Opinionista Ivo Vegter 11 June 2019

Strong GMO opponents unmoved by facts

Genetic engineering is revolutionising crop farming, bringing benefits to farmers, the environment and consumer health. Its opponents, however, are not swayed by any of the science. On the contrary, it makes them believe the exact opposite of the truth.

A recent study of 21 years of GM (genetically modified) maize production in Spain and Portugal found that genetically engineered crops outperformed conventional crops in every respect. But don’t tell people who are irrationally afraid of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). They don’t want to hear it, and if they do, it’ll just make them more stubbornly opposed. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Let’s have a peek at the study findings. And while we’re at it, we’ll compare it to some of the things a leading South African anti-GMO lobby group, Biowatch, says.

Biowatch says GMOs are “scientifically, economically and socially” controversial, and that there is “increasing evidence of GMOs creating environmental and health risks and having dubious economic advantages”.

They might be socially controversial, but they’re not scientifically or economically controversial at all, and there isn’t any “increased evidence” of the risks Biowatch warns against.

The Iberian study, published in May 2019 in the journal GM Crops and Food, found that “there is a lack of evidence of negative impacts in the peer-reviewed literature relating to the adoption of this maize-seed technology in Spain or Portugal (or worldwide)”.

Its headline findings include that farmers enjoyed increased incomes. For every €1 they spent on GM seed over the price of conventional seed, they earned an additional €4.95 in extra income. That is a tremendous return on investment. Most of the income gain comes from an average 11.5% higher yield. The technology also reduced insecticide spraying by 37% and reduced the impact of herbicides and pesticides on the environment by 21%. It has enabled farmers to use less fuel, which reduced their greenhouse gas emissions and it contributed to saving scarce water resources. Every which way you look at it, it’s a win.

This adds to the growing mountain of academic papers that conclude GM crops have significant economic benefits and are environmentally more sustainable than conventional crops. In 2018, a review of 6,000 papers concluded that there was “strong evidence” for the fact that genetically engineered maize improved yields by 15% on average and contained significantly lower levels of mycotoxins that could harm human and animal health.

An annually updated report by PG Economics found “very significant net economic benefits”, of which 52% accrued to developing countries. Of the benefits, 65% came from improved yields and production gains and 35% came from cost savings due to factors such as less need for crop spraying and fertiliser.

The scientific research has found no significant hazards connected to genetically engineered crops, according to a review of the literature conducted in 2013. Two years later, a review of studies that did claim there was the potential of harm to humans found that these studies included results that were indistinguishable from chance, and concluded that they actually weakened the evidence for harm.

In 2017, a researcher compiled public statements from 284 technical and scientific institutions attesting to the safety and potential benefits of GM crops.

Some GM crops are specifically designed to improve consumer health, such as Golden Rice, which after many years of development gained approvals from major countries in 2018, and a similarly fortified banana being developed in Uganda. To date, however, only two main traits have become widespread: Herbicide resistance and pest resistance. There’s a world of potential benefits still waiting to be unlocked by genetic engineering.

But activists such as Biowatch will tell you the exact opposite of all of this, and people believe them. What’s worse, nothing in the previous paragraphs will convince them otherwise.

People who are strongly opposed to GM respond just as negatively to a message that says GM is safe as to a message warning of its dangers, according to a study published in February 2019 in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. This confirms the findings of a previous study. It found 64% of US consumers were opposed to GM food, and of those, 71% (45% of the total sample) were “absolutely” opposed. It concluded that “many opponents are evidence insensitive and will not be influenced by arguments about risks and benefits”.

So it doesn’t actually matter what you tell them. They will remain stubbornly opposed to biotechnology in food and agriculture.

Consumers generally have “low levels of knowledge and numerous misperceptions about GM food”, according to a 2016 study. The authors found that just as many consumers wanted mandatory labelling of foods containing DNA, as there were consumers who wanted GM foods labelled. (For those who don’t know much about genetics, all biological material, and therefore all food except minerals, contains DNA.)

A very recent set of studies found that increased knowledge about GM technology is a unique predictor of more positive attitudes towards it, independent of general scientific knowledge or demographics. The link between knowledge and acceptance replicates in multiple countries and the researchers also found that teaching people about GM technology increases their positive attitudes, increases their willingness to buy GM products and decreases their perceptions of GM foods as risky.

While genetic engineering is a mystery to many, there’s a pretty easy way to think of it.

In the past, farmers used to improve crops by selective breeding, cross-breeding or even by irradiating crops and selecting the best mutations. These techniques randomly affected many genes at the same time. Farmers never knew which genes were changed other than those they could see by external characteristics such as yield. The risk of unintended consequences was high, but it rarely (if ever) harmed anyone eating the food.

With modern genetic engineering, very specific genes are inserted into, or removed from, plants. That means there is no randomness and minimal risk of unintended consequences. It is a far safer means of producing desirable traits than the semi-random process of days gone by.

The claims of anti-GMO activists sound scary, but they are inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of the science. And that is a nice way of saying they’re liars. They really just fear technological progress and distrust anything developed and sold by large corporations.

Nothing anyone says will change their minds. Neither evidence of safety, reduced environmental risk or economic advantages, nor lack of evidence of harm will ever be enough for them.

They’ll keep citing debunked claims, like glyphosate is dangerous (it isn’t), or that Indian farmers committed suicide because the big bad agritech corporations cost them their livelihoods (they didn’t), or that GM maize causes cancer in rats (it doesn’t) and the study that said so “appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice and, more importantly, to ignore the minimal standards of scientific and ethical conduct”. Or they’ll wave their hands about patents or cross-contamination, none of which are causes for great concern.

The people who do not actually understand GM will continue to listen to these activists and continue to be unmovable in their opposition to GM, unless they agree to be educated on the subject.

And how many of them will? As Tim Minchin said at the end of his beat-poem Storm: “We’d as well be ten minutes back in time, for all the chance you’ll change your mind.” DM

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