The ‘Frankenfoods’ debate is coming to your dinner table. Just last month, a mini-war developed in Europe, when the European Union’s chief scientist, renowned biologist Anne Glover, said that foods made through genetic engineering, such as soy beans—about 80 percent of US grown soybeans have been genetically engineered —are as safe as organic or conventional foods.

It’s a wholly uncontroversial comment—at least among scientists. But it set off the usual scare mongering from Friends of the Earth, and other like-minded advocacy groups that finds all genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops to be, in their words “stomach turning.”

The incident is also adding fuel to the California wildfires—no, not the ones caused by the drought—but the incendiary debate over a fall ballot initiative that would require warning labels on all foods with GE ingredients, despite the fact that all established health and science groups such as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World health Organization have rejected claims that genetically engineered crops or foods pose additional risks or have altered nutritional profiles as compared to foods derived from conventional genetic alteration.

This debate is particularly poignant because fifty years ago this September, with the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson launched the modern day environmental movement by shining a harsh light on the over use of technology—in that era it was chemicals–in farming.

Although Carson never used the term, her passion was “sustainability.” She envisioned harnessing the knowledge of diverse fields of science—entomology, pathology, genetics, physiology, biochemistry, and ecology- to shape a new science of biotic controls that would help control weeds, diseases and pests without further damaging the environment. Her dream of a science-based agricultural system may come as a surprise to those who believe that sustainability and technology are incompatible.

“A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on the understanding of the living organisms they seek to control and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.”

(Rachel Carson 1962, p. 278)

Together with colleagues, my laboratory at the University of California, Davis has genetically engineered rice that tolerates flooding and resists disease. As a scientist committed to sustainable agriculture, I have to believe that if Rachel Carson was alive today she would reject the anti-science fear mongering of anti-GE campaigners.

For 10,000 years, humans have altered the DNA makeup of our crops. Conventional approaches were often quite crude, resulting in new varieties through a combination of trial and error, and without knowledge of the precise function of the genes that were being moved around. Such methods include grafting or mixing of genes of distantly related species, as well as radiation treatments to induce random mutations in the genetic makeup of the seed. Today, virtually everything we eat is produced from seeds that have been genetically altered in one way or another.

Over the last 20 years, plant breeding has entered “the digital age of biology”. Just as software engineers tinker with computer codes to improve machine performance, scientists and breeders are altering the “DNA software system” of plants to create new genetically engineered crop varieties, often called “GMOs”, that thrive in extreme environments or can withstand attacks by pests. Like the older conventional varieties, GE crops are also genetically altered, but in a manner that is much more precise and introduces fewer genetic changes. GE crops often contain genes from non-crop species.

To understand why farmers have embraced GE crops and how they benefit the environment, take a look at genetically engineered cotton. These varieties contain a bacterial protein called Bt that kills pests, but does not harm beneficial insects and spiders. Bt itself is benign to humans, which is why organic farmers have used Bt as the primary method of pest control for 50 years. Today, 70-90% of US, Indian and Chinese farmers grow Bt cotton.

Last summer a team of scientists reported in the prestigious journal, Nature, that widespread planting of Bt cotton in China drastically reduced the spraying of synthetic chemicals, increased the abundance of beneficial organisms and decreased populations of insects that damage the crop. Planting of Bt cotton also reduced pesticide poisonings of farmers and their families. German researchers reported that farmers in India growing Bt cotton increased their yield by 24%, their profit by 50% and raised their living standards by 18%.

And consider GE papaya, engineered to withstand a devastating viral infection. First developed in 1998, it is now grown by 99% of Chinese and 90% of Hawaiian farmers. There is currently no other method-organic or conventional- that can adequately control the disease. Only the most ideologically driven would choose to let this nutritious and tasty fruit die for the sake of an ephemeral concept of genetic purity.

These stories, which have been repeated around the world, appear to be precisely the kind of triumph of biology over chemicals envisioned by Rachel Carson and by organic farmers, who have long dreamed of reducing the use of synthetic chemicals and enhancing biological diversity on farms.

