Editor's Note: This column was co-written by Vijay Jayaraj.
Across the globe, genetically engineered (GE) crops face opposition from environmental and organic food activists, who claim the crops harm the environment and endanger human health.
How factual are their claims? The evidence strongly supports GE over organic crops.
Not long ago, Vijay visited the Sprouts organic food store in San Jose, California. To his surprise, organic vegetables that had shorter shelf-life and higher risk of bacterial contamination and thus serious illness were priced two to ten times more than their GE and conventional food alternatives. The store is famous among millennial techies in the Silicon Valley and enjoys reasonable sales. One possible explanation would be the false notion that GE foods are risky or injurious to health; another is that buyers incorrectly believe organic produce have fewer pesticides, are more nutritious or better protect the environment.
But in science, neither a belief nor even a general “consensus” determines truth. A thousand people could claim the theory of gravity is wrong, but one simple scientific proof would prove their consensus false. Similarly, the safety of genetically modified foods cannot be determined by the increasingly vitriolic voices of anti-GE groups. It requires robust scientific testing by actual experts in various fields.
All the major GE foods currently on the market have been exhaustively tested and found to be safe for people, animals and the environment. Moreover, to date, Americans alone have consumed more than four trillion servings of foods with at least one GE ingredient – without a single documented example of harm to a person or the environment.
That is why more than 100 Nobel Laureates in chemistry, medicine and biotechnology have said GE foods are safe for human and animal consumption. That’s not an uninformed assertion or “consensus.” It is a professional, scientific conclusion based on thousands of risk assessment studies over several decades, as well as numerous real-world experiences.
Anti-GE activists typically use the term “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs, a pejorative coined simply to disparage the use of the most modern techniques. In fact, genetic engineering with molecular techniques is merely a more modern, rapid and precise way than traditional crop breeding methods to change or improve the genetic makeup of plants. It also enables scientists to enhance crops by introducing helpful properties like resistance to droughts, standing water or insects from one organism to another.
For example, corn varieties that integrate the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene right into plant tissue greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for spraying or dusting the crops with pesticides. Golden Rice incorporates two beta-carotene biosynthesis genes (Vitamin A precursors), one from daffodils, one from a soil bacterium, so that even malnourished people get sufficient Vitamin A to prevent blindness and death.
Organic farming prohibits modern manmade pesticides. But some are used surreptitiously anyway – and many organic farmers employ “natural” but still toxic pesticides like copper sulfate and neem oil. Though they oppose Bt-engineered crops, many spray live Bt bacteria on crops, killing good and harmful insects.
Studies by Stanford University and other researchers have found that “organic” fruits and vegetables actually have lower yields and are no more nutritious than conventional or GE alternatives.
However, certain organic practices, such as fertilizing with manure, have led to contamination with dangerous fungal toxins or listeria, salmonella or E. Coli bacteria. These problems are far more common in organic produce and can lead to serious intestinal illness, kidney failure, brain damage or even death.
It can fairly be said that the anti-GE war has reached levels that are ignorant, deceptive, and even fraudulent and lethal. Activist claims about the dangers of GE foods are baseless and without bona fide evidence. They ignore the many benefits of GE crops. Moreover, many of the groups and campaigns are funded, directly or indirectly, by the organic and natural food industries and allied foundations.
GE crops are environment friendly and promote sustainable agriculture, while potentially meeting the daily food demand of seven billion people globally. They allow farmers to produce more food, from less land, using less water and fewer pesticides, and with greater resistance to droughts, floods and climate change, than would be the case with conventional crops – and certainly with organic crops. They enable farmers to grow Golden Rice and other crops that prevent malnutrition, blindness and death in children.
By contrast, organic crops require more land, more water, more labor and higher farming expenses to generate the same produce. Expanding organic farms will thus cause additional loss of wildlife habitats in a time when we are trying to nurture and protect what is left of Earth’s natural habitats.
Tuskegee University professor, dean and biotech expert C.S. Prakash points out that the percentage of land used to grow crops has increased dramatically during the past 200 years, as humanity worked to provide nutritious foods for rapidly growing populations. The ideal solution to avoid deforestation, he says, is to use GE crops, which produce much more food per acre than their non-GE counterparts.
An ardent proponent of GE in the fight against poverty and disease, Dr. Prakash worries that the anti-GE campaigns will impede our efforts to provide sufficient, affordable food in many developing countries. Moreover, non-GE crops are susceptible to many insects and diseases that GE crops are resistant to.
Much of the most important work to improve food crops genetically was done by Norman Borlaug, using pre-molecular techniques. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for developing crop variants that helped billions avoid certain death during the food crises of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, much of the wheat, maize (corn) and rice now consumed globally are Borlaug’s crops, which are disease resistant and high yielding.
GE crops are also more climate adaptive. New variants of rice and wheat are being designed to withstand extreme climatic and geographical conditions. One important example is wheat variants that withstand a whopping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), which was practically unimaginable just a decade ago. This can make wheat cultivation far more productive in the 40% of world’s dryland surface where conditions are hostile to normal wheat varieties.
Health Canada and the United States Department of Agriculture recently approved Golden Rice and High Fibre Wheat, respectively, thereby continuing to embrace GE crops, as they have done for years. This pro-GE stance has been echoed by international governing institutions such as the United Nations and governments of major technologically innovative countries like Israel, China and India.
Although the number of organic farms is increasing in India, its food markets are largely dominated by crops that cannot be considered organic. Organic madness has nevertheless invaded parts of India. The Indian state of Sikkim recently branded itself “organic” by banning the entry and sale of more than 25 non-organic horticultural and agricultural products. That decision has caused widespread chaos, leaving families unable to afford cereals, fruits and vegetables that otherwise would be their staple foods.
It is time to progress from unfounded fears about GE foods – and begin educating government leaders and regulators, as well as domestic and global journalists, about the safety and benefits of GE crops.
Let us begin by asking: What actual, replicable, peer-reviewed evidence do environmentalists and organic food producers and advocates have that organic foods are safer, more nutritious or more eco-friendly than conventional or genetically modified varieties? What actual, replicable, peer-reviewed evidence do they have that GE crops have harmed people or the environment in any way?
Neither we nor Dr. Prakash nor any other agricultural experts we have spoken with can find any such evidence. If environmentalists and organic food proponents cannot provide solid evidence, they should end their deceitful pro-organic, anti-GE campaigns – or be compelled to do so by government agencies and courts of law that deal in facts and sound science, instead of allegations, innuendo and intimidation.
The billion dollars spent by radical environmentalists and the organic foods industry on campaigns against GE plants would have been far better spent on approving more GE crops, upgrading agricultural practices, providing more nutritious, affordable food, and improving lives all over the world.
The lies, demagoguery and destructive tactics of anti-GE groups are poisonous to the century-long effort to eradicate food poverty across the globe. These inhumane, lethal tactics can no longer be tolerated.
Vijay Jayaraj (MSc in Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Coimbatore, India.