Banishing Frankenstein: Why We Should Eat Up Our Genetically Modified Greens

  • From: Think.
  • Published: September 18, 2013
frank5-inverted3.jpgMyths about the harmful effects of biotech 'Franken-foods' multiply faster than the crops. In fact, innumerable studies have shown they are not only safe to eat but also better for the environment. The science is clear. It is time for the ill-informed hostility to stop. Written by Nina Fedoroff

The gulf between what the electronic gossips would have you believe about contemporary genetically modified (GM) foods and what’s true is deep and wide. Scratch the blogosphere and you’ll be horrified. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) produced by big agbiotech companies push farmers in India to suicide.

Monsanto sues farmers whose fields were 'contaminated' by a bit of GM pollen blown in by wind. US wheat farmers face bankruptcy because GM wheat was discovered growing in Oregon. Eating GM feed gives rats tumors. A YouTube GMO search returns these top hits: 'Seeds of death: unveiling the lies of GMOs', 'Horrific new studies in GMOs, you’re eating this stuff!!' and 'They are killing us – GMO foods'.

That, however, doesn’t square at all with what the not-for-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications put out in its latest annual report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012. What comes across in this information-packed document is that GM crops have done a lot of good, both economic and environmental, for rich and poor farmers around the world.

A few facts. In 2012, GM crops were grown in 28 countries on 170 million hectares. That represents a remarkable 100-fold increase over the 1.7 million hectares planted in the first year that biotech seeds became commercially available in 1996. More importantly, 90 percent of the more than 17 million farmers growing biotech crops are small-holder, resource-poor farmers. Half of that hectarage today is in developing countries and it produces roughly half of the GM crops grown worldwide. Between 1996 and 2010, the cumulative farm income gain accruing to developing countries was almost $40 billion.

More facts. Modern genetic methods of crop improvement are responsible for a significant fraction of the recent yield increases in crops where they are used, primarily due to decreased losses to pests, so farmers who’ve adopted GM methods have benefitted the most. The simple reasons that farmers make the switch is that their yields increase 5-25 percent and their costs decrease, in some cases by as much as 50 percent. Farmer suicides in India because of biotech crops? I don’t think so.

The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC did a careful analysis of the evidence. Yes, there are farmer suicides, but they haven’t increased with the introduction of GM cotton (as has been claimed). The study concluded that GM cotton technology has been “very effective overall in India”. Blaming suicides on GM crops doesn’t fit with the facts, nor is it helpful in addressing the underlying problems.

Uncommon Sense
Urban myths about the dire health and environmental effects of GM foods multiply faster than the crops. There’s the widely believed Monsanto 'terminator seeds' myth, for example. The very name stirs fear, but actually this was a good idea about how to minimize GM seed dispersal. In the end, it never got off paper because it got a bad label and a really bad press.

Another is the GM-corn-pollen-kills-Monarch-butterflies story, which attracted front-page attention in 1999 and prompted a multi-state study in the US whose results were published in six back-to-back papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in October of 2001. They received little attention, of course, in a world reeling from the 9/11 attacks. But their conclusion was that fewer than one in 2,000 monarch larvae might be affected by biotech pollen even in their worst-case scenario.

Sometimes it’s a supposedly scientific study published in a scientific journal that sets off a new round of alarm stories. Take, for example, a 2012 study by the French academic Gilles-Eric Seralini, published in a journal called Food and Chemical Toxicology. The study was done with rats that develop tumors as they age. The rats were fed GM or non-GM feed until they were quite old. Not unexpectedly, most of them developed tumors regardless of what they were fed. But there wasn’t much difference between the two groups, although the authors claimed there was. You can find all sides of the whole sad affair on Wikipedia.

GM7-modif.jpgSo how can anyone figure out when to believe a study or not? You can find some sensible ways to tell a good study from a bad one on Bruce Chassy and David Tribe’s excellent website Academics Review. But here’s the bottom line. If one study shows a problem and the next one says there isn’t a problem, you can’t tell either way.

