Genetically Modified Crops – Trojan Horse or Solution to a Hungry World

China rejects shipment of genetically modified corn from U.S., LA Times, reports.

This story broke over the holidays, so I’m a little late in posting the news.  But still thought it worthy of mention.  At first, it wasn’t clear from the MSN stories whether China’s action was motivated more by economic dreamstime_l_31917638protectionism, environmentalism or safety concerns.  But for a nation with over 30 Million people starving to death, turning away 546,000 tons of corn makes a big statement.   A little more digging into this story suggests that China was motivated largely out of safety concerns by a vocal minority of activists.  Chinese scientists for years have been working on GM rice that would be more pest and drought resistant, but rationality is losing out to cultural and scientific irrationality.  Notwithstanding the fact that Chinese scientists and researchers have not identified any safety risks, the Chinese remain highly skeptical and wary of GM crops and the potential long-term risks.

The public debate over the risks of GM food is a fascinating one, and takes on some of the same emotional rhetoric, irrationality and hyperbolic overtones of the nuclear energy and climate change debates.  It turns out that the fears and concerns of this issue resonate largely with “those who harbor an egalitarian-communitarian cultural style and antagonize those with a more a hierarchical and individualistic one,” according to  Dan Kahan over at the Cultural Cognition project.  Organic farmers and food safety groups are the most vocal opponents and are waging a very public war against large multi-national companies like Monsanto, who has become the poster-child of the anti-GM campaigners.  It is a showdown between small farmers and foodies with a serious distrust of big agribusiness and the use of technology.

The controversy over GM crops took an even more frenetic turn in November of last year when The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology published a paper titled ‘Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize’” by a French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini who is a well-known anti-GM campaigner.   The Seralini study showed pictures of highly deformed, cancerous-ridden rats that had been fed a diet of GM maize treated with Monsanto Roundup herbicide.   The problem is the Seralini study was itself ridden with serious scientific problems and its design and methodology were resoundingly debunked as reported here and here.   The biggest criticism of the study was the small number of and wrong type of rats used (turns out the strain used is known to be highly susceptible to cancerous growths).   The discreditation of the Seralini paper resulted in a full retraction of the paper by FCT Journal, who first published it.  Threats of litigation by the anti-GMO campaigners and pro-Seralini supporters have ensued.

Bryan Walsh, a senior editor over at Time wrote this:

To environmentalist opponents, GM foods are simply evil, an understudied, possibly harmful tool used by big agribusiness to control global seed markets and crush local farmers. They argue that GM foods have never delivered on their supposed promise, that money spent on GM crops would be better funneled to organic farming and that consumers should be protected with warning labels on any products that contain genetically modified ingredients. To supporters, GM crops are a key part of the effort to sustainably provide food to meet a global population that is growing by the billions. But more than that, supporters see the knee-jerk GM opposition of many environmentalists as fundamentally anti-science, no different than the deniers on the other side of the political spectrum who question the basics of man-made climate change.

For both sides, GM foods seem to act as a symbol: you’re pro-agribusiness or anti-science. But science is exactly what we need more of when it comes to GM foods, which is why I was happy to see the venerable journal Nature devote a special series of articles to the GM food controversy. You can download most of them for free here, and they’re well worth reading. The upshot: while GM crops haven’t yet realized their initial promise and have been dominated by agribusiness, there is reason to continue to use and develop them to help meet the enormous challenge of sustainably feeding a growing planet.

Truth be told, I’m a little sympathetic with the anti-GM crowd’s mistrust of big business, in general, and environmental protection, but this author is sufficiently satisfied that, based on ample science by prominent, non-biased scientists that directly contradict the Seralini study, GM crops are safe and the benefits of feeding a hungry world far exceed the speculative risks that are being perpetuated by a small group of vocal activists.   I do believe, however, that the public has the right to know whether the foods they purchase and consume are GMO, so have no objection to communities or grocery-chain franchises who refuse to sell them or label them as such.   The only downside to legally mandating labeling from my perspective is that it perpetuates irrational and biased thinking by a small segment of the public.

As always, welcome the thoughts of readers on this topic.

[Update:  I posted a few months back on the concern regarding a major die-off of bees (colony collapse disorder or CCD for short) and the suspected source, among other speculation, was the potential harmful effects of neonicotinoids a common insecticide found in some GM crops, .  Neonics are extremely effective pesticides and less toxic than previously and commonly used organophosphates which are known toxic to birds, bees and wildlife.  So from that perspective, neonics are far preferable.  See Forbes article here.   There is some concern, however, that neonics could still potentially be harmful to wildlife in certain quantities, as suggested in a recent study involving birds.   All of which warrants additional research.]