Criticism of GMOs is a wasted effort

Dr. Mehmet Oz has drawn recent criticism from others in the scientific community for his unwavering stance on the need to label genetically modified organisms. But he is not alone. Opposition to GMOs finds steadfast, bipartisan consensus in the United States, with a supermajority of Americans consistently expressing their skepticism towards the altered crops. Perhaps America, where diabetes and obesity are prominent diseases, it is heartening to see the public rallying against what it believes to be an affront to health and the food system. Many of the claims deployed by anti-GMO activists, however, are scientifically unfounded, based entirely on anecdotal evidence for which the details are shady, at best. Though there is certainly reason to believe that the corporate cultures of big agricultural companies like Monsanto are of ethical questionability, the consensus on GMOs themselves — the scientific consensus, that is -— posits safety and necessity. As we confront the challenges of a ballooning global population, a loss of arable land, and the effects of climate change, it is important that we use the technologies available to ensure the viability and nutrition of our crops for decades to come.

Scientists first began to develop GMOs — organisms engineered through the combination of genetic material from biologically different parent species — in the 1970s, with genetically modified potatoes, corn and cotton introduced on the market in the mid-1990s.  These early genetically modified crops included genes from a bacterium capable of producing its own insecticide, such that when inserted into the genome of a potato, that potato too would become toxic to insects. Researchers saw great potential for the creation of crops capable of withstanding drought, blight, extreme cold and high salinity. Such feats could yield the elimination of harsh pesticides and fertilizers.

But with this new wave of science came widespread concern over the essentially boundless capacity of scientists to re-engineer life. Opponents have focused their worries primarily on the human health impacts, for which no scientific studies have concluded adverse causalities. Despite this, activists frequently tout a controversial 2012 paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that linked genetically modified corn to cancerous tumors in rats. The journal retracted the paper in 2013 due to weak evidence and poor research methods.

Many in the anti-GMO camp would be quick to label this retraction as just another tactic of the large-scale conspiracy headed by Big Ag to suppress the science tying GMOs to poor health. But even if such a scheme were capable of manipulating the boards of the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission and England’s Royal Society of Medicine — all of which have concluded a benign, even beneficial impact of GMOs on health — it seems implausible that Big Ag would also be responsible for the verdicts drawn in thousands of independent studies by scientists — that is — GMOs are not dangerous.

Despite the science, many companies have fueled baseless rumors on GMOs by committing to their elimination from store shelves. Whole Foods and Trader Joes are two such companies. Arguably, their decision constitutes a business-savvy pandering to populist misunderstandings. That’s fine. It certainly isn’t the first time business has profited from public ignorance. The problem is that by rejecting GMOs, these companies — which emphasize consumer and environmental health — suggest that GMOs are a threat to these values.

In actuality, GMOs have proven extremely effective at supporting health, particularly in some of the world’s poorest regions. In Southeast Asia, where vitamin A deficiency causes half a million children to go blind (and often die) each year, Golden Rice — a rice strain modified to produce vitamin A — has helped diminish the problem. Elsewhere in the developing world, the use of GMOs will be essential in ensuring that burgeoning populations have access to the needed calories, nutrients and minerals to sustain adequate health.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the GMO war seems a misplaced effort. In a country where obesity, heart disease, overconsumption of refined sugars and an epidemic of inactivity are very real issues, it seems our time could be better spent fighting health hazards for which there is actually a scientific mandate.

Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” ran Mondays. 

14 replies
  1. sparrow worthen
    sparrow worthen says:

    and what of the excessive amount of added roundup to our already heavily laced diets? regardless of the saftey or not of gmo’s more and more toxins is not acceptable. when they create a gmo plants that is healthy and can be grown completely organically without added toxins inside or out, then… we can say yes, until then, its no no no to gmo’s

    • Eco-Sustainable
      Eco-Sustainable says:

      You’re probably talking about glyphosate. Do you believe that glyphosate is applied everyday on the same field?

      • Carson
        Carson says:

        Enough glyphosate is used so that it has been found in mothers’ breast milk and in our urine.

        • Eco-Sustainable
          Eco-Sustainable says:

          Where are the studies about this phenomenon? I tried searching PubMed but no studies about the phenomenon appear.

  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    Instead of informing the public Reagan spreads corporate propaganda.

    He naively states or believes that there are “thousands of independent studies by scientists” on GMOs failing to understand that we live in a corporatist nation/world, where the medical-pharma-gmo-junk food-federal-industrial complex or cartel rules (read Ghislaine Lanctôt’s “The Medical Mafia,” Marcia Angell’s “The Truth about the Drug Companies” or Peter Gøtzsche’s “Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime”). If you want to know about the industry-government collusion read thru this piece and study the numerous references – google or bing “Tougher Supplement Regulation: A Necessity Or Politics?” Almost all GMO studies are conducted by scientists with conflict of interests, a common feature in medical research.

    Reagan is merely another unwitting (or witting?) mouthpiece of the corporate propaganda culture.

