Monday, November 24, 2014

The GMO Stigma

STANFORD – In August, at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, a group of activists vandalized test fields of so-called “golden rice,” which has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Some of the perpetrators were even supported by the Swedish government’s International Development Cooperation Agency via its funding of the radical Filipino group MASIPAG.

For poor people whose diet is composed largely of rice – a carbohydrate-rich but vitamin-poor source of calories – “biofortified” strains are invaluable. In developing countries, 200-300 million preschool children are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which compromises immune systems, increasing the body’s susceptibility to illnesses like measles and diarrheal diseases. Every year, vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in about a half-million children; some 70% of them die within a year.

In September, an eminent group of scientists called upon the scientific community to “stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances, such as golden rice, that have the potential to save millions” of people from “needless suffering and death.” But this passionate appeal fails to address the fundamental problem: the unfounded notion that there is a meaningful difference between “genetically modified organisms” and their conventional counterparts.

The fact is that GMOs and their derivatives do not amount to a “category” of food products. They are neither less safe nor less “natural” than other common foods. Labeling foods derived from GMOs, as some have proposed, thus implies a meaningful difference where none exists – an issue that even regulators have acknowledged.

Humans have been engaging in “genetic modification” through selection and hybridization for millennia. Breeders routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant’s DNA and generate new traits.

A half-century of “wide cross” hybridizations, which involve the movement of genes from one species or genus to another, has given rise to plants – including everyday varieties of corn, oats, pumpkin, wheat, black currants, tomatoes, and potatoes – that do not and could not exist in nature. Indeed, with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and fish and shellfish, virtually everything in North American and European diets has been genetically improved in some way.

Despite the lack of scientific justification for skepticism about genetically engineered crops – indeed, no cases of harm to humans or disruption to ecosystems have been documented – they have been the most scrutinized foods in human history. The assumption that “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified” is a meaningful – and dangerous – classification has led not only to vandalism of field trials, but also to destruction of laboratories and assaults on researchers.

Moreover, the GMO classification has encouraged unscientific regulatory approaches that are not commensurate with the level of risk, and that, by discriminating against modern molecular genetic-engineering techniques, inhibit agricultural innovation that could reduce strain on the natural environment and enhance global food security. Even as study after study – both formal risk assessments and “real-world” observations – has confirmed the technology’s safety, the regulatory burden placed on GMOs has continued to grow.

This trend is making the testing and development of many crops with commercial and humanitarian potential economically unfeasible. Despite robust laboratory research on plants since the invention of modern genetic-engineering techniques in the early 1970’s, the commercialization of products has lagged.

Unprovoked attention from regulators inevitably stigmatizes any product or technology. Endless discussion of the “coexistence” of genetically engineered and “conventional” organisms has reinforced the stigma, leading activists to pursue frivolous yet damaging litigation. For example, in at least four lawsuits brought against regulators in the United States, judges initially ruled that regulators had failed to comply with the procedural requirements of the US National Environmental Policy Act. And marketing as “natural” products that contain genetically engineered ingredients has led to lawsuits for false labeling.

The discriminatory treatment of GMOs creates widespread mischief. In many places, the location of field trials now must be identified, even including GPS coordinates – a practice that facilitates vandalism. (And activists frequently destroy conventional plants inadvertently, because they are difficult to distinguish from genetically engineered varieties.)

In 1936, the Nobel laureate Max Planck observed that scientific innovations rarely spread as a result of their opponents’ conversion; instead, opponents of innovation “gradually die out,” and the next generation accepts the breakthrough. This was the case with vaccinations and the recognition that DNA is the stuff of heredity – and it will happen eventually with genetic engineering.

Unfortunately, many will suffer needlessly in the interim. As University of California agricultural economist David Zilberman and his colleagues have written, the lost benefits are “irreversible, both in the sense that past harvests have been lower than they would have been if the technology had been introduced and in the sense that yield growth is a cumulative process of which the onset has been delayed.”

