In one of the weirdest scenes in Being John Malkovich, the endearingly offbeat 1999 comedy-fantasy that takes us into mind of actor John Malkovich playing a fictional version of himself, Malkovich’s doppelgänger enters his own subconscious and is placed in a world where everyone looks like him and can only say “Malkovich.”
This scene is equally disconcerting and compelling because it provides a metaphor for being trapped in your own narrow view of the world—it’s just you, you, you.
This is what appears to be going on with anti-crop biotechnology campaigners. All they can see and hear are their own slogans and conspiracy theories—it’s just Frankenfood, Frankenfood, Frankenfood.
The June 4th Washington, DC crop biotech forum—which you can view in full on the Genetic Literacy Project website—was supposed to have been a debate featuring two of the world’s most prominent anti-biotech activists—Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French scientist, and Jeffrey Smith, who runs the Institute for Responsible Technology, an anti-biotech NGO. Both ran tail, apparently when they realized this event would require more than talking to themselves—they’d actually have to engage with mainstream science. Malkovich, at least, walked the edge of self-mockery and is shamed by his subconscious self-centeredness. That’s not the case with Seralini and Smith.
As I began assembling this event, two leading anti-biotechnology groups—the Center for Food Safety and the Union of Concerned Scientists—turned down my invitation. I don’t believe the “experts” at either organization represent mainstream scientific thinking—but they are the best the Antis have. Disgracefully, they would not engage in open dialogue.
As I’ve written before, in controversies you don’t get to choose your opponents—the public does that for you. That’s what led me to Smith and Seralini. Smith, while not a scientist—he is a former yogic instructor and political candidate—has written two best-selling self-published books and produced a documentary narrated by the wife of Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose show he has appeared on numerous times. Whatever his credentials, he’s a favorite of Hollywood, and one of the most quoted anti-biotech crusaders in the world.
To facilitate dialogue, Smith and I agreed to invite professor Seralini, whose paper released last fall claiming that rats fed genetically modified corn developed cancerous tumors turned him into a global celebrity. The paper was crudely ideological and roundly rejected by established scientists and every major science and science journalism organization of note, particularly experts in Europe where the public remains very leery of biotechnology. Seralini knows this: he has denied every request to share his data with independent researchers. That’s why I was surprised when he agreed to participate… but not surprised when he, along with Smith, backed out once I recruited Kevin Folta, Interim Chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, to join the debate.
At the June 4th forum, Kevin would ultimately deconstruct both Smith’s and Seralini’s bizarre takes on crop biotechnology. Facing the prospect of a civil but rigorous debate, Smith and Seralini scurried for the exits.
After they pulled out, Kevin and I retooled the debate into a forum and recruited Karl Haro von Mogel, University of Wisconsin plant breeding and plant genetics PhD candidate, plant biotechnologist, and cofounder of the Biofortified website.
Reason, religion and food security
It’s tempting to characterize this dispute as a battle between science and ideology, but that would be simplistic. Issues of risk, notions of “Nature” and “natural”—these are emotional, even religious beliefs. How we view food is deeply personal. Science can only take us so far—but it’s pretty far.
We all can appreciate why any debate over farming, food and modern technology tends toward contentious. After all, we are talking about our children and our health. The one thing we can agree on is that everyone, on all sides of this discussion, wants abundant, highly nutritious food produced with the least environmental damage.
We decided to focus the forum on global food security. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 868 million people are undernourished. Food security has improved in recent decades, as the undernourishment rate dropped from 18.6% in 1990-1992 to 12.5%. But over the same period, population grew from 5.4 to 7.0 billion—and it’s on track to grow to 9 million over the next two to three decades. As Bill Gates once said, “The world is getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough, and it’s not getting better for everyone.”
Global food security is a complex challenge. Agriculturally rich regions like North America, Argentina and Brazil must produce enough to make up for production deficits in Asia, Africa and even Europe. We will need 70-100% more food by 2050 to match population and prosperity growth, and it must occur in the face of more frequent extreme weather events marked by floods, droughts and heat waves.
