Standing Up For Modified


Aug 01, 2015, 11:55 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 10:01 AM IST

The fear mongering on genetically modified crops is costing lives, nutrition, forests, and climate. We need to sift facts from talking points.

Activism run amuck

It is now a familiar news. A picketing here, bit of destruction there and rallies to stop genetically modified crops from being grown. Riding roughshod over scientists who largely support the use of GM crops, and poor farmers who would like to take advantage of seeds that are efficient, use less pesticides, and can bear fruits faster and in larger quantities, the anti-GMO activists have continuously kept their narrative alive.

Scientific studies have overwhelmingly disproven the myths being purported. It is necessary to place scientific facts at the center of this narrative, and allow society and governments to make informed decisions than ones based on paranoia, pseudo-science, or religion-like dogmas.

The results of this dogmatic stonewalling have been devastating. Devastating for large number of people in the world who continue to suffer from starvation, and malnutrition. Just a few years ago, Greenpeace and their affiliates destroyed the field trial of Golden Rice, a genetically modified variety of rice that expresses a precursor of vitamin A, b-carotene. Since rice is the most common food grain eaten by humanity, it was designed as the most effective method to prevent widespread vitamin A deficiency that afflicts large sections of the poor and developing world.

It is a disease of the poor, causing more than 1.5 million easily preventable deaths among the young ones. But the well proven efficacy of Golden Rice to prevent vitamin deficiency was of no value to the dogmatic picketers who ransacked the trials and have continued to hound any scientific progress in GMO foods.

The war of paranoia

The current narrative is wholly one sided. It is a manifestation of how a dedicated group of activists can unravel even a good thing. Why does it happen even with scientific evidence against them? Largely, because the large majority that outnumber and oppose their diatribe also tend to just want to go on with their business.

A golden rice field 

This is one reason why the so-called environmentalists have, by their policy prescriptions that have largely been followed, destroyed the country’s environment and succeeded in stopping any development at the same time. If only the efficiency of their destruction could have been replicated elsewhere in our society, we would have moved far ahead with providing decent life for our citizens, as well as preserving the environment of our country.

It has been nearly two decades since genetically modified crops have been introduced into the fields, but the trenchant criticism they have invited have continued unabated in spite of an extremely safe record. Take the example of Golden Rice itself. It was tested in innumerable trials just to allay the fears of potential hazards, but the goalposts have continuously been shifted since their arrival. It is impossible to commercialize viably in such elastic regulatory landscape.

Two leading Nobel laureates (Phillip Sharp, Richard Roberts),  even wrote in Science, the foremost scientific journal, “the anti-GMO fever burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear mongering that profits some individuals and organizations”. Must I add, at the cost of millions of malnourished children who would have led a better life but for this dogmatic resistance.

It is a constant wonder to find intelligent people who otherwise analyze everything scientifically being against genetically modified crops, without any caveats. It has become, unfortunately, a dogma in itself with its strident adherents clutching onto every single fact against the opposite, and amplifying it to a truism. Genetic modification is not fundamentally different from what selective breeding has achieved since farming started. But it can achieve those objectives in a more efficient and targeted manner. If carefully proceeded with, genetic engineering can help in solving myriad problems of the world, much beyond hunger.

Sifting Facts from Myths

Not all GMO crops may be similarly effective, and harmless, but the anti GMO argument is very similar to the anti-allopathic argument. If one new medicine causes side effect, it is a scant argument to completely reject all medications. Even though none of the GMO crops currently in market have shown anything akin to such effects, each new variant must be tested individually, and assessed for their approval. Dogma, however, does not brook debate. And it is more convenient to label all GMO crops as being anti-farmer and anti-people without evidence. It is not only intellectual laziness, but unintellectual malice.

What are the specific arguments against GMO crops? Among the many highlighted by the Institute for Responsible Technology, self-proclaimed “most comprehensive source of GMO health risk information on the web”, are claims about organ damage, autism, reproductive disorders – all without any evidence. Fear mongering includes scientifically ridiculous claims, like how a GMO gene could transfer to DNA inside us.

While most of these many claims are mere fear mongering, there are legitimate concerns for any new technology. There have been concerns about increased herbicide usage due to glyphosate resistance in plants. But again, real field data show very different results. Use of glyphosate, one of the mildest in the game, has increased but at the cost of much more toxic herbicides that were used. On the other hand, Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) incorporation in the genome has allowed significant reduction of pesticides. Results have been largely positive in field trials and we cannot afford to create an equivalence between scientific facts and hypothetical data.

There are issues, less talked about. There have been, and let me say it out loud, will be more resistant pests developing. That is evolution in working. What it calls for is not ban on developing any new strain, but to strategize their deployment. Do we ban all antibiotics because some have caused resistance? No, we focus our concerns, and rightly so, on developing modalities on how to administer antibiotics. Rather than standing in the way of progress and prosperity, we should focus our legitimate concerns to steering and guiding the progress.

Standing With, Not Against the Future

And the progress will be fast. As Voltaire said, no army can stop an idea whose time has come. The new technologies of directly editing the genome using CRISPR systems and its inevitable variants will fundamentally change the way we think about genetic engineering.

We now have more precise, effective, and at the same time more dangerous tools at our disposal. Has any scientific tool with clear advantages ever been stopped by regulation? What is required is consensus and strategizing which requires dialogue between governments, farmers and people, not confrontation. Debate should be held about the optimal way to organize crop rotation when adjacent farms are organic, and not about not allowing non organic farms to come up at all.

Dialogue is required to predictably manage and monitor deployment of GMO crops and their effect on wilderness, not ban GMO crops. Conferences should be held on creating predictable, concrete, and metrics based field trials rather than vilifying companies that are doing what every company plans to do, developing products that customers would want and pay for.

GMO crops will not be a panacea. Organic plants will continue to thrive, may be as premium products in the grocery store. Diversity of our vegetables, wheat, and brinjals will be maintained by patronization of these heirlooms. Organic produces are definitely tastier, and more flavorful, and carry with them a premium tag to attract a niche patronage. Who knows though – a new gene modification might even offer those advantages to the GMO ones!

Deploying the Arsenal With Responsibility

Genetic engineering is a toolset, and like any scientific technology it could be an asset, or a liability. With new advances, genetic engineering is becoming ever easier, and approachable. It would be completely unrealistic to expect that countries will not use these technologies in response to societal pressures.

Even if you are still convinced about the arguments against GMO, in spite of overwhelming evidence, please act to steer the direction of the debate – don’t help those seeking to enforce outright bane.

Bans always fail, and you lose control of the subject’s direction.

Kshitiz is a Research Professor at Yale University working in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology. He is also a writer, bharatantyam dancer, and the author of the book “The Revenge of Shakuni”.

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