But if 17 long-term studies (reviewed in the same year in the same journal that published Seralini’s study) report that animals fed on GM feed are no different from animals fed non-GM feed, you can be reasonably sure that GM feed isn’t in fact any different from non-GM feed. And the chances are pretty good that you can ignore the one study that shows GM-fed rats with huge tumors, especially if the rats used in the study develop tumors no matter what they’re fed.

Let’s be a bit uncommonly sensible for a moment and look at what we’ve done over the history of civilization, which arguably is built on our increasing skills in the genetic modification of both plants and animals. We humans have been genetically modifying plants to provide our food for more than 10,000 years. What plants need to survive in the wild and what we need to harvest their fruits and seeds are very different (the process of making wild plants useful for food is called domestication).

To give just one example: long before science was invented, people converted a grass called teosinte, which has inedible, hard-as-rock seeds, to an early version of corn, with tiny, but recognizable ears and soft seeds. It wasn’t until about a hundred years ago that we founded the science of genetics and made the discoveries that expanded the corn ear into its modern version, a foot-long nutrient package. Later last century, plant breeders began to use radiation and chemicals to produce genetic changes faster.

This was a shotgun approach, producing lots of neutral and bad changes and a very, very occasional good one, like the Ruby Red grapefruit. But it sure speeded things up compared to waiting for cosmic rays to do the job of genetic modification, and most of today’s food crops have radiation or chemical mutagenesis in their pedigrees. Curiously, nobody worried about or regulated the changes they couldn’t see.

And then, finally, in the last decades of the 20th century, scientists developed methods for making very specific and controlled modifications using the molecular techniques of cloning and sequencing to understand and then to move genes.

It is now possible to make very precise improvements in our familiar crop plants by adding just a gene (or two, or a few) coding for a protein whose function is precisely known. These are the best and safest methods we’ve ever invented for making plants better nutritionally and protecting them from insects and diseases. But, amazingly, only plants modified using molecular techniques are called GM today. Almost everyone believes we’ve never fiddled with plant genes before – as if Ruby Red grapefruit, beefsteak tomatoes, and elephant garlic were “natural” and not our very own creations.

Pioneering Advances
These molecular advances in plant genetic modification have turned out to be so important that three of its pioneers just received the World Food Prize, which is essentially the Nobel prize for agriculture. The 2013 World Food Prize laureates are Dr Marc van Montagu, Dr Mary-Dell Chilton, and Dr Rob Fraley. All of them played seminal roles, together with the late Dr Jeff Schell, in developing modern plant molecular modification techniques. Fraley is CTO of Monsanto. Chilton started her corporate career at Ciba-Geigy, a progenitor of Syngenta, where she is now a Distinguished Science Fellow. Van Montagu founded Plant Genetic Systems, now part of Bayer CropScience, and CropDesign, today owned by BASF.

So what have those big, bad biotech companies done for us? Insect-resistant GM crops have markedly reduced pesticide use. Roughly 443 million kilograms less pesticide (active ingredient) was applied to fields between 1996 and 2010 because insect-resistant crops were being grown. Less pesticide means more beneficial insects and birds and less contamination of water.

GM7-3mont-modif.jpgReplacing toxic agricultural chemicals with biological solutions was the dream of Rachel Carson, the renowned conservationist whose 1962 book Silent Spring spurred the modern environmentalist movement. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have made big strides in reducing topsoil loss and improving soil quality. Since herbicides control the weeds that would otherwise have to be eliminated by plowing and tilling, such “no-till” farming keeps the soil on the land and the organic matter and water in the soil. It also reduces the CO2 emissions from disturbed soil and from tractors. In 2010 alone, this reduction was equivalent to taking nine million cars off the road.

And after 17 years of commercial cultivation on a cumulative GM crop hectarage of more than 1.5 billion, there is no evidence that GM food is bad for people or that GM feed is bad for animals. On the contrary, there is good evidence that GM corn has lower levels of highly toxic contaminating fungal toxins than either conventional or organic corn.

