4 min read

Of all the crusades environmentalists conduct, perhaps the most pernicious are those over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Like it or not, the Third World will need more food if people in Africa and Asia are going to get enough to eat, and the best way to do this is with GMOs.

Nearly every major scientific body that has ever issued a statement on the subject—the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Food and Drug Administration—has said that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. They are now joined by a rising number of liberal journalists who recognize that good science is more important than ideology.

Last year I noted how New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter did a fine job exposing the dubious doctrines of Indian activist Vandana Shiva.  Specter is now joined by Slate staff writer William Saletan, who recognizes in this fine piece that supporting good science is more important than reflexive political correctness.

The script Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other green groups follow is that Evil Profit-Maximizing Corporations, led by Monsanto, force farmers to accept GMOS so that they would be in their clutches forever. Saletan looks at three genetically modified crops that weren’t created by big business—papayas, the genetic modification known as Bt, and “golden rice.”

  • Papayas. In the mid-1990s, Hawaiian papaya farmers were worried, because the ringspot virus devastated their crop. Cornell University researcher Dennis Gonsalves, taking an idea created by Monsanto, proposed transferring an inactive version of the virus to the papaya rind. Since papaya is not a major moneymaker, Monsanto and two other companies licensed development of the papaya project to an association of Hawaiian farmers, who could give away the modified seed as long as distribution was limited to Hawaii. In 1996 and 1997, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture licensed tests.

The tests proved successful, and the war against the papaya began. In 2001 the U.S. Public Research Interest Group declared that “the science of genetic engineering is radical and new” and therefore the papaya experiments should be banned. Others took a preliminary paper to claim that genetically engineered papayas were full of allergens. The Food Safety Commission of Japan investigated this and concluded that genetically modified papayas were safe and could be imported.

In 2013 the Maui County Council, in charge of that state’s biggest island, held a hearing about papayas. Environmentalists, huffing the noxious fumes of conspiracy, claimed that the FDA, the AAAS, and the New York Times (which ran an objective article about the debate) were controlled by Monsanto. They claimed that WikiLeaks proved that the U.S. government controlled the Japanese Food Safety Commission, but 6,000 diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks showed no such thing. They also called for a ban on genetically modified flowers because children might eat them. And of course they then raged against vaccines.

The Maui County Council did ban GMO crops (except for papayas) but the ban was blocked by a federal court that said that the council had no power to impose it.

  • Bt In 1901, a Japanese biologist isolated a bacterium, Bacillus thuringensis (or Bt), which was killing the Japanese silkworm, crop. In the mid-1980, Belgian researchers added genes from Bt into tobacco plants. Doing so caused predatory insects to die.

In the mid-1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency approved potatoes, corn, and cotton that had the Bt gene as a genetic modification. Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, and the Pesticide Action Network began suing. But these same groups say that Bt is perfectly safe as a spray. They say this even though farmers who use Bt as a biopesticide spray more Bt on their crops than would happen if Bt were a genetically modified crop. Moreover, the makers of biopesticide sprays include Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer—companies Greenpeace and its allies repeatedly denounce.

But if Bt is so dangerous, shouldn’t consumers know if their crops have been sprayed with it? Slate interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman contacted 15 companies that said their products were “GMO free” to see if biopesticides were used on the corn in their products. Five didn’t respond, two claimed that “organic” meant “pesticide-free” (which isn’t true), one sent ‘weasel words” it didn’t explain, one said that the biopesticides were within legal limits, and three said they didn’t know.

Saletan says these evasive answers on the part of manufacturers who pride themselves on having “GMO-free” foods “is the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world.”

  • “Golden rice.” In 1999, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology led by Ingo Potrykus, using Rockefeller Foundation grants, developed “golden rice,” which had beta carotene (or vitamin A) in it. Poor children could eat the rice and not go blind. President Clinton praised the discovery, saying “if we could get more of this Golden Rice…out to the developing world, it could save 40,000 lives a day.” The researchers have since improved golden rice so that it has 80 times as much beta carotene as the original crop.

Greenpeace and its allies, such as Friends of the Earth, have done everything they could since then to block the development of golden rice, denouncing tests of the crop in India, China, and the Philippines. (Many of these test strips were destroyed by eco-activists.) They have claimed that the vitamin A needs of poor children are better served with pills or by having poor people grow vegetables.

