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Honored Advisor

The Irrational Fear of GM Food

Wall Street Journal Column: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

Oct 22, 2013

 Billions of people have eaten genetically modified food over the past two decades. Not one problem has been found.

By MARC VAN MONTAGU, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate
Originally printed in the Wall Street Journal

Farmers can now produce more crops in an environmentally sustainable way at a lower cost thanks to the efforts of hundreds of scientists over the past half-century. Seeds are developed in a laboratory and then field tested to enhance nutritional value or resistance to drought, disease and herbicides. Genetically modified crops are now planted on nearly a quarter of the world's farm land by some 17.3 million farmers. More than 90% of those farmers are smallholders who harvest a few acres in developing countries.

Society, the economy and the environment have benefited enormously from GM crops. India has flipped from cotton importer to exporter because of insect-resistant cotton. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have stimulated no-tillage farming, reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. Insect-resistant GM crops have cut insecticide sprayings by more than 25%—and as much as sevenfold in some parts of India. In developing countries, GM crops have helped ensure food security and bolster incomes for farmers, allowing parents to focus more resources on other priorities, such as educating their children.

Such remarkable achievements are only the beginning. Dozens of better GM crops are in the pipeline from companies, universities and public agencies around the world. Crops in development include virus-resistant cassava, a starchy root otherwise known as tapioca; nutritionally enriched rice that can help prevent blindness and early death among children; nitrogen-efficient crops that reduce fertilizer runoff; and many more.

These crops will continue to reduce hunger by bringing more bountiful and nutritious harvests. They will also help the environment by mitigating the impact of agriculture by conserving our precious, finite supply of fresh water; freeing up land for other uses, like carbon-absorbing forests; preserving topsoil; and reducing the use of insecticides and herbicides, thereby enhancing biodiversity.

These advancements are particularly timely given the environmental and demographic state of the 21st century. Between now and 2050, global population will rise by about one-third, to 9.6 billion from 7.2 billion, reducing arable land per capita. Almost all of that population growth will occur in the developing world, where about 870 million people are already suffering from hunger and malnutrition, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. And 100% of it will happen during a period of greater climate volatility, which may place dramatic new stresses on agriculture.

The question of how to nourish two billion more people in a changing climate will prove one of the greatest challenges in human history. To meet it, we should embrace an agricultural approach that combines the best features of traditional farming with the latest technology.

Biotechnology offers an unparalleled safety record and demonstrated commercial success. Remarkably, however, biotechnology might not reach its full potential. In part, that's because outspoken opponents of GM crops in the U.S. have spearheaded a "labeling" movement that would distinguish modified food from other food on grocery store shelves. Never mind that 60%-70% of processed food on the market contains genetically modified ingredients. In much of Europe, farmers are barred from growing genetically modified crops. Even in Africa, anti-biotechnology sentiment has blocked its application. In Zambia, for example, the government refused donations of GM corn in 2002, even as its people starved.

Opponents of GM crops have been extremely effective at spreading misinformation. GM crops don't, as one discredited study claimed recently, cause cancer or other diseases. GM cotton isn't responsible for suicides among Indian farmers—a 2008 study by an alliance of 64 governments and nongovernmental organizations debunked that myth completely. And GM crops don't harm bees or monarch butterflies.

In fact, people have consumed billions of meals containing GM foods in the 17 years since they were first commercialized, and not one problem has been documented. This comes as no surprise. Every respected scientific organization that has studied GM crops—the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, among others—has found GM crops both safe for humans and positive for the environment.

As a plant scientist, neither I nor my fellow 2013 World Food Prize laureates, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert T. Fraley, anticipated the resistance to genetic modification and biotechnology. After all, nearly everything humans have eaten though the millennia has been genetically altered by human intervention. Mankind has been breeding crops—and thereby genetically altering them—since the dawn of agriculture. Today's techniques for modifying plants are simply new, high-precision methods for doing the same.

