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The Real GM Food Scandal

05 March 2012

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

GM foods are safe, healthy, and essential if we ever want to achieve decent living standards for the world's growing population. Misplaced moralizing about them is costing millions of lives in poor countries.

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice—or “golden rice”—he was hailed as potentially one of humanity’s great benefactors. Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow, and plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths.

Public discussion of GM food in Europe reflects a persistent suspicion of GM crops. EU regulations, based on the precautionary principle, provide safeguards against “contamination” of organic farms by GM crops. They require any produce containing more than 0.9 per cent GM content labeled as such, with the clear implication that it needs a health warning. This causes a major conflict over GM soya beans imported from the United States and elsewhere. Some GM crops are taking root in some European countries, but in most, they are in effect banned. The public is led to believe that GM technology is not only unsafe but also harmful to the environment, and that it only serves to profit big agricultural companies.

GM crops are now cultivated in 22 countries on over 100m hectares by over 10m farmers, of whom 9m are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. The alleged risk to health from GM crops is still the main reason for public disquiet, something nurtured by statements by environmental NGOs. The fact is that there is no evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. The risk from GM crops is no greater than that from conventionally grown crops that do not have to undergo such testing. Genetic modification in the laboratory is what plant breeding has always done, but more quickly and accurately. In addition, those who oppose genetic modification in agriculture often embrace the technology in medicine, like the GM insulin to treat diabetes. Some opponents of GM crops, who seem to have realized that the argument based on lack of safety has no basis, now focus their opposition on environmental concerns, arguing that GM crops destroy biodiversity.

Worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment. They reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, save energy, use less fossil fuel in their production, and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. By improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land. Given the evidence about the safety of GM crops and their beneficial environmental impact, and given the global success of GM cotton, maize, and soya, why have so few staple GM food crops been licensed for commercial growth? Why are the benefits of golden rice, drought or salt-resistant crops, plant-based vaccines and other GM products with special promise for the developing world so long delayed?

March 2012

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