As long as today’s activists and regulators remain convinced that GMOs represent a distinct and dangerous category of research and products, genetic engineering will fall short of its potential. That is bad news for the millions of poor people for whom genetic engineering in agriculture, medicine, and environmental science could offer a healthier, more secure future.

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    1. CommentedAudry Mbugua

      I think scientists/innovators need to engage more with the public to allay fears about GMOs. But, for this to be effective, we must bring the "activists" round the table and hope that they will see sense and engage innovators in a civil fashion.

    2. Portrait of Henry I. Miller

      CommentedHenry I. Miller

      Nowhere in my article does it say -- or even imply -- that "the solution to poverty and misery in the world lies in GMOs." It focuses on the irrationality of regarding GMOs as a "category"; the newest molecular techniques for genetic modification are only tools, tools that are part of a continuum of methods that have been used for the genetic improvement of plants, animals and microorganisms.

      The broader point that you and other commenters have missed is that aspirations to eliminate "poverty and misery in the world" are the exception (e.g., Golden Rice). The reality is that advances in agriculture are usually incremental and occur as ingenious people in academia and industry develop (usually slightly) improved products or processes. Those who use recombinant DNA and other modern technologies should get to play on a level playing field with alternatives. They have a right to develop new products that they hope will succeed in the marketplace, whether those products will save a billion lives or merely Hawaii's papaya industry, and they should not be unnecessarily encumbered by bureaucrats or Luddites.

    3. CommentedJuan Gabriel Gómez Albarello

      There's plenty of food in the world, but locked. There are even people who destroy great quantities of it so they're able to keep a high price for what they produce and sell, but you, prophet of plenty, want me to believe that the solution to poverty and misery in the world lies in GMOs? Tell this tale to other people. If i have the right information, you have Bill Gates on board. Keep the good work!

    4. CommentedKir Komrik

      Thanks again for the article,

      As I stated, there is no reason for abusive responses to opinions we don't like. Now, having said that, there is a real issue here of global starvation and malnutrition. The question of merit in my mind is, "does the risk of GMO outweigh its benefit" (and vice versa)? This is where the public needs more convincing.

      I think we need concrete demonstrations of risk and benefit. The author is correct in saying that humans have in fact been selectively breeding for a long, long time. And sometimes nature backfires when we do this. But it isn't cataclysmic. It just means we didn't get the traits we wanted.

      Finally, I disagree that the differences are meaningless. The reason for this is that the artificial manipulation of the genetic code of living organisms within only one or a few generations (basically in a laboratory) is (or could be) leaps of change in a very short time period. Selective breeding is not like that. It allows _time_ to pass and for selection pressure to weed out genetic change that strays into the aberrant. With genetic modification, it is the researcher that decides what is aberrant. So, it is not as clear cut as this author is making it sound. The researcher must _really_ understand what they are doing in a way that I find hard to believe given the complexity of these organisms' interaction with their environment when they are "put in the wild".
      Can the author speak to that point specifically, I wonder?

      - kk

    5. CommentedFrank Aten

      I'm worried about the paid research for GMO paid for by the GMO companies (especially Monsanto). That a company has to get special Congressional protection from lawsuits concerning such is a very big strike against them. Why not let the consumer decide? Why hide? Why not disclose? The narrative of cost is nothing more than that....the narrative.

    6. Portrait of Henry I. Miller

      CommentedHenry I. Miller

      There are "non-trransgneic," non-gene-spliced crops -- e.g., Clearfield ( -- that have been engineered to be herbicide-resistant. The point is that products -- seeds, whole plants and food derived from them -- should be evaluated on the basis of their characteristics, rather than on which technology has been used.

      As to your other concerns, some of us are far more concerned about the motives, actions and transgressions of Big NGOs such as Greenpeace than we are about Big Ag.

