Each year several million children either die or suffer irreparable developmental defects because of vitamin A deficiency. Countless others are harmed by malnutrition and starvation. Yet many of these deaths would be preventable if we addressed them head on and used the tools that exist to stop them.
One of the key tools is the use of genetically modified organisms, known better as GMOs. Modern genetic engineering makes producing GMO food products relatively easy. GMOs can improve crop yield and greatly enhance the nutritional value of those same crops.
Yet European politicians have deemed biotech crops too unsafe for their compatriots to consume — despite the fact that the rest of the world has been eating them for years with no discernible adverse consequences. What’s worse, these politicians are spreading this alarmist message to the developing world, to countries that desperately need the benefits GMO foods offer to feed malnourished populations. I ask this: How many children must suffer before this anti-GMO propaganda is called out for being what it is — a crime against humanity?
The battle over genetically modified crops is rife with business interests and political opportunism. When GMOs were first produced in laboratories around the world, they were rightly heralded as a tremendous leap forward in our ability to supplement nature by providing high-nutrient foods. Today, more than half of US farmland is used to grow GMO crops, including nearly all soybeans and 71 percent of the corn.
But when Monsanto, the world’s largest GMO producer, tried to introduce the new seeds into Europe in the early 1990s, the firm met stiff opposition. The move was viewed as a money grab by Monsanto — despite the fact that the GMOs also allow farmers to use less pesticides on plants — rather than a benefit to the food-rich European people. The most vocal opponents, particularly among Green Party activists, accused American agribusiness of trying to take over the European food supply. Amid this anger, a political campaign to ban GMOs was launched with the underlying, if misleading, message that Europeans must be protected from poisons in their food.
It worked. The myth that GMO foods are dangerous was firmly planted in the public psyche. Europe instituted very rigorous controls on any GMO foods to the point it is now nearly impossible to get regulatory approval to plant genetically modified crops across the continent.
Well-fed Europeans don’t need GMO foods, but the rest of the world does. The United Nations estimates that nearly one in eight people across the globe faces chronic undernourishment. Nearly all those left hungry live in developing low-income nations — far from Europe’s borders. But the seed of danger was planted, and hostility toward biotech foods is now widespread in Africa and parts of Asia and South America. That is having devastating consequences.
Consider the example of “golden rice.” Two biologists, Inge Potrykus and Peter Beyer, produced this wonder crop in 1999. The pair spent nearly a decade trying to improve rice by modifying it to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. In nature, beta-carotene is found in the green parts of the rice plant but not in the seed that is eaten worldwide as a dietary staple.
Golden rice was developed as a strictly humanitarian gesture to alleviate the suffering of some 250 million children with vitamin A deficiency — the leading cause of preventable blindness and immunodeficiency — and including up to 2 million who die from it. Golden rice is fertile, meaning it can be grown and the seeds used for next year’s crop, and it carries no licensing fees for smallhold farmers, unlike Monsanto products. Had these plants been produced under ordinary circumstances — that is, without using GMO technology — they would have been available in 2003 and could likely now be a cash crop and staple for small farmers around the world. Instead, because of European influence over the regulation of GMOs, progress on golden rice stalled.
I have been intimately involved in the techniques of genetic modification as a scientist since GMOs were first conceived. In that time, hundreds of studies and tests have been done on GMO safety — and we’ve seen no scientific evidence that GMOs are inherently more dangerous than crops produced by traditional plant breeding.
Indeed, common sense suggests they are safer. With biotech plants, individual, known genes are introduced into a recipient plant. In conventional breeding, tens if not hundreds of unknown genes are transferred from one plant to another. And if that doesn’t work, then irradiation to introduce countless mutations is used to produce the desired traits. Yet this is considered safe because it is “natural.”
After two decades of decrying GMO foods unsafe for Europeans, the Greens and their allies cannot now turn around and claim that biotech crops are safe for Africa. So they stick to this political ploy, spreading misinformation across the globe. For the sake of sick children and those who go to bed hungry, we must fight the self-serving, political arguments of the anti-GMO movement and ensure that the benefits of GMOs are available to all — perhaps even Europeans.
Read the rest of this series on GMOs:
Richard Roberts is chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs and the 1993 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine for the discovery of split genes. He recently joined the faculty at Northeastern University.