The endless debate over genetic engineering

By Richard Schiffman
September 9, 2013

Last month a popular do-gooder website featured a curious headline: “400 Farmers Destroy Life-Saving Rice Crops, and That’s a Good Thing.”

The story went on to describe how a mob in the Philippines — not farmers, as the headline wrongly claimed, but a motley group of city kids and political activists — trampled a test plot of Golden Rice, a blazingly yellow, genetically modified variety that contains snippets of DNA extracted from maize and a bacterium. Golden Rice was designed to be high in beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A that is lacking in the diet of many in Asia and beyond. Upwards of a million deaths and perhaps as many as half a million cases of childhood blindness annually are caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A.

The incident in the Philippines wasn’t the first time that protestors have destroyed fields of genetically modified (GM) crops. Others trampled include grape vines in France, sugar beets in Oregon, potatoes in Belgium, wheat in Australia — the list goes on.

But the attack on the potentially lifesaving rice seems especially cruel. And it has reignited the interminable debate over genetic engineering.

These crops were originally talked about as an answer to world hunger. By combining genetic materials from different species, wheat, for example, could be made to withstand high temperatures or drought; or bananas could be crossed with a virus to function as a vaccine for those who consumed it.

Critics of this technology, however, warn that it potentially produces new proteins that may be allergenic, or otherwise harmful to human health. Supporters counter that this is also true of conventional cross-breeding, which has been going on for centuries.

Scientific opinion remains divided on the degree of risk, but the majority of U.S. researchers say there is as yet no convincing evidence of adverse health effects. Because of the relative newness of the technology, however, most scientists agree that rigorous tests need to be conducted on a case by case basis to insure safety.

The key problem, though, is that the Food and Drug Administration depends on producers of GM foods to evaluate the safety of their own products. There is no independent scientific verification of these industry assessments.

So some public interest groups, not surprisingly, are skeptical of this self-regulation and have proposed more stringent rules. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine is now calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods pending long-term independent studies to assess their effect on human health.

But for many, this controversy over genetic engineering transcends scientific questions and touches on fundamental beliefs about the integrity of nature and the limits of human technology. Some, like the protestors in the Philippines, appear to have an almost religious conviction that messing with building blocks of life is just plain wrong — even when it creates a potential lifesaver like Golden Rice.

The basic research on Golden Rice goes back a decade and a half and has been fostered by a virtual who’s who of multinational agro-giants like Monsanto and Syngenta and global NGOs including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nonetheless, the project remains highly controversial. Now, more than 10 years after it was touted as a quantum leap in agriculture in a Time magazine cover story, Golden Rice has not yet made it into the dinner bowls of those who need it.

The technological as well as patent and regulatory barriers to its development and use have proven thornier than expected. Public resistance has also been stiffer. The activist group Greenpeace battled successfully to block the world’s biggest rice producer, China, from adopting the genetically modified grain. Even moderate critics like natural food guru Michael Pollan have questioned its efficacy.

Pollan recently wrote in the New York Times that Golden Rice is not the “killer app that everyone thinks it is.” He argues, sensibly, that without efforts to improve overall diet and tackle Third World poverty, simply adding beta-carotene to rice won’t go very far toward ending malnutrition. He also points out that brown rice, nutritionally superior to Golden Rice, is largely shunned in rice-eating lands, and there is little reason to think that a bizarrely colored, genetically modified variety will fare any better.

“I’m not afraid of it,” says Pollan. “I just think it’s another glittering Western techno fix.” Better to encourage people to eat a variety of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, he concludes, than to manipulate rice into producing a single micronutrient that nature never intended it to carry.

The fact remains, however, that lots of people in the Global South can’t afford a balanced diet, or don’t have access to markets where good-quality produce can be purchased. Vitamin A supplementation has already been shown to lower child mortality by a quarter to a third. So isn’t it time to give Golden Rice a chance?

Yet this may not happen any time soon. Opposition to genetically modified foods has been mounting. More than 60 nations, including the European Union, China, Russia and Brazil, have either banned or restricted their sale. Here in the United States, the state legislatures in Connecticut and Vermont have called for the labeling of all GM foods, and 28 other states are now considering similar legislation.

Ironically, much of the fiercest opposition to this technology is in the Third World — which could benefit the most from it. Indian biologist Vandana Shiva called Golden Rice “a Trojan horse,” whose real aim is to win public support for genetic engineering. She calls it a “hoax” perpetrated by Western corporations to rip off poor farmers and consolidate their control over global agriculture by replacing native varieties with patented genetically engineered seeds, which could not be saved from the harvest but needed to be repurchased from the company every year.

But others are not so cynical. “The guys who developed it did it for the right reasons,” says geneticist Richard Jefferson in Grist. “They really were outraged by micronutrient deficiencies. They were out there in the rice paddies and in the villages. Every one of the Rockefeller Foundation meetings was in the developing world, and we were out there, learning things with these people.”

So no, Golden Rice is not a hoax. But it is a disappointment. Disappointing because it promised a lot, but has so far failed to deliver.

This is also true of all genetic engineering. The “miraculous” technology that Big Ag promised was going to increase agricultural yields, boost nutrition and taste, cut pesticide use, create drought-resistant crops and feed the hungry world has not yet managed to convincingly pull any of these rabbits out of its magician’s hat.

