For someone who has devoted about 50 years to the preservation of plant diversity, I have been increasingly disturbed by the persistent controversy over GM crops. During my 11 years as chairman of the Report Review Committee of the National Research Council, I’ve had ample opportunities to understand the nature of scientific consensus. I can easily understand why the March 2015 issue of National Geographic listed the belief that genetically modified food is evil as one of the myths emphasized in what it called, “The War on Science,” along with the idea that there was no moon landing, evolution did not occur, vaccinations are bad, and climate change does not exist. Here are some points that I find useful to take into account when thinking about this area.
Gene transfer occurs in nature
Moving genes from one kind of organism to another (horizontal gene transfer) occurs frequently in nature. For example, humans have about 150 identified genes of viral origin in their genomes, and Amborella, a peculiar flowering plant from New Caledonia that has more ancient features than any other, has about 40 such extraneous genes documented to have come from three different kingdoms. So it’s not in any way “unnatural” for horizontal gene transfer to occur.
DNA is a template that provides instructions for the production of proteins. Individual genes are not identified in any way as “pig genes,” “duck genes,” or whatever. Changing the genes on the DNA or inserting new ones, at least for eukaryotes, is not very different from taking a piano score by Mozart and adding new chords. Scientists were concerned about moving genes in the early 1980s, when this first became possible, but eventually worked it out and found no suspecting problems. That all happened nearly 40 years ago.
Using transgenic methods to improve characteristics of a certain organism is one of a host of breeding methods used commonly. These methods have grown in variety and complexity for more than a century.
There are a variety of plant breeding methods
GMO is a process, not an ingredient
When people say “non-GMO,” they imply that there is a particular substance or “thing” in the food. In fact, what the words really mean is that transgenic methods were not used to produce a particular crop or other product.
The problem is there’s literally nothing there, and especially nothing in common among all GM crops. There’s not only nothing, but also no one has suggested a scientific theory that could make all transgenic organisms dangerous in some hidden or unsuspected way.
So having “non-GMO” products as the fastest growing part of the organic industry amounts to false advertising, when scientists agree that there isn’t even a plausible theory as to why or how they could be dangerous. The only purpose, as far as I can see, is simply to make money. When GM plants were excluded from organic certification, the door was opened to this kind of exploitation. No other method of breeding or selection is categorically excluded, and none should be. The inevitable result is simply to raise costs to the consumer while gaining no advantage of any kind, from a scientific point-of-view. I consider labeling counter-productive, expensive, and useless, in addition to being misleading.
We have many myths about GMOs where the scientific consensus is clear, but people, for whatever reason, choose not to accept it. The long-lasting agitation about GM crops is based on a persistent myth. We say things like, “but can’t we get along without them?” as if they pose some danger. But no one has demonstrated that GM crops pose any unique problem and there seems to be no way for them to be responsible for anything as a class. If there is indeed no danger, then why don’t we just do the sensible thing and use them when the products produced through these (or any other) methods, which are judged better than others by the people who grow or use them?
We need tools to meet the demand of a growing population
We have reached a rapidly-growing world population level of 7.4 billion people, projected to climb to 9.8 billion in 34 years, by mid-century. About 800 million of us are malnourished, and about 100 million are on the verge of starvation at any one time. We are adding a net of 250,000 babies a day. We have to make agriculture in all aspects more efficient and productive. Perennial crops might be part of the answer and polyculture might be another part. This could not possibly be a “one-size-fits-all” situation, considering all the very different situations under which crops have to be grown. But most importantly, we have to be as innovative as we possibly can to find the best solutions for different parts of the world.
We are using an estimated 156 percent of sustainable global productivity overall and any changes in agriculture will have to be conducted within these limits and also will have to make the situation better through improved, sustainable productivity, better storage of food, less waste, and improved transportation/distribution, among other improvements in the system as a whole.
Science operates by consensus, by proposing hypotheses and then attempting to falsify them. If they cannot be falsified, then they are accepted as scientific consensus – considered to be a theory. Science doesn’t tell us what to do. It merely organizes, in the most robust way possible, the facts concerning any particular area. For the major role of human beings in causing rapid climate change (“global warming”), there is an overwhelming scientific consensus. Every single scientific study conducted by any of the world’s science academies have come to this conclusion, as has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and very few scientific experts in any part of this field deny this consensus.
The scientific consensus for the safety of GM (transgenic) organisms is equally robust, with every academy of sciences in the world, from the Pontifical Academy to Royal Society to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, having conducted careful studies of the matter, with no disagreement about the conclusions. Only very few scientists are testing some of the margins of these conclusions, but it is as strong an overall conclusion as it could be.
Those who take a non-scientific point of view in this area have largely been misled by the organic food industry, which makes huge profits if people believe there is a “thing” in food from plants or animals resulting from this particular breeding method that might hurt them in some way.
One can certainly see why a number of Nobel Prize winners got together to denounce the anti-science, destructive opposition to GM crops. Campaigns by the “antis” weaken science, contribute to widespread hunger and sickness, and give them objectives for their campaigns. There are much better and more appropriate objectives that keep us within the realm of science. It is critically important for the world that we move beyond this manufactured controversy and take advantage of our scientific progress. The facts of the situation are clear, and the recent National Research Council study is about as comprehensive as any such study could be. We need to work together to help make the benefits of our scientific advances as widely available as possible.
Peter H. Raven, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity.