Not one week goes by without having to explain what a GMO is and discuss their perceived value in food production. However, I believe the debate to be far more nuanced than is generally understood and not the silver bullet that many pro-GMO lobbyists would have us believe. The scientific community shouldn't arrogantly look at the gap in scientific literacy and overlook public engagement in difficult scientific issues. The value of public engagement and discussion cannot be underestimated because it is a scientifically informed society that will find realistic options to feed future generations. Surely, it is an informed public debate that should guide the future's global need for food, not the interests of lobby groups. Indeed, shouldn't we also be asking the question if GMO's can't provide the answer to sustainable food security, what will?
As I sit in McDonald's, I ponder the question "how much of what we know about GMOs in our food system is based on fact as opposed to lobby groups' scare tactics?" guillotine window A 2014 study on science literacy by the Pew Research Center (PRC) conducted in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), compared the opinions of AAAS scientists with those of the general public. PRC's study concluded that 88% of scientists thought eating GMO food is safe, while a mere 37% of the public considers the same to be true, a huge 51 point gap. As throngs of customers come through the door and perpetually line up at the guillotine-like window to be served in their cars, it's clear that McDonald's has a huge influence on the US food system. Significantly, bowing to lobbyist pressure and loss of revenue, McDonald's refused to buy GMO potatoes in late 2014, placing pressure on other restaurants to follow suite. Indeed, powerful lobbies drive the GMO debate, on one side backed by environmentalist/activist organizations opposed to GMO use and, on the other side, corporate sponsors with vested interests in the use of GMOs for their own profits. I suppose that I'm not a typical McDonald's customer, because I have actually performed some of the GMO experimentation that McDonald's is so against. May be I'm sitting in the jaws of the enemy, but I don't think I'm a typical scientist either. Among my piers I'm a little too concerned by society's perception of science. It really concerns me that the interests of these groups might have hijacked the debate from the general public, leaving both sides polarized and unable to reasonably compare the benefits and the risks.
For millennia people have unwittingly selected plant species for the characteristics considered suitable for domestication. From the dawn of human civilization to the discovery of DNA, plant breeding followed the same patterns of selection to breed the best characteristics into the next generation of plants, albeit with increasing sophistication. This process involved the cross-pollination of plants, closely related or not, to combine the best genes from both into the next batch of seed for planting. A bit like finding a needle in a haystack, getting the right gene into a plant, can be a huge challenge. However, even though the concept may seem simple, this type of gene manipulation, that is, moving genes from one group of plants to another, has been a fundamental aspect of crop development for a very long time. Nevertheless, classical methods of crop development can be slow, relatively imprecise and restricted by gene availability within existing crops. Scientists felt that genetic engineering technology heralded a new era in which genes could be quickly incorporated for more rapid crop improvement. Genetic engineering technology first became commercially available in 1976, with companies producing GMO foods soon after.
Since then, extensive safety trials performed on GMOs have lead to the majority of the scientific community to proclaim that GMO food is safe for production and human consumption. While there were many new GMO projects being borne in the lab, with a few making it to supermarkets shelves, it was in 2000, that a rice species frequently grown in regions of Asia was designed to produce beta-carotene because it originally lacked the genes to do so. Beta-carotene forms the building block to vitamin A production when absorbed by the human body. This distinctive golden-yellow rice, to become known as Golden Rice, came with the promise that it would help alleviate vitamin A deficiency in children. Some 670,000 children under the age of 5 were known to die annually from vitamin A deficiency at that point. Golden Rice was also produced with the assurance that it would be available at no extra cost to small hold farmers. Many scientists felt that Golden Rice was exactly the type of goodwill project that was needed to open the doors to broadened acceptance of GMO. Yet, even after safety tests and the development of Golden Rice, with a clear humanitarian focus, scientists failed to abate the public's diminishing trust of GMO technology. Regardless, most scientists doggedly argued that GMO is vital because world population is pressing towards 9 billion people by 2050, while current trends also indicate that there will be more plant disease, greater climate variability and less arable land available, while maintaining increased crop yields. From the scientists' perspective the potential benefits are so profound, they tended to be unable to effectively address the array of concerns voiced by the anti-GMO campaigners.
Sometimes using public fear and ignorance as a weapon, the anti-GMO groups have led very successful campaigns against the producers of GMO crops. Terms such as 'frankenfood' greatly enhanced the perception that GMOs were harmful and ethically wrong. Some parts of the distaste for GMO are based on reason and fact. For instance, some elements believe that the need to produce Golden Rice has arisen to patch up a dysfunctional food system that has consistently driven the poorest person's food diversity to a few cereal grains low in micronutrients, such as beta-carotene. Without apparent pause for breath, Golden Rice was declared to be a "Trojan horse", because scientists were accused of trying to take the focus off the technology and onto the perceived humanitarian need. While such hyperbole makes headlines, it has also convinced some scientists, unfairly, that all opposition to GMOs is based in ignorance. Certainly, many scientists are guilty of tarring all GMO critics with the same brush. Nevertheless, despite the potential benefits of Golden Rice, some fifteen years after the inception of Golden Rice it is still undergoing trials even though numerous studies have concluded that Golden Rice poses no risk to human health.
