Feeding the World With GMOs

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Golden rice was possible only with genetic engineering. The crop was stalled for more than ten years by the working conditions and requirements demanded by regulations…For example, we lost more than two years for the permission to test golden rice in the field and more than four years in collecting data for a regulatory dossier that would satisfy any national biosafety authority. I therefore hold the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.

This comes from Ingo Potrykus’ rather famous article in a July 2010 issue of Nature and is a written slap in the face to anti-GMO activists and the politicians who embrace them. This opposition has been described as partisan, though the anti-science stances of various parties are much closer than we often assume. I was reminded of the above quote after reading an article in Newsweek discussing new biotechnology and its opposition:

In 2012, a new tool was invented that revolutionizes how scientists can examine—and manipulate—plant genetic processes. It’s called CRISPR-Cas9, and unlike its predecessors in the world of genetic modification, it is highly specific, allowing scientists to zero in on a single gene and turn it on or off, remove it or exchange it for a different gene. Early signs suggest this tool will be an F-16 jet fighter compared with the Stone Age spear of grafting, the traditional, painstaking means of breeding a new plant hybrid. Biologists and geneticists are confident it can help them build a second Green Revolution—if we’ll let them.

…The process can easily modify plant DNA without changing the plant’s essence—except to make it tastier, more nutritious, quicker to market, easier to ship, machine-pickable, less needy of water and/or able to flourish in a heat wave. And we can do it for big companies and small, the world at large and isolated communitiesIn the old days, relying on hit-or-miss natural processes to breed plants took many years. Norman Borlaug, father of the first Green Revolution—a hugely successful effort to improve food-crop productivity in poor countries that began in the 1940s and eventually doubled or even quadrupled what many plants could produce—needed almost two decades to create a better wheat variety. With CRISPR-Cas9, we can compress that development cycle to a few days or weeks.

And yet, the activists continue to protest:

  • “Mexico, where maize was first domesticated, must now import it to meet local demand because activists there will not allow genetically modified organism hybrids. Mexico’s maize growers get yields 38 percent lower than the world average and three times below the U.S., where 90 percent of the maize crop is an insect-resistant GMO hybrid. Mexico’s fields are beset by such crop ravishers as the corn earworm, black cutworm and fall armyworm, which cost the country up to half its crops and incite farmers to spray their land with thousands of tons of chemical insecticides.”
  • “The European Union has approved just one genetically modified crop, a type of maize used for animal feed. The reasons are political and bureaucratic: A majority of member countries must approve a biotech plant, and anti-GMO sentiment runs strong in places where phrases like naturel and natürliche are more about what’s been done for centuries than what it actually means for something to exist in or be caused by nature.”
  • “The notion of GMOs has spooked environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which has resisted GMOs with violent action, including destroying an experimental Golden Rice field last year in the Philippines. This despite the fact that Golden Rice is being offered to the world by a nonprofit, with no commercial stipulations, and is likely to save many lives.”
  • ““No GMO” is now being embraced by consumer brands; the ascendant “fast-casual” chain Chipotle posts just such a sign in its restaurants. It makes sense: If over two-thirds of Americans think GMOs are unhealthy, declaring yourself GMO-free is a lucrative proposition. Local governments are also weighing in. Vermont now demands that all GMO foods sold there be labeled as such. Two rural counties in Oregon have banned GMO crops within their borders.”

The article ends with a quote from Gengyun Zhang, head of life sciences for BGI (China’s giant state-sponsored genetic engineering center): “With today’s technology, I have no doubt that we can feed the world.” Considering that the number of scientists who think GMOs are safe is slightly higher than those who think climate change is mostly due to human activity, perhaps we should give science a chance and activists the cold shoulder.

3 thoughts on “Feeding the World With GMOs”

  1. If your goal is to feed people, then there should be a requirement that the seed produce itself perpetually when grown to maturity. That’s the only issue I have with some GMO’s, companies are making serious bucks from plants that won’t reproduce and acting like they’re some kind of saint.

    Something else I have been looking into is that there seems to be little study of the changes made to some plants and the effects we’re seeing on human consumption; for a specific instance a rise in the awareness of sensitivity or even allergic reaction to gluten found in modern wheat. We’ve bred wheat into something that is a bit much for some people to handle, others I think are going more on a trend or have dietary issues that are just aggravated by the wheat. Still, it bears looking into the effects of ‘more nutrients’ which sounds great until our bodies start rejecting it because adding nutrients does other things that we aren’t aware of.

  2. This is much more complicated than science/anti-science. There’s science and anti-science on both or all sides. You say “scientists think GMOs are safe” but what’s the definition of “safe”? GMO advocates tend to focus on the product, the corn, rice, alfalfa. GMO opponents tend to look at the entire production process, including seed, delivery, herbicides, harvest, and reproduction. GMO advocates tend to talk about what could be done (the “golden rice”). GMO opponents tend to look at what’s actually happening, pointing out that “claims of potential benefits from GM crops include increased yields and nutritional value, although to date no commercially available crops have been modified for these purposes”, and that (in 2004) “two GM crop traits continue to dominate worldwide: herbicide tolerance (63 percent) and insect resistance (18 percent), with a combination of the two traits (called “stacked”) accounting for the rest.”.

  3. As a chemist, I have severe issues with pesticides. Many types of GMO plants are designed that way, to be able to resist high levels of pesticide use. I would like to be able to choose what is on my plate, which is why I back GMO labeling legislation.

    As a farmer (I grew up on a farm) I have huge issues with the consolidation in the seed industry. One or two more buyouts, and only two seed industry behemoths will remain. This is not good. I’d prefer more choice.

    If a farmer wants to grow GMO crops, let him. If another farmer chooses not to, let him. And let the consumers decide.

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