The GMO debate and the rise of anti-science


Guest post from Dr Geraint Parry.

Over the past few days, the EU passed legislation that changes the ability of member states to grow genetically modified (GM) crops. As with most EU legislative documents this new declaration is not light reading but essentially reports that member states will have more power to decide whether they individually wish to grow GM crops in their territories. This alters the present situation where any GM crop needs EU-wide approval. Currently only a few GM crop varieties are approved including an insect resistance maize/corn called MON810. However many members states including France, Germany and Italy have individually banned MON810 and so it is only grown in warmer climates, the majority of which in Spain.

The new ruling will allow countries to develop crops that are more appropriate for their climates as long as, importantly, all the necessary safety checks are carried out and contingencies are put in place to ensure no unintended spread of these GM plants. In some countries this new ruling will make little difference as there currently is little political will in France or Germany to accept this technology and it will be difficult in countries surrounding these European powerhouses to make a strong case that there will be no spread across land-locked borders.

However closer to home the new ruling might make some differences. Over the past few years the UK government has been making positive noises toward GM technology and a small number of proof-of–concept trials have been conducted by UK research institutes. There is no prospect that this legislation will immediately result in fields of GM crops being grown across the land, but it might very slightly ease the regulatory hurdles for research based GM trials. Arguably the most important, if unstated, point in these new regulations is the tacit acceptance that the overall technology is safe and that each individual case must be then judged on its merit.

The ‘debate’

Anti-science in the face of developing technologies.

Anti-science in the face of developing technologies.

As this new ruling will potentially bring GM crops to the UK and because it has been on the cards for a while, it has been debated in the media many times over the past year. Almost without fail the ‘debate’ is increasingly frustrating and conducted at a level ignorant of science and with increasing scare tactics from those in opposition to adoption of GM technology. The usual format in these debates is that a scientist will discuss why this technology is safe and, for want of a better word, an anti-scientist will put forward the opposing case. However the anti-science case often begins with assertions that there is ‘increasing evidence that GM containing crops can cause damage to any and all organs of the body….’. This type of statement is incredibly effective as it sounds terrible, is in the forefront of listener’s minds and is very difficult to rebut.

However it is also completely false.

There is no such evidence, in fact the contrary is true as there have been many independent feeding studies undertaken over the past decade showing GM maize or GM soybean in feed has no effect on animal health

Human feeding trials are very difficult to conduct for myriad reasons of timing and ethical considerations but it is legitimate to infer from these animal models that crops containing GM ‘ingredients’ will not be harmful to humans, agreeing with many years of anecdotal evidence.

To anyone who understands the science this will be of no surprise whatsoever. However, therein lies the problem: the lack of general understanding of what is meant when scientists and anti-scientists discuss genetic modification. It is arguably a failing of the scientific community for not making it plain enough to the general public what is means to create a GM organism.

What is recombinant technology?

Creating GM crops is just an extension of recombinant technology that is used in many industries in, for example, the production of vaccines or medicines… neither of which raises the ire of the anti-scientists to the level of GM crops. In this case recombinant technology refers to the movement of a piece of DNA that is usually ‘coded’ within one organism into a different related or unrelated organism.

All organisms from simplest bacteria up the evolutionary scale to humans, share a genetic code defined by DNA. This genetic code determines how an organism looks and how it biologically responses to life’s challenges. When you take a piece of DNA out of an organism it is then, simply, just a piece of DNA, containing the same chemistry irrespective of which organism it came from. Our ability to use recombinant technology to move around DNA is one of the great innovations of the last half-century. This allows us to move the DNA code that creates insulin in a human and put it into a simple bacteria. These bacteria can then produce insulin in vast quantities that is then given to diabetics. Perhaps the onus is on scientists to frame the argument in these terms but it is difficult to use this sensible description of the technology when accusations of harm are the first salvos fired in any debate.

An example where a human benefit comes from GM modification of plants exists in the production of flu vaccine. Production of human vaccines can be difficult because the antibodies that make up the vaccine are complicated proteins. When the genetic code for the antibody is taken from a human cell and added to bacteria, often the protein isn’t produced properly due to fundamental differences between human and bacterial cells. One way of getting around this is to add the human genetic code to tobacco plants and allow them to produce the antibody. This process being used to produce vaccine and can be utilised very rapidly in response to the arrival of a new strain of flu.