Resistance to biotechnology seems all the more unbelievable considering that much of it comes from the same thoughtful people who tend to dismiss climate-change skeptics as "anti-science." It seems to me that much of the resistance to GM foods isn't based on science, but may be ideological and political, based on fears of "corporate profiteering" and "Western colonialism."

To note one irony: The extreme opposition to genetic modification has led to hyper-regulation of GM crops, which has raised the cost of bringing them to market. Now only multinational companies and large research entities can afford to comply with the rules. Smaller enterprises in developing countries are ultimately hurt much more than large conglomerates.

Anyone who cares about alleviating hunger and protecting the environment should work quickly to remove the bias against GM crops. A good first step is for educated, scientifically literate people to avoid being taken in by the myths about genetically modified food. These innovations have too much potential to empower individuals and feed the world to be thwarted by falsehoods and fear-mongering.
Dr. Van Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium. He is the co-recipient of the 2013 World Food Prize, along with Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta Biotechnology and Dr. Robert T. Fraley of Monsanto.
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8 Replies
Senior Advisor

Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

Good post there - Hobby ! Glad to see down here in Crops  Smiley Wink


Here's a quote from the post :  As a plant scientist, neither I nor my fellow 2013 World Food Prize laureates, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert T. Fraley, anticipated the resistance to genetic modification and biotechnology


The KEY word in this is --- AS a plant scientist -- He deals in Facts - He's NOT a politicians -- as in foreign countries as over in the EU - This is there way to protect there farmers and the companies in ag . Just think if they were for gmo crops - who would they get there seed from ? I think they are in the catch up mode and when  " there " companies come up with gmo crops - well then they will be A - OK .


I have had many people ask me if I thought they were OK -  - yes - one reason that got there attention was the fact mentioned above - less  chemicals applied -


It's not like we invented some kind of mad science  here - it's mostly the use of different genes from one plant to the other . Or how they are inserted in the plant .


When there bellies are on empty - they will are a change of heart





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Veteran Contributor

Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

looks like he tried to take credit where it wasn't due:


Marc Van Montagu

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Marc Van Montagu (left) and Jeff Schell (right), in 1993.
Marc Van Montagu.

Marc Van Montagu (born 10 November 1933 in Ghent) is a Belgian molecular biologist. He was full professor and director of the Laboratory of Genetics at the faculty of Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and scientific director of the Genetics Department of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). Together with Jozef Schell he founded the biotech company Plant Genetic Systems Inc. (Belgium) in 1982, of which he was Scientific Director and member of the board of Directors. Marc Van Montagu was also involved in founding the biotech company CropDesign, of which he was a Board member from 1998 to 2004. He is president of the lobby European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) and of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI).

Although Marc Van Montagu, et al. were credited with the discovery of the Ti plasmid, the first person to isolate the "Tumor Inducing Principle" later called the Ti plasmid from Agrobacterium and complete Koch's postulates with it in a plant system was Floyd Poruban, a graduate student in the Department of Plant Pathology at The Ohio State University, in 1964.[1] However, together with his colleague Prof. Jeff Schell, Marc Van Montagu discovered the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the development of methods to alter Agrobacterium into an efficient delivery system for gene engineering and to create transgenic plants.[2] He developed plant molecular genetics, in particular molecular mechanisms for cell proliferation and differentiation and response to abiotic stresses (high light, ozone, cold, salt and drought) and constructed transgenic crops (tobacco, rape seed, corn) resistant to insect pest and tolerant to novel herbicides. His work with poplar trees resulted in engineering of trees with improved pulping qualities.

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Senior Contributor

Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

"Genetic engineering" refers to the the deliberate alteration or control of DNA by unnatural manipulation and/or survey selection -- direct or indirect. So GMO is in essence, "Plant Eugenics".

Ethics in Eugenics in a broad subject (well eugenics is a broad study). Ethics is a field of philosophy. Ethics is not contained within the science of eugenics, or any science.

The most compelling argument eugenics has come up with is that the science is rarely successful.