  3. Cassandra
    Cassandra says:

    This is a very good article, but I want to point out a needed correction; Golden Rice hasn’t been released to the public yet, so it hasn’t had an impact. I believe it will be a real lifesaver, but only when and IF it’s released and accepted by the people who need it.

    • hyperzombie
      hyperzombie says:

      Yes, I think that they are holding back trying to get the yield up. The worst thing that they could do is release it prematurely with a lower yield, and feed the non GMO folks more Ammo.

          • Cassandra
            Cassandra says:

            I can’t be sure, but it sounds as if you’re being snarky. Do you actually hope that Golden Rice doesn’t get a chance to help people? At least one variety has been produced. It exists. It just isn’t high yielding enough to substitute for current varieties. If you’re against Golden Rice, why?

          • TZ
            TZ says:

            “GOLDEN RICE IS A FARCE! !!!!

            The ‘Golden Rice’ – An Exercise in How Not to Do Science

            ISIS-TWN Sustainable Science Audit #1 Evaluating science and technology for sustainability and social accountability

            ISIS believes science as much as scientists should be socially and ecologically accountable, and has launched a sustainable science audit project jointly with the Third World NetworkSee also The Golden Rice Scandal UnfoldsThe ‘golden rice’ – a GM rice engineered to produce pro-Vitamin A – is being offered to the Third World as cure for widespread vitamin A deficiency.The audit uncovers fundamental deficiencies in all aspects, from the scientific/social rationale to the science and technology involved. It is being promoted in order to salvage a morally as well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry.The scientific/social rationalization for the project exposes a reductionist self-serving scientific paradigm that fails to see the world beyond its own narrow confines. The ‘golden rice’ is a useless application. Some 70 patents have already been filed on the GM genes and constructs used in making the ‘golden rice’. It is a drain on public resources and a major obstruction to the implementation of sustainable agriculture that can provide the real solutions to world hunger and malnutrition.‘Golden rice’ is not a ‘second generation’ GM crop as has been claimed. It involves standard first generation technology, and carries some of the worst features in terms of hazards to health and biodiversity. Rockefeller Foundation, the major funder of the project by far has withdrawn support from it. The project should be abandoned altogether.Key Words: ‘Golden rice’, vitamin A deficiency, Green Revolution, sustainable science, GM technology, gene patents, GM constructs

            A gift-horse for the poor

            A report in Financial Times states that the creators of ‘golden rice’ have struck ‘a ground-breaking deal’ with corporate giant AstraZeneca to give Third World farmers free access to the grain while allowing it to be commercially exploited in the developed world. The company will oversee the production of stable GM line(s) and patenting, and take the lines through field trials and commercial approval. While farmers in developed countries will have to pay royalties, those in the Third World earning less than US$10 000 will not. But will Third World farmers be allowed to save the seeds for replanting? It did not say.This ‘golden rice’, not yet available, is already worth its weight in diamonds. The project was funded from four sources of public finance totaling US$100 million: the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, whose mission is to support scientific research that specifically benefit the poor, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the European Community Biotech Program and the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science.The announcement failed to mention that there are already 70 patent claims on the genes, DNA sequences, and gene constructs used to make the golden rice. Will the cost of paying royalties for the previous 70 patent claims be added to the cost of the golden rice? Which of the royalties on the seventy-odd patents would the Third World farmers be absolved from paying? Rockefeller Foundation, the major funder by far, has reportedly abandoned the project to ” shift its agricultural funding focus to support research that will have a more direct benefit to subsistence farmers”

            The scientific/social rationale is fallacious

            Many have commented on the absurdity of offering ‘golden rice’ as the cure for vitamin A deficiency when there are plenty of alternative, infinitely cheaper sources of vitamin A or pro-vitamin A, such as green vegetables and unpolished rice, which would be rich in other essential vitamins and minerals besides. To offer the poor and malnourished a high-tech ‘golden rice’ tied up in multiple patents, that has cost US$100 million to produce and may cost as much to develop, is worse than telling them to eat cake.‘Golden rice’ was engineered to produce pro-vitamin A or b-carotene (the substance that makes carrots orange) in the endosperm, i.e., the part of the rice grain that remains after it has been polished. The scientific paper started with a review of the literature to rationalize why such GM rice is needed and of benefit for the Third World. The paper was accompanied by an unusually long news feature entitled, ‘The Green Revolution Strikes Gold’, which reinforced the rationalization for the project, explaining the remarkable feat of technology involved and stated that the scientists intend to make the ‘golden rice’ “freely available to the farmers who need it most.” The last sentence in this glowing report, however, gave the game away: “One can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard to short-term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability.

            “What were the reasons for the scientists to embark on the project? It is important to know, as these reasons may have been used to persuade funders to support the project in the first place, and funders ought to bear as much of the responsibility.”GOLDEN RICE IS A FARCE! !!

