GMOs--You probably try your best to avoid them when making choices about what you’re going to eat.
But, what if I told you that you don’t have to? In fact, there’s no scientific evidence proving that GMOs cause any harm to humans.
In order to give you the most accurate information, we reached out to 1993 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine and expert in GMOs, Sir Richard Roberts, PhD.
Let’s start off with the basic topics and then move on to why you must understand that GMOs are safe.
What are GMOs?
According to Support Precision Agriculture, the official organization of hundreds of Nobel laureates’ pro-GMO campaign, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are “...any organisms that have had its genetic makeup changed deliberately by humans.” To anti-GMO activists, this method of biotechnology contradicts traditional, so-called "natural" methods.
But experts such as the National Research Council Committee on Scientific Evaluation of the Introduction of Genetically Modified Microorganisms and Plants into the Environment have long agreed that the method in creating GMOs isn't important, but rather the product that is important. Rather than judging the method for being “unsafe,” what’s really important to look at is if the final product is safe for humans. And, science has shown that these GMOs very much are.
GMOs just take a valuable gene out of another plant and use a bacterium called Agrobacterium to transfer the DNA into the plant. This method is much more precise than traditional cross-breeding (which takes much longer to get the same results), yet it is deemed as dangerous by Greenpeace, a well-known environmental organization.
Here is an example that Dr. Roberts gave to simplify the information above:
If you wanted to move a GPS system from your old car into your new one, would you completely disassemble the two cars, mix up the parts, and then “select” for the one with the GPS, ignoring what else you might have picked up? Or would you just take the GPS and move it to the other car?
Obviously, the latter is much easier, and that’s what GMOs are! But, organizations such as Greenpeace still argue that it is unsafe. They would argue that if you move the GPS from an airplane to a car, the car will fly. This makes no scientific sense! Again, the method by which the GMOs are created isn’t important, but the end product.
Well, if GMOs are so safe then why do people still think they are bad? Well, it’s more political than it seems.
Politics and Economics in the GMO Discussion
In the United States and Europe, big agricultural companies have started to invest heavily in traditional breeding to improve crops, but there have been no such efforts in the developing countries who really need better crops. In fact, GMOs can help these developing countries significantly because they can improve crops in a few years compared to decades of traditional breeding.
So why does Europe still deem GMOs as bad even though it could help the developing countries to improve their crops?
The answer is that Europe does not want United States corporations, such as Monsanto, to control their food. They could just ban these companies, but then a lot of Europeans would starve because these agribusinesses provide the seeds that are grown in Europe. In order to gain political power, European Green Parties saw this as an opportunity when Monsanto first tried to introduce a GMO crop into Europe. Instead of banning the company, they made the false claim that the genetically modified crop was dangerous, and therefore must be banned. And this had no negative economic consequence for Europe (Support Precision Agriculture)!
From there, anti-GMO activists have gone out trying to spread their message that these crops are dangerous. And, unfortunately, they have been successful.
When we asked Dr. Roberts about how Western corporations are leading to the downfall of developing countries, he responded, “Not very much at all in a direct way. The problems come from the anti-GMO activists, mostly coming out of Europe. They were inspired when Monsanto first introduced GMOs into Europe and provided a punching bag for the European activists who were against big American companies that they accused of controlling the European food supply. However, they couldn’t ban them, because they provided the seeds that are grown in Europe. So GMOs became a surrogate target.”
But, the problem is that these GMOs are essential to the health of developing countries who need this biotechnology to gain vital nutrients. Even though Europe may not need GMOs to survive, developing countries do.
Why Developing Countries Need GMOs
One of the biggest medical problems that developing countries suffer from is Vitamin-A deficiency. This disease can lead to loss of eyesight, and unfortunately death. This isn’t just a small problem. Globally, 30% of children less than 5 years old have this vitamin deficiency, and it can be totally prevented by diet and the implementation of GMOs (NCBI).
We asked Dr. Roberts about the nutrition-related health disparities faced by underdeveloped regions and how GMOs can improve those conditions. This was his response, “There are a number of problems in developing countries that improved crops could help with. Aside from nutrition-related problems like Vitamin A deficiency, the single biggest problem is inadequate nutritious food. One example is corn, which is a staple source of calories for many people. In South Africa, they grow Bt-corn (first developed in the South of the USA). However, elsewhere in Africa, countries such as Zimbabwe wouldn’t grow it because it was a GMO. There are still vast shortages of corn as a result. Only recently did it seem they were prepared to grow the S. African Bt-corn. In other countries solutions exist, but are not being used because of the anti-GMO activists. Bananas are a good example in sub-Saharan Africa, where disease is killing the banana plants, but the resistant varieties are not yet allowed to be grown. The biggest effect that GMO crops can have is to improve yields by growing insect-resistant varieties.”
As Dr. Roberts is saying, GMOs would not only prevent Vitamin-A deficiency, but they can help produce crops that are resistant to insects, viruses, fungi, etc. But, these solutions are not being used because of the anti-GMO activists.
GMOs have actually worked on several occasions to save crops. For example, in 1990, Hawaiian papaya trees were inflicted by the ringspot virus, which decimated half of the crops in the state (Hawaii Tribune). But, Dennis Gonzalvez from the University of Hawaii genetically modified the crop to be resistant to the virus, and now 77% of Hawaiian grown papaya is now genetically engineered and consumed in the United States (Support Precision Agriculture). However, in Thailand, this solution is banned due to anti-GMO activists. Hawaiian farmers have been individually selling these crops to Thai farmers anyway to grow because this is the only solution to the problem, and the only way for the Thai people to be fed.
So Why Is It That We Aren’t Recognizing This Problem and Trying To Fix It?
According to Dr. Roberts, “Many people in Europe, including companies and politicians, recognize the needs of the developing world. However, the Green parties have pushed the anti-GMO policies instilling unwarranted fears of the dangers. This means they cannot take a position claiming GMOs are safe for the developing countries, but dangerous for the Europeans.”
All it is is money and political power. When the activists found out that they could gain large financial contributions to their organization from people like Greenpeace and gain political power in the process, they started to capitalize on this misinformation. In the words of Dr. Roberts, “Always look for the money and the power when assessing peoples’ motives.”
What We Need To Do
How do we eliminate misinformation surrounding GMOs? What can we as students do now?
Dr. Roberts says, “It’s simple – tell the truth and don’t be taken in by fairy stories about the dangers of GMOs. You can best help by educating your families, your friends and the general public. Talk to kids in schools and to local organizations. My slides are available if you ever want them. There are also others on the web site (https://www.supportprecisionagriculture.org/) – plus there are links to talks I have given.”
I hope all of you are now a bit more informed on the truths about GMOs. And, thank you Dr. Roberts for taking the time to answer our questions!