Notwithstanding the rigorous name-calling by the polarized groups, it seems clear that the vast majority of the general public has not been informed of the actual pros or cons of GMO and has therefore not contributed to the decisions surrounding its use. The average person on the street, including many of my own friends, say that GMOs are bad, but are unable to explain why. While having an objection to GMO use is not a bad thing, of itself (in my opinion at least), neither are they aware of the pro-GMO arguments and certainly have no technical understanding of what a GMO is. This is because while scientists have used minimal effort to engage the public in GMO science, maximum effort has been made by the anti-GMO groups to steer people away from achieving a balanced knowledge of GMO technology. Even though the public appears to have been cheated of this chance with GMOs, a realistic option is vital to provide food for future generations. The value of public discourse cannot be underestimated. Scientists shouldn't maintain a wall of silence and must learn to help the public to be involved in difficult ethical issues. This doesn't mean that GMOs (or whatever technology comes along next) will be a panacea for every case, but society should be informed and at the very least able to discuss the options freely and openly. The future global need for food obliges us to realize that these issues are too important to remain unresolved.
So is that it? Should we all walk away now and assume that this is a lost cause we could never come to an agreement on? Where does the public fit in this chaos anyway? Isn't it time to step back and reconsider the facts? If we were to honestly do that, rather than look to our friends for guidance, how many people would stay on the same side, move to the other side or even fall in the middle? I personally think that we, the scientists that is, should become better listeners, how else are we to gauge society's mood regarding the next leap forward? Remarkable as it may seem, a few prominent figures have changed their position once they were able to learn more about the details of the science. One obvious example is Mark Lynas, an anti-GMO organizer in Europe turned pro-GMO advocate. He claims that, "even though [he] had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding". Lynas had previously participated in destroying GMO field trials and has criticized Greenpeace and other NGOs for discounting GMO safety and the potential benefits because the scientific evidence conflicted with their ideology.
Personally, I believe that GMO has a place in a world of many variables. It doesn't have to be a prominent place, but I do think it should be in the plant breeder's toolbox. What we see here, in America, doesn't always make sense in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh for example. The reason Golden Rice became a big deal, was because it has (at least in theory anyway) the potential to help a lot of people that are suffering. It wouldn't have meant much in America. We could instead think of other major climatic problems that are on the horizon for example. What will we do when sea levels rise, causing rice paddies to be filled with salt water and the plants die? Will the existing genetic variability in rice be enough to allow rice to adapt? Likewise, what about drought adaptation? Do we deny the people of these countries the opportunity to improve their own crops by providing them with the tools to adjust to their new situation or maintain the status quo? Do we even have the right to make those choices for them anyway? I confess, I don't have the answers to these questions, may be you do. Maybe society does.
Amid the difficulties of finding broad acceptance of GMOs scientists have continued to search for other methods to alter a plant's genome. A new technology called CRISPR (with the delightfully catchy name Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has the potential to make highly accurate changes to a plant's genetic character. It would be like changing one letter in a string of words. In the same way that one letter can alter the meaning, or indeed render a word in a sentence meaningless, CRISPR can change a gene's job or shut it down completely. CRISPR is more accurate than previous genome editing methods and so far has not been considered to be a GMO because it doesn't involve the insertion of foreign DNA. CRISPR has begun to receive wide acceptance in crop development. With the GMO option slowly sinking, it seems that CRISPR is light on the scientists' horizon. The question is whether CRISPR technology will succumb to the same fate as GMOs.
Frequently, the arrogance of larger corporations has created distaste for GMOs. Many of the GMO crops that have popped up in the past few decades have intellectual property rights associated with them, how else are these companies going to make a profit? However, recently several hugely controversial lawsuits have been brought against farmers who have apparently "stolen" Monsanto's GMO plants, creating disdain among the public for Monsanto's heavy-handed approach to defending its patents. Such corporations invest heavily in lobby groups that aim to persuade bureaucrats to make national and international policy choices in their favor. Not only do these corporations make profits from the GMO crops but also the associated herbicides, such as Roundup, that they sell as a kind of 'bundle' package. We should disentangle the issues here a little. Asserting that objections to GMOs are unfounded because GMO food is safe to eat dismisses all the other, possibly reasonable, objections people may have related to herbicide use for GMOs like Roundup Ready crops. I too am frustrated by this apparent lack of good PR, because nobody likes a bully. The non-governmental organization (NGO), Greenpeace, fights against the use of GMOs based on this and other grounds. Hence, when the facts surrounding GMO usage are so complex, having aggregated 'yes' or 'no' camps polarized at either end of the discussion prevents the ebb and flow of dialogue. Surely, there needs to be a reasonable middle ground for the global public to make a facts-based, informed decision on the pros and cons of GMOs in their food.