          • TZ
            TZ says:

            The “miracle” cure has been “coming soon” for a decade and a half! Jonathan Matthews reports

            Charles Margulis of the Centre for Environmental Health has been following the GMO golden rice project for many years and has kept a collection of quotes (listed below), documenting a decade and a half’s worth of failed promises of the crop’s imminent arrival. This has made him wonder whether golden rice should be considered vaporware – something that’s announced with great fanfare to the media and the public but which never actually becomes available.

            Patrick Moore offered a glass of glyphosateThe most recent fanfare comes from Patrick Moore (right) – now notorious for the interview in which he refused to drink the Roundup herbicide he claims is safe to drink by the quart! – with his Allow Golden Rice Now campaign. The name of the campaign is itself a lie – the “Now” implies that golden rice is already available for use and that it is a proven “cure” for Vitamin A Deficiency, so all we have to do is remove any unnecessary obstacles. But none of this is true.

            Despite the cover of TIME magazine proclaiming a decade and a half ago, “This rice could save a million kids a year” and the project having been launched as far back as 1985, golden rice still is not ready, as is clear from the revealing collection of quotes below.

            And it’s important to emphasise that this delay is entirely down to over-promising and failure to deliver and not, as the likes of Patrick Moore like to claim, due to pushback from golden rice’s critics. The New York Times reporter Amy Harmon, who has reported sympathetically on golden rice, confirms that she has never seen any convincing evidence activism has significantly delayed the production of Golden Rice.

            Meanwhile in the Philippines, one of the main target countries for golden rice, dramatic declines in Vitamin A deficiency have been achieved using already available non-GMO methods. And as the final quote below from UNICEF makes plain, methods of tackling VAD have been available throughout the period in which we have been told to imminently expect the arrival of golden rice.

            Imagine if all the multi-million dollar budgets and PR energy that have been lavished on golden rice had gone instead into making these simple proven approaches more widely available. How many children’s lives could have been dramatically improved or saved?

            As the World Food Prize winner Hans Herren has lamented, “We already know today that most of the problems that are to be addressed via golden rice and other GMOs can be resolved in a matter of days, with the right political will.”

            Finally, this excellent video shows how people in the Philippines are responding critically to golden rice.

            Isn’t it about time politicians and the mainstream media started listening to voices like theirs, rather than to GMO lobbyists like Patrick Moore and their vaporware promises?

            Quotes on GMO Golden Rice: 15 years of failure

            Collected by Charles Margulis (@kvetchinguru on Twitter) – edits/additions by GMWatch

            Aug 2000
            AstraZeneca [now Syngenta] speculates that it “could have vitamin A rice in farmers’ fields as early as 2003.”

            Nov 2000
            “If everything goes well, within two to three years, golden rice varieties will be made available free to farmers earning less than $10,000 a year from the crop.”

            Feb 2003
            “When Golden Rice finally gets a commercial release in 2007, it will come free to all those in the developing countries who earn less than $10,000 a year.”

            “Before the second generation of golden rice [the first never emerged] is commercially produced, it must first be approved by the countries where it is to be planted, which could take several more years.”

            “Syngenta is making the rice available for free to research centres across Asia, who will, if they are given the go-ahead by their governments, begin field trials – probably within the next five years.”

            “Golden rice is likely to be permitted between years 2011 and 2012 should field tests yield positive results.”

            “It was supposed to prevent blindness and death from vitamin A deficiency in millions of children. But almost a decade after its invention, golden rice is still stuck in the lab… The first field trial of golden rice in Asia started only this month. Its potential to prevent the ravages of vitamin A deficiency has yet to be tested, and even by the most optimistic projections, no farmer will plant the rice before 2011.”

            “Scientists say they have seen the future of genetically modified foods… In a few months, golden rice – normal rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world – will be given to farmers in the Philippines for planting in paddy fields. Thirty years after scientists first revealed they had created the world’s first GM crop, hopes that their potential to ease global malnutrition problems may be realised at last.”

            “This article [see quote above] was amended on 13 March 2013. Originally it said that golden rice would be given to farmers in the Philippines “in a few months”. It is still undergoing a registration process and may not be released until next year at the earliest.”

            “The first round of MLTs [multi-location field trials] was conducted … in 2012-13 to assess how well this version of Golden Rice would perform in different locations in the Philippines. Preliminary results were mixed… The initial results indicate that more research is needed, with greater focus on increasing yield… the developments described above will result in a delay in the timeline.”

            “Golden Rice will only be made broadly available to farmers and consumers if it is: (a) successfully developed into rice varieties that retain the same yield, pest resistance, and grain quality – agronomic and eating traits acceptable to farmers and consumers – as current popular rice varieties; (b) deemed safe and approved by national regulators; and (c) shown to improve vitamin A status under community conditions.”

            UNICEF (2001)
            “Delivery of two high-dose vitamin A capsules a year to children under five prevents vitamin A deficiency.” http://gmwatch(dot)org/index(dot)php/news/archive/2015-articles/16043-golden-rice-is-it-vaporware

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