As a former anti-GMO activist, I have bitter experience of the unpleasantly polarized debate about the merits of GMOs. But that experience makes me see how we might respond to people’s fears without banning a vitally important technology.
The lack of middle ground in this debate does not mean that each side has an equivalent claim to truth. The overwhelming scientific consensus, as stated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, and many other expert bodies, is that transgenic crops are as safe as unmodified ones.
But the scientific consensus on GMO safety has little impact on anti-GMO activists. It is at odds with their worldview, and they simply cannot accept it psychologically. GMOs encapsulate activists’ fears about technological hubris, industrial food production, and the economic power of multinationals.
One way forward is to demonstrate that GMOs can be deployed in ways that explicitly promote the values and political goals motivating their opponents (see “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods ”). These crops can reduce the use of environmentally damaging agrochemicals, and several have been developed by public-sector organizations concerned with food security, the reduction of poverty, and sustainability.
One example is a genetically modified eggplant variety known as Bt brinjal, recently approved by the government of Bangladesh. This crop has been developed by an international partnership of universities and public-sector institutions, led by Cornell University (where I am a visiting fellow involved with the project) and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute. The modified crop is resistant to a caterpillar called the fruit and shoot borer, which destroys as much as half of Bangladesh’s eggplant harvest. It eliminates the need to spray with insecticides that expose farmers and consumers to carcinogenic residues. Extensive scientific trials have shown the crop to be safe for human consumption, and farmers will be encouraged to save seed from one year to the next.
Golden rice, genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, provides another example of how GMOs can serve the values that motivate their opponents. It was developed to reduce vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated to cause two million deaths annually, mainly in young children. Golden rice is owned by an independent humanitarian board, not a multinational company. Again, farmers are intended to save seed; this will be crucial if the project is to succeed in reducing malnutrition.
Both these projects have been delayed by opposition from Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups, which have used the courts and even vandalized fields. But they provide a model of how the message might get through that this technology can be used for environmentally beneficial, humanitarian purposes and should not be universally hated.
Mark Lynas is an author on environmental issues and a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.