Ingo Potrykus thought it ludicrous that Greenpeace would tell poor people who had no land to grow vegetables to get vitamin A. “There are hundreds of millions of landless poor, and they don’t have a house to lean against,” he told New Scientist in 2001.

Saletan says that the anti-GMO movement is severely wrongheaded. “GMO segregation, in the form of labels or GMO-free restaurants, is misguided,” he writes, “GMO labels don’t clarify what is in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.”

“We’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs,” he concludes, that has been waged by “an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science.”


17 thoughts on “War against GMOs is “stupid, wasteful fight””

  1. Martica Heaner PhD says:

    The jury is still out on GMOs since the health effects that may be of most concern, especially impacts on cancers that take decades to develop, could only be seen in long-term experimental studies on humans–of which there are none.

    BUT, the big elephant in the room that this article fails to mention is that ANIMAL AGRICULTURE is what is starving the planet, not to mention creating the largest methane contribution to climate change, the largest contributor for deforestation, drought and pollution of the land and water.

    Why? Because we are wasting Earth’s resources to feed the 100 billion animals that we kill for food each year. We would have water and food for people if we did not give to the animals and raise more animals than would ever naturally be borne. This has also been noted by the World Health Organization, among others, but conveniently is left out of most discussions of famine and hunger, climate change, environmental problems including drought.

    Cowspiracy, a documentary released in 2014 spells it out pretty clearly. Recommended watching. If anyone cares about world hunger–or environmental destruction–they should be eating vegan, period. If not, then the concern is not real and the blame is being shifted elsewhere.

  2. no bull says:

    As the author can see there are many people who do not want to eat a registered pesticide bt corn. Or eat bread or weetabix sprayed with glyphosate just before harvesting. Enjoy toxic chips from fast food outlets sprayed with the same every other week. Stand by and watch the irreversable assault on humanity for profit by monsanto and syngenta whos herbicides are factually proven by real unbiased scientists to be wreak harm on people, destroy pollonators and soil microbes. Whatsmore, I cant imagine anybody truthfully wanting to eat the evil produce from monsanto given the facts instead of biased drivel.

  3. Willa Cartwright says:

    If a country prides and styles itself as ‘democracy’, then when it’s’ people say they’re not wanting GMOs, that has to be good enough.

    … And really nothing more needs to be said.

  4. Nicola L says:

    I understand and agree to many critics against GMO, BUT… how you can be sure that you do not eat GMO when your food is passing by an oven? That means no DNA. The same if you have very raffinated oil. And how you can be sure if you import food from countries that do not provide a priori information (i.e. sequences) to test your food. Infact, to make GMO it can be quite cheep, you don’t necessarily need a big company. Biohackers known quite well.

  5. Nicholas says:

    Are we forgetting what most GM crops have been modified for? Increased use of herbicides. Glyphosate (Roundup) is increasingly in the food supply. That is a proven health threat. It took around 400 years before we found out refined sugar is not so good for us. We will learn how herbicides and the Bt protein from GM corn are not so benign a lot sooner. GM soy by itself is probably safe but soy bathed in Roundup which it is modified for? Classical plant breeding changes gene expression. GMOs introduce new ones or edit the genome artificially  Monsanto knows GMOs are not the same as the breeding techniques of our ancestors and that is one reason why Monsanto uses patents. This production model does not work for  all poorer developing countries. Many do not even have tractor mounted sprayers to apply the herbicides or even have tractors. Their main problem is not weeds or pests in the field. They need access to regional or global markets without the loss of harvests to pests in storage and molds, they need wells, irrigation lines, soil conservation techniques etc.Much of the world can not afford the inputs that feeble hybrid varieties need. They are actually genetically selected to perform in sea of expensive artificial inputs. Without them they fall apart. Their genetic base is too narrow for multiple stress resistance.  This article is the typical blind worship of a tech utopia. The new religion of our time. Responsible scientists do not speak in absolutes and would never declare GMOs totally safe or totally dangerous.

  6. bee bumble says:

    the author is wrong , inter alia, when he claims that it is incorrect to say that the definition of ‘organic’ includes pesticide- free.
    Consumers no longer have to play a guessing game when it comes to organic foods. the following is from http://usda-fda.com/organic-nutrition.htm
    “The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now has national standards for the use of the word “organic.” Unlike just a few years ago, consumers buying organic products, whether produced in the United States or imported, can be assured that the foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. Organic farmers are required to adhere to certain soil and water conservation methods and to rules about the humane treatment of animals.”

    better research, pleas!

