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Hostility to genetically-modified organisms

Few agricultural technologies have proven more emotive or been more derided that genetically-modified organisms. Are these new techniques merely the natural development of the kind of husbandry that mankind has been practising for millennia, or are they a cause for concern? Does the passion surrounding this argument help, or does it have the potential to cloud our judgement?

Click on the icons below to read our authors' analyses of these questions.


Following rigorous analysis by Health Canada, Provitamin A Biofortified Rice Event GR2E – better known as “Golden Rice” – was approved for sale on the Canadian market in March 2018. The assessment concluded that the rice “did not pose a greater risk to human health” than currently available varieties, “would have no impact on allergies” and that there were “no differences in nutritional value” compared to other varieties, barring the increased levels of pro-vitamin A for which it is designed.


This is a significant step for evidence-led policy. Golden Rice has been virulently demonised by campaigners against genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) since it was first developed at the end of the 20th century by Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer. In 2001, they donated their invention to the world, hoping that it would be used to end the scourge of vitamin A deficiency, which is the principal global cause of childhood blindness.


The hostility persists despite the ever-growing body of evidence for GMOs’ safety. The precision of GMOs makes them inherently safer than random mutation, and every step in their creation is closely monitored. As Health Canada summarised: the safety assessment of GM foods is based upon scientific principles developed through expert international consultation over the last 20 years with agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The approach taken by Canada is currently applied by regulatory agencies around the world in countries such as the European Union, Australia/New Zealand, Japan, and the United States.”


Indeed, quite apart from the potential health benefits that GMOs can bring – eliminating allergens, guarding against contamination for mycotoxins and so on – the simple fact is that from over two trillion meals served containing biotech crops, nobody has ever made a credible claim of adverse reaction.


But this development is more than a victory for the scientific process. The potential for GMOs – safely and precisely – to alleviate food scarcity is vast. At present, various types of malnutrition affect almost 2 billion people around the world. It accounts for the loss of 3 million young lives each year and stunts the growth of one in four children.


Had Golden Rice been a part of their diet, millions of young eyes and millions of young lives, primarily in Africa and South Asia, might have been saved. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board lay the blame for their crop’s delayed development firmly with political suspicion and interference, with well-organised campaigns designed to deter the public and pressure Governments into keeping GMOs off the market. The Humanitarian Board believe that their project should have been where it is today, with the major part of a regulatory package finished, in around 2006, 11 years ago.


Despite the setbacks, there are now fewer deaths among children under five than there were 10 years ago, but they estimate that this death toll still equates to around 4,500 preventable child deaths related to vitamin A deficiency each day. Many of those deaths are in countries where rice is the staple, usually grown close to where it is consumed.


In light of that, it is small wonder that 131 Nobel Laureates denounced the campaign against Golden Rice in 2016, saying “Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped” and asking “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?”


With steps such as this announced in Canada, perhaps we move a little closer to developing the kind of evidence-led, technically astute policy needed to make global food security a reality.

Dr Robert Thomas is a scientist, writer and Executive Director of Accademia.

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