Robert Goldberg sags into his desk chair and gestures at the air. “Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” he says. “This the most depressing thing I've ever dealt with.”
Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is not battling psychosis. He is expressing despair at the relentless need to confront what he sees as bogus fears over the health risks of genetically modified (GM) crops. Particularly frustrating to him, he says, is that this debate should have ended decades ago, when researchers produced a stream of exonerating evidence: “Today we're facing the same objections we faced 40 years ago.”
Across campus, David Williams, a cellular biologist who specializes in vision, has the opposite complaint. “A lot of naive science has been involved in pushing this technology,” he says. “Thirty years ago we didn't know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later.” The result, he insists, could very well be potentially toxic plants slipping through testing.
Williams concedes that he is among a tiny minority of biologists raising sharp questions about the safety of GM crops. But he says this is only because the field of plant molecular biology is protecting its interests. Funding, much of it from the companies that sell GM seeds, heavily favors researchers who are exploring ways to further the use of genetic modification in agriculture. He says that biologists who point out health or other risks associated with GM crops—who merely report or defend experimental findings that imply there may be risks—find themselves the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility, which leads scientists who see problems with GM foods to keep quiet.
Whether Williams is right or wrong, one thing is undeniable: despite overwhelming evidence that GM crops are safe to eat, the debate over their use continues to rage, and in some parts of the world, it is growing ever louder. Skeptics would argue that this contentiousness is a good thing—that we cannot be too cautious when tinkering with the genetic basis of the world's food supply. To researchers such as Goldberg, however, the persistence of fears about GM foods is nothing short of exasperating. “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth,” he says, “and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we've gone back to being ignorant.”
So who is right: advocates of GM or critics? When we look carefully at the evidence for both sides and weigh the risks and benefits, we find a surprisingly clear path out of this dilemma.
Benefits and worries
The bulk of the science on GM safety points in one direction. Take it from David Zilberman, a U.C. Berkeley agricultural and environmental economist and one of the few researchers considered credible by both agricultural chemical companies and their critics. He argues that the benefits of GM crops greatly outweigh the health risks, which so far remain theoretical. The use of GM crops “has lowered the price of food,” Zilberman says. “It has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”
In the future, Zilberman says, those advantages will become all the more significant. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world will have to grow 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Climate change will make much of the world's arable land more difficult to farm. GM crops, Zilberman says, could produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty land, withstand high and low temperatures, and tolerate insects, disease and herbicides.
Despite such promise, much of the world has been busy banning, restricting and otherwise shunning GM foods. Nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, but only two GM crops, Monsanto's MON810 maize and BASF's Amflora potato, are accepted in the European Union. Ten E.U. nations have banned MON810, and although BASF withdrew Amflora from the market in 2012, four E.U. nations have taken the trouble to ban that, too. Approval of a few new GM corn strains has been proposed there, but so far it has been repeatedly and soundly voted down. Throughout Asia, including in India and China, governments have yet to approve most GM crops, including an insect-resistant rice that produces higher yields with less pesticide. In Africa, where millions go hungry, several nations have refused to import GM foods in spite of their lower costs (the result of higher yields and a reduced need for water and pesticides). Kenya has banned them altogether amid widespread malnutrition. No country has definite plans to grow Golden Rice, a crop engineered to deliver more vitamin A than spinach (rice normally has no vitamin A), even though vitamin A deficiency causes more than one million deaths annually and half a million cases of irreversible blindness in the developing world.
Globally, only a tenth of the world's cropland includes GM plants. Four countries—the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Argentina—grow 90 percent of the planet's GM crops. Other Latin American countries are pushing away from the plants. And even in the U.S., voices decrying genetically modified foods are becoming louder. In 2016 the U.S. federal government passed a law requiring labeling of GM ingredients in food products, replacing GM-labeling laws in force or proposed in several dozen states.
The fear fueling all this activity has a long history. The public has been worried about the safety of GM foods since scientists at the University of Washington developed the first genetically modified tobacco plants in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, when the first GM crops reached the market, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, Prince Charles and a number of celebrity chefs took highly visible stands against them. Consumers in Europe became particularly alarmed: a survey conducted in 1997, for example, found that 69 percent of the Austrian public saw serious risks in GM foods, compared with only 14 percent of Americans.
