Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.
The battle of genetically modified foods is being waged in a mire of confusion and bad science. Scare stories over “frankenfoods” and “mutant crops” have insidiously manipulated the framing of the debate into a crisis over the definition of “natural”, away from the far more pertinent question of how to combat malnutrition and promote food sustainability across the globe.
But today, science has hit back. The Royal Society, a UK organisation dedicated to the promotion of science, has published a 40-page report on GM plants, answering 18 common questions and tackling every pseudoscientific claim out there.
And they have a lot of misconceptions to work with. In the introduction, Royal Society President Venki Ramakrishnan notes that in the UK half the population do not feel well informed about GM crops, while 6 percent have never heard of them. He goes on to say:
“GM is a contentious subject and not all public discussion has been informed by independent scientific evidence. This discussion has taken place against a backdrop of the debate about how we ensure that we have sufficient food, grown in as sustainable a way as possible, to feed the world’s growing population. Our goal with this project is to present the scientific evidence in an accessible way.”
In the interest of promoting science, technology and progress, here are five questions answered in the report that dispel the most damaging myths about GM foods.
This is, of course, the main concern about GM foods. The answer is a resounding yes.
“There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM. There could be risks associated with the specific new gene introduced, which is why each crop with a new characteristic introduced by GM is subject to close scrutiny. Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop.
…All reliable evidence produced to date shows that currently available GM food is at least as safe to eat as non-GM food.”
Despite this unambiguous answer, there will undoubtedly be GM sceptics who still prefer to take the “better safe than sorry” approach. But such an attitude has consequences. 777 million people in developing countries are undernourished. The UN estimated in 2009 that world food production will have to double by 2050 to cope with population growth. Environmental changes, pest infestations and highly resistant strains of bacteria threaten global food production. GM crops can help address all of these issues. Given the risks we are facing, surely the question should be: is it safe not to eat GM foods?
GM technologies have been used to help combat some of the challenges outlined above. Specifically, the report highlights the development of crops that are resistant to herbicides, insects, and viruses. Resilient crops mean higher yields, but they also benefit the environment. In particular, crops modified with a gene for Bt toxins, which are naturally toxic for certain insects, have reduced the reliance on traditional insecticides.
“Over the last 20 years, it is estimated that the application of 450,000 tons of insecticide has been avoided due to the use of Bt toxin genes in crops.”
The environmentalists who are prominent in the war against GM crops need to rethink their priorities.
This question gets to the heart of why we are embroiled in a fight about GM crops at all. Over the past twenty years, the pushback against GM foods has mainly come from the environmentalists, in particular Greenpeace. William Saletan at Slate has documented the environmental lobby’s assault on GM technologies, from issuing fraudulent scare stories and commissioning factually inaccurate papers, to blocking scientific trials and demanding mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods.
While the Royal Society report is unlikely to change the minds of die-hard GM warriors, it outlines how GM crops pose no greater risk to the environment than non-GM crops. Issues surrounding the overuse of herbicides and damage to biodiversity are genuine concerns about modern farming, but they are in no way specific to GM crops. In fact, in some circumstances the GM solution to a farming problem is environmentally superior to the non-GM alternative, such as the aforementioned use of the Bt toxin gene.
It is ironic and sad that the green lobbyists, in their rush to attack GM crops in principle, have hindered progress that can lead to more efficient, less environmentally damaging farming methods, and even mitigate climate change.
The regulations surrounding the development of GM crops in the UK are exceedingly tight. The report details exactly what regulatory hoops developers need to jump through before crops can be sold, which include a full environmental assessment.
What becomes immediately clear is the stark contrast between the regulatory landscapes in the EU and the US.
“Since 1992, the EU has approved 2404 experimental GM field trials for research. In comparison, over the same time there have been 18,381 GM trials for research in the USA. In crops for commercial use, there is only one GM crop, an insect resistant maize variety, that is grown commercially in the EU and no GM crops have yet been approved for human consumption as fresh fruit or vegetable. In comparison there have been 117 commercial releases in the USA since 1992 and in other countries outside Europe.”
The EU is lagging painfully behind the rest of the world when it comes to the development of GM crops. (CapX has already documented how EU policy on GM foods is having a devastating effect on African farmers.) While it is important to ensure new food technology is safe, it is obvious that the precautionary overregulation of GM crops in the EU far outweighs the risk.
No. Not at all. In no way, shape or form. As any GCSE science student will tell you, our own genetic makeup is determined before we are born. Putting food that contains DNA in your body will not transfer their properties to your own genes. Regardless, almost all food contains genes, and we eat DNA from plants and animals every day.
The fact that this question was even included in the report shows the sheer scale of the misinformation surrounding GM food. The green lobby has succeeded in branding a technology that has the potential to alleviate world hunger as unnatural and sinister, akin to science fiction horror stories.
This view is not just misguided, it is downright dangerous. We have the tools to lift millions of people out of starvation and sustain food production over the next century, but thanks to these spurious scare tactics, we are not using them. For too long, politicians and journalists have let environmentalists get away with defamatory pseudoscience. Today, science is fighting back.