The recent article, “What the GMO Four aren’t Telling you about biotech food,” by Dr. John Schaefer in the Aug. 26 Mad River Union is a classic example of the “fear factor” that unfortunately often affects people who are forced to deal with a new scientific discovery or technical tool and have not been adequately educated about its basis and use.
Scientists often do not do a good job of helping laypeople to understand their work and its implications for our species. One wonderful exception to this is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who not only is an excellent scientist but does a first-class job of educating people about a range of scientific issues on several good television programs.
Tyson recently made a YouTube video about GMO foods in which he cites the “fear factor” that is raised in many of us by any change but certainly those we do not understand and have not studied at all.
Tyson points out that all of our food has been genetically modified using artificial selection techniques that we no longer question but do many of the same things that GM technology can now do but much more efficiently.
GM technology is going to be critical for our species as our numbers expand from about seven billion people now to about 10 billion by the end of the century. Not only will GM technology allow us to produce more food, it will allow us to do it with the agricultural land now in use, and thus help us to preserve many of the natural biological species that continue to contribute to human welfare in so many important ways.
The “fear factor” response to GMOs reminds me sadly of the fact that Humboldt County has one of the lowest vaccination rates for children in California because of gossip about the speculated connection between vaccines and autism (lostcoastoutpost.com/2014/may/16/vaccine-paranoia-rise-humboldt/). Not only are parents’ own children endangered by this practice, but their children have the potential to pass diseases along to others. This is clearly not ethical, and is yet again and example of the role of the “fear factor.”
One of the best analyses of the potential and concerns about GMO foods was published last year in Scientific American magazine. This article does an excellent job of summarizing the negative and positive arguments for GMO foods and is a good read for a layperson. Here are two quotes from this article:
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have all unreservedly backed GM crops. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with its counterparts in several other countries, has repeatedly reviewed large bodies of research and concluded that GM crops pose no unique health threats. Dozens of review studies carried out by academic researchers have backed that view...
Some scientists say the objections to GM food stem from politics rather than science—that they are motivated by an objection to large multinational corporations having enormous influence over the food supply; invoking risks from genetic modification just provides a convenient way of whipping up the masses against industrial agriculture. “This has nothing to do with science,” Goldberg says. “It’s about ideology.” Former anti-GM activist Lynas agrees. He recently went as far as labeling the anti-GM crowd “explicitly an antiscience movement.
The last sentence in this quote worries me a great deal. Science has been under attack in our cultures for a very long time. Remember what Galileo had to endure when he questioned the accepted religious perspective that the earth was at the center of the solar system?
GMO foods may not be quite as important as Galileo’s science, but we must be able to use, control and benefit from important scientific discoveries that can and often do make a big difference for humanity and beyond. However, I and others are concerned with the political power that is now enjoyed by large corporations in this and other countries. Our politics concerning the regulation of industry in this country needs to change and is one of the reasons that it is so important for us all to vote.
The Scientific American article ends by suggesting a way forward from the contentious and unproductive debate over the future of GMO foods. Author David H. Freedman argues as follows:
There is a middle ground in this debate. Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops. They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones. But they do not single out GM crops for special scrutiny, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Jaffe notes: all crops could use more testing. “We should be doing a better job with food oversight altogether,” he says.
One of the most distinguished scientific journals in the world is published in this country by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is called Science. The Sept. 20 2013 issue had an editorial titled, “Standing Up for GMOs.”.
This editorial was signed by some of the world’s most distinguished scientists including two Nobel laureates. Here is their last paragraph:
New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed the statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as Golden Rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.
When Measure P that would “prohibit the propagation, cultivation, raising, or growing of genetically modified organisms in Humboldt County” is on the ballot, vote against it. Instead let’s all agree to promote the way forward suggested above by ensuring that all our foods will be more carefully tested.
A vote against Measure P is also a vote to support the role of science in our world. Nothing is or will be more important for the future of humanity than strong science.
As an evolutionary geneticist who spent 25 years teaching genetics and doing research using fruit flies, Drosophila, and making use of developing DNA technologies, I firmly believe we need to embrace the new technologies that science brings us. But at the same time, we need to ensure that the use of these technologies is controlled by our governments in ways that will maximize their benefits to our and other species and minimize their potential for damage.
Evolutionary biologist Rollin R. Richmond is the former president of Humboldt State University. He has no ties, financial or otherwise, to any agricultural biotechnology company.