What’s Limiting the Impact of GMOs on Global Food Security?

My friend Jon Foley, who I have a great deal of respect for, has a piece up arguing that GMOs have failed to improve global food security because they fall into a trap of reductionist thinking.

With due respect to Jon, I see this a different way.

First, GMOs do bring other global benefits.  As Keith Kloor points out at Discover, study after study has shown that GMOs have helped reduce poverty among poor farmers who grow them in the developing world, boosting the food security of those farmers and their families.  Those GMOs are primarily cotton, which is, to date, the only GMO that’s allowed to be grown in most of the developing world.

Second, global bans & politicking have stopped promising GMOs from being planted. As I pointed out in my piece on Why GMOs Matter, Especially In the Developing World, over at Grist, there are genetically modified food crops that have shown huge yield gains in parts of the world, and that have been banned from cultivation for no good scientific reason.  As I wrote at Grist, Bt Cotton boosted cotton yields by a staggering 60% or so in India, as the figure below shows:

GMO cotton gave yields a huge boost in India. Too bad similarly engineered food crops aren’t allowed.

But we don’t eat cotton. And GM crops we can eat are banned from cultivation:

But the world’s poorest countries, and in particular India and the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa, don’t allow any GM food crops to be grown. India came close to approval for a Bt eggplant (or Bt brinjal). Studies showed that it was safe, that it could cut pesticide use by half, and that it could nearly double yields by reducing losses to insects. But, while India’s regulators approved the planting and sale, activists cried out, prompting the government to place an indefinite moratorium on it. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The same Bt eggplant was supported by regulators in the Philippines who looked at the data, but then blocked by the court on grounds that reflected not specific concerns, but general, metaphorical, and emotional arguments that Nathanael Johnson describes as dominating the debate.

From this, I conclude that one of the reasons that GM crops haven’t done more to boost food security around the world is that non-scientific bans have blocked them from doing so.

Third, we need more public-sector investment in GMO research focused on food security. The fact that Bt crops produce such huge yield gains in the developing world is largely a happy accident. Yield was never the primary goal. GM crops are designed primarily for the customers that have the most to pay (western farmers), and they’ve been designed primarily to save western farmers money rather than to boost yields. It turns out that saving western farmers money by reducing the need to spray insecticide also has an even greater win for countries where insecticide is sprayed by hand (rather than by machine).  It, as a practical matter, dramatically reduces losses. That’s an effectively huge yield gain. But again, it’s a bit of a lucky accident of a product targeted at relatively well-to-do western farmers.

I’m a huge advocate of the potential for GM crops to boost yield. (Again, just look at what’s already happened with Bt cotton in India or what early trials showed with Bt brinjal as an example of what the technology can do, without even focusing on yield as the primary goal.) But if we want to see more of this as the outcome, we ought to specifically invest in R&D with that goal.

That R&D might come from the private sector. But it might better come from the public sector. Today the Gates Foundation funds R&D into GMOs that could dramatically boost yieldimprove nutrition, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. That’s wonderful. What would be even more wonderful is to see large governments, many of whom worry about the climate-food-water nexus as a future source of instability, investing in R&D in this area as well. Raising food security in the developing world has a triple win of raising food output, lowering poverty, and lowering instability. That’s something we’d all benefit from.

That’s what I’d call holistic thinking.

Pieces I’ve Written Around the Web

Over the last few months (and a bit over the past few years) I wrote a number of pieces around the web, primarily on energy, sustainability, genetically modified foods, and economic growth.  I did a poor job of linking to them on my own site.  So here's a roundup.

Science Will Save the Planet (If We Let It), Wired UK, May 2013

Seven Reasons Why China May Lead the World in Fighting Climate Change, Slate, May 2013

Grantham Is Wrong: We Are Not Headed For a Disaster of Biblical Proportions, Business Insider, April 2013

Why Polluters Should Pay YOU to Fix Climate Change, FastCoExist, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 1, Problems, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 2: Expanding the Limits, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

Greener Than Green: Biotech and the Future of Agriculture, Genetic Literacy Project, April 2013

Why Organic Advocates Should Love GMOs, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

Why GMO Advocates Should Embrace Labels, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

How Innovation Could Save the Planet, The Futurist, March 2013

Can We Capture All the World’s Carbon Emissions?, Scientific American Guest Blog, March 2011

Smaller, Cheaper, Faster: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?, Scientific American, Guest Blog, March 2011 (Cited by Paul Krugman)

The Evidence on GMO Safety

This page started as a followup to an appearance I made on NBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show in April of 2013, speaking about GMOs.  You can see the video at the show’s website or embedded below.

See also:        Part 2              Part 3              Part 4  

Or if you prefer more combative television, you can watch the fast and fierce debate between myself and GMO opponent Jeffrey Smith on CCTV.

First, a statement on my interests:  I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company.  I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them.  Nothing of the sort.  My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet.  All the research I presented was research I did when writing my book on innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

I do believe that we’ll eventually have labels on genetically modified foods.  So long as those labels are in the ingredients section and not needlessly frightening, I think that’s fine.  Clearly a set of people very much want labels, and the resistance to labeling gives the appearance that there’s something to hide with genetically modified foods. There isn’t. Genetically modified foods are safe.

Because there wasn’t enough time to go into detail on either show, I want to link to statements from the world’s most respected scientific bodies and journals on the topic of GMO safety. Here’s what they say.  (Update: Below that I will answer some other common questions on GMOs which I receive.)

