Noted pharmacologist, Forbes blogger and North Carolina Museum of Natural History science communications director David Kroll has a good post in Forbes about the recent controversy regarding "Golden Rice", a strain of rice genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. This kind of rice might be invaluable in regions with endemic vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which is a big deal; as the Wikipedia article on the topic says, VAD is responsible for 1–2 million deaths, 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and millions of cases of xerophthalmia annually. Clearly Golden Rice has the potential to do a lot of good.
Now I don't want to take either a strongly pro-GMO or anti-GMO stance here, although I definitely deplore the vandalism of Golden Rice fields described in the article that David links to. As a scientist however I am generally inclined to side with GMOs; to an organic chemist like me, modified sequences of DNA - while not without potential to cause harm - seem much more benign when ingested than decidedly nasty things like dioxins, pyrene and botulism toxin. In addition there are specific cases where engineering crops to withstand insect pests has done enormous good; and this perspective is independent of whatever I might think of the financial or political behavior of the relevant corporations.
But the bigger problem I have is with a common thread running through almost every anti-GMO protester's vocabulary, irrespective of whatever other objections they might have against GMOs. I find myself pondering the following question which I asked on David's blog:
"I actually find the anti-GMO folks’ argument about not trusting GMOs simply because they have “not been tested enough” to be disingenuous, selective and cherry-picked at the very minimum. Let’s say that tomorrow Whole Foods introduces a new brand of spirulinadetoxwhatever health supplement containing feelbetteramine from a wholly natural plant found in the foothills of Bolivia. Do we think for a second that the anti-GMO folks won’t be lining up at their nearest Whole Foods, no matter that this novel substance is as much or even more untested than a GMO?"
It's food for thought. Most opponents of GMOs don't seem to have a problem eagerly loading up their shopping carts with all kinds of exotic stuff from the health supplement aisle in the local supermarket. How many Whole Foods (and Whole Foods is just an example here, and probably one of the more benign ones) store assistants - many of whom are far from being trained in nutrition or pharmacology - have convinced these people that feelbetteramine is right for their gout, or for their insomnia, or for the "cognitive deficit" that they feel everyday at work? What kind of evidence of long-term safety exists for feelbetteramine that allows these GMO opponents to embrace the wondrous effects of this non FDA-approved concoction with alacrity? And proponents of health supplements are often big on anecdotal evidence; why don't they, at the very least, admit anecdotal evidence about the benefits of GMOs (especially when the evidence is concrete, as in case of VAD) into their belief system?
To me there clearly seems to be a discrepancy between the reflexive rejection of untested GMOs by the anti-GMO crowd and their rapid embrace of the equally or more untested latest health supplement. All things being equal, as a scientist I at least know what the express purpose of Golden Rice is, compared to the hazy reports on salutary effects of feelbetteramine. So it seems to me that if I am really against GMOs because they are insufficiently tested, I need to mostly steer clear of the health supplement aisle. And did I mention that feelbetteramine can also set your love life on the path to glorious bliss?