The Tragedy of Quack Anti-GMO Science

A half-century ago, the International Rice Research Institute, based in Los Banõs in the Philippines, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Hyderabad entered into a partnership that ultimately would forestall an apocalyptic famine in which millions would almost certainly have died. The organizations are now celebrating 50 years of cooperation and the effect they have had on hundreds of millions of peoples’ lives.

One of the answers was famously semi-dwarf rice, developed by IRRI with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The methodology behind dwarf rice was simple. Shorter, sturdier stems kept the rice from falling over and becoming waterlogged during heavy rain. Later extensive developments would lead to continually improved yields that would become known as the Green Revolution. SVS Shastry, a distinguished breeder and geneticist, was coordinator and project leader of the All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project, which was instrumental in the project.

“The bread and butter of crop improvement is genetic enhancement and crop husbandry,” Shastry was quoted as saying in IRRI’s house publication. “The genotypes must be matched with the biological and physical environment in which the crop is grown. IRRI and AICRIP met this challenge guided by the competence and vision of the scientists at both institutions.”

Fifty years of genetically improved rice varieties, like the rest of GMO foods, nonetheless remain hugely controversial. In August of 2013, 300 farmers and militants whipped into a frenzy over fears of genetically modified foods stormed a Philippine Department of Agriculture regional office in Bicol and stomped out a 1,000 square meter experimental rice field being developed with cooperation of IRRI. In doing so, they destroyed part of a project designed ultimately to protect up to 200 million people from irreversible blindness because of Vitamin A deficiency. The project was being developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the billionaire Microsoft founder.

Robert Ziegler, IRRI’s director general, mounted an angry and impassioned defense of genetically modified foods following the vandalism, saying that “as an intellectual direct descendant of the architects of the Green Revolution, it is heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor.”

Genetically modified experiments have been destroyed in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Australia and Oregon in the United States, among many others, a tragedy at a time when the world is seeking to find new ways to feed itself.

Mark Lyman, a onetime opponent of GMO foods, writing on April 24 in the New York Times, pointed out that the environmental movement’s war has led to a perception on the part of 63 percent of the American public that the foods are unsafe to eat and bad for the environment. That is despite the fact that decades of testing and practical experience have never turned up problems with genetically modified foods. Ten studies purporting to show damage to DNA and other health issues have been thoroughly debunked. There is no Frankenfood.

In the meantime, on the ground, the practical effect of scientific research has been to save lives. The rice program in India – an effort by non-profit organizations producing seeds for free general use -- has had a remarkable impact. India was importing up to 10 million tonnes of food grains annually before the IRRI-India cooperation. That has been dramatically reversed. India has become one of the world’s biggest rice exporters, shipping 4-6 million tonnes of food grains overseas annually, at a time when the population of India has increased from 350 million to 1.254 billion people.

This week, the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] released a 274-page Safety Assessment of Foods and Feeds Derived from Transgenic Crops. The study studies the safety of nine genetically modified crops including cotton cassava, sugarcane, soybeans, papaya, sweet potatoes , rapeseed and others.

The conclusions, lost in exhaustive bureaucratic bafflegab, are that the crops are performing as the scientists said they would.

“From their first commercialization in the mi-1990s have been increasingly approved for cultivation and for entering in the composition of foods or feeds by a number of countries,” according to the report. “To date, genetically engineered varieties of over 25 plant species have received regulatory approvals in OECD and non-OECD countries.”

That includes a record 181.5 million hectares of genetically engineered plants, increasing annually at a 3.5 percent clip. They are being developed for their resistance to pests and diseases, adaptation to climate change, improved composition, easier processing, productivity and many other applications.

“Consumers from all over the world require a high level of safety and full confidence in the products they eat,” the report says. Accordingly, approvals “follow a science-based risk/safety assessment regarding their potential release in the environment and their use in foods or feeds.”

For the nine foods and feeds tested, the assessment process is rigorous and extensive. “In the context of environmental risk/safety, several guidance documents have been developed that focus on an approach to evaluating risk and safety” for the assessment of recombinant DNA plants.

None of that is likely to convince anti-GMO activists, any more than the mumps outbreak at Disneyland in California in February and spread across the United States convinced die-hard anti-vaccination activists that vaccination was unsafe. Nonetheless, the facts, after thousands of hours of testing, seem clear. Backing away from the kind of science that the International Rice Research Institute and All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project have spent half a century putting in place means risking millions of lives in a continually exploding population in South Asia.

Global climate change is now a pressing issue, characterized by increasing temperatures, more variable rainfall, sea-level rise, and melting glaciers, all of which is projected to have a significant impact on good production across South Asia if not the world. As a result of the research, farmers in India have been given access to drought- and flood-tolerant rice varieties, among many other adaptive practices. Other practices include water-saving and low-emissions practices.