The anti-Genetic Engineering movement is on shaky ground because it has let its beliefs blind it to the strong scientific evidence concerning the safety and effectiveness of using biotechnology for crop production. It is stuck in an “alternative fact” bubble and it refuses to come out of that bubble. More and more it is increasingly losing credibility because it offers no viable solutions to feed a growing world population that will approach 10 billion by 2050, the urgent need to combat climate change, control plant diseases and create more nutritious crops. Instead of moving forward, they want to move backwards to a simpler era of farming. There might be no problem in doing so if the population of the world was 2 billion and we did not have to deal with climate change. But the world needs 21st century answers to its food problems; not 18th century answers. 

More and more countries are deregulating gene-editing and freeing it from the heavy hand of regulation. More and more developing countries are recognizing the importance of commercializing GMO crops to ensure food security and to reduce crop losses from insects and diseases. More and more foods will come to the market over the next ten years that will be disease, drought, insect and browning resistant and more nutritious, healthier and tastier as result of the new gene-editing technologies that are being perfected. As a result, food as we know it is going to undergo a profound change for the better. 

A few cracks in the wall among GE opponents

Even some anti-GMO proponents are beginning to alter their opposition to gene-edited crops. It is still a minority but there are a few cracks in the wall. Alex Smith, for instance, a vocal opponent of GMOs and former chair of Genetic Food Alert, believes legislation approving the commercialization of gene-editing in the UK was inevitable and continued opposition to the technology by the organic food sector could risk it being “ridiculed and marginalized.” He believes the organic food industry “should take an ultra-pragmatic position…demonstrate we are not Luddites, and support research and controlled introduction.” The organic food sector should focus “on securing regulatory and financial safeguards for organic food and farming” and obtaining safeguards to ensure that organic food is free from genetically modified material. With regard to gene-editing, he said if it “can be shown to safely deliver demonstrable sustainability benefits – the organic sector should cautiously welcome such developments, especially where research is shared in an open-source format.”

In a 2016 interview, Urs Niggli, then the director of the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, made the seemingly heretical comment for a supporter of organic food that,

CRISPR/CAS has great potential…You should assess each application individually instead of rejecting this technology generally…You can turn off genes for susceptibility to disease or insert from the related wild plant resistance genes…into modern varieties.

When asked whether the new gene-edited technologies should be regulated along the same lines as the old genetic engineering technologies, Niggli, said:

No. I advocate for a new, very sophisticated test procedure. There will be properties such as disease resistance which are based on minute genomic modifications which can be transferred from an American grape variety to a European one and consequently contain probably only a low-risk. Therefore, the requirements should be not so strict as when, for example any genes are introduced.

Urs Niggli. Credit: Reimagine Europa

Although still a minority position, there are those who favor marrying the best practices of organic farming with gene-editing. A paper published in the journal Trends in Plant Science by research teams of the Universities of Bayreuth and Göttingen argued,

For more sustainability on a global level, EU legislation should be changed to allow the use of gene-editing in organic farming.

Kai Purnhagen, lead author of the study, said, “Expanding organic farming further under the current legal restrictions on biotechnology could easily lead to less sustainability instead of more. Yet gene editing in particular offers great potential for sustainable agriculture.” Co-author, Stephan Clemens, said,

Gene editing offers unique opportunities to make food production more sustainable and to further improve the quality, but also the safety of food. With the help of these new molecular tools, more robust plants can be developed that deliver high yields for high-quality nutrition, even with less fertilizer.

Opposition to GE is an unshakeable belief for many

Most opponents of GE though maintain an adamant opposition to considering the utilization of genetic engineering in crop production. Particularly in Europe, opponents are strident supporters of the precautionary principle, which espouses holding off on adoption of a new innovation until it is overwhelmingly proven to be safe. This opposition is highlighted by the position of the Green Party in Germany, the third largest political party in the country. 

In 2020, a group of German Green members of Parliament, including one member of the EU parliament, backed the use of gene-editing technologies. In a paper, they called for “a modern approach to regulation of gene-editing and said it “could have an important role to play in improving sustainability”, and “offers opportunities” for a healthy planet and thus for the good of people and the environment.” The paper was immediately denounced by the Green Party. Martin Häusling, Agriculture spokesman for the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, and Harald Ebner, their spokesman for genetic engineering and bioeconomy policy, published a statement that highlighted the Green Party’s opposition to gene editing. The minority stance, according to the statement,

in no way speaks of a rethink by the Greens as to how the precautionary principle and the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling should be followed…the majority of the Greens continue to demand strict regulation and labelling of new genetic engineering.

Many people have been manipulated by disinformation and don’t know that some of the same people opposing genetic engineering of crops also oppose vaccinations and promote alternative medicine modalities that are not evidenced based. Many people are confused and therefore do not want to take a risk even though the scientific evidence indicates there is no risk. 

Stefaan Blancke, a Belgian philosopher at Ghent University, wrote a paper with several biotechnologists and philosophers from Ghent University to explain the great divergence between public perception and scientific evidence regarding GMOs. According to Blanche, 

The negative representations of GMOs … are compelling because they are intuitively appealing. When a gene is transferred between two distantly related species, people are likely to believe that this process will cause characteristics of the source organism to emerge in the recipient. For example, in an opinion survey in the United States, more than half of respondents said that a tomato modified with fish DNA would taste like fish. Anti-GMO organizations exploit these intuitions by publishing images of tomatoes with fish tails. Genetic modification is deemed unnatural and biotechnologists are accused of playing God. The popular term “Frankenfood” captures what is at stake: by going against the will of nature in an act of hubris, we are bound to bring enormous disaster upon ourselves.

Not even the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020 for their ground breaking work in CRISPR can shake the opposition of the critics of using GE for crop production. It should be noted in this regard that Doudna is a big supporter of using gene-editing technology in agriculture. In 2019, she said,

I think in the next five years the most profound thing we’ll see in terms of CRISPR’s effects on people’s everyday lives will be in the agricultural sector, and those CRISPR’d crops have the potential to help alleviate problems ranging from hunger to obesity.

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier share the 2020 Nobel chemistry prize for their discovery of a game-changing gene-editing technique. Credit: Alexander Heinel/Picture Alliance/DPA

The blindness and obstinacy of the anti-GE proponents in refusing to admit they are wrong was illustrated by recent comments by Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM, who said in response to the UK’s government’s announcement of deregulatory changes in the law for field trials of gene-edited crops, 

There’s a lot of techno optimism about what kind of gene-edited foods might materialize one day, eventually, in the fullness of time…The reality is that after 35 years of use genetically engineered crops have not delivered much in terms of real value and they have largely been a distraction from more meaningful discussions about what kind of food system we want and need to transition to.

This is a truly astonishing and misinformed statement because the reality is that genetic engineering has delivered a great deal of value and have made significant contributions to agriculture that could not have been made by utilizing conventional breeding techniques. If genetic engineering had done nothing more than save the papaya in Hawaii from the ravages of the ringspot virus, which was decimating the crop, then that alone would have been an enormous achievement. It not only saved a crop but also saved the livelihoods of many people. 

Despite its critics, GE has proved to be of great value in crop production 

Genetic engineering has proved itself to be of great value to farmers. A 2014 meta-analysis study for example, concluded, “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.” A 2018 study of Bt cotton in China concluded that its adoption “resulted in a major reductions in insecticide use against bollworm.” A 2020 study on the introduction of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh noted it provided an average of 19.6% higher yield and 21.7% higher revenue compared to non-Bt varieties and it provided “virtually complete control of eggplant fruit and shoot borer without the use of insecticides.” 

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Perhaps nothing more illustrates the unreasonableness, inflexibility and intolerance of the anti-GE movement then its opposition to Golden Rice which was created to conquer Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in many developing countries. VAD can lead to blindness, contributes to maternal mortality and diminishes the ability to fight infections. The anti-GE movement, led by Greenpeace, adamantly opposed Golden Rice. Greenpeace called Golden Rice a “Golden Illusion” and said it was “an ineffective tool to combat VAD, is also environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and compromises food security.“ Not even a letter signed by 108 Nobel Prize winners criticizing Greenpeace for its stance on Golden Rice could get it to change its position. 

To the consternation of anti-GMO proponents, the Philippines has approved the cultivation of Golden Rice with plantings expected sometime this year. Bangladesh is likely to soon follow. Indonesia is developing its own variety of Golden rice. Rice is not the only crop that can be biofortified with beta carotene that the body can covert to Vitamin A once it is consumed. Other foods have been genetically engineered to potentially deal with VAD including a Vitamin A banana, Vitamin A cassava and Vitamin A sorghum

It is not only with regard to Vitamin A that genetic engineering can be used to biofortified crops. Many crops can be modified to enhance nutrition by making them heart healthyand biofortified with zinc, iron and folic acid