Ordinary breeding methods are not "unnatural". Genetic selection imposed upon organisms falls somewhere near the tree of biology. Such organisms should be referred to as Genetically Selected Organisms. Natural selection is a misnomer: nature does not conscientiously "select" organisms (other than by natural attraction, suicide, etc.).

There are "good" breeding habits and others which introduce blight. Eugenics is also scrutinized by the same set of standards, in addition to the consequences of bizarre and reaching technologies. Eugenics has more potential to be extreme and fall outside of the realm of ecological acceptability.

Genetic modification has become popular in biology. While it is a form of Eugenics, the science is preformed to better understand the organism, especially what a specific protein does in relation to the rest of the organism. The ultimate product of the technology is greater level of understanding.

That greater level of understanding could be used to guide conventional selection techniques that are narrower in focus. This is "soft core" eugenics.

"Hard core" eugenics induces mutations, adds or subtracts DNA, selectively aborts phenotypes.

"Hard core" eugenics is an ethics nightmare without the understanding of the organism. It suffers from the efficacy of the horse-blinders. Obviously.

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Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

I think what you can say about GM food is that it has accomplished very little, to date, other than to reduce maangement requirements for farmers and permit the patent holders to rake off rent.


Genetic modification is a very valuable too to have in the box for potentially catastrophic threats like Black Stem Rust.


But as far as commercializing just because you can sell it, I think there is a precautionary principle that says that you don't mess with life forms unless there is a very clear and urgent benefit to be achieved.


So anyway, I'll pass on joining my wagon to the circle protecting "agriculture."

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Senior Contributor

Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

It is difficult to understand the ethical problems that were recognized by the 1960's.  Let me give you an analogy first.

In 2003 I was a computer technician with a handful of systems for which I was responsible. These computers had Microsoft Windows operating systems. The Windows operating system was limited in its functionality. Even modest attempts to expand this functionality led to complete system failure and the loss of important data.

I switched the operating systems to open source software. I compiled -- from raw source code – every 0 and 1 which went through the microprocessor.

Before, I was never required or even allowed to provide programing logic. First, I could turn the system on (at least). I could provide trivial input (name, email address, 8 page term paper). I could input the instruction to execute applications or their functions. I could provide configuration parameters.

Now, I have the ability and responsibility to provide the system with programmatic logic (whether it be my own creation or someone elses). This is more time consuming because of the compiling of the human readable code.

An interesting thing happened . . .

the “sensation” of computer usage changed. The * MAGIC * was lost. Computer programs used to come to me as gifts. I just could just download something or get it in a box, accept the user agreement, install the software and voila! These softwares were expected to run and when they did not there was little I could do, programmaticly. I would need to find alternative software.

The important point is that the perspective of computing changed when my usage [read: input; button pushing] changed. The required attitude and habits necessary to maintain a functional product for my consumer (office computers) was demanding. It was so demanding that end product was significantly different. In such an environment being both the programmer and administrator/technician is very difficult, if not nearly impossible.

It was especially difficult have any computers running Microsoft Windows at all. Opensource communities are openly hostile toward closed source software.

Devils in the details . . .

I do not provide tech or administrative services. I still use open source software exclusively, however. 99.9% of the programing is written by someone else. 10% what goes through the microprocessor everyday is written by myself.

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Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

BTW, if if that's the WSJ's editorial stance I'll betcha 'ol Roopert wouldn't touch any of that crap with a ten foot pole.

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Senior Contributor

Maybe it's not that irrational

I have never seen someone get sick from taking a drink of water that ran through lead pipes, but we know that lonterm ingestion of trace amounts of lead can cause illnesses. We used to laugh at people who wore sunscreen, but after watching my Dad get his annual melanoma spots removed and watching the neighbor I grew up with die of skin cancer at the age of 50. I quit laughing. Sometimes it takes awhile before the problems become apparent. I believe genetically modified crops and even animals have great potential to improve world diets, but lets be a little bit careful and not just take Monsanto's word that they are always and will always be perfectly safe.

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Re: The Irrational Fear of GM Food

They didn't anticipate weed and insect resistance?

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