In Europe, skepticism about GM foods has long been bundled with other concerns, such as a resentment of American agribusiness. Whatever it is based on, however, the European attitude reverberates across the world, influencing policy in countries where GM crops could have tremendous benefits. “In Africa, they don't care what us savages in America are doing,” Zilberman says. “They look to Europe and see countries there rejecting GM, so they don't use it.” Forces fighting genetic modification in Europe have rallied support for “the precautionary principle,” which holds that given the kind of catastrophe that would emerge from loosing a toxic, invasive GM crop on the world, GM efforts should be shut down until the technology is proved absolutely safe.
But as medical researchers know, nothing can really be “proved safe.” One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying hard to find it—as is the case with GM crops.
A clean record
The human race has been selectively breeding crops, thus altering plants' genomes, for millennia. Ordinary wheat has long been strictly a human-engineered plant; it could not exist outside of farms, because its seeds do not scatter. For some 60 years scientists have been using “mutagenic” techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals, creating strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become agricultural mainstays. The practice has inspired little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health problems.
The difference is that selective breeding or mutagenic techniques tend to result in large swaths of genes being swapped or altered. GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant's genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. Supporters argue that this precision makes the technology much less likely to produce surprises. Most plant molecular biologists also say that in the highly unlikely case that an unexpected health threat emerged from a new GM plant, scientists would quickly identify and eliminate it. “We know where the gene goes and can measure the activity of every single gene around it,” Goldberg says. “We can show exactly which changes occur and which don't.”
And although it might seem creepy to add virus DNA to a plant, doing so is, in fact, no big deal, proponents say. Viruses have been inserting their DNA into the genomes of crops, as well as humans and all other organisms, for millions of years. They often deliver the genes of other species while they are at it, which is why our own genome is loaded with genetic sequences that originated in viruses and nonhuman species. “When GM critics say that genes don't cross the species barrier in nature, that's just simple ignorance,” says Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at U.C. Riverside. Pea aphids contain fungi genes. Triticale is a century-plus-old hybrid of wheat and rye found in some flours and breakfast cereals. Wheat itself, for that matter, is a cross-species hybrid. “Mother Nature does it all the time, and so do conventional plant breeders,” McHughen says.
Could eating plants with altered genes allow new DNA to work its way into our own? It is possible but hugely improbable. Scientists have never found genetic material that could survive a trip through the human gut and make it into cells. Besides, we are routinely exposed to—and even consume—the viruses and bacteria whose genes end up in GM foods. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, for example, which produces proteins fatal to insects, is sometimes enlisted as a natural pesticide in organic farming. “We've been eating this stuff for thousands of years,” Goldberg says.
In any case, proponents say, people have consumed as many as trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients over the past few decades. Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations. Mark Lynas, a prominent anti-GM activist who in 2013 publicly switched to strongly supporting the technology, has pointed out that every single news-making food disaster on record has been attributed to non-GM crops, such as the Escherichia coli–infected organic bean sprouts that killed 53 people in Europe in 2011.
Critics often disparage U.S. research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or even conducted by GM companies, such as Monsanto. But much research on the subject comes from the European Commission, the administrative body of the E.U., which cannot be so easily dismissed as an industry tool. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops.
Plenty of other credible groups have arrived at the same conclusion. Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a science-based consumer-watchdog group in Washington, D.C., takes pains to note that the center has no official stance, pro or con, with regard to genetically modifying food plants. Yet Jaffe insists the scientific record is clear. “Current GM crops are safe to eat and can be grown safely in the environment,” he says. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have all unreservedly backed GM crops. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with its counterparts in several other countries, has repeatedly reviewed large bodies of research and concluded that GM crops pose no unique health threats. Dozens of review studies carried out by academic researchers have backed that view.
Opponents of genetically modified foods point to a handful of studies indicating possible safety problems. But reviewers have dismantled almost all of those reports. For example, a 1998 study by plant biochemist Árpád Pusztai, then at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, found that rats fed a GM potato suffered from stunted growth and immune system–related changes. But the potato was not intended for human consumption—it was, in fact, designed to be toxic for research purposes. The Rowett Institute later deemed the experiment so sloppy that it refuted the findings and charged Pusztai with misconduct.
