Viewpoint: Anti-science GMO rejectionists won’t disappear anytime soon but the past year has demonstrated their increasing irrelevance

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Just six years ago, America was engaged in a ferocious debate over GMO food labels; March Against Monsanto could assemble thousands of people for protests around the world, and the New York Times eagerly promoted conspiracy theories about Big Ag buying off academic scientists. Things are much different now, and it seems that the anti-GMO movement may not be long for this world. As our priorities shift and the pandemic gradually recedes, we’re watching a once-powerful coalition of activist groups steadily lose their political and cultural influence. This assertion may draw some skepticism, so let’s outline a handful of reasons why anti-GMO activism may be on its way out.

Influential groups soften their opposition

For many years, the Sierra Club has been a vocal critic of crop biotechnology. While the environmental group still refers to gene editing as a weapon of “mass destruction,” they shook up the GMO debate recently when they cautiously endorsed the release of a genetically engineered chestnut tree called “Darling 58.” The tree is bred to resist a deadly fungal infection that has all but eradicated the American chestnut. The Club’s reasoning:

For its part, the Sierra Club has counseled caution, but it sees Darling 58 as a low environmental risk, since it would be closely monitored. In a comment on the USDA application, the Club noted that while it still “carries some uncertainties,” genetic engineering could, with proper precautions, produce an organism that “provides an environmental benefit.”

The Sierra Club is finally doing what scientists have always urged activists and policymakers to do when evaluating new technologies—a risk assessment, weighing the costs and benefits of utilizing a given tool instead of looking for potential problems and exaggerating them beyond the point of absurdity. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has similarly shifted its stance on the plant-based Impossible Burger, whose key ingredient is made with the help of genetic engineering. Though UCS has historically opposed GE crops, today, the group is more concerned with the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. Plant-based meats are an obvious and practical solution if you harbor such concerns. [1]

Leghemoglobin gives Impossible Burgers their pink centers and meaty taste. Credit: Impossible Foods

Everybody loves a conversion story; in fact, there’s interesting research showing that converts to an ideology are often its very best advocates. So when reputable organizations like the Sierra Club and UCS backtrack on an issue as incendiary as biotechnology, the impact can be substantial. As the Breakthrough Institute’s Emma Kovak put it:

This new development by a high-profile environmental group [the Sierra Club] could open doors to a more productive conversation about what GMOs are acceptable and why.

Europe warms to gene editing

Europe has been an anti-GMO stronghold historically. Following World War II, the continent adopted a rather skeptical stance on science and technology (relative to the US). That risk aversion led the EU to effectively outlaw genetically engineered crops once they were developed. But things have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing the threat of a new infectious disease, Europe suspended some of its biotech regulations in July 2020 to fast-track the development of coronavirus vaccines, a pretty clear admission that genetic engineering wasn’t the bogeyman it was made out to be.

Credit: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

There are other indications that Europe’s anti-GMO stance is weakening. Arguably the most important reason is that its leadership is beginning to recognize that genetic engineering, specifically gene-editing techniques like CRISPR, can help them meet their sustainability goals. Just a few weeks ago, the European Commission released a landmark report on the subject, which concluded that:

NGT [new genetic techniques] products have the potential to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy. Any further policy action should aim at enabling NGT products to contribute to sustainability, while addressing concerns.

The report added that Europe’s existing rules, which have kept all but one GE crop variety out of commercial production, are “not fit for purpose for these innovative technologies.” Greenpeace EU and other activist groups protest this progress, alleging it’s a “ploy” by Big Ag to finally sneak GMOs into Europe. That’s false, of course, but it’s probably irrelevant, too. EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides painted a pretty clear picture of where Europe is headed:

With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, Member States and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the EU.

COVID reveals our reliance on technology

One thing became very clear shortly after SARS-COV-2 began its global rampage: our way of life is fragile; access to innovative tools is what allows us to sustain ourselves in a world filled with so many deadly threats. The vaccines are the obvious example, as Alex Berezow explained back in November:

The recent news that [Pfizer’s and Moderna’s] vaccines are 90% and 95% effective, respectively, means that biotechnology is a savior of humanity rather than a horseman of the Apocalypse. This is obviously bad news for people who make a living by telling people that science is scary.

The same could be said of food production during the pandemic. So-called “factory farming” still gets a bad rap, but it was industrial farms employing the latest tools, including synthetic pesticides and biotech crops, that kept the grocery store shelves stocked last year as we all fearfully monitored the pandemic from our living rooms.

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The anti-GMO movement won’t disappear overnight. They remain quite influential in poorer regions of the world. But they appear to be on the losing end of the argument in these places as well. In 2019 alone, 24 developing countries began cultivating biotech crops, and the developing world grows about 56 percent of the globe’s GE plants. In nations where the technology still illegal, some farmers use it anyway. [2] All that to say, a world with the anti-GMO movement permanently relegated to the fringes seems possible, even likely.

Notes:

[1] I don’t, frankly. Impossible Burgers are great, but there’s a good case to be made that the environmental impact of animal agriculture has been oversold.

[2] Breaking the law is wrong, obviously. The point is that many farmers won’t forgo biotech seeds when they have access to them.

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

A version of this article was originally posted at the American Council on Science and Health and has been reposted here with permission. The ACSH can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg

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