The US National Academy of Sciences

This is the premier scientific body in the United States.  They have repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, noting that after billions of meals served, “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

They’ve also found that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops.  The National Academy of Science’s 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, found that GM crops planted to date had reduced insecticide use, reduced use of the most dangerous herbicides, increased the frequency of conservation tillage and no-till farming, reduced carbon emissions, reduced soil runoffs, and improved soil quality. The report said that, “Generally, GE (GMO) crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science

This is the largest organization made up of professional scientists in the United States, and also publisher of Science magazine, one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world.  The AAAS says “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

The American Medical Association

The premier body of physicians in the United States.  They have consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food, stating “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods”.

The European Commission

Europe is extremely anti-GMO.  But even there, the scientific community is clear that genetically modified foods are safe.  The scientific advisor to the European Comission has said “there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.

The European Commission’s 2010 report on genetically engineered food (based on independent research not funded by any biotech company) said: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Royal Society of Medicine

England’s top medical society, the British equivalent of the American Medical Association, published a review of all the information about genetically modified foods that concluded, “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

The Largest Ever Review of Studies on GMOs

In 2013, a group of Italian scientists (from a country where no GMOs are grown) conducted the largest-ever survey of scientific information on genetically modified foods. They looked at 1,783 published research papers, reviews, and reports on GMOs. What they found was no evidence of harm.

“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

The French Supreme Court

The French Supreme Court isn’t a scientific body, but I mention them here because their recent decision was so remarkable.  France is a very anti-GMO country.  Yet the French Supreme Court struck down France’s GMO ban, ruling that the government had shown no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment.  You can read about that here.

Don’t GMOs Cause Cancer in Rats? Or Infertility?

Thus far there have been several hundred studies on the safety of genetically engineered food.  All but a handful have found them completely safe.  The only studies that have found that genetically modified foods harm animals (the ones quoted as saying that they cause cancer and infertility) all come from one laboratory, that of Gilles-Éric Séralini in France.

Yet Séralini’s studies have been widely debunked.  The study linking GMOs to cancer was forcibly retracted by the journal that published it (something very rare in science).

In fact, the study, was clearly flawed from the beginning. It was immediately criticized by the six major French scientific academies and by neutral scientists and science journalists not affiliated with biotech companies.

Perhaps most damning is the way in which Séralini manipulated the press. He refused to allow science journalists to see the actual paper before publication day, preventing those journalists from going through their normal process of calling scientists to get opinions about the results before writing up their news stories. As award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer (also not affiliated with any biotech firm) wrote, science journalists were played.

Even GMO opponents found the rat-cancer link hard to believe.  My fellow guest on MSNBC, food policy advocate (and GMO opponent) Marion Nestle, herself said that she found the Seralini study linking GMOs to cancer hard to believe.  Marion Nestle writes:

These results are so graphically shocking (see the paper’s photographs), and so discrepant from previous studies (see recent review in the same journal), that they bring out my skeptical tendencies.  (Note: Although Séralini is apparently a well known opponent of GMOs, his study—and that of the review—were funded by government or other independent agencies.)  … the study is weirdly complicated.


Independently Funded Studies

Another common myth is that Monsanto or other biotech companies control all biotech research, preventing independent research from happening.  This is not the case.  Two sets of independent studies:

– The European Commission Report I mention above includes 130 independent studies, paid for by the EU, conducted by more than 500 teams.

– BioFortified maintains a (largely distinct) list of more than 120 independently funded studies which were conducted outside the biotech industry and without biotech dollars.

Long Term Safety Studies

A common myth is that there are no long-term safety studies of GMOs.  There have, in fact, been dozens of long-term studies of feeding GMOs to animals for their entire lives, sometimes for as many as ten generations in a row, with no ill effects discovered whatsoever. Here’s a good survey of long-term and multi-generation GMO safety studies.

A Scientific Consensus

All together, the scientific consensus around the safety of genetically modified foods is as strong as the scientific consensus around climate change.  These foods have been studied more than any other, and everything tells us that they’re safe.

Update: Other Common Concerns on GMOs

I receive a few other frequent questions on GMOs that don’t relate to safety, so answering three of the most frequent here:

What About Superweeds?

Pesticide resistance is a real thing. It’s also an old thing. The first notion that it exists dates back to 1914, when A.L. Melander published a paper asking “Can insects become resistant to sprays?”  Realistically, resistance has been evolving for the 4,000 or so years that humans have been using pesticides.

It’s clear today that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate (Roundup) and that this is threatening the use of roundup.  It’s not at all clear that this has anything to do with GMOs, however. The rate of the evolution of new pesticide resistant weeds appears to be the same for GMO vs. non-GMO crops. That doesn’t make the problem any less important. But it suggests that pointing the finger at GMOs is missing the point.

What About Farmer Suicides in India?

The allegation has been made that GMOs have been driving farmers in India to commit suicide. Farmers in India do commit suicide, and every one of those is a tragedy.

However, the farmer suicides started long before GMOs were introduced to that country, and the suicide rate has held steady or slightly dropped since GMOs were introduced.

Every suicide is a tragedy, but linking them to GMOs is false.

What About Corporate Control of Food?

Patents end. Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready I Soy expires in late 2014. Last I checked, that was the single most planted GMO in the United States. After that patent expires (and unlike copyrights, patents do actually expire) the seed and trait will be in the public domain, with farmers able to replant, seed growers able to cross-breed the strain, and academics and other companies able to tinker with the gene, without owing Monsanto anything.

The majority of GMOs planted in the US and the world today will see their patents expire in the next decade.

More Reading: The Infinite Resource

You can read more about genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.