One thing we know is that technology—including biotechnology—must play a central role, just as it did in the Green Revolution. Beginning in the late 1940s, genetic research led to the breeding of high-yield grains. Combined with the use of new fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, output soared. Since 1950, world wheat production alone has increased by more than 300%.
That said, the environmental consequences of high-yield industrial scale farming are daunting. Organic farming can play a role, but it’s at best a marginal part of the solution. Although no one believes it’s a silver bullet, the overwhelming consensus of the science and farming communities is that genetic engineering can and will be part of farmers suite of tools for addressing increasing food needs while mitigating environmental damage.
A just released research paper in the Public Library of Science open access journal, PLoS One on genetically modified Bt cotton says it best:
Controlling for other factors, the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. This technology has reduced food insecurity by 15–20% among cotton-producing households. GM crops alone will not solve the hunger problem, but they can be an important component in a broader food security strategy.
What is agricultural genetic engineering?
The Food and Drug Administration recently addressed its role in regulating food safety and the relative riskiness of GE crops. Selective breeding turned inedible wild grains, like corn and wheat into delicious modern varieties. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, but it is terribly imprecise.
As the FDA notes, “These genes [from traditional selective breeding] may include the gene responsible for the desired characteristic, as well as genes responsible for unwanted characteristics.” Genetic engineering, rather, can “introduce the desired characteristic without also introducing genes responsible for unwanted characteristics.”
Introduced first in the US in the mid-1990s, genetically engineered crops are now grown by more than 17 million farmers in 28 countries. Eighty-one percent of the world’s soybeans, 81% of cottonseed, 35% of corn and 30% of canola are now grown using GE seeds. In 2012, the global area of biotech crops continued to increase for the 17th year. Their commercial value worldwide exceeds $185 billion per year. In the US, the use of herbicide tolerant soybeans, cotton and corn, and pesticide-resistant Bt cotton and corn is even more pronounced.
Almost all GE crops are based on two well-established and rigorously tested technologies. First, Bt crops produce a bacterial protein known as Bacillus thuringiensis. It’s naturally occurring—and it’s widely used by organic farmers to selectively kill pest insects. Genetically engineered Bt crops simply produce their own Bt. The effects are identical to what happens on organic farms—which is what makes protests against genetically engineered Bt crops seem so bizarre to scientists. The net result is that Bt crops increase yields because farmers lose fewer crops to insect pests.
The other major GE crops are those designed to be herbicide-resistant, most commonly glyphosate, better known as Monsanto’s Roundup. Glyphosate does not bioaccumulate and breaks down rapidly in the environment. Because the weed killer is more powerful and less toxic than the chemicals that it competed with, farmers quickly adopted glyphosate—even more so after Monsanto introduced genetically engineered versions that were paired with the herbicide. The use of crops engineered for herbicide resistance reduces inputs, cost, and labor for farmers. It’s agricultural sustainability at work.
In the US, the use of herbicide tolerant soybeans, cotton and corn, and pesticide resistant Bt cotton and corn has soared since their introduction. It’s estimated that 90% of the farmers around the world that grow GE crops—roughly 15 million people—are resource-poor. The total acreage of GE crops in developing countries now exceeds that of the developed world.
Despite the worldwide boom, the controversy has not abated, particularly in Europe, where GE crops for food are banned or heavily restricted. Many people, particularly those who call themselves progressives, are convinced that genetically modified foods are either harmful or have unknown medical and ecological impacts. These views are promulgated on anti-biotech sites like NaturalNews.com, Mother Jones and the Organic Consumers Association—but they even infect normally science-based sources like the New York Times.
Pulitzer journalist Moss embarrasses New York Times
The latest embarrassment came two weeks ago, when Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Michael Moss appeared in the paper’s video cast discussing genetically modified crops. He framed the debate in apocalyptic terms. Here is an excerpt:
I have family in Europe. They’ve been talking to me about GMOs for years and years. I think they decided that even though there is no hard science showing long-term health problems with GMOs, they also point out that the research really hasn’t been done. So for them the glass is half empty, rather than half full. They’re saying, “look, until proven safe, we’re gonna, like, avoid this stuff.”