Environmental concerns?

Where the argument for and against the adoption of GM crops should really take place is in the discussion of environmental concerns about spread and mixing of GM with non-GM crops. In some ways this is a legitimate concern as there have been some instances where GM pollen has contaminated non-GM crops. However this has occurred in North America where the original regulatory environment was no-where near as rigorous as it is now in the EU. Part of the new EU legislation states that:

Member States that do not ban the cultivation of GM crops should be obliged to adopt measures to protect conventional and organic farming from contamination and to design liability regimes that ensure that the economic burden of contamination is on GMO producers rather than on conventional and organic farmers.

With many crop species the chance of cross-contamination is negligible but where it is a legitimate concern, use of strict segregation and crop rotation policies can ensure the fidelity of non-GM crops.

Not coming here anytime soon

Even with the changed legislation there is little prospect of GM crops appearing on our plates in the UK anytime soon. Only a small amount of any maize is grown in the UK and that is mainly used in animal feed. Therefore it is unlikely that the GM maize that has been approved will now suddenly be grown in the UK, regardless in the change of EU regulations. Incidentally the EU does not ban the import of GM crops for animal consumption so much of the meat we consume will have come from animals fed on GM technology. For the sake of their own conscience, I do hope those anti-scientists are vegetarians!

What would be of interest to UK farmers are varieties of GM wheat that have disease resistance. Aphid resistant wheat varieties have recently undergone a small trial in the UK but there is no information available as to whether that trial was successful. Elsewhere there are currently no licensed strains of GM wheat so the prospect of any uptake is at least five years down the road.

The uptake of GM technology is one next step in our progression along the long road based on scientific improvements that we have seen in many facets of life. What is often lost in this debate is the potential for these technologies away from the Western world. In the West we can likely do without GM technology to produce the crops we need. Broadly speaking we have plenty of food and as the GM crops were developed by large multinationals such as Monsanto, people have a natural suspicion as to their motives. This is an unfortunate if inevitable consequence of the GM debate and on the whole, scientists do not do a good job of separating not-for-profit academic research from that conducted by large corporations.

Golden Rice

Golden Rice

Golden Rice

However it is heartening to observe that there is a growing movement to bring these GM technologies to places in the world where they can make life-changing differences. Arguably the primary example of this is in the case of Golden rice. This GM variety produces a precursor of vitamin A and has the potential to help alleviate malnourishment due to a lack of this vitamin, particularly in Southeast Asia. The adoption of this technology is unsurprisingly controversial with many environmental organisations opposing its uptake. Although the local political issues are far from simple, the scare-mongering attached to this technology caused an unusually strong editorial response from a group of eminent scientists who state that golden rice has the ‘potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.

The development of golden rice is an exemplary of what might be possible with this change in EU legislation. The UK GM crop research community is a worldwide leader and there are many examples of close collaborative links with research institutes in the developing world. The change in EU regulations eases some difficulties in researching GM technologies in this country. This might allow the development of crop varieties that have improved ability to grow in different detrimental conditions, such as in saline soils or in high temperatures. These crops might ultimately be able to aid the people who could really benefit from this technology. In general, academic scientists are curious, question-driven people who do not enter their profession for overt financial gain. The onus is on scientists to frame the scientific argument in the context of not-for-profit research and separate themselves from the big corporations. Of course at the same time the anti-scientists will appeal to peoples fears by attaching the same motivations to all GM scientists, irrespective of their affiliation.

Acceptance of this technology is being achieved at a slow rate yet scientists need to pick their battles carefully by making a clear scientific case of the benefits of the GM, while distancing themselves from issues surrounding the actions of big business. Anti-scientists will always try to stand in the way of progress but we need to rise above the melee and let the evidence speak for itself.

Dr Geraint Parry is a Liverpool-based plant scientist who has researched and lectured on work including the use of GM crops. He has given a number of Skeptics in the Pub talks, and tweets as @liverpoolplants.

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