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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Scientific American comes out in favor of GMOs, and I agree

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Golden Rice (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

In the September 6 issue of Scientific American, the magazine's editors pen a piece explicitly supporting GMOs and opposing GMO labeling. I applaud the editors for taking an official position on a topic that still sparks intense debate. Both the wording and content of the editorial reflect an adherence to what is called "good scientific practice"; trusting the scientific evidence as far as it takes us, leaving room for uncertainty and making a judgement call based on imperfect but still sound evidence.

The editors start by reminding us that we have been consuming genetically modified foods for 20 years without much trouble, a point worth belaboring only because it keeps getting conveniently ignored in many debates on the topic.

We have been tinkering with our food's DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding plants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms' genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example. For the past 20 years Americans have been eating plants in which scientists have used modern tools to insert a gene here or tweak a gene there, helping the crops tolerate drought and resist herbicides. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients.

In spite of this extensive consumption - surely constituting a global laboratory involving billions of daily, repeated, controlled experiments - there is no evidence of distinct harm from GMOs. That does not mean that no GMO can ever do any harm, just that the evidence until now is flimsy at best. From a chemical standpoint I have said before that I would rather trust foreign bits of DNA circulating around in my blood than things like dioxin and chlorofluorocarbons which can wreak demonstrated havoc.

An extensively referenced report from the American Medical Association as well as a statement from the Board of Directors of the AAAS (neither of which are corporate organizations) both reinforce SA's conclusions:

Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature. However, a small potential for adverse events exists, due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity. Pre-market safety assessments are designed to identify and prevent risks to human health (AMA)

The European Commission (EU) recently concluded, based on more than 130 studies covering 25 years of research involving at least 500 independent research groups, that genetic modification technologies “are not per se more risky than…conventional plant breeding technologies.” Occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals can cause health problems have not stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. (AAAS).

It's worth noting that the latter statement comes from the EU which has actually banned GMOs in many of its products. Purported claims about adverse effects of GMOs often center around tumors in rats (anyone who has worked in drug development knows how different rats are from humans) induced by inordinately high amounts of substances administered over unrealistic periods of time. This is also true of many other studies proclaiming the ghastly effects of all kinds of chemical substances, from glyphosate to materials in "toxic couches". Whenever you come across a study claiming GMOs are toxic, it's worth asking questions about the nature of the test animals, the dosage and the statistical significance of the results at the very minimum.

Another valuable point made by the SA editors which is often underappreciated is that modern genetic engineering is actually far more precise compared to the centuries-old practice of swapping genes and creating hybrids by more or less trial and error. The cogent logic here is that if you have tolerated the products of indiscriminate gene swapping in all kinds of organisms from sheep to corn for centuries, then GMOs enabled through much more precise and regulated modern recombinant DNA technology whose modifications can be tracked should be considered far safer.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. (The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.)

Moving on to the other controversial topic of GMO labeling, as the editorial indicates, the problem is not as simple as "freedom of choice". GMO labeling can create unnecessary fear and confusion in consumers' minds and amplify risks at the expense of downplaying benefits. Do we list every potential, vaguely suspected but not proven danger from every single material used in a car while selling it to consumers? And since random bits of foreign DNA are introduced into our food supply anyway, should we once again appeal to the Precautionary Principle and have a label on every single product in the grocery store saying that "This product may contain foreign DNA" just because we don't really know what that DNA can do? In fact while we are at it, why not label the wheat in every single product on the store aisle? After all, even so-called "non-GMO" wheat has undergone countless deliberate genetic modifications over the last few centuries.

Let me ask yet another question: Do any of the products in our grocery stores list the countries of origin for all their ingredients? Do you know if the soy in any number of grocery products comes from the US, or from China, or from Brazil? So if we are ok with consuming these ingredients in spite of not knowing where they exactly come from, trusting the FDA to make sure that they are safe, then why not do the same with GMOs? And all this only adds to the simple truth that opponents of GMOs always have the option of shopping for explicitly non-GMO food products (although they then need to refrain from complaining about its price).

In addition, removing GMOs from all foods risks making food more expensive, not exactly a selling point in a tough economy.

Americans who oppose genetically modified foods would celebrate a similar exclusion. Everyone else would pay a price. Because conventional crops often require more water and pesticides than GMOs do, the former are usually more expensive. Consequently, we would all have to pay a premium on non-GMO foods—and for a questionable return. Private research firm Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants estimated that Prop 37 would have raised an average California family's yearly food bill by as much as $400. The measure would also have required farmers, manufacturers and retailers to keep a whole new set of detailed records and to prepare for lawsuits challenging the “naturalness” of their products.

Finally, every time you oppose a GMO you are also opposing the very real benefits that GMOs have brought over the last three decades to some of the poorest parts of the world. I always find it depressing to hear citizens of developed countries railing against the supposed evils of GMOs from the luxury of their air-conditioned living rooms while a farmer in the developing world would likely donate an arm for a GMO crop if it's going to bring him greater yields and put food on his family's table. Let us spare a thought for those who cannot afford to make the choices that we make when we voice our opinions with so much passion.

Antagonism toward GMO foods also strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits to people in developing countries and promises far more. Recently published data from a seven-year study of Indian farmers show that those growing a genetically modified crop increased their yield per acre by 24 percent and boosted profits by 50 percent. These farmers were able to buy more food—and food of greater nutritional value—for their families.

To curb vitamin A deficiency—which blinds as many as 500,000 children worldwide every year and kills half of them—researchers have engineered Golden Rice, which produces beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Approximately three quarters of a cup of Golden Rice provides the recommended daily amount of vitamin A; several tests have concluded that the product is safe. Yet Greenpeace and other anti-GMO organizations have used misinformation and hysteria to delay the introduction of Golden Rice to the Philippines, India and China.

Ultimately this hysteria hurts all of us, rich, middle class and poor. But what it hurts most is the cause of science and reason. Our choices should be based on understanding tradeoffs and trusting the best possible science, and SA's editors' words reflect this sound thinking. If choices are instead driven by herd mentality, a pathological adherence to the Precautionary Principle and a reliance on false moral outrage, then we are not only harming the fate of real human beings around the world but are also impinging on open-mindedness and critical thinking, an attitude that can only squelch rational inquiry.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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