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If you’re after the scientific findings and the real-world contributions of GMOs, Pamela Ronald’s article does a fine job. Yes, this is a technology whose impact so far has been overwhelmingly beneficial, and no special risks associated with its use have surfaced.
But this isn’t exactly a surprise. In 1987 a white paper from the Council of the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that none of the concerns raised about GMOs was unique to what were then relatively new molecular genetic modification methods. It suggested that if modified plant varieties were to be regulated (which they had never been in the roughly 10,000-year history of plant genetic modification), they should be regulated based on their characteristics, not on the method by which they had been modified.
A quarter century and many millions of dollars-worth of biosafety testing later, the scientific consensus is the same: there are no unique risks inherent in using molecular techniques for crop modification. And the traits that have been introduced have been beneficial for consumers, farmers, and for the environment.
The disconnect between what is true about GMOs and what people believe grows deeper and wider.
Yet the disconnect between what is true and what people believe to be true about GMOs grows deeper and wider. Search the blogs and you’ll be horrified. GMOs produced by big ag-biotech companies push farmers in India to suicide. Monsanto sues farmers whose fields were “contaminated” by a bit of GE pollen blown in by wind. The Web is littered with videos such as, “Seeds of Death: Unveiling the Lies of GMO’s,” “Horrific New Studies On GMO’s, You’re Eating This Stuff!!” and “They Are Killing Us—GMO Foods.”
Sometimes it’s a supposedly scientific study published in a scientific journal that sets off a new round of alarm. Take, for example, the study by Gilles-Eric Séralini that has attracted so much attention recently. It was done with a laboratory strain of rats that develop tumors spontaneously as they age. They were fed GE or non-GE feed until they were very old. Not unexpectedly, most of them developed tumors regardless of what they were fed. There wasn’t much difference between the two groups, although the authors claimed the GE-fed rats were worse off.
So how can anyone figure out when to believe a study? 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 one way or the other. But if seventeen studies report that animals fed GE feed are no different from animals fed non-GE feed, you can be reasonably sure that GE feed isn’t any different from non-GE feed. And the chances are pretty good that you can ignore the study that shows GE-fed rats with huge tumors, especially if that kind of rat is known to develop tumors anyway.
So what have those big, bad biotech companies done for us? They have developed reliable, biologically insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant commodity crops that benefit people, farmers, and the environment and are nutritionally identical to their non-GE counterparts.
Insect-resistant GE crops have markedly reduced pesticide use. Less pesticide means more beneficial insects and birds and less contamination of water. Herbicide-tolerant GE crops have facilitated no-till farming. This farming method reduces carbon-dioxide emissions and keeps the soil on the land and organic matter and water in the soil. And people benefit, too. GE corn has lower levels of fungal toxins than do either conventional or organic corn.
Contrary to popular beliefs, farmers don’t have to buy Monsanto seed, nor are they barred 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 ag-biotech companies because their costs decrease and their profits increase. If the seeds weren’t profitable, farmers wouldn’t buy them again.
So why the anti-GMO hysteria? This is not the first alarm about a new technology, and it won’t be the last. But most such alarms fade away as research accumulates without turning up evidence of bad effects. This should have happened by now, since decades of research on GMO biosafety has produced no credible evidence that molecular modification is dangerous.
Instead, the anti-GMO storm has intensified. Scientists have done their best, but the facts are pretty boring. One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies showing that GE foods are just like non-GE foods. Yet common sense says that if the stuff you read on the Web and watch on YouTube were true, the ag-biotech companies selling GE seeds would long since have been driven out of business by lawsuits and vanishing sales. Instead, they are taking more market share every year. Maybe it is worth remembering that technology vilification is about as old as technology. What are new are electronic gossip and a proliferation of organizations that peddle it for profit.
Nina Fedoroff is Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Willaman Professor of Life Science at Pennsylvania State University and author of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods.
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