        CommentedKir Komrik

        Thank you for clearing up some public myths,

        "some of us are far more concerned about the motives, actions and transgressions of Big NGOs such as Greenpeace than we are about Big Ag."

        This an argument does not make. The motives for a crime do not affect the severity of the crime. If Monsanto is deliberately displacing "in-situ" versions of a plant (or animal) with their own "version", then trying to patent it, we've got a big problem. This is criminal as they have no right to deny others the use of "in-situ" plants by displacing them on properties Monsanto does not own with their hybrids. And that is the charge made against them, right or wrong.
        At the same time, this doesn't justify violence against anyone nor does it justify irrational fear and street arguments. What is needed are clear, balanced, two-way conversations about the facts of merit.

        As for your confidence in the method, I'd remind you that this has been proven in the past to be foolish (not that _you_ are, but that it has been proven to be foolish in the past). In the 1950s USG tested nuclear weapons far, far too close to U.S. Navy personnel and killed many of them. Many more of them had deformities, cancers, etc. All this because USG didn't fully understand what it was doing at the time. It was a _new_ technology. Of course, their is GCR, solar mass ejections, and all sorts of background radiation. And they knew how much radiation various isotopes of Uranium produced. They exposed animals to radiation and did volumes of research on it before testing it with U.S. Navy ships in the proximity of nuclear blasts. But they still got it wrong. Their distance was grossly inadequate.

        Finally, malfeasance is almost never considered because it is so convenient to ignore in a world where people choose to live in Oz and deny that the world is an evil place. People do bad things. They might want to manipulate GMO's for selfish reasons. It is the capacity to do so that concerns some as well. This should be addressed and discussed as adults, imo. There are ways to improve the public confidence in the methods applied in this regard but it is never openly discussed.

        - kk

    7. CommentedMischa Popoff

      There can be no doubt that GMOs are perfectly safe and that anti-GMO activists don't have a leg to stand on. The question I humbly suggest we have to start asking is why organic, anti-GMO activists are so dead-set opposed to this new and promising technology?

    8. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Meaningless? "They are neither less safe nor less “natural” than other common foods." Frankenfood is the new good, nice try! Go to a shopping mall and tell the parents. We don't want US gene corn. We don't want enhanced rice. Period. It is a disgrace against the Lord to manipulate life. If Miller wants to live that Sodom dream he should be prrepared to face his punishment.

        Portrait of Henry I. Miller

        CommentedHenry I. Miller

        If you had read the two paragraphs below the one from which you quoted, you might have seen the error of your observations. Note, especially, that "with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and fish and shellfish, virtually everything in North American and European diets has been genetically improved in some way."

        Do you eat food other than wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, fish and shellfish If so, are you committing a disgrace against the Lord? (If not, you have the strangest diet I have ever encountered.)

        I'm afraid I'm already facing my punishment: comments like yours about my writing.

    9. CommentedJesse Parent

      This paragraph is full of willful ignorance. Labeling where and how food products are made or generated is a very significant factor, particularly economically. There are quite meaningful differences, but that requires some stepping away from 'the microscope' and looking at how our society and food production are intertwined.

      "an issue that even regulators have acknowledges" - because regulators like the FDA have such a historically strong bent against GMOs, right?

    10. CommentedJesse Parent

      What I don't understand about the GMO debate, along with many other related debates (energy, in particular), is that it is not only about the technology process itself; it is rather arbitrary to say the science and technology of GMOs are the only factor in them.

      What about production and distribution? What about how Monsanto, as an organization, conducts business? What about the curious state of agriculture and 'retail' food sales? What about the general lack of literacy concerning food - and no less STEM, in the United States?

      What about having to buy seeds annually because GM seeds are intellectual property? How is that an economic factor for farmers and consumers alike?

      It's convenient to avoid all of this and say how in isolation things work perfectly. But we aren't in a silo.

      I say this as someone who is aware of the benefits of some elements of GM technology. But treating the issue as only one of science or technology is a choice that is only slowing down any benefits that it might manifest.