Considering our long history of plant genetic manipulation and the success of modern GE cotton seeds in enhancing the sustainability of our farms, why do some consumers still express grave unease over the planting of GE crops?

Part of the skepticism may be due to the tendency of consumers to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer or the social, environmental, economic or nutritional benefits. They may be unaware that the U.S. National Research Council and the European commission have concluded that the process of genetic engineering is no more “risky” than conventional genetic modification and that all GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment.

Another reason for suspicion is that a person’s willingness to accept scientific consensus often correlates with political affiliation. Just as 81% percent of college-educated Republicans discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warning, many Democrats disregard the decades of scientific studies that have piled up in technical reports indicating the safety and wide-reaching benefits of GE crops and instead absorb the misinformation proliferating on the internet, which is untethered from peer-reviewed science or agriculture.

In the last few months, however, scientists and journalists have launched communication efforts that are helping make the science behind plant genetics and breeding less remote.

For example, British researchers recently published a moving YouTube clip, appealing to protestors to reconsider their planned destruction of a publicly funded GE research trial intended to reduce the use of insecticides on wheat. Plant biologists in Sweden asked opponents of GE crops to listen to the scientific community without ideological earplugs, likening the seemingly endless discussion about the purported risks of GE crops to the famous Monty Python sketch in which a customer tries to return a dead parrot to a shopkeeper, who despite all evidence insists that the bird is well, alive and pining for the fjords.

Farmers are speaking out too, explaining why they use GE seed and extending invitations to well-known television personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey, to visit and find out why they choose to grow biotech crops. Local farmers roll their tractors into town to tell us that they need modern seed varieties with built in resistant to pests and tolerance to environmental stress.

As more information is made available demystifying what farmers and breeders actually do, will the public dialog become more sophisticated? Will the campaign against modern crop genetics diminish as consumers learn of the benefits to the public good? Some journalists think so and have even speculated that the GMO debate is growing up in Europe.

A strikingly similar story of consumer skepticism played out in the 1970s in California’s Silicon Valley. As described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, many viewed the early computers suspiciously, believing they would only benefit large corporations. As the broad usefulness of the technology became apparent, opposition faded. Today such technologies are credited with toppling decades of dictatorship and launching revolutions.

Despite the safety and benefits of the GE crops, it is clear that seed is only one component of sustainable agricultural system. Even the most productive crop varieties must be integrated with ecologically based farming practices to maximize their potential.

For example, there is ample evidence that insects can develop resistance to BT, if it is used as the sole method of pest control. Effective methods for slowing the spread of insect resistance include crop rotation, intercropping and planting refuges of non-BT cotton and non-crop species.

In the face of a rapidly growing population, the need to produce more food and fiber without further destroying the environment is one of the greatest challenges of our time. A key to building a sustainable agriculture in the 21st century is to integrate the science of agricultural ecology with modern genetic technology. Just as few today would trade in their iPad 3 for a Mac1, few farmers will give up their modern seed varieties. We can’t and shouldn’t run away from ‘digital agriculture’—let’s embrace and leverage it so all humanity can benefit.

 

Pamela Ronald, Professor, Department Plant Pathology and the Genome Center, University of California, Davis, is co-author, with her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. #1 Ken
    Nairobi, Kenya
    November 8, 2012

    Rachel Carson was anti-science from the beginning. Her position on pesticides was completely irrational scaremongering – to the point of religious fanaticism. Therefore it should not surprise anyone that her ideological heirs are irrational scaremongers about GMOs.

    That said, the problem with “science” is that the outcomes in this day and age seem to depend on who is paying for the study and whether they are asking the right questions.

    Thalidomide was a scientifically designed and tested product. But the the scientists who did the original studies did not ask the right questions. Rather their bosses who paid for the testing did not ask for studies to answer the right questions. And thus were created a generation of people with severe birth defects.

  2. #2 Watching
    October 4, 2012

    @RL Schaefer

    Never let facts get in the way of a good, foaming, blithering rant.

    DDT is not banned for all uses, it’s still available in malaria prone countries for disease control. They rarely use it because ….
    mosquitoes evolved resistance to it. Not to mention the fact that it fails to break down and thus accumulates up the food chain.

