By Abigail Martin
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been the cause of much controversy in recent years. Numerous environmental groups say these foods are not fit for consumption and may pose serious health risks.
However, some in the scientific community and organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science have stated, quote, “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe."
The history of the GM food dispute dates back to the mid-1990s. Mark Lynas, a British author, journalist, and environmental activist, says the misconceptions about GM foods that surfaced during that time have led to the debate we see today.
Lynas explained, “There were several elements of how this debate unfolded which became almost like a perfect storm. The first and the central aspect of this is that genetic modification was doing something very new, and something where humans were taking a technological step which shouldn’t be taken. They were somehow violating the order of nature itself by transferring DNA between entirely unrelated organisms which couldn’t breed naturally.”
Lynas was once a steadfast opponent of GM foods. After campaigning against GMOs quite passionately, Lynas announced in January 2013 that he had reassessed his position. He said that he was wrong to oppose GM foods. Lynas says his evaluation of scientific evidence led him to radically alter his views.
“This has been a very long learning process for me,” he said. “I was very enmeshed in the scientific community. I would always say, ‘You’ve got to focus on peer-reviewed science, you’ve got to listen to the scientific consensus on this issue.’ And at the same, I was writing profoundly unscientific screeds about GMOs. Of course, that was an inconsistent position to hold, yet it’s one that the environmental movement largely still holds today.”
When Lynas began to look closely at recent research involving GM foods, he was encouraged by the progress that scientists had made.
“The only people who can be seen to communicate honestly about this are the scientists who work in the public sector,” he said. “Luckily, there are many public sector scientists who are doing a lot of fascinating work. Scientists at Rothamsted Research in the UK are developing a GMO wheat which is designed to be resistant to aphids. Aphids are an important insect pest but they’re also a vector for viruses. If we were able to deploy this, then we would be able reduce the use of chemical pesticides.”
However, the public outcry for GM labeling and boycotting has hindered the advancement of the technology. Concern about GM foods has been fueled by studies like the one published by French professor Gilles-Eric Séralini in September 2012. Séralini claimed that his research involving rats proved that the GM corn fed to them caused tumor growth. The validity of the study was widely criticized by scientists worldwide following its publication.
Furthermore, there is growing concern that the pesticides used on GMOs are contributing to the decline of the world’s honey bee population. A class of insecticides used on GM foods known as neonicotinoids can lead to honey bee deaths by infecting the brains of the insects with toxins. In April 2013, the EU voted to ban three types of neonicotinoids for two years.
Lynas remains a GM food supporter despite these concerns. He says that GM crops could ensure the survival of families living in drought-prone and impoverished areas.
“Whether or not you as a smallholder farmer have a successful harvest is the key definer of whether your kids can go to school, whether they’ll be malnourished, whether you can even see your kids survive the year. It depends on how much you can grow yourself. We’re talking about food security in rural areas across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia. You can help them be more resilient against droughts with more water-efficient crops; you can help them be more resilient against pests and diseases with pest-resistant crops. Saying that people should not have access to these seeds—saying that farmers should be denied the choice of what to plant—is a very worrying and, in many ways, an anti-humanitarian approach,” he said.
The import of GM foods is banned in many African countries. However, funding for biotechnology research that could directly impact African smallholder farmers continues. One promising development is the creation of cassava that is resistant to brown streak disease, a great cause for concern in East Africa. Cassava is the staple crop for two out of every five Africans.
Lynas says he understands that people remain wary of consuming GM foods. He recommends the labeling of non-GM foods so that consumers can make that decision without a regulatory burden being placed on GMOs.