Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Science and the Debate on Genetically Modified Crops

by Isobel Coleman
January 10, 2013

A Greenpeace activist displays signs symbolising genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels on November 24, 2008 (Thierry Roge/Courtesy Reuters). A Greenpeace activist displays signs symbolising genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels on November 24, 2008 (Thierry Roge/Courtesy Reuters).


When it comes to bolstering food security, genetically modified (GM) crops are at once a highly promising and a highly vilified solution. Opponents label it as “Frankenfood,” imply that untold health risks are lurking in your breakfast cereal, and perpetuate a threatening image of GM crops (see the menacing ears of corn above). Meanwhile, a large body of scientific evidence disputing many of these claims is often overlooked in favor of a more alarmist narrative.

In recent months, however, advocates of a more scientific and less polarized discussion on GM crops have had reason to celebrate. Last week, author and former anti-GM activist Mark Lynas made a stirring speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, which he kicked off by apologizing that he had “helped start the anti-GM movement back in the ’90s and that [he] thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can and should be used to benefit the environment.” He credited his reversal with his having “discovered science,” and characterized GM crops as a way to increase food production for a growing, hungry population while mitigating the environmental harm of production increases. Describing his earlier pursuits an “anti-science movement,” he said that “what we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not the GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

In October, France’s science academies discredited a widely-read French study that suggested GM corn and the pesticide Roundup caused tumors and early deaths in rats, also criticizing the study’s promotion as “help[ing] to spread fear among the public that is not based on any firm conclusion.” However, the real-life consequences of this flawed study are ongoing: in November, the study apparently encouraged Kenyan leaders to ban the import of GM food products. It seems that the ban would apply to emergency food assistance with GM components, and some scientists are also concerned that the ban will discourage biotechnology research and innovation in Kenya.

As these debates continue, the need to bolster agricultural resiliency around the world, and particularly in Africa, remains obvious. In the chronically food-insecure Sahel, the past year was considered a good one in terms of rainfall–and yet, in 2013, an estimated 10.3 million people there will likely go hungry. As I’ve mentioned previously, many kinds of solutions are needed to improve global food security, particularly in Africa. Genetically modified crops, better irrigation, improved transport and storage of crops, investments in smallholder farmers, and better regional trade integration should all be on the table and subject to clear-eyed, honest scientific and policy debate.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Bill

    The French study that showed GM corn caused tumors and early death in rats was the same study Monsanto did. The difference was the French scientists ran the study for a longer period of time. The lifetime of the rats to be precise.

    Oddly, when Monsanto set up the parameters of the tests (and the French scientists merely reproduced those parameters), then ran them, they ended it and published the results before the effects of the GM corn could truly start to manifest themselves in the rats. Coincidence? I don’t think so. A deliberate attempt to hide the truth? More likely.

    But what I find funny is that advocates of GM technology used to love to point to the Monsanto findings as proof of their benign effect on human health. That is, up until the French scientists took the study to its ultimate conclusion. And that’s because, before the French scientists exposed the truth of the study, it was convenient for GMO advocates to point to.

    As for GMOs impact environmentally, there’s a new study out proving the increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides as a direct result of the use of GM crops. This, while the effect of these deadly chemicals on human, microbe, and plant alike goes mostly untested. We’re poisoning the planet and GM technology is helping get us there. How Mark Lynas can dismiss this horrific impact on the environment as a direct result of GM crop production is baffling if not down right suspicious.

    GMOs are nothing more than a cash cow for Big Ag corporations. Corporations already indenturing thousands if not millions of farmers the world over and driving them into poverty by means of oppressive renewal contracts and chemical dependency. And when the small farmers go bust, the larger corporate farmers – successfully working within the destructive GM crop production model thanks to scale – move in and take over. We’re seeing this play out all over the world, but more and more in developing countries.

    Besides, there’s as much proof of GM crop failure as success. The difference being, when GM crops fail, it’s usually in a catastrophic way (both for the farmer financially and for local food sources). The more we rely on them the more we jeopardize the world’s food supply.

    GM technology is quickly presenting itself as the next great crime against humanity. Thanks for doing your part to obscure the truth and aide the offending agra-imperialists.

  • Posted by Patrick Wong

    Food security is not just about sheer quantity of food, but also the guarantee that the very seeds you use to plant food cannot be taken away from you. Intellectual properties for GM food are mostly controlled by megacorporations that are eager to sue farmers for the slight possibility that GM pollen may have ever been on their fields.

  • Posted by GMO Food Debate

    Good article, good information shared through this blog.

  • Posted by James Moore

    Debate of GMO foods is influenced by money power players like Monsanto Company and other big corporation. It is sad to see that even Lynas is backing them up now. No idea what will happen to the human race in the near future. Why is Big Ag and the Government is keeping public out of GMO food safety.

  • Posted by zyl

    Hungry is an excuse to make money from GMO sales, that is all.
    If GMO could solve the so-called hungry problems, why there has been no result since GMO in the last 17 years?
    Btw, GMO is just a modern astrology, not a science at all.

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