Would I eat genetically-modified foods? Damn right I would!

MC900436915Eat genetically-modified foods? I’ve been eating them all my life and I haven’t noticed any negative effects yet.

There’s hardly a food plant that we grow today that hasn’t undergone some sort of genetic modification. Let’s take the potato as a good example. I can’t think of any modern potato variety that does not have one or more wild species in its pedigree somewhere. These have been used for their disease resistance, among other reasons, such as Solanum demissum from Mexico to control the late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans (the culprit in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s). That’s just one species – plenty more have also been crossed with modern potato varieties. There are also good examples from rice for submergence tolerance or salt tolerance using distantly-related wild species.

That’s genetic modification. Plain and simple. I guess most people don’t even realize. It’s what plant breeding is all about: taking different varieties or species (and their genes), crossing them (where possible) to make a hybrid, and selecting the best from the ‘DNA soup’. To increase the precision of conventional plant breeding, molecular markers are often now used to follow the transfer of useful characteristics or traits in conventional plant breeding populations.

GMO – genetically modified organism. An emotive term for some. For others, like me, genetic engineering is one of the tools in the arsenal for feeding a world population of 7+ billion – that’s growing rapidly – especially under a changing climate. Genetic engineering is even more precise than conventional plant breeding for moving genes (DNA) between species. However, there has been a lot of scare-mongering – and more – when it comes to GMOs. 

Now you might ask why I’ve focused on this topic all of a sudden. Well, on 8 August 2013, a field trial of Golden Rice (that contains beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A) in the south of Luzon, Philippines was vandalized by anti-GM activists (and maybe a few farmers), and destroyed.* This field trial was part of the important humanitarian research undertaken by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners in the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture and PhilRice (the Philippines Rice Research Institute) to develop biofortified rice varieties that can deliver Vitamin A and other micronutrients sustainably without having resort to supplementation or commercial fortification, which are expensive and only effective as long as such initiatives are funded.

In the video below, IRRI Deputy Director General, Dr Bruce Tolentino explains what happened on 8 August and why Golden Rice is so important for people who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

While GM crops are widely grown in the USA and some other countries, there has been significant public resistance in Europe, and particularly in the UK. I can understand, however, why the general public in the UK was – and is – wary. In the 1980s there were a couple of important food scares: a major foot and mouth outbreak in farm livestock; and BSE or ‘mad cow disease’. Furthermore, one or two commercial companies were attempting to commercialize some GM crops – without taking the time to explain why, how, and what for. The public lost faith in the ‘trust us’ line put out by the government of the day.

Environmental groups conducted major campaigns against even the testing of genetically-modified crops, let alone their commercialization. Very soon the activists had seized the initiative; the label of ‘Frankenstein foods’ stuck. An opportunity was lost, since scientists didn’t adequately step up to the plate and explain, in language that the average man in the street could understand, what GM technology was all about, and its importance. In the early days of GM research there were some inherent risks (such as the use of antibiotic markers to identify plants carrying the gene of interest); and some issues such as the ‘escape’ of genes from GMOs into wild plant populations. GM techniques have moved on, new approaches for identification of transgenic plants developed. But field research – based on the soundest of scientific principles, methods and ethics, generating good empirical data – is still needed to answer many of the environmental questions.

The vandalized Golden Rice field trial in Bicol, southern Luzon, Philippines

I do question the motives of some activists. Are they really concerned about real or perceived negative health and environmental impacts of GMOs? Or is the real issue that GM technology (as they see it) is in the hands of big agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta and others – an anti-capitalist campaign. In many countries much of the GM research is actually carried out by universities and publicly-funded research organizations such as the John Innes Centre in the UK.

I’ve had my own run-ins with these activists. In the early 1990s, then IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe opened a dialogue with a number of groups in the Philippines. He invited many anti-GM activists to IRRI for a two-day dialogue. I remember ‘challenging’ one prominent activist and future presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas about his anti-biotechnology campaign. As we analysed his perspectives, it became clear that his major concern was ‘genetic engineering’ – not biotechnology as a whole. I suggested to him that we could agree to disagree about genetic engineering (I appreciated there were risks, but as a scientist I wanted to study and evaluate those risks), but we should and could agree about the value of many of other biotechnology tools such as tissue culture, somaclones, or embryo rescue, among others. He concurred. Yet a few days after the meeting, he published a two page diatribe against ‘biotechnology’ (not just genetic engineering) in one of the Manila broadsheets. I find such actions (and positions) disingenuous, and typical of the lack of understanding that many of these people really have about GM. Just listen to the points of view presented by the activists in this Penn and Teller video (Eat This! Season 1. Episode 11. April 4, 2003). I already posted this before in my story about the late Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug – but it’s worth repeating here. Just be careful – there is some strong language.

Here are a couple of classic quotes from Borlaug from that video:
Producing food for 6.2 billion people, adding a population of 80 million more a year, is not simple. We better develop an ever improved science and technology, including the new biotechnology, to produce the food that’s needed for the world today. And in response to the fraction of the world population that could be fed if current farmland was converted to organic-only crops: We are 6.6 billion people now. We can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear.

Nevertheless, it is good to see the condemnation by the scientific community and media worldwide of the destruction of the Golden Rice field trial two weeks ago. In particular, it’s gratifying to hear that Mark Lynas, a well-respected British writer, journalist and environmental activist has turned his back on the anti-GMO lobby. He recently traveled to the Philippines to find out more for himself about Golden Rice research and the damage to the field trial.

Here are some of the media reports from around the world: in the New York Times; Slate; the Philippine Star; AGProfessional; Science 2.0; the BBC; and change.org. Even Fox News got in on the act in its characteristic over-the-top way! Here is an interesting piece about GM in general, published a couple of days ago in Forbes.

* Read this report by Mark Lynas after his visit to the Philippines recently.

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