  7. Jack billingsley says:

    @M Alexander. Not one company produces seeds with the terminator gene. And farmers typically buy all new seeds every years anyway, this has been going on since way before gmo entered the scene because it produces a better yield.
    And the idea that the gene would jump across species, even to animals, and kill all life on the planet is something being absurd. It kills itself in one generation – it specifically does not reproduce – how on earth could you have that gene magically jump to every single plant and animal on the planet at the same time in one generation? It’s beyond words how free from facts and reality these kind of arguments are.

  8. M Alexander says:

    Companies that produce GMO seed introduce terminator genes into them. This means that no one can use the seed form the crops they grow. Everyone has to buy more seed from the suppliers each year. So they become the monopoly in GMO seed.
    Supposing the terminator genes spread to other crops on even other life forms! So all non GMO life could die out even animal life. Once this is started it can not be stopped.

  9. Richard says:

    Partially hydrogenated oils are indeed modified, but by a chemical process where the hydrogen is added to the oil under temperature and pressure in the presence of a catalyst, often nickel compound. This was done to non-GMO soybeans over decades and has probably impacted all of our health.

  10. Natalie says:

    This article, lovingly “brought to you by” Monsanto…they just care about us and our health so much, its completely benevolent lol…they just want the best for us, look up Monsanto’s patent on Aluminum resistant seeds and then look up geoengineeringwatch.org.. Everyone should buy organic non-gmo seeds and start growing their own food, its the only way to truly trust what youre getting…God bless…

  11. jo says:

    Small scal faming organically with permaculture designs creates food and work for people in africa who are poor and needing of food…permaculture is the way….

  12. jo says:

    Pemaculture small scale farming is the answer….creating more jobs for people in places of poverty…permaculture is the way forward…not supporting huge companies who only really in for their own gain…

  13. Bill C says:

    @ Robert R:
    Please, do not personalize this sort of discussion. GMO hysterical idiots are the ones that are ignorant. It is possible I have forgotten more about genetics than most of those people have ever learned. If you have something positive and construction to bring to the discussion, bring it. Did the first humans that wiped out the megafauna in Australians and the Americas examine the effects of their actions, or were they in it for their own personal gain?

  14. Ty says:

    as soon as you mention Monsanto, you lost all merit. They are the biggest environment murdering company in the history of the world. they have billions of dollars in lobbying to the government to keep them being permitted to make things unsafe. They only care about their own pocket book. If what you say is true, and other countries need to GMO food, then why keep it here in this country, send it ALL over there. And why are we making food for other countries when we cant feed our own. Your article is extremely inaccurate and you need to do, not more, but better research. And on top of this all, you say GMO have been proven good??? are you not aware the hydrogenated oils are modified and have been without a doubt proven the worst food on the planet for our health??? so bad in fact, that the FDA is currently in process of phasing these oils out and making them illegal. So like I said, please do better research before you defend the most corrupt and dirty company on the planet.

  15. Lewis D says:

    I have been an environmentalist since the 70s and attended John Muir College at UCSD. I recycle religiously and recently reduced my carbon footprint significantly by downsizing from my large home in the suburbs to a small high-rise condo in a walkable neighborhood. I could go on about my environmental credentials. But I am also a scientist, not an ideologue, and I couldn’t agree more that anti-GMO activists rank up there with the anti-vaccine people. It’s a totally misguided and reflexively cynical campaign. GMO will feed the world, not knee-jerk environmentalists who have brainwashed the average American about the “perils” of GMO. BTW, ask any average American who has formed a negative opinion about GMO foods and you will quickly find out that the vast majority of them have mistakenly concluded (or should I say been misled into thinking) the food itself is unsafe.

  16. Robert R says:

    @Bill C. Your ignorance is typical of those who know little of genetics. There is an enormous difference between hybridization and gene modification and gene splicing. Man has only been capable of the later two over the last 2 or 3 decades. The effects of which have not been thoroughly examined. How ever companies such as Monsanto want to push forward not for the world’s good but for their own monetary gain.

  17. Bill C says:

    If we want to truly go GMO free, then we will only eat wild-caught fish. Pretty much every other food that we eat has been genetically modified by humans for millenia.

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