The Truth about GMOs: good or bad?

Golden Rice – precision enhanced with beta carotene for Vitamin A. Source: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
GMO: Hero or Villian?

Let me explain a few things about the GMO myth/ scam, since a few strong, emotional reactions against GMO crops were brought out by a previous post, Edible GMO cotton could supply protein to 600 million people daily — Genetic Literacy Project . The “NonGMO” food packaging label implies that GMO crops are somehow dangerous, but are they?  Most of the fear is based on propaganda by anti-technology advocacy groups such as Green Peace and “Big Organic” organizations.  Many companies that sell agricultural produce have been intimidated by these groups into adding the “NonGMO” label to their products for fear of bad publicity, protests and reduced sales.  Even products such as salt and water sometimes bear the label, even though they could not possibly have used or contain any GMO crops. This intimidation strategy was adopted by activists when they failed to get the government to require “contains GMO” labels.

What is GMO and why are people afraid of it?  Genetically Modified Organism, GMO, means that gene editing bio-technology has been used to insert or remove a specific gene in the DNA of an organism, (plant, animal or microbe) to enhance or add favorable characteristics, such as added vitamins or protein, insect and disease resistance, enhanced yield or drought resistance; or to remove genes for unfavorable traits such as bitterness or toxins.  The previous post cited above is about removing a gene that produces a toxin in cotton seeds in order to make them available as a much needed high protein food source for man and animals alike.

For example, if a plant lacks a certain needed vitamin, a gene can be added so it produces the vitamin. None of the other characteristics of the plant are changed. Unlike conventional breeding, which crosses or irradiates entire genomes, sometimes with unexpected negative results, GMO only affects the specific trait needed. It’s the difference between a shotgun approach and a precision insertion.

Conventional breeding has been used for centuries to produce the food supply we have today. Cross breeding over generations changed corn from a plant with a few seeds to one yielding the robust ears we know today. Wheat, by similar method has increased yields, reduced time to harvest and  improved disease resistance from the original tall, low yield, disease prone, area-and-season-specific original plant, so that multiple crops can be harvested each year in a variety or environments. Rice has been improved in similar ways.  These improved high yield varieties (HYV) have saved millions of lives.  Beginning in the 1950s this Green Revolution changed countries like India, Pakistan and Mexico from near-starvation, foreign aid crop importers into net exporters.  None of the rights to these high yield varieties have been controlled or retained by “Big Ag” companies or nonprofit organizations.

So, why are GMO improved crops needed?  Precision agriculture, (a better term than GMO), can go beyond conventional means to produce specific changes while leaving the other characteristics untouched.  One special advantage of GMO is that genes from a different species can be inserted to add nutrients or other traits not present in the original varieties.  Golden Rice is a good example of this. By inserting a gene for beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, from corn or similar species, the much needed but absent Vitamin A can be produced in rice.  This is very important because Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and death in people who use rice as the staple foundation of their diets.  An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A deficient children go blind each year, half of whom die.

Mother and Child Vitamin A Deficiency, worldwide

 

 

Source: Black, Robert E, “Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences,” Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group, Lancet, January 17, 2008

Why Do People Fear GMO? Unfortunately, anti-technology groups, led by Green Peace, have opposed these improvements that could save the lives of millions, against any logical reasoning. They claim that Big Ag companies, specifically targeting Monsanto and later Bayer, retain the patent rights to these crops as a way to control farmers. Stories of low yields, crop failures, suicides of farmers and law suits by corporations against farmers abound;  as are tales of serious allergies, health effects and GMO pollen “infecting” other crops.  When investigated, they are all found to be false, unproven and irreproducible anecdotes aside.  GMO crops are the most thoroughly researched and certified as safe plants on the planet.  Any that are found to cause even mild health reactions are quickly weeded out and rejected.

At present, there are over 40 companies and nonprofit organizations producing precision biotech enhanced plants around the world. Over 40 countries have approved genetically enhanced crops as safe, including the US Food and Drug Administration, FDA.

The rights to most these seeds are freely given away to impoverished peoples, without any strings attached. The seeds can be saved from year to year, so that even control through economic means is false.  Only hybrids require purchasing new seed from the producer each year. Hybrids are crosses between dis-similar varieties that do not breed true in subsequent plantings. GMO crops are not hybrids, and neither are the Green Revolution high yield varieties, which were originally crosses of very similar varieties, that breed true in subsequent plantings.

Environmental groups such as Green Peace have adopted this anti-GMO rhetoric as a cause celebre to cripple modern agriculture, which they oppose on questionable environmental grounds. The European Union has also taken up the banner in order to block agricultural competition to their subsidized farmers by agricultural imports from other countries like the USA,  as well as by poor South and Central American, Asian, and African countries that grow any GMO crops.  The internet is awash with outrageous half-truths, outright lies, and conspiracy theories so that the average person doesn’t know what to believe. Most people will choose the cautious approach and avoid GMO products without really understanding why. Remember, it’s all about economics and ideology, not science or actual harm. Meanwhile, it serves to keep impoverished countries poor, thus furthering the overpopulation and genetic inferiority myths.

European Union Fat Cats keep more nutritious, more disease & drought resistant, higher yield Biotech Foods (GMO) from poor countries by blocking trade if they grow any — Image Credit: Des Moines Register, Feb 1, 2000

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”  —Mark Twain

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“… shake off all Prejudice, nor harbor any favorite opinions: for, if you do, it is not unlikely Fancy will betray you into Error, and make you think you see what you would wish to see. Remember, that Truth alone is the Matter you are in Search after; and if you have been mistaken, let no Vanity reduce you to persist in your Mistake.

From chapter XV of Henry Baker’s Of Microscopes and the Discoveries Made Thereby, 1785.

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Additional Information:

Saving Africa from Lies that Kill, Chapter 11, “The Green Revolution and Precision Agriculture …,” has more information that could not be included here for brevity.

Over 110 Nobel Laureates sent a letter to Green Peace re: their support of Precision Agriculture in general and particularly Golden Rice.  See “Laureates Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture (GMOs)”

Check out the Genetic Literacy Project, Golden Rice Project and ISAAA, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications for databases, facts and news articles.

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