I think it’s been under the radar a bit. In increasing mood, people are concerned about it. Those [anti-Monsanto] rallies over the weekend were amazing. So many people hit the streets and I think part of the thing happening here is people are realizing, this is really scary stuff. I mean, just consider the name, right. Genetically modified organisms. This isn’t like taking one apple and crossing it with another and getting a redder, shinier apple. This is extracting genetic material from one living creature and putting it another. And that’s really disturbing to people.
There are so many inanities it’s difficult to know where to begin. Particularly appalling was his “really scary stuff” comment—it’s fear mongering promoted by the world’s most respected newspaper.
Moss was flat out wrong when he said: “research [on genetically modified foods] really hasn’t been done.” There have been 1,000 or more studies on GM crops and foods. As von Mogel outlined in his talk at the biotech forum, more than 600 hundred of them are catalogued (and soon to be searchable) at the Biofortified site’s GENERA database.
Couldn’t Moss have talked to scientists instead of relying on paranoid gossip from family in Europe? For an investigative reporter, this seems a startling lapse. There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat.
Here is what some of the world’s major science groups have publicly declared about crop biotechnology.
- The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
- The U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “[N]o adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
- The World Health Organization: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
- The European Commission: “[N]o scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”
- The Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities, Germany’s most prominent science organization in the heart of anti-biotech Europe:
“Foods from approved GM crops are safe for humans and animals; Approved GM crops do not pose environmental hazards.”
All three forum participants—me, von Mogel and Folta—addressed the conspiracy theory ruminations of many anti-biotech campaigners. For instance, the belief that genetic engineering is an abomination, a scar against the “natural order”, which they believe is good and safe. This is the “naturalistic” fallacy, an erroneous simplification of nature’s ecological impact.
Activists often paint a scary picture of modern technology: Mad scientists holed up in their labs tinkering with the keys to life itself, playing god. Genetic engineering is portrayed as untested and risky—; something is bound to go horribly wrong. To judge from their rhetoric, what they call the “Frankenfood revolution” courts health epidemics and environmental Armageddon. That’s the kind of language used by tens of millions of people—painting apocalyptic scenarios of a Brave New World.
The activists’ greatest ire is focused on Monsanto. It is the evil face of a scary industry—the spawn of the Devil, in their eyes. Being first out of the box with a new technology created an inviting target. Combined with the massive popular mistrust of government, we have a recipe for generating anti-globalism nightmares. Monsanto, activists say, is trying to take over the worlds’ food supply and government regulators are its willing puppets.
The NGO and fringe media obsession with conspiracy theories threatens to obscure pioneering developments in crop biotechnology—what could be called Biotech 2.0—which more clearly benefit consumers and the environment. That was the focus of von Mogel’s talk. He outlined more than a dozen new products, including:
- Crops that eliminate or greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers
- Drought and flood resistant crops of all varieties and grains that can grow in saltier water and soils
- Carbon sequestering trees to address global warming
- Nutritionally enhanced grains and vegetables that produce healthful omega-3 fatty acids
- Salmon that grows twice as fast as conventional varieties and consumes fewer resources—it’s more sustainable—and is just as nutritious
- Fruits and nuts with allergen-causing proteins knocked out; imagine hypo-allergenic peanut butter
These innovations have been tested and found safe, but languish on laboratory shelves, victims of activist campaigns that paralyze the approval process in country after country.
Whatever one thinks of their credentials, Smith and Seralini have emerged as potent voices, their views echoed on thousands of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or progressive media sites. Yet they both promote blatant falsehoods.
What’s the take away from the debate that wasn’t? Smith, Seralini and their adherents, like the fictional John Malkovich, are trapped in their own minds—unable or unwilling to embrace critical thinking or rely on empirically based evidence. Worse, well-meaning people who should know better, like Michael Moss, spread these fear. They’ve contributed to what British journalist Mark Lynas has characterized as one of the greatest science communication disasters of the past half-century—the dangerous misinformation campaign over genetically engineered crops and foods.