Supporters and opponents of genetically modified food are passionate in their beliefs, but who is more persuasive?
By Stephen Tindale, former Greenpeace UK executive director
Genetic modification can be used for good or bad purposes, environmentally and ethically. So biotechnology should be assessed case by case – what does this aim to achieve, will it work, what are the possible side effects and do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Opposition to all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the basis that they are not “natural” makes no sense. Most things in the modern world are not natural, including the crops produced by centuries of plant breeding.
Climate change requires environmental campaigners to rethink their stance on many issues, including agriculture. Humanity urgently needs more drought-resistant crops, more saline-resistant crops, crops that can grow on marginal land. We do not have time to produce these through conventional plant breeding, so must use GMOs. The price of not doing so is mass starvation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Oxfam states that it “does not support GMOs as the solution to hunger, poverty and development”. This is understandable. GMOs are not the solution, but they could be part of the solution. Hunger and poverty could be eradicated through redistribution of global wealth. But that is not going to happen any time soon. So why not use some GMOs – golden rice, BT aubergine – to help tackle problems of hunger and ill health?
Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, wrote in 2010 that “Oxfam understands technology does matter and that modern biotechnology might play a role in helping to achieve global food security, but only so long as farmers are central to the process and their rights are strengthened, not harmed”. So, Oxfam takes a selective, rational approach to biotechnology – it does not support or oppose the technology per se, but considers how it is used.
Hang on, GM opponents will say, biotech has not been proven to be safe. They would be right in one sense as science does not definitively prove anything. New discoveries are always possible. But the overwhelming majority of scientific research over the last 20 years finds GM to be safe. Similarly, it has not been proven that pollution causes climate change, but almost all peer-reviewed scientific publications find that it does. Green campaigners often point this out, but don’t mention that a similar majority of scientists find GMOs to be safe.
With biotechnology, the science says the risks of action are small, while the risks of inaction are enormous. So, cautiously and case by case, GMOs should be supported.
By Dame Dr Jane Goodall, campaigning environmentalist
We’re repeatedly assured modern genetic engineering is merely a minor extension of natural breeding, that there’s an overwhelming scientific consensus the modified foods it creates are as safe as naturally produced ones, that this consensus rests on a mass of solid evidence and these foods are necessary for meeting the world’s future nutritional needs.
But I believe none of these claims are true. This is well established by extensive evidence that’s skillfully presented in the excellent free resource, GMO Myths and Truths, and also within the pages of an important new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government and Systematically Deceived the Public, for which I wrote the foreword.
This book explains in detail how the GM food venture has been “chronically and crucially dependent on disinformation” and could not have survived without it. The disinformation is still being dispensed today – if the truth had been widely shared from the beginning, GM foods would probably never have come to market and we would not be having this debate.
Furthermore, the sheer extent of the irrefutably documented deception is itself proof of how strongly the evidence weighs against the safety of GM foods, because (as the book points out) if it were truly supportive, there would be no need to distort it.
In reality, genetic engineering is a radical break with natural processes and there has never been a consensus among scientists that its foods are safe, with cautions issued by institutions such as the Royal Society of Canada and the Public Health Association of Australia. A significant number of well-conducted studies published in peer-reviewed journals have detected serious harm to the animals that consumed them.
Finally, extensive research has demonstrated they are not the solution for world hunger and that in fact the GM food venture is actually harmful to efforts to increase food production. Numerous studies in a variety of African nations have consistently shown agroecology and permaculture are not only safe and sustainable methods of farming, but can also outperform industrialised approaches even when GMOs are employed. Unfortunately, however, the GM venture is capturing a large portion of the money and attention that should be directed towards establishing these patently superior forms of farming.
Clearly, GM foods are unacceptably risky, deceptively promoted and obstructing genuine progress. The world will be much better off without them.