    But I s’pose evolution is also one of your gripes also.

  3. #3 Jim Shovelton
    Australia
    October 2, 2012

    Regarding the trial with GM corn and rats

    The strain of rats used in the trial are known to be predisposed to getting cancer. Other research has showed that these rats usually die from cancer or kidney failure at one to two years old. But the authors in this study failed to mention that fact.
    The trial did not use a standard statistical test, the evidence was overstated and all the data was not published.
    Unfortunately. agriculture has a proliferation of evidence-free products, animals with no performance data and products where the evidence is unreliable.
    The lesson for us in this is to totally reject product claims which are evidence free and critically examine the evidence when it is provided.
    A couple of interesting responses to this research have been posted on The Conversation website.
    https://theconversation.edu.au/modifying-the-message-how-tricks-masked-home-truths-about-anti-gm-science-9767
    http://theconversation.edu.au/genetically-modified-corn-and-cancer-what-does-the-evidence-really-say-9746

  4. #4 Judi Krzyzanowski
    October 2, 2012

    @ R.L.Schaefer
    I am not sure what you are talking about when you say that “no human harm has ever been noted” in reference to DDT.

    Here are just a few links to review and research articles (real science not pseudo science) showing DDT’s persistence and havoc in the human body:
    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.18.1.211?journalCode=publhealth
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969705001749
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0940299312000772
    According to this one, DDT can still be used for indoor disease vector control (i.e. malaria mosquitoes) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737010/
    This is one that discusses the ethical dilemmas of indoor use for malaria protection: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114806/
    I could go on…..

    DDT dissolves and accumulates in human fat cells is a known endocrine disruptor. It has been linked to pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, non-hodgkin’s lymphoma and some say breast cancer. It is inflammatory. It has notorious effects on mammalian (and other) reproductive systems (including humans) and developing fetuses. It produces the metabolite DDE which inhibits androgen binding. DDT is best known as a neuro-toxin and inhibits neuronal repolarization. Despite that DDT has been banned for widespread and agricultural use decades (it is still used to control malaria), DDE is still found in the blood and fat cells most North Americans.

    So basically you are willing to kill people with cancer and organ damage to save people from malaria? My partner has malaria, it flares up sometimes, but there are many ways to keep people from dying from the disease. Proper nutrition and clean water are really help. In a healthy immune system the disease has less of a chance.

    Essentially you are saying is it is better to die of cancer or live with neurological impairment than it is to die of or live with malaria. This is a real judgement call on your part and something not backed up by science. DDT also destroys the environment and many wildlife populations including beneficial insects and pollinators, Will that help the developing world survive? Our health depends on healthy ecosystems and our economy depends on their resources.

    All of the studies given do have their problems. I don’t know if you have ever tried to directly link anything to human health impacts, but there are a few problems 1) you are not allowed to test things on people (which is why we have rats I guess); and 2) there are so many factors in human exposure, including cross-exposures, that you can not have a control (unless you were allowed to raise them in a lab).

  5. #5 R.L.Schaefer
    Ca.
    October 1, 2012

    Rachel Carson’s dreams have wrought a nightmare for tens of millions of families around the world. Every year since the ban on DDT, over a million people have died from malaria.

    The research, published in the British medical journal the Lancet, states that 1.24 million people died from the mosquito-borne disease in 2010.

    This compares to a World Health Organization (WHO) estimate for 2010 of 655,000 deaths.

    The DDT ban, born of Rachel Carson’s hysteria, has cost the lives of tens of millions of people – mostly children. DDT saved millions of lives during World War II. And despite decades of testing DDT has never been shown to have any ill effects on humans. If our leaders had summoned the political will to use DDT in the one New York county that was infected with West Nile Virus in 1999 we might have been able to stop the spread of the deadly virus to the rest of North America. Now, this killer disease is with us forever – annually killing millions of mammals and birds, and dozens of people. More death and destruction each year than DDT has ever caused (even in the minds of eco-zealots).

    Admittedly, some resistance to DDT took place in selected mosquito strains. However, this was the result of widespread agricultural use – not as a result of vector control. Resistance testing can be done in problem areas and DDT or another pesticide may be used if DDT resistance is found. Pesticides can be used in an alternating fashion to prevent resistance.

