Humans began genetically modifying plants to provide food more than 10,000 years ago. For the past hundred years or so plant breeders have used radiation and chemicals to speed up the production of genetic changes. This was a genetic shotgun, producing lots of bad changes and a very, very occasional good one. That’s the best we could do until three laureates (and their colleagues) developed molecular techniques for plant genetic modification. We can now use these methods to make precise improvements by adding just a gene (or two or a few) that codes for proteins whose function we know with precision. Yet plants modified by these techniques, the best and safest we’ve ever invented, are the only ones we now call GM. Almost everyone believes we’ve never fiddled with plant genes before, as if beefsteak tomatoes, elephant garlic and corn were somehow products of unfettered nature.I talked this over in more detail with Federoff when she was on my show in July, 2013 -- listen to that conversation here.
The anti-GM storm gathered in the mid-80s and swept around the world. Most early alarms about new technologies fade away as research accumulates without turning up evidence of deleterious effects. This should be happening now because scientists have amassed more than three decades of research on GM biosafety, none of which has surfaced credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous. Instead, the anti-GM storm has intensified. Scientists have done their best to explain things, but they’re rather staid folk for the most part, constitutionally addicted to facts and figures and not terribly good at crafting emotionally gripping narratives. This puts them at a disadvantage. One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies that show that GM foods are just like non-GM foods.
I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on GMOs. There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.Therein lies the real danger. While Chipotle's ban on GMO ingredients doesn't hurt anyone directly, its indirect impact is in popularizing the false claims that GMOs are harmful to humans. And when those lies and rumors spread around the world, they do endanger people, especially in places where access to food is scarce.
In Africa, however, countries have fallen like dominoes to anti-GM campaigns. I am writing this at a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, where the government slapped a GMO import ban in 2012 after activists brandished pictures of rats with tumors and claimed that GM foods caused cancer. The origin of the scare was a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Yet Kenya’s ban remains, creating a food-trade bottleneck that will raise prices, worsening malnutrition and increasing poverty for millions.
In Uganda, the valuable banana crop is being devastated by a new disease called bacterial wilt, while the starchy cassava, a subsistence staple, has been hit by two deadly viruses. Biotech scientists have produced resistant varieties of both crops using genetic modification, but anti-GMO groups have successfully prevented the Ugandan Parliament from passing a biosafety law necessary for their release.