Since their emergence in the 1970s, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a source of discord between scientists, policy makers, and the public with regards to their safety and regulation. To date, scientists have not found any concrete, adverse health effects resulting from GMO consumption, leading the World Health Organization to state that GMOs currently on the market “are not likely to present risks for human health.” Despite these conclusions, anti-GMO activists argue that any food product modified from its natural form warrants a GMO label in the market. Fundamentally, I wanted to understand why, despite the repeated reassurances from the scientific community, there is still such a preponderance of anti-GMO sentiment amongst the general population.
One possible reason for the public mistrust of GMOs is the perception that their creation involves picking traits that benefit large corporations rather than consumers. For instance, in 1994, the FDA approved its first GMO in the US market – Flavr Savr tomato – which contained a gene to prevent the accumulation of an enzyme responsible for softening, thereby offering a longer shelf life compared to conventional tomatoes. Since then, much focus has been put on developing GMOs that display advantageous traits from a crop producer’s perspective, otherwise known as first-generation GMOs; these traits include resistance to pests, herbicides and environmental conditions. In fact, most of the soybeans (94%) and corn (89%) currently grown in the US are first-generation GMOs containing herbicide tolerance genes that allow the crops to survive the potent herbicides used to kill competitive weeds. Another purpose of first-generation GMOs is to enhance “attractive” traits, such as taste or aesthetics; an example is the recently approved Artic Apple, designed to carry a non-browning trait to make it visually appealing.Once again, these modifications aim to increase sales and reduce food waste, rather than targeting traits like safety or nutrition that would directly benefit the general public.
Expanding on this idea of corporate benefit at the cost of the public, in 2008, GMOs were blamed for an apparent increase in farmer suicides in India. Known as “The GM Genocide”, the controversy arose after Prince Charles stated that the “truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India stem[med] in part from the failure of many GM crop varieties.” The narrative was that Indian farmers were encouraged to purchase GM seeds (Bt cotton) that produce insecticides and lead to higher yields, even though they cost 10 times more than the regular cotton seeds. Consequently, farmers committed suicide as they were getting into debt they could not repay. Interestingly, later studies found that the number of farmer suicides in India was much lower than the number in both the general population and in other occupations. However, this study did not gain as much widespread coverage as the initial scandal, leaving the public with an unfavourable view of GMOs.
Contrary to the belief of anti-GMO advocates, most scientists claim that the various benefits of GMOs outweigh distaste for corporate greed. In the case of first-generation GMOs, because many are pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant, the global use of pesticides was reduced by 581.4 million kg (8.2% decrease) between 1996 and 2014. In addition, GMOs led to less fuel usage (due to fewer spray runs), which amounted to a decrease of 21,688 million kg in carbon dioxide emissions between 1996 to 2014, equivalent to taking 9.64 million cars off the road for one year. Moreover, while it is true that first-generation GMOs dominate the market nowadays, the development of second-generation GMOs – defined by their improved nutritional values – has been proposed as a way to battle global health issues. A prime example of a second-generation GMO in the works is Golden Rice, developed to produce a precursor of vitamin A known as beta-carotene. Golden Rice is considered a cost-effective strategy to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, which leads to blindness in 250,000-500,000 children every year, with half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. The Golden Rice initiative received particular spotlight last year when 121 Nobel laureates signed a letter requesting that Greenpeace stop its efforts against the initiative. Scientists have shown through field trials since 2004 that Golden Rice does not have a negative impact on agronomic performance of the rice plants. Furthermore, adoption of Golden Rice would yield significant net economic benefits in countries such as China (6.3 billion USD) and India (2.3 billion USD). Unfortunately, false arguments regarding Golden Rice (such as claims that it contains genes from viruses and bacteria associated with diseases even though the only bacterial gene used in Golden Rice is involved in carotenoid biosynthesis) have gained enough attention to halt commercialization anywhere in the world.
One of the hottest topics related to GMOs at present involves the regulations regarding their labelling. According to a study conducted online by Survey Sampling International, which was pre-screened to include a representative sample of the US population, 84% of the participants supported mandatory labelling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. In the same vein, Vermont enacted a strict GMO labelling mandate last July, causing companies to refuse to sell their products in the state and forcing Congress to pass the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard to set a nation-wide labelling standard. Even so, many people were left feeling discontent, as the federal law gives ample leeway for what constitutes GMO identification. For example, a QR code (bar code that can be scanned by smartphones) meets the labelling requirement; however, this option is not viable for consumers without a smartphone. Meanwhile, scientists believe that GMO labels are misleading because it instils a sense of potential harm in the consumers without scientific basis.
Overall, this issue circles back to the need for better communication between scientists, policy-makers and the general public. Unfortunately, previous research has indicated that a general statement from the scientific community does not significantly change what people believe about the safety of GMOs, and can in fact even result in contrary beliefs. Instead, scientists need to build a stronger relationship with the media to combat the negative narratives surrounding GMOs and regain the trust of the general public. Only then can we move forward with scientific advancements that could potentially benefit everyone.
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