Similar stories abound. Most recently, a team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini, a researcher at the University of Caen Lower Normandy in France, found that rats eating a common type of GM corn contracted cancer at an alarmingly high rate. But Séralini has long been an anti-GM campaigner, and critics charged that in his study, he relied on a strain of rat that too easily develops tumors, did not use enough rats, did not include proper control groups and failed to report many details of the experiment, including how the analysis was performed. After a review, the European Food Safety Authority dismissed the study's findings. Several other European agencies came to the same conclusion. “If GM corn were that toxic, someone would have noticed by now,” McHughen says. “Séralini has been refuted by everyone who has cared to comment.”
Some scientists say the objections to GM food stem from politics rather than science—that they are motivated by an objection to large multinational corporations having enormous influence over the food supply; invoking risks from genetic modification just provides a convenient way of whipping up the masses against industrial agriculture. “This has nothing to do with science,” Goldberg says. “It's about ideology.” Former anti-GM activist Lynas agrees. He has gone as far as labeling the anti-GM crowd “explicitly an antiscience movement.”
Not all objections to genetically modified foods are so easily dismissed, however. Long-term health effects can be subtle and nearly impossible to link to specific changes in the environment. Scientists have long believed that Alzheimer's disease and many cancers have environmental components, but few would argue we have identified all of them.
And opponents say that it is not true that the GM process is less likely to cause problems simply because fewer, more clearly identified genes are replaced. David Schubert, an Alzheimer's researcher who heads the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., asserts that a single, well-characterized gene can still settle in the target plant's genome in many different ways. “It can go in forward, backward, at different locations, in multiple copies, and they all do different things,” he says. And as U.C.L.A.'s Williams notes, a genome often continues to change in the successive generations after the insertion, leaving it with a different arrangement than the one intended and initially tested. There is also the phenomenon of “insertional mutagenesis,” Williams adds, in which the insertion of a gene ends up quieting the activity of nearby genes.
True, the number of genes affected in a GM plant most likely will be far, far smaller than in conventional breeding techniques. Yet opponents maintain that because the wholesale swapping or alteration of entire packages of genes is a natural process that has been happening in plants for half a billion years, it tends to produce few scary surprises today. Changing a single gene, on the other hand, might turn out to be a more subversive action, with unexpected ripple effects, including the production of new proteins that might be toxins or allergens.
Opponents also point out that the kinds of alterations caused by the insertion of genes from other species might be more impactful, more complex or more subtle than those caused by the intraspecies gene swapping of conventional breeding. And just because there is no evidence to date that genetic material from an altered crop can make it into the genome of people who eat it does not mean such a transfer will never happen—or that it has not already happened and we have yet to spot it. These changes might be difficult to catch; their impact on the production of proteins might not even turn up in testing. “You'd certainly find out if the result is that the plant doesn't grow very well,” Williams says. “But will you find the change if it results in the production of proteins with long-term effects on the health of the people eating it?”
It is also true that many pro-GM scientists in the field are unduly harsh—even unscientific—in their treatment of critics. GM proponents sometimes lump every scientist who raises safety questions together with activists and discredited researchers. And even Séralini, the scientist behind the study that found high cancer rates for GM-fed rats, has his defenders. Most of them are nonscientists, or retired researchers from obscure institutions, or nonbiologist scientists, but the Salk Institute's Schubert also insists the study was unfairly dismissed. He says that as someone who runs drug-safety studies, he is well versed on what constitutes a good-quality animal toxicology study and that Séralini's makes the grade. He insists that the breed of rat in the study is commonly used in respected drug studies, typically in numbers no greater than in Séralini's study; that the methodology was standard; and that the details of the data analysis are irrelevant because the results were so striking.
Schubert joins Williams as one of a handful of biologists from respected institutions who are willing to sharply challenge the GM-foods-are-safe majority. Both charge that more scientists would speak up against genetic modification if doing so did not invariably lead to being excoriated in journals and the media. These attacks, they argue, are motivated by the fear that airing doubts could lead to less funding for the field. Says Williams: “Whether it's conscious or not, it's in their interest to promote this field, and they're not objective.”
