With the failure of California’s recent ballot measure mandating labeling of foods with GMO content, the debate over genetic engineering as an agricultural tool has subsided somewhat.
In fact, some voices among mainstream authorities are issuing much stronger statement in support of biotechnology.
For example: Mark Lynas, a prominent British environmentalist and author, who once joined anti-GMO protestors in ripping out a test plot of bioengineered crops, recently came out in favor of genetic modification of food crops.
“I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops,” Lynas told the audience at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year. “I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”
Lynas asked rhetorically, “What happened?” and then proceeded to answer his own question: “I discovered science.”
He noted that many of the activist community’s “cherished beliefs” about GMOs were little more than urban legends, including the myths that genetic engineering would:
- Increase the use of chemicals—turns out that GM corn and cotton need less insecticide
- Only benefit big companies—turns out that billions in benefits are going to farmers needing fewer inputs
- Rob growers trying to save seeds with a “Terminator gene”—turns out that hybrid varieties did that long ago, and Terminator never actually happened (it was abandoned by Monsanto in 1999)
Despite his credentials as a one-time activist, and the impact of his frontal assault on the anti-GMO mythology, Lynas—predictably—has been attacked relentlessly by critics, who complain that the science isn’t in yet, that unknown dangers could still emerge and some really whacked out claims, such as that “Viral genes in plants raise both agronomic and human health concerns.”
Don’t bother trying to figure that one out, because it’s an idea being promoted by one Dr. Joseph Mercola, an organic proponent and anti-GM zealot who continues to claim that “GM crops might yet produce wholly unforeseen consequences.”
That’s pretty much like demanding that the government depopulate California, because “An earthquake might yet split the state off from the U.S. mainland.”
Revising the goals
Here’s the more important initiative that the food industry ought to be pursuing. Yes, voluntary labeling would be a huge step in the right direction, but to fully disarm critics of biotechnology, the science itself needs to be re-oriented toward three critical objectives:
- Agricultural productivity. For biotech to convince both policymakers and ordinary people that its role in agriculture is a vital one, the focus of research going forward needs to be squarely on ramping up yields of common food crops. Nothing will defuse the skepticism about bioengineering faster than proven increases in yield per acre of corn, wheat, soy, rice and other critical crops.
- Improved nutrition. For years, biotech advocates have talked long and loud about such improvements as “Golden Rice,” which would provide additional vitamin A in an effort to deal with blindness in certain developing countries. Yet until such crops become widely cultivated, it’s all talk and very little in the way of results.
- Environmental adaptability. From climate change to soil salinity to water depletion, changes are sweeping over global agriculture. Biotech could—and should—play a key role in developing plants that can tolerate drought, survive poor quality soil and adapt to hotter temperatures and other weather extremes. It all sounds good, but on-the-ground results need to be documented for public opinion to change.
If these three goals could be advanced in concrete, measureable ways, the acrimony over GMOs would subside, because there would be little reason to oppose a scientific tool that helps humanity address the issue of food security.
But if biotechnology remains focused on producing more Round-up-ready crop varieties, then both the serious critics and sensationalist nut jobs will continue to have plenty of reason to attack what any sober scientist would acknowledge is one of the best tools we have to nourish the world’s growing population.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.