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G.M.O.’s The Good Side

Not all G.M.O.’s are bad for the planet

Although most of us have a fear of G.M.O. foods and the people that promote these fears are fiercely militant, there are some countries in this world in which a genetically modified food can save a nation from starvation.
It is shameful that G.M.O. foods are not labelled as such and it is worse than shameful that Monsanto can produce seedless crops and force the farmers to buy fresh seeds every year. However, in the same way that the politics of democracy do not work in every country, the banishment of genetically modified crops is not always a good thing.
This is the story of Mohammed Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, Bangladesh. On this meagre acre of waterlogged land, Mohammed grows eggplant.
This year for the first time he was able to grow his crop without the use of pesticides. He was able to do this because of a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research institute.
Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind and the new crop flourished. Mr. Rahman’s productivity doubled and he has already harvested his small plot ten times. He sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region), labelled insecticide-free at a small premium in the local market. This slight increase in extra profits allows this farmer to look forward to getting his family out of poverty so that eventually his half dozen almost malnourished children can go to school and get an education.
In a rational world Mr. Rahman is doing two good things; he is improving the environment and tackling poverty. But in our world, he is attacked and ostracized for producing a G.M.O. crop.
When word of this new variety of eggplant was reported in the local news, campaign groups based in Dhaka were suing to have the pest-resistant eggplant banned. Activists had visited some of the fields and tried to pressure the farmers to remove their crops. There were even threats of violence, enough to cause many of them to leave the region.
What makes these anti GMO people so upset? The fact that this variety of eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (known as Bt) produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. It is very important to note that this protein is entirely non-toxic to other insects and to human beings.
A typical eggplant farmer in Bangladesh is forced to spray their crop as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is genetically modified, it is public enemy No. 1 to environmental groups everywhere.
This is actually a big issue because Mr. Rahman is one of only 108 farmers in Bangladesh who is currently permitted to try out this new variety. Moreover, this is among the first genetically modified crops to be grown by farmers anywhere in the developing world. In almost every country, in every crop, this move has been banned.
In neighboring India, green campaigners managed to secure a nationwide moratorium against the genetically modified eggplant in 2010. In the Philippines, a Greenpeace-led coalition has tied up this variety in litigation for the past two years. They actually wrecked the field trials by pulling up the plants from the ground.
Up until I read the story of Mr. Rahman, I was very much against GMO foods. After all, they are banned in France, my favourite country for food, so they must be bad. The militant anti-GMO people also claim that once Monsanto produces the hybrid plant, you must get the seeds from them. But this is also not true in every case. I tried to find evidence that GMO foods are harmful to humans but there is not one study in any peer-reviewed publication to indicate that any GMO products actually harmed a human being.
Africa is probably the poorest continent in the world. However, nearly every one of its countries has fallen to the anti-GMO people which only increases the amount of starvation and poverty that its inhabitants have to endure.
So how did we stimulate so much fear of GMO’s? It all started with a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Not much different than the crazy Dr.Wakefield who said the MMR vaccine caused autism. Not only were his articles pulled from the British medical journal, Lancet but he was arrested, had his license revoked and went to jail. Once a rumour starts, the truth is lost forever. So in in the very poor country of Kenya, the ban still remains, raising 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 varieties of both crops using genetic modification, but anti-GMO groups have successfully prevented the Ugandan government from passing a biosafety law necessary for their release.
In Ghana, a country not as civilized as some others, some activists go to court to stall progress in biotech development while others actually threaten and harass scientists in this field, forcing many of them to leave the country.
The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift in the scientific community. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a greater gap between scientists and the public on G.M.O.’s than on any other scientific controversy; while 88 per cent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 per cent of the public did—a gap in perception of 51 points. To put this in perspective the gap on climate change is 37 points while the gap on childhood vaccinations is 18 points.
It seems that environmentalist have been markedly more successful than climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners in undermining public understanding of science. The scientific community is losing this battle. The activists use scary pictures of tomatoes being injected with syringes and tumour-riddled rats and ghoulish chimeras like fish apples. None of which is true but all of which is designed to scare the wits out of the public.
In Europe, leaders in Brussels propose to empower all member states of the European Union to ban genetically modified crops if they wish. Hungary has written anti-G.M.O. laws into its constitution. Peru has enacted a 10 year moratorium on G.M.O. crops.
Biotech is not the answer to the world’s growing food problem. The technology of genetic modification cannot make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved genetics can make many contributions; it can increase disease-resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to affect us all; and it can help tackle hidden malnutrition problems like Vitamin A deficiency.
In a world that is becoming overcrowded, a world in which new technologies help us navigate into the future, we must use new science and discovery, not stand in its way.