Both scientists say that after publishing comments in respected journals questioning the safety of GM foods, they became the victims of coordinated attacks on their reputations. Schubert even charges that researchers who turn up results that might raise safety questions avoid publishing their findings out of fear of repercussions. “If it doesn't come out the right way,” he says, “you're going to get trashed.”
There is evidence to support that charge. In 2009 Nature detailed the backlash to a reasonably solid study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA by researchers from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. The paper showed that GM corn seemed to be finding its way from farms into nearby streams and that it might pose a risk to some insects there because, according to the researchers' lab studies, caddis flies appeared to suffer on diets of pollen from GM corn. Many scientists immediately attacked the study, some of them suggesting the researchers were sloppy to the point of misconduct.
A way forward
There is a middle ground in this debate. Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops. They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones. But they do not single out GM crops for special scrutiny, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Jaffe notes: all crops could use more testing. “We should be doing a better job with food oversight altogether,” he says.
Even Schubert agrees. In spite of his concerns, he believes future GM crops can be introduced safely if testing is improved. “Ninety percent of the scientists I talk to assume that new GM plants are safety-tested the same way new drugs are by the FDA,” he says. “They absolutely aren't, and they absolutely should be.”
Stepped-up testing would pose a burden for GM researchers, and it could slow down the introduction of new crops. “Even under the current testing standards for GM crops, most conventionally bred crops wouldn't have made it to market,” McHughen says. “What's going to happen if we become even more strict?”
That is a fair question. But with governments and consumers increasingly coming down against GM crops altogether, additional testing may be the compromise that enables the human race to benefit from those crops' significant advantages.
Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.
Some environmentalists and public interest groups want to go further. Hundreds of organizations, including Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are demanding “mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.” Since 2013, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws to require GMO labels. Massachusetts could be next.
The central premise of these laws—and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food—is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
In this members-only Slate Plus extra, Will Saletan reads his investigative study of the anti-GMO movement.
Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.
The deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs.
Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
If you’re like me, you don’t really want to wade into this issue. It’s too big, technical, and confusing. But come with me, just this once. I want to take you backstage, behind those blanket assurances about the safety of genetic engineering. I want to take you down into the details of four GMO fights, because that’s where you’ll find truth. You’ll come to the last curtain, the one that hides the reality of the anti-GMO movement. And you’ll see what’s behind it.
Twenty years ago Hawaiian papaya farmers were in trouble. Ringspot virus, transmitted by insects, was destroying the crop. Farmers tried everything to stop the virus: selective breeding, crop rotation, quarantine. Nothing worked. But one scientist had a different idea. What if he could transfer a gene from a harmless part of the virus, known as the coat protein, to the papaya’s DNA? Would the GE papaya be immune to the virus?
The scientist, Dennis Gonsalves of Cornell University, got the idea, in part, from Monsanto. But Monsanto wasn’t interested in papaya. Although papaya is an important staple in the developing world, it isn’t a big moneymaker like soybeans or cotton. So Monsanto and two other companies licensed the technology to an association of Hawaiian farmers. The licenses were free but restricted to Hawaii. The association provided the seeds to farmers for free, and later at cost.
Today the GE papaya is a triumph. It saved the industry. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The papaya, having defeated the virus, barely survived a campaign to purge GE crops from Hawaii. The story of that campaign teaches a hard lesson: No matter how long a GMO is eaten without harming anyone, and no matter how many studies are done to demonstrate its safety, there will always be skeptics who warn of unknown risks.
In 1996 and 1997, three federal agencies approved the GE papaya. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported “no deleterious effects on plants, nontarget organisms, or the environment” in field trials. The Environmental Protection Agency pointed out that people had been eating the virus for years in infected papaya. “Entire infectious particles of Papaya Ringspot Virus, including the coat protein component, are found in the fruit, leaves and stems of most plants,” the EPA observed. The agency cited the
long history of mammalian consumption of the entire plant virus particle in foods, without causing any deleterious human health effects. Virus-infected plants currently are and have always been a part of both the human and domestic animal food supply and there have been no findings which indicate that plant viruses are toxic to humans and other vertebrates. Further, plant viruses are unable to replicate in mammals or other vertebrates, thereby eliminating the possibility of human infection.
