GMOs are not monsters

posted in: Commentary | 7

London’s Times Online had a great editorial about GMOs this past week, called “Frankenstein foods are not monsters.” It’s a sort of wake-up call to England and Europe, saying that the benefits of genetic engineering far outweigh hypothetical dangers that are based more on gut feeling than science and that still haven’t manifested. Unfortunately, the site’s comment feature isn’t working, but I’d like to give a “Bravo” to

The piece is full of scathing comments directed to detractors. Regarding the anti-GMO fervor:

The world has moved on. Food is no longer frivolous. It is serious and expensive and even if the price surges in wheat, rice and corn abate, the longer-term outlook for food is inflationary, with population growth and affluence stimulating demand for grain while climate change and high energy costs hinder farm output.

A shining example of the benefits of genetic engineering over conventional (and even organic) methods can be found in potatoes that are resistant to blight (the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in 1845), and this is the example that this author chooses to use.

Resistance is the result of two genes from a wild potato relative. It is possible that modern potatoes could be crossed with the wild relative, but the results would be unpredictable. Many generations of breeding would be necessary to get the hybrid back to what we think of as a potato, and the result still might harbor natural poisons (potatoes are related to nightshade).

Biotechnology makes possible a “cut and paste” so we can have blight resistant potatoes right now, without any unwanted genes. Unfortunately, the potatoes will not be available for use in Europe until about 2014 or 2016 – due to the required 8 to 10 years of testing [Farmers Weekly].

What I didn’t know is that potato plants are often sprayed with fungicide as a preventive. Blight prevention is 7% of total growing costs, and includes: “two treatments of Epok (mefenoxam (metalaxyl-M) plus fluazinam), followed by Electis (zoxium + mancozeb) alternating with Ranman TP (cyazofamid plus adjuvant) up until desiccation [Dow UK].” Surely, this huge amount of chemicals can not be better than resistance genes from a wild potato relative!

According to “Eschewing modern fungicides, about 30 per cent of Britain’s organic farmers last year took the Victorian option of spraying bordeaux mixture, a solution of poisonous copper sulphate on their crop.” Copper sulfate is fairly toxic, especially in the long term. It’s certainly not something I’d want to expose anyone to – especially when there is a safe and chemical-free alternative.

The piece is concluded with the following:

There were riots last year in Senegal over food prices. In France, José Bové is on hunger strike to force the Government to ban GM crops. In Europe, we have the technology, the funds and the minds to solve problems, but our hearts are lost in the past.

I ask, who is this José Bové to dictate what other farmers in France and around the world choose to plant? He certainly has the right to choose which foods he wants to eat, what he wants to plant on his land, and even to speak out about his feelings on the subject – but I think it’s absolutely amoral to use your public influence to make people’s lives more difficult. The people hurt by his ramblings aren’t Monsanto and Syngenta (happily making money in the US, Latin America, and Asia) but poor farmers in Africa and India that could really benefit from the higher yields and decreased chemical inputs that genetic engineering has to offer. People like José Bové are all complaints and no solutions, which is not a very productive way to be.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!