    Recently, Dr. Samuel Koffi Moise, head of Malaria Control in West Africa’s Ivory Coast told international news agencies that, nearly 200 children die every day in his country of malaria. He further remarked, “… that more than nets, “…we need pesticides like DDT.”

    Furthermore, in his recent book, “An Excellent Powder”, Donald Roberts, professor of tropical medicine at the U.S. military’s Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and Richard Tren, head of lobby group Africa Fighting Malaria, argue that DDT is the only effective weapon against the deadly mosquito-borne parasite.

    Professor Roberts states, “There are an almost endless list of claims that DDT causes one kind of harm or another but … with each claim, the evidence that the DDT is the cause is simply not there.”

    It should be noted here that the inventor of DDT, Paul H. Muller , won the 1948 Noble Prize in Medicine. Why? Because DDT has saved more lives than any other chemical invention in history.

    During World War II thousands of U.S. soldiers dosed themselves regularly with the “excellent powder” to prevent vector born disease and entire cities in Asia and Europe were spayed to prevent epidemics. Franklin Roosevelt said millions of lives were saved by this practice and proclaimed that DDT was one of the greatest inventions in history. No human harm has ever been noted.

    Finally, go to, “The Lies of Rachel Carson”, or, “DDT: A case Study In Scientific Fraud, or “junkscieince.com., for information on DDT/Environmentalist hysteria and the death it causes.

  6. #6 Judi Krzyzanowski
    October 1, 2012

    I take back what I said about degradation. It depends on the soil type and some studies have found glyphosate to remain bound in soil complexes for many years (up to a 22 year half-life). It becomes strongly bound to soil regardless of soil properties.

  7. #7 Judi Krzyzanowski
    Canada
    October 1, 2012

    I am a scientist and I don’t think that the safety if GE crops is quite as well accepted and “uncontroversial” amongst scientists as Pamela Roland would like us to think.

    While some genetically modified crops, such as the Bt ones, do use less pesticides, others, such as the round-up ready ones, promote the continued and unabated use of herbicides. You can now spray numerous times during a growing season without damaging crops, something the old system didn’t do. Despite that the active compound glyphosate breaks down relatively easily, a number of the surfacants and dispersants in its mixtures are toxic to fish and soil organisms. Furthermore the system has been shown to chelate trace minerals making them inaccessible to plant roots. Repeated use of the round-up system essentially turns soil into no more than something to hold up the plants. It threatens one of our most valuable resources – fertile healthy and biologically diverse soil for growing food.

    Also just last week a paper was published (by scientists) showing remarkably increased rates of cancer and organ damage in rats fed (11%) round-up ready corn and water with 0.1ppb glyphosate or both. see: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637
    So, I think the jury is still out in terms of GM safety. Glyphosate resistant GM crops make up the majority of grain corn, soy, and canola grown in North America.

    I also don’t think that taking bacterial genes, animal genes or fungal genes and putting them into plants is the same as selective breeding and selective mutations. Cotton and bacteria would never breed in the wild, just like humans can’t breed with trees and probably shouldn’t try to. We are also seeing many “volunteer” GM individuals get out in the wild. A survey of canola farmers in Canada found that 39% of them had witnessed volunteer GM canola plants where they had never been planted. If there are closely related species around, they can and will breed with wild-types.

    I also don’t see why labelling would be a problem. We already have food labelling laws that are very stringent in terms of ingredients and nutritional values. For those of us who may not be completely sold on this “safety” thing, we can make our own choice.

    The only way to know the true hazards, if any of GE crops on humans (and from the research I have seen there sure seem to be some) is to feed them to us in steady doses for long periods of time, and allow them and there systems to cover the planet. This large-scale experiment has been going on for a while now, maybe soon we will get to see the results.

    BTW Rachel Carson, even in the quote, was talking about biological control, for instance using predatory insects to control crop pests. To say she would support genetic engineering is a little presumptuous (to put it lightly).

