Many social scientists believe that “genetic modification” of food crops produces an emotional response in human beings because people believe that food is fundamental to life and should not be tinkered with. The term “genetically modified” is poorly understood and can sound very scary. What many people need to know is that virtually all of the food we eat has been genetically modified for thousands of years by nature, by farmers saving their best seeds and by plant breeders. An example of this is today’s maize, which is descended from a native plant in Mexico, called teosinte, that still grows there today. Another example is the flavorful, baseball-size tomato we buy at the market, which before genetic modification was marble size and toxic. Food crops are continually being genetically modified by breeders through crossing and selection to make them more nutritious, flavorful, resistant to drought, pests and disease and ultimately more productive. Using conventional crop-improvement approaches is assumed to be safe, and no further testing is required. But when plants are improved with genetic engineering, by adding a specific gene with a desired function, they are extensively tested, and the results of these tests are reviewed by hundreds of scientists in regulatory agencies around the world to verify that they are as safe as conventional crops.
The testing of GM crops raises alarm for many people because they conclude GM crops would not need to be tested if they were likely to be safe. Testing is supposed to make people more comfortable because these crops have been examined and authorized by government authorities responsible for ensuring the safety of our food supply. Ironically, the need for extensive testing can raise fears, rather than lower them. Some people appreciate the fact that the current GM crops have been planted on well over three billion acres since 1996, and that millions and millions of farmers around the world have experienced generally positive impacts on food security and the environment. GM crops are not without issues (e.g., pest and weed resistance), but these issues existed before GM crops, and the expert community continues to focus on finding solutions.
The big question is, why don’t the vast majority of people recognize that GM crops and foods derived from them are as safe as conventional crops and foods? The answer to that question has eluded biotechnology experts, regulatory authorities entrusted with public safety and the biotechnology industry for too long.
Part of the answer is that people seeking more information are bombarded with information, most of it alleging that GMOs cause harm, and that leads people to question the motives of GMO scientists, safety assessors and companies. Add to that the fact that farmers and seed companies enjoy most of the direct benefits associated with GM crops, and the indirect benefits to society are real but less tangible. Understandably, it is human nature to avoid potential risks when there are no perceived benefits to justify them, however small those risks are.
It also is human nature to attempt to persuade others to adopt one point of view over another. We have debates. We blog. We build websites. We tweet information that supports our beliefs to our followers. While these communications are well intended, misinformation can be inadvertently spread. This is reality, but it is not without consequences. Myths based on misinformation not only can distract people from the real and important matters facing society but also can confuse them and slow the diffusion of new technologies intended to address important challenges. The more people appreciate the importance of improving the productivity of agriculture to help address the real challenges—global food security, poverty, availability of fresh water, loss of biodiversity and climate change—the better.
Myths propagated by GMO opponents exercising free speech can do more harm to society than good. When these opponents claim that GM food is banned in many places throughout the world, they send the message that GM food is unsafe. Kenya instituted a ban on GM food imports in response to claims that GM foods are harmful, but the claims were overwhelmingly rejected by experts and food safety authorities. Major importing countries and regions—like China, Japan, the European Union, Korea and Mexico—import GM products every day.
I am personally disheartened and angry when activists destroy GM research plots that are intended to answer important questions about safety. I was especially saddened by the recent destruction of field trials of Golden Rice in the Philippines. The Golden Rice technology can alleviate vitamin A deficiency, a major health threat in third-world countries. (See more information in this New York Times article: Golden Rice: Lifesaver?). At the end of the day, this is criminal action and, in my opinion, is not an appropriate way to express your emotion about anything.
Until the broader public sees and accepts the benefits of GM crops, they likely will continue to be cautious. My training in botany, plant breeding and genetics provides me with an understanding of and confidence in the safety of GMOs. Fortunately, there are good sources of information available to seek answers; here are a few I read: www.ISAAA.org, http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/, www.bestfoodfacts.org and www.biofortified.org. Do your research and bring us your questions. That is one of the reasons we created GMO Answers. The biotechnology industry is dedicated to providing balanced and reliable information to the public to address their concerns about the safety and benefits of GMOs.