden rice will kill their children, it’s going to be a long, tough slog for golden rice. However, I think this is going to backfire on Greenpeace and other NGO’s. Organizations like Greenpeace that misrepresent the facts while claiming righteousness are not exactly earning accolades. Greenpeace has put itself in that position with this campaign against golden rice. Greenpeace abused the IRB process in order to stop ongoing harm (blindness, disfigurement, death from disease) from being treated. Greenpeace’s Western born activists are terribly disconnected from the deadly harm that vitamin A deficiency does to the poor. It is not just obvious symptoms of extreme deficiency. Childhood diseases take far more lives when vitamin A is low.”
Golden rice opponents choose their own version of science and want to block genuine sustenance from reaching millions of people in the most remote corners of the planet, but history will prove them wrong. Professor Singer sums it up well: “In some environmental circles, blanket opposition to GMOs is like taking a loyalty oath – dissidents are regarded as traitors in league with the evil biotech industry. It is time to move beyond such a narrowly ideological stance. Some GMOs may have a useful role to play in public health, and others in fighting the challenge of growing food in an era of climate change. We should consider the merits of each genetically modified plant on a case-by-case basis.”
articles worth reading
Reality check on high protein cassava and golden rice http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/imaginary-organisms/
Legal debates on neonics and GMO labeling http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/nr_newsletters/am/201307_am-joint.authcheckdam.pdf
Excellent article of potential of GE to save orange juice http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/a-race-to-save-the-orange-by-altering-its-dna.html?_r=1&
Perhaps the most thorough myth debunking and list of actual research findings on GMOs can be found at http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2007/06/150-published-safety-assessments-on-gm.html
Using GE to save the world’s wheat crop http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/jun13/sr3562713.html
Developing a more digestible and nutritious alfalfa for cattle http://westernfarmpress.com/alfalfa/new-biotech-alfalfas-aim-improve-feeding-efficiency?NL=WFP-01&Issue=WFP-01_20130821_WFP-01_55&YM_RIDfirstname.lastname@example.org&YM_MID=1417520&sfvc4enews=42
The bureaucratic nightmare of GE regulation http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2013/08/14/activists-vindicated-genetic-engineering-produces-a-genuine-monstrosity/
But some crops, such as apples, may be able to skirt the regulatory process http://www.nature.com/news/us-regulation-misses-some-gm-crops-1.13580
Farming a Toxin To Protect Crops, Pollinators and People http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=farming-a-toxin&offset=3
Discussion of Bt and its potential in crop protection. Interesting comments and criticisms follow.
An excellent blog from a tree-hugging, liberal scientist such as myself, from Scientific American http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/2013/11/08/gmo-labeling-i-522-and-why-this-debate-sucks-for-progressive-scientists-like-me/
http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2013/11/12/metastisizing-misinformation-about-gmos-and-rna-ugly-glare-on-union-of-concerned-scientists-consumers-union/ “A great illustration of the challenge of controlling ‘metastasizing misinformation’ has emerged with the publication of a fascinating and important article in Nature Biotechnologythat sharply challenges a study that had made controversial claims that dramatically raised the fear factor about GMOs.
The backstory provides an intriguing look at how the anti-GMO industry and sycophant journalists work—and the consequences of flogging single studies to score ideological points.”
http://news.psu.edu/story/298859/2013/12/19/research/corn-pest-decline-may-save-farmers-money Use of Bt corn has reduced the population of ECB to the extent that growers can now plant cheaper non GM seed. This also means that there has been a reduction in insecticide application necessary to fight this pest.