These arguments didn’t satisfy everyone. In 1999, a year after the new papaya seeds were released to farmers, critics said the viral gene might interact with DNA from other viruses to create more dangerous pathogens. In 2000, vandals destroyed papaya trees and other biotech plants at a University of Hawaii research facility, calling the plants “genetic pollution.” In 2001 the U.S. Public Interest Research Group identified Hawaii as the state most commonly used for outdoor GE crop tests, and it called for a nationwide moratorium on such tests. “The science of genetic engineering is radical and new,” said U.S. PIRG, and GE crops had “not been properly tested for human health or environmental impact.”
Greenpeace vandals tore up a GE papaya orchard in Thailand, calling the plant a “time bomb.”
A Dutch study published in December 2002 seemed to vindicate this anxiety. According to the paper, a short stretch of the ringspot virus coat protein, now incorporated in the GE papaya, matched a sequence in an allergenic protein made by worms. The resemblance was only partial, and, as the authors noted, it didn’t show that the protein triggered allergies, much less that the papaya did so. But anti-GMO activists didn’t wait. The Institute of Science in Society published a “Biosafety Alert” titled “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” Greenpeace flagged the Dutch study and warned that “the interaction of GE papaya with other viruses … can produce new strains of viruses.” The organization accused the papaya’s developers of “playing with nature.”
Some of these early alarms were disconcerting. But scientifically, they made no sense. Start with the distinction between “nature” and “genetic pollution.” Nature had invented the ringspot virus. Millions of people had eaten it without any reports of harm. And breeders had been tinkering with nature for millennia.
Anti-GMO activists decried genetic engineering as imprecise and random. They ignored the far greater randomness of mutation in nature and the far greater imprecision of traditional breeding. Furthermore, after five years of commercial sale and consumption, there was no sign that GE papayas had hurt anyone. But the alarmists continued to fret about unforeseen interactions and doomsday mutations, ignoring research that didn’t bear out these fantasies.
Take the “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” The protein made by the papaya’s new gene consisted of about 280 amino acids. Out of that 280, the number of consecutive amino acids it shared with a putative allergen was six. By this standard, a study found that 41 of 50 randomly selected proteins in ordinary corn would also have to be declared allergenic. But GMO opponents ignored this study. They also ignored a second paper, which concluded that the putative worm allergen used in the papaya comparison was not, in fact, intrinsically allergenic.
Years passed, people ate papayas, and nothing bad happened. But the activists wouldn’t relent. In 2004, Greenpeace vandals tore up a GE papaya orchard in Thailand, calling the plant a “time bomb” and claiming that it had devastated farmers in Hawaii. In 2006, Greenpeace issued another report condemning the fruit. In reality, the source of farmers’ troubles was Greenpeace itself. The organization was working to block regulatory approval and sales of the GE papaya—and then blaming the papaya for farmers’ financial woes.
From 2006 to 2010, USDA scientists, prodded by Japanese regulators, subjected the papaya to several additional studies. They verified that its new protein had no genetic sequence in common with any known allergen, using the common standard of eight consecutive amino acids rather than six. They demonstrated that the protein, unlike allergens, broke down in seconds in gastric fluid. They found that conventional virus-infected papayas, which people had been eating all along, had eight times as much viral protein as the GE papaya. In May 2009, after a decade of scrutiny, Japan’s Food Safety Commission approved the GE papaya. Two years later, after resolving environmental questions, Japan opened its market to the fruit.
Chinese researchers performed additional tests. For four weeks they fed GE papayas to a group of rats. Meanwhile, they fed conventional papayas to another group of rats. The study found no resulting differences between the rats. It confirmed that coat protein fragments dissolved quickly in gastric fluid and left no detectable traces in organs.
By this point the GE papaya had been investigated and eaten for 15 years. GMO skeptics had two choices. They could acknowledge that their nightmares hadn’t come true. Or they could reject the evidence and cling to their faith in a GMO apocalypse.
