Pierce Hollingsworth (2001) describes the real issue concerning GMOs as “hardball global politics” He implies that GMOs are absolutely safe; i.e., that we are right—we have science on our side—and they, the opponents (mainly the European Union), are wrong and simply pursuing protectionist policies.
To suggest that opposition to GMOs is largely political jealousy of U.S. farming interests and designed solely to protect EU farmers against the U.S. is simplistic. GMOs present scientific, emotional, economic, social, and political issues which are not black and white.
Opposition to GMOs might be due largely to the disregard, even contempt, that we in industry, academia, and government have had for the public’s views regarding worldwide food-based concerns and traditions. Omission of consumers from major decisions affecting their safety led directly to Naderism.
In a recent article (Arthur, 2001), IFT’s past president is quoted as emphasizing IFT’s commitment to bring together academia, government, and industry to work together toward a public policy. How any public policy can be developed without the public (our customers and consumers) is a mystery to me.
Consumerism might have been less strident and polarized had industry, government, and academe given some credence to public concerns. This triumvirate essentially killed irradiation, an important means to increased food safety, by ignoring the public’s concern about the technique. Let us hope that it will not kill the great benefits promised through GMOs. Monsanto’s president admitted they erred by misjudging the public’s reaction (Coghlan, 1998; Eichenwald et al., 2001). “Our confidence in this technology . . . has, I think, widely been seen—and understandably so—as condescension or, indeed, arrogance,” Monsanto president Robert Shapiro said (Tam, 2000).
It is true that EU officials as well as officials of specific governments therein proclaimed the safety of the food supply respecting BSE and foot and mouth disease. We should remember that they did so on the advice of scientists. Therefore why shouldn’t the public often doubt scientifically based decisions? Possible reasons for the public’s distrust of science are discussed in depth by Selinger (1999) and in my book (Fuller, 2001).
The evidence does not support the lofty goals “such as higher yields in marginal growing areas of the world, reduced susceptibility to pesticides, and increased natural pest resistance . . .” that are ascribed to GMO-producing companies. If these altruistic reasons were true then: Why were the first crops not crop varieties specific to marginal growing areas and marginalized farming communities? Why in addition to paying for seeds, were farmers of marginal areas also required to pay a licence fee per acre of crop grown and not permitted to carry-over seed to subsequent plantings?
The altruism of GMO-producing companies was sparked after a very angry public outcry against GMOs and the so-called terminator gene (Mack, 1998).
Questions regarding both the efficacy and safety of GMOs have arisen and unbiased answers are hard to find:
• By what systematic and rigorous testing was the hypothesis of “substantial equivalency” considered a safe one? Is it not perhaps a dangerous mechanism by which rigorous testing of other substances might be obviated? (The report, IFT, 2000, provides excellent arguments for the concept of substantial equivalency but provides only qualified statements for its wholesale acceptance, e.g., “Is not an absolute determinant of safety per se . . .” (p. 54), “developed as a practical approach to safety . . .” or “used to structure safety assessment of a genetically modified food relative to a conventional counterpart.”)
• Have unique product(s) introduced by rDNA that gives Bt corn, for example, its unique properties been used in animal feeding trials as would be required for other “chemicals-in-our-foods” (MacKenzie, 1999)? Is not Bt corn “a rDNA biotechnology-derived food without a conventionally derived counterpart . . .” (IFT, 2000)?
• If corn and other GMO-foods were tested as “whole foods,” might there not be some question of the validity of the results? Our knowledge of protective factors in foods (phytochemicals) might cloud results (see, for example, Lindsay, 1998).• Is the active ingredient evenly distributed throughout the plant? Or is it concentrated in certain tissues? What impact is there on soil (micro)organisms in marginal farmland if farmers plough under or compost these crops?
• There has been anecdotal evidence (non-scientific or hearsay) from farmers around the world suggesting that engineered crops have been subject to other defects, i.e., poor yields, stem rot, susceptibility to attack by other pests, etc.? Has any study been done to corroborate or deny these allegations?
I deplore the destruction of research plots of experimental GMOs by fanatics opposed to GMOs. The loss of these studies is devastating. The knowledge that has been lost might have brought greater understanding regarding the benefits GMOs may bring to humankind.
I am neither anti–GMO-derived foods nor against their use in feeds. I am not a member of any social/ecological/environmental group. But neither do I look upon GMOs and biotechnology through the rose-colored glasses of safety and efficacy that many of my colleagues have viewed them. I do not believe biotechnology and GMOs will be the only, or even a major, solution to problems in Third World countries’ economies and the health and nutrition of these peoples that the food microcosm seems impelled to believe. An additional but as yet unproven tool, yes, among many others.
The opponents of GMOs are damned by Hollingsworth (2001) with concerning themselves with safety as their call to arms. In equal measure, the proponents of GMOs wrap themselves virtuously in the blanket of altruism and science-for-mankind that has yet to be justified.
—Gordon W. Fuller, G.W. Fuller Assoc. Ltd., Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Contributing Editor Hollingsworth replies: I think he is reading way more into my column than was actually there. I never said that GMOs should be immune to criticism—the point was that the issue is being used to further political goals and objectives. I stand by that assertion 110%. In fact, he addresses the science here, not the politics. It’s a good critique from the cautionary side.
Arthur, M.H. 2001. Research officers program urges science-based public policy. Food Technol. 55(8): 54.
Coghlan, A. 1998. Mutiny against Monsanto. New Scientist 160(10): 4, 31.
Eichenwald, K., Kolata, G., and Petersen, M. 2001. Biotechnology food: From the lab to a debacle. The New York Times, Jan. 25 (www.nytimes.com/2001/01/25/business/25FOOD.html).
Fuller, G.W. 2001. “Food, Consumers, and the Food Industry: Catastrophe or Opportunity?” pp. 201-218. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla.
Hollingsworth, P. 2001. GMO safety: A Trojan Horse. Food Technol. 55(10): 20.
IFT. 2000. IFT Expert Panel Report, Human food safety evaluation of rDNA biotechnology-derived foods. Food Technol. 54(9): 53.
Lindsay, D.G. 1998. Food chemical safety: The need for a new “whole food” approach? Food Sci. Technol. Today 12: 2.
Mack, D. 1998. Food for all. New Scientist 160(10): 50, 31.
MacKenzie, D. 1999. Unpalatable truths. New Scientist 162(4): 17-18.
Selinger, B. 1999. Biotech’s bitter fruit. New Scientist 161(3): 27, 54.
Tam, P. 2000. Genetically modified food: The battle comes to Canada. The Gazette, Montreal, p. A8, Jan. 5.