Genetic engineering has been a runaway commercial success in the United States — 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients — but it remains a conspicuous public relations failure. It has also been an agricultural failure — accelerating the proliferation of precisely the kind of large-scale chemical-intensive monocultures that many agronomists warn will be unsustainable in the long run.

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, biotechnology has failed to significantly increase U.S. agricultural yields, according to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which says that organic agriculture often tops the productivity of GM crops on a per acre basis. Nor has genetic engineering cut the use of agro-chemicals, as promised. Reuters reports that popular genetically modified varieties like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soybeans actually require more herbicide than their conventional cousins, due in part to the development of resistant “superweeds” that need ever-more-toxic dousings to kill them.

But if genetic engineering has not lived up to its own hype, it has accomplished what it set out to do: created virtually indestructible crops designed to withstand the insults of industrial agriculture, and last forever on supermarket shelves.

The technology has been a wildly lucrative profit center for biotech companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta — and their shareholders. Whether it can profit the rest of us with more abundant, safe and nutritious food remains to be demonstrated.

 

PHOTO (Top): A scientist shows Golden Rice (L) and ordinary rice at the laboratory of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Laguna south of Manila, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

PHOTO (Insert 1): A corn farmer holds corncobs during a protest against genetically modified corn in Mexico City, January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya

PHOTO (Insert 2): Scientist Tony Evangelista speaks next to two-month old Golden Rice plants at a laboratory of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Laguna south of Manila, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

11 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

self testing is like the banksters self regulating. If there were a reliable testing process then GM foods should be acceptable. The economics of it will work itself out in the markets and tariffs.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

History repeats itself. Nuclear power is safe – then Chernobyl. Medical testing is safe – then Thalidomide. GM foods are tested safe – then X. The first principle of life is never trust someone trying to sell you something. 100 years of testing would be much more comfortable than 20 – and it must be done in an crowd source way and not by lab technicians whose bonus depends on approving things as ‘safe’. The age of the man in the street trusting the president/NSA/banks/business/medical/sci entists/whoever based on a vague belief in human nature is hopefully gone.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

“The key problem, though, is that the Food and Drug Administration depends on producers of GM foods to evaluate the safety of their own products. There is no independent scientific verification of these industry assessments.”

But that isn’t true. When these technologies are evaluated, independents scientists are used to critically evaluate the technologies. I don’t know why the writer here says otherwise. Sure, the companies have to pay a registration fee; how could it be otherwise? But that doesn’t equal a lack of independence. Quoting Michael Pollan? But he’s stupid. What does he know?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

There was a good piece on a blog of the New York Times recently, which also adds to what is discussed here, in particular regarding Pollan: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/0 8/27/from-mark-lynas-to-michael-pollan-a greement-that-golden-rice-trials-should- proceed/
And Shiva’s relationship with facts has e.g. been elaborated on a blog of Discover Magazine: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collid eascape/?p=10767

Posted by Joohn2 | Report as abusive

Don’t eat it. Don’t buy it, and don’t buy products made of it. Let’s get these organic food prices relatively lower.

Posted by LiarWatch | Report as abusive

Everyone loves skipping over the actual discussion of the tech behind GM as though it has already happened like it was evolution or something. Many of the methods require modification of a retro virus first, this is what does the actual genetic modification in the plant, and this is where the untested (often tested but not known to the general public) dangers lie. These bugs have been known to infect gut flora and it has been detected that those who ate genetically modified corn that produced pesticide, continued to excrete pesticide in their stool until they took a regimen of antibiotics to remove their gut flora, which is pretty much the opposite of healthy. When this knowledge is kept by the same companies that are trying to force laws around the world to make this tech commonplace with absolutely NO long term testing. This is the kind of greed that turn people into monsters, and monsters need to be stopped.

Posted by epockismet | Report as abusive

@Calfri – Don’t be so naïve. In all industries so called independent verification is always anything but independent in reality. Auditors, credit rating agencies, government regulators. There is a revolving door between theses people and positions which pay real money within business.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

“Many of the methods require modification of a retro virus first, this is what does the actual genetic modification in the plant, and this is where the untested (often tested but not known to the general public) dangers lie. These bugs have been known to infect gut flora”

Nonsense. There is no persistent bio-vector. That is made up. That’s like saying that the use of gasoline may lead to an outbreak of dinosaurs. “Because the root material was dinosaurs.” So?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“Genetic engineering has been a runaway commercial success in the United States — 60 percent to 70 percent of processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients…”

It’s a commercial success because people aren’t allowed to know what they’re eating. The corporate prostitutes in the U.S. Congress voted against GMO labeling so they could get their campaign war chests filled by the biotech companies.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

It really doesn’t make any difference whether genetically modified foods are safe or not. Neither the biotech industry nor our own government has given us any reason whatsoever to trust them. It’s all about money, secrecy, bullying, lack of transparency, lies and buying politicians. Look at the reputation that just Monsanto alone has. Need I say more?

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Crops have always been about genetic manipulation. That’s what makes them crops. Ever come across a nice plump wild watermelon while out on a walk? You won’t. They don’t exist in nature. They are a 3,000 year old genetically man-made schitstorm. Along with corn (including organic corn), beans (any beans), etc.

The wild relatives of these plants look like common weeds. Crops are man-made. That’s reality.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive