Greenpeace would do well to start picking its shots more carefully. The destruction of a government-funded test of a genetically modified wheat variety in Australia on July 14 threatens to completely marginalize the group, and presumably will undercut its credibility when it takes stands on other issues, from climate to palm oil.
But this issue goes far beyond the stunts of a few extreme environmentalists. While others don’t go so far as to disrupt field research (in this case testing a wheat strain modified to lower the grain’s glycemic index and increase fiber), the sentiments expressed by the raiders down under are popular among foodies and others who envision some kind of no-impact utopia feeding some 9 billion people.
In the wake of the Australian incident, Keith Kloor has been helpfully sifting analysis of the fight against using genetic technology in the race to keep up with humanity’s rapidly growing appetite. Mark Lynas, one of the greenest voices in Europe and the author of a new book, “The God Species,” has attacked the action.
A must-read, cited in a Guardian essay mentioned by Kloor, is the European Commission’s 2010 summary of a decade of government-financed research assessing any environmental and health risks from genetically modified crops. It builds on a similar 2001 review.
Together they summarize 25 years and more than $400 million of research by the countries most worried about impacts of this technology and find no basis for the Frankenfood fears of millions of people in Europe or elsewhere.
A line from the newer report summarizing both says much:
The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than… conventional plant breeding technologies.
Of course that doesn’t mean this, or any, technology is perfectly safe. A very important point is made in a contribution to the European report from Marc Van Montagu, the chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries at Ghent University in Belgium:
The Precautionary Principle – which some interpret as saying that, if a course of action carries even a remote chance of irreparable damage, then one should not pursue it, no matter how great the benefits may be – gave Europeans a firm philosophical basis for saying no to GMOs. Political leaders and public servants in the Member States and the EU institutions were ill prepared for this emotional uproar.
Meeting the challenge to ‘prove that GM crops are safe!’ is not so easy. It looks like a scientific issue, but it isn’t. Science can certify the existence of danger, but not its absence. Moreover scientists will continue to question any negative results that surface, and there will certainly be reward and recognition for the person who finds proof of harm. Expert contention that a 100 % GM variety approved for commercialization is neither more nor less of a health or environmental problem than its parent crop will not answer the question.
Now, after 25 years of field trials without evidence of harm, fears continue to trigger the Precautionary Principle. But Europeans need to abandon this knowingly one-sided stance and strike a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of the technology on the basis of scientifically sound risk assessment analysis.
The only thing I’d change is the word “Europeans” in the last sentence.
I’d substitute “well-meaning people everywhere.”
To summarize, a quarter century of careful assessment by risk-averse Europe has found no evidence of harm to the environment or health from genetically modified crops, yet environmental activists continue their anti-technology raids and rants.
It’s clear to me that genetics, intensified agriculture, organic farming, crop mixing, improved farmer training, precision fertilization and watering, improved food preservation and eating less wastefully and thoughtlessly will all play a role in coming decades — each in its place.
This is the hybrid approach taken by Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund and Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist, and her husband Raoul W. Adamchak, an organic farmer.
If you start scratching options off that list — as with choices in energy — just keep track of the overall challenge.
Give that feelings trump facts, I know this argument won’t sway many people. I just hope it initiates some self reflection.