Recently, over 100 Nobel laureates came together to sign a letter that urges Greenpeace to cease its opposition to genetically modified organizations (GMOs). Greenpeace has attempted to stall the introduction of a genetically modified strain of rice that has the potential to reduce Vitamin A deficiencies in developing nations, thus reducing blindness and premature death in children.
In the letter, scientists asked that both Greenpeace and the people who support the organization take a second look at how crops and other foods have improved through the use of biotechnology. Also, authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies have found no evidence that GMOs are unsafe. While the letter urges Greenpeace to abandon all of its anti-GMO policies, it highlights Golden Rice as a particularly important topic considering its applications in the developing world.
Richard Roberts, the chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, organized the letter campaign in collaboration with Phillip Sharp, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering genetic sequences called introns. In the letter, the two acknowledge the good work that Greenpeace has done and ask the group to turn to qualified scientists for scientific matters. At present, the letter has received signatures from more than 100 laureates, which represents more than one-third of living award recipients.
Golden Rice and the Main Issue at Hand
Greenpeace’s opposition to GMOs stems from its initiative against Golden Rice, a genetically engineered food designed to combat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). At present, VAD has the greatest impact in Africa and Southeast Asia. According the World Health Organization (WHO), about 250 million people around the world face VAD. In the developing world, about 40 percent of children under the age of five struggle with VAD, which compromises the immune system and puts these children at great risk. VAD remains the leading cause of childhood blindness around the world and affects between 250,000 and 500,000 children annually. Half of these children die within a year of losing their eyesight. UNICEF statistics show that 1 to 2 million preventable deaths occur each year because of VAD.
Scientists across the world agree that laboratory gene editing is not more hazardous than modifications to plants through traditional breeding. In addition, many scientists argue that GMOs have potential health and environment benefits because they reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a report in May that found no substantiated evidence that GMOs have harmed the environment or caused sickness in people. The report added that the technology remains in its infancy, so sweeping generalizations, whether positive or negative, are premature.
Arguments Against the Use of GMOs
With Golden Rice’s potential to save millions of lives, individuals may begin to wonder why organizations like Greenpeace would protest against its implementation. Greenpeace and organizations that fight against genetic modification of foods argue that these crops may not prove safe for consumption by humans or even animals. Furthermore, opponents claim that GMOs lead to excessive use of herbicides without significantly improving crop yields. Plus, many fear that engineered genes will extend beyond the boundaries of a farm.
According to Greenpeace, the release of GMOs into the natural world amounts to a form of genetic pollution. Through genetic engineering, gene manipulation that goes against nature can occur to create plants, animals, and microorganism that would not exist naturally. As these modified organisms spread in the world and interbreed with wild type organisms, they contaminate natural environments to destabilize future generations in unforeseeable and potentially uncontrollable ways. This view could be correct if we expand our view of the situation to more than a couple decades of manipulating the biosphere. It seems likely that the more than 100 laureates who signed the letter to Greenpeaced probably viewed this as acceptable risk.
The Argument in Support of GMOs
The individuals behind the letter have launched SupportPrecisionAgriculture.org to outline their arguments in favor of Golden Rice and other GMOs. The argument boils down to three fundamental points. First, GMOs are safe. These foods have been subjected to more scrutiny than any other foods in human history, and remarkably strong evidence has emerged to confirm that they are “safe”. More than 1,783 scientific studies have affirmed the safety of their consumption.
Secondly, GMOs are green. With GMO crops, farmers can grow more food on less land, thereby reducing the environmental impact of their farms. European researchers have found that GMO crops have increased yields by more than 20 percent, reduced pesticide use by nearly 40 percent, and significantly boosted farmers’ incomes.
Thirdly, GMOs make is possible for small farmers in developing countries to reap good yields. In 2014, 18 million farmers around the world, 16 million of whom are small farmers in developing countries that are resource poor, used crops improved by biotechnology. Risk-averse farmers now grow more GMO crops than larger farmers in industrialized nations. This fact alone points to the value of GMOs, especially in developing parts of the world, where people need to use resources as efficiently as possible.
The fact that GMOs like Golden Rice have the potential to save millions of lives further supports their use, especially in developing areas of the world. So the real argument is not really if they are safe but about saving lives.