Contrary to popular beliefs, farmers don’t have to buy Monsanto seed, nor is anyone preventing them from saving and replanting any seed they want – except for patented seed they’ve signed an agreement not to save and plant. Farmers buy seeds from Monsanto and other agbiotech companies because their costs decrease and their profits increase. If they didn’t, farmers wouldn’t buy them again.

Fear And The Facts
Why would any environmentalist or champion of sustainable farming oppose such progress? Why the anti-GM hysteria? I think the reasons are in our psyches: negative stories, both true and apocryphal, attract media attention, go viral and stick in our minds. Once formed, beliefs edged with fear are extremely hard to dispel with mere facts. Take the persistent myth that GM crops are untested (and, by implication, risky unknowns).

The European Union alone has invested more than €300 million in GMO biosafety research. To quote from its recent report, A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than eg conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Every credible scientific body that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion. Moreover, in the US, each newly modified crop must be shown to be substantially equivalent to the original crop and the proteins encoded by the added genes must be independently tested for toxicity and allergenicity. So GM crops are the most extensively tested ever introduced into our food supply.

The tragedy is that the widespread public hostility to GM crops, effectively fueled by a growing number of advocacy organizations with many different agendas, has promoted the development of ever more complex regulations and, in many countries, completely blocked GM crop introduction.

Today we have almost no GM crops other than cotton, corn, canola and soybeans. These are commodity crops, either non-food or primarily animal feed crops, and all of them were developed by big biotech companies because they’re the only ones that can afford to bring GM crops to market. Even the long-awaited Golden Rice, engineered to alleviate the deficiency in Vitamin A that kills hundreds of thousands of young children every year, is not yet available to farmers, even though it has been ready to distribute for almost a decade. It continues to be trapped in regulatory purgatory. Achieving broader public acceptance of GMOs and relaxing the regulatory stranglehold are difficult problems, but they’re social and political problems. The science is quite clear.

There’s another difficulty with today’s regulations. The cost and complexity of bringing GM crops to market remains prohibitive. US developers must often obtain the approval of three different agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration, to introduce a new GM crop into the food supply. Complying with the regulatory requirements can cost as much as $35 million for just one modification of an existing crop. This is beyond what the more limited market value of most fruit and vegetable crops can support and well beyond the budgets of either academic scientists or small companies.

It is long past time to relieve the regulatory burden on GM crops: the scientific evidence is in. They should be regulated based on their characteristics, not on the method by which they were modified. This was the original intent of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy committee that generated the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in the 1980s, still the guiding framework for GM regulation in the US.

The three regulatory agencies need to get together and develop a single set of requirements that focuses on the hazards presented by novel traits, not the method by which they were introduced. They need to staff up so that it takes months, not years, to get regulatory approval for a new crop modification. And, above all, they need to stop regulating modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.

Looking back, the anti-GM storm gathered in the mid-80s and swept around the world. It’s not the first alarm about a new technology and will not be the last. But most new technology false alarms fade away as research and experience accumulate without turning up the predicted deleterious effects. This should be happening by now, since decades of research on GM biosafety have failed to surface credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous. Instead, the anti-GM storm has intensified, with GM crops taking the rap for an expanding array of human and environmental ills.

Scientists have done their best, but they’re rather staid folk for the most part, constitutionally addicted to facts and figures and not terribly good at crafting emotionally gripping narratives. This puts them at a serious disadvantage, especially when the real news about GM crops is so very bland. One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies that show that GM foods are just like non-GM foods.

But if the popular myths about farmer suicides, tumors and toxicity had an ounce of truth to them, the agbiotech companies selling GM seeds would long since have been driven out of business by lawsuits and vanishing sales. Instead, they’re taking more market share every year. There’s a real mismatch between mythology and reality. Maybe it’s worth remembering that technology vilification is about as old as technology. What’s new is electronic gossip and the proliferation of organizations that peddle such gossip for a living.

Nina Fedoroff is Distinguished Professor of Biosciences, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and Evan Pugh Professor, Penn State University. From 2007-2010 she was Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State of the United States and in 2011-2012 served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A US National Medal for Science laureate, she is the author of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.

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