Indian officials have announced they will ban commercial planting of genetically modified eggplants until more tests demonstrate its safety. The decision follows heated public debate over the risks and benefits of the crop, which was designed to reduce the amount of insecticides applied to the vegetable.
Researchers worldwide are developing GM crops to tackle some of the world's biggest challenges in agriculture, from drought in Africa to floods in Asia. But as the ruling in India demonstrates, public concerns about GM crops remain strong even after more than a decade on the market.
Supporters say the GM eggplant would improve yields and reduce the use of harmful pesticides. Opponents say they are a threat to human health and environmental safety. These are the same battle lines that were drawn even before the first GM crops were introduced in the 1990s. And they haven't changed much since then.
The debate persists despite the fact that, for the past 13 years, GM crops have been grown and consumed without any evidence of a major health or environmental problem. An estimated 100 million hectares of GM crops were grown in 25 countries in 2008. That should put the opposition to rest, says Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist and a U.S. State Department advisor. But it hasn't.
"The only way that I can stay patient," she says, "is to recognize that this is not unique to GM foods, and it is not new."
Fedoroff says one reason that hostility to GM foods persists is because scientific advances often move faster than public acceptance. In the 19th century, opposition to a new smallpox vaccine continued after scientists were convinced it was safe and effective. In the 1960s and 1970s, she says, the Green Revolution's high-yielding crop varieties, which fed millions in South Asia, had their detractors, too.
"They were reputed to cause impotence, and all the things that people say GM plants cause today," she says. "And it just took work and dedication on the part of scientists who knew and believed that this was important for people to have. And now we look back and say, 'Oh, gee, that was great.'"
Urgent need to "get beyond" anti-GM bias
Fedoroff and a group of scientists from U.S. universities, international institutes and seed companies write in this week's issue of the journal Science, "There is a critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology." The article notes that there will be 3 billion more mouths to feed by mid-century while climate change threatens food supplies. GM, they say, is one of the technologies that can help meet the challenges.
"But, you know, we are losing time," adds P. A. Kumar, director of India's National Research Center for Plant Biotechnology. He's been working on developing the controversial eggplant and other GM crops for the better part of two decades. He says the needs in India are urgent.
"The food and nutritional security of this country is really under threat. On top of that, the environmental degradation, the quality of water, the quality of soil, the quality of [the] environment, are being compromised by the heavy use of pesticides in our agriculture," Kumar says.
Not so fast
The urgent call from supporters to move GM technology forward is matched by the intensity of opponents who say, "slow down."
Mira Shiva, with the Indian group Doctors for Food and Biosafety, is one of them. She says, look at the experience with some pharmaceuticals.
"Numerous drugs that were said to be very safe, over time they were found not to be safe," she says. "It happens. But they could be withdrawn. You cannot withdraw genetically modified [crops] at all. You cannot withdraw [them]. So, God forbid [that] tomorrow there are problems."
Doug Gurion-Sherman used to look for problems with GM crops as a regulator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He's now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. And he says one reason the doubts about GM crops persist is because even after more than a decade of use, some questions have gone unanswered.
"I don't think there's any definitive data that shows that these plants cause harm," he says. "What [the data] point to is a general inadequacy of the data requirements."
Gurion-Sherman says the data requirements for toxicity, for example, only call for 90-day tests, and they are not sensitive enough to detect problems if they do arise. Though more tests would cost the companies developing the plants more money, he says resistance to more rigorous testing is short-sighted.
Question of trust
"Until the proponents of the crop, who have adamantly resisted strengthening regulations, understand that public confidence is going to depend on regulatory agencies that can be counted on, that huge public mistrust is going to remain," he adds.
The question of trust could surface again. New GM crops are being developed that promise to cope with some of the world's biggest challenges in food production including tolerance to drought and salty soils and more efficient use of fertilizer. But, as India's moratorium on GM eggplant shows, these innovations will likely remain on the shelf unless the public trusts the regulators who say these crops are safe.