  8. #8 Todd
    September 28, 2012

    ” Right now about 5 major companies control most of the seed that farmers grow in the US. I for one, certainly dont want a few companies controlling the worlds seed supply.”
    The key point is in the first sentence – a small number of companies control most of the seed that is PLANTED in the US. It does not follow that they control the worlds seed supply. They control the seeds they developed – seeds that happen to have significantly higher yields than say any of the germplasm you could get from USDA, for instance. No one is forced to buy their seed. Farmers choose to buy it because it is a superior product. Its like saying a few companies make most of the smartphones used in the US. There are a lot of cheap phones out there that can do the basics, but everyone wants an iphone. Apple charges a lot for these, developed business models around service contracts, and enforces its IP vigorously. How come no one is calling Apple evil and demanding they give their phones away?

  9. #9 Tony Shelton
    New York
    September 26, 2012

    In the last few chapters of Silent Spring, Carson advocates for a new way forward by controlling insects with bacteria, fungi, viruses, pheromones and other techniques. The bacterium Bt was then and still is today a safe but very little used insecticide when sprayed onto plants . It is only when the genes for producing the bacterial proteins were engineered into plants that Bt use really took off. Same proteins, just a different delivery system. Bt plants have dramatically lowered the use of traditional insecticides. I think Carson would be pleased with Bt plants.

  10. #10 LH
    September 26, 2012

    “Part of the skepticism may be due to the tendency of consumers to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer or the social, environmental, economic or nutritional benefits.”

    This. Making something drought tolerant = probably a good idea. Round-Up Ready corn that allows tons of potentially harmful chemicals to be sprayed on the corn = probably a bad idea.

  11. #11 pyst
    September 24, 2012

    population is modeled by exponential equations. Malthus and his predictions have merely been delayed probably not for much longer.

    transgenics will make no difference in this regard.

  12. #12 Dunc
    September 24, 2012

    That’s something I notice a lot about people who are opposed to all forms of GE technology – they appear to be remarkably uniformed as to both the current state and and the recent history of both “conventional” and “organic” agriculture. The truth is that if you object to corporations dominating agriculture, or if you’re worried about the ability of farmers to save their own seed, then the technology you really need to be opposing is F1 hybridisation – i.e. the technology that’s been feeding much of the world for the last 70 years or so, and without which the worst Malthusian fears of Ehrlich et al would have come to pass decades ago. That particular horse has well and truly bolted.

    Oh, and you should probably be opposing mechanisation too, as that’s the key factor which has driven up capital costs and made it so difficult to actually make a living from farming at any scale below that of global agribusiness…

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for sustainable agriculture, I mostly buy organic, I’m seriously concerned with ecological issues, I’m a member of the Scottish Green Party*… But we need to start from an understanding of how modern agriculture actually works, not some romanticised myth of agriculture that hasn’t actually existed in the best part of a century. (Outside of bare-knuckle subsistence farming in the developing world, that is…)

    (*The views expressed in this comment are my own, and should not be taken to represent those of the Scottish Green Party.)

  13. #14 Pamela Ronald
    September 24, 2012

    @kyreena

    Regarding corporate ownership, it is an interesting topic. Right now about 5 major companies control most of the seed that farmers grow in the US. I for one, certainly dont want a few companies controlling the worlds seed supply. But this is an issue that is independent of science and the techniques of genetic engineering. Since the 1940s, when hybrids were developed, companies have owned and sold seed. They have been very successful. Today virtually all US growers buy seed from corporations, including organic farmers.

    So banning the technology of genetic engineering, which is just one form of genetic alteration, will not affect corporate control of the seed supply.

  14. #15 Kyreena
    September 24, 2012

    I’m afraid there’s one glaring problem you forget, that is in serious need of addressing: patenting of GM crops, and the issues that come with it. One company has really managed to scare everyone if GM in one foul swoop – science types included – and that is Monsanto.

    If those issues get addressed, I’ll wholeheartedly embrace GM, as will many others. Sadly, that is in actual fact the biggest inhibitor to acceptance of GM, as we all suffer from “us vs them” paranoia in some way, and have worry about the implications, when the product is made by one distributor who can have total control, that can often turn disastrous thanks to our constant desire for higher profits.

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