One of the most important uses of genetic engineering would be to create disease resistance crops that would be of great benefit to farmers as it would reduce waste and spoilage and also reduce the cost of spraying fungicide. As indicated, a GMO papaya saved the papaya crop in Hawaii. The USDA has approved the commercialization of a late blight resistant potato. The US and Colombia have approved the cultivation of a 

bacterial blight resistant rice variety. Genetic engineering maybe the only means of saving the Cavendish banana from being decimated by Panama disease. The loss of the banana would be devastating to many Central and Latin American countries which are the main exporters of bananas. For the sake of ideological purity, are the anti-GE proponents willingly to see the possible demise of the Cavendish banana for no other reason than to maintain the consistency of their anti-GE beliefs. Would they oppose the use of mRNA technology, the same technology that created the successful COVID vaccines, to develop an edible vaccine

The pushback from GE opponents is inconsistent, dogmatic and unscientific

Change is always highly disruptive and anti-GE forces will try to fight the GE trend.

They know that being anti-GE is a cash cow issue that has helped raise a great deal of money by promoting concerns about the safety and “purity” of food. They have learned that it is much easier to scare people than to reassure them and it is easier to promote distrust then to educate. They understand that simplistic slogans are much easier to sell to the public then complex truths. They know that most people have only a limited grasp of genetics. In this regard, a 2015 survey revealed that 80.44% of those asked indicated they wanted foods that contained DNA to be labeled as such. 

The organic food industry understands the threat posed by GE foods which will be grown cheaper, more productively and will be more nutritious than organic food. They know they do not have the ability to create disease-, insect- and browning-resistant crops which can only be developed through genetic manipulation. It is not surprising therefore that the organic food industry has become a strong vocal critic of genetic engineering. 

Ronnie Cummins, the Co-Founder and International Director of the Organic Consumer Association, has written, 

With little or no regulatory restraints, labeling requirements, or scientific protocol, bio-engineers have begun creating hundreds of new GE Frankenfoods and crops, oblivious to human and environmental hazards…Genetic engineering of food and fiber products is inherently unpredictable and dangerous–for humans, for animals, the environment, and for the future of sustainable and organic agriculture.

IFOAM Europe, which promotes organic farming, has said of gene-editing that, 

Mere promises of expected benefits do not justify a weakening of the EU’s standards with regard to environmental protection and farmers’ and consumers’ choice. Safety checks for new genetic engineering techniques are essential, as a proper risk assessment is necessary to assess the potential risk to health and the environment of a particular genome-edited crop on a case-by-case basis.

There is an inconsistency with regard to the beliefs of the anti-GE proponents in that they object to using genetic engineering for food but not for medicine. They cannot see that this undermines their arguments. The same process that creates GE medicine is the same process that creates GE crops. For instance, most of the insulin in the world is created in a GMO process that is similar to the ones used to make GMO crops. Why doesn’t the anti-GE proponents object? RNAi, which is used to inhibit gene expression, can be used both to genetically modify a plant and in medicine. It makes no sense to believe it is valid for medicine but not food. 

The inconsistency between condemning GE for plants but not for medicine and vaccines simply does not make any sense but the anti-GE advocates are blind to that inconsistency. The stark reality is that opponents of genetic engineering for plants are engaged in an exercise of denying the obvious because it is inconvenient for them to accept the truth. To do so they will have to admit they are wrong and they are unwilling to do that. In other words, they rather be consistently wrong then accept the reality that their position has no substance in scientific reality. 

In rejecting the scientific truth of genetic engineering, the anti-GE movement unfortunately has tapped into the growing distrust of authority, institutions and rejection of experts who are perceived to be elitists. This attitude has energized the anti-Covid vaccine movement and in the process done a great deal of damage as unvaccinated people are at a much greater risk in contracting the virus, being hospitalized and dying from it then those who are vaccinated. 

The anti-GE movement would rather cling to a few disputed and retracted studies, which according to them prove GMOs are dangerous, in order to perpetuate the absurd belief that there is a grand conspiracy on the part of the scientific community, the food companies and government regulatory and health agencies to deny the supposed dangers of genetically engineered food. But the reality is that in the approximately 25 years that GMOs have been on the market, no one has been seriously harmed or died from them. What more proof do the anti-GMO proponents need? Where are the dead bodies?

The belief that GMOs are dangerous is so essential to the identity of the anti-GE movement and to their world view that they cannot abandon it. As a result, no amount of evidence can convince them they are wrong because evidence is irrelevant. What is more important is to tenaciously hold onto to their beliefs even if they are based on “alternative facts,” faltering reasoning and irrationality. 

Carl Sagan said something the anti-GE forces need to confront regarding their rejection of biotechnology in agriculture. He said,

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.

Steven E. Cerier is an international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.

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