That dilemma split the anti-GMO camp in 2013, when the Hawaii County Council, which governed Hawaii’s largest island, considered legislation to ban GE crops. The council’s hearings, preserved on video by Occupy Hawaii (which favored the proposed ban), document a yearlong struggle between ideology and science. As council members heard testimony and studied the issue, they learned that the GE papaya didn’t fit GMO stereotypes. It had been created by public-sector scientists, not by a corporation. It had saved a beloved crop. It had passed extensive scrutiny in Japan and the U.S. It didn’t cross-pollinate nearby fields. It also reduced pesticide use, because farmers no longer had to exterminate the aphids that spread the virus.
One council member, Margaret Wille, yielded to the evidence. Wille was Hawaii’s leading anti-GMO politician. She had introduced the proposed GMO ban. But after listening to the arguments, she exempted the GE papaya from her bill, noting that it was embedded in local agriculture and had been vetted in safety and cross-pollination tests. In effect, she acknowledged two things. First, the legitimate worries of biotech critics, such as pesticide use and corporate control of agriculture, didn’t apply to all GE crops. And second, with the passage of time, novelties became conventional.
Other antagonists held their ground. Chief among them was Jeffrey Smith, the world’s most prolific anti-GMO activist. In September 2013, Smith was given 45 minutes to testify before the council as an expert witness, though he had no formal scientific training. (When he was asked whether he should be addressed as Dr. Smith, he sidestepped the question by answering, “No, Jeffrey’s fine.”) Smith told the council that RNA from the GE papaya might disrupt genes in people and that proteins from the papaya might interfere with human immunity, leading to HIV and hepatitis. He also said the protein might cause cancer.
To support his testimony, Smith cited a March 2013 paper about regulation of GE crops. He said the paper “showed that the evaluation of this technology is sorely inadequate to protect against environmental problems and human health problems. And the papaya was one example cited in that study.” But the paper made no claim about papayas. It simply listed them in a table of GE crops, alongside a theoretical critique of the technology.
Smith told the council that “there hasn’t been any animal feeding studies on the papaya.” Hector Valenzuela, a University of Hawaii crop specialist who also testified as an expert, said the same thing: that scientists hadn’t “conducted a single study” to assess the safety of GE papaya. Neither man mentioned the Chinese papaya feeding study in rats—published two months before the theoretical paper Smith had cited—which had found none of the harms Smith alleged.
To explain why scientific organizations and regulatory agencies had declared GE foods safe, the anti-GMO witnesses offered conspiracy theories. They said the Food and Drug Administration had been captured by Monsanto. So had the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon detailed the safety evidence behind the GE papaya, incredulous council members dismissed her article as a “skewed” account by “the political powers that be.”
As for Japan’s approval of the papaya, Valenzuela advised the council to look at U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks. He said the cables showed “the lengths that the State Department goes to twist arms behind the scenes.” This was a clear insinuation that U.S. officials had coerced Japan’s decision. Smith mentioned the cables, too. But the cables showed no conspiracy. Nearly 6,000 of the leaked cables had been sent from U.S. embassies and consulates in Japan. They covered the years 2005 to 2010, during which Japanese regulators had debated and approved the GE papaya. Food & Water Watch, an environmental group, had searched the cables for references to pressure or lobbying by U.S. officials on behalf of GMOs. The group’s report, issued in May 2013, cited no cables that indicated any such activity in Japan.
No allegation was too far-fetched for the anti-GMO witnesses, including several who called themselves experts. They said GMOs were especially dangerous to dark-skinned people. They suggested that vaccines were harmful, too. They said GE flowers should be banned because children might eat them.
What they wouldn’t say, regardless of the evidence, was that the GE papaya was safe. Brenda Ford, a council member and sponsor of another anti-GMO bill, told her colleagues that they didn’t have to answer that question, even when they were directly asked. Ford described genetic engineering as “random hits” on chromosomes. She said the science was still “in its infancy.” Smith, in his testimony, suggested that gene transfer in agriculture should be studied for 50 to 150 years before allowing its use outdoors.
In the end, the papaya survived. Ford’s bill died. Wille’s bill was signed into law but was tied up in court. The new law makes an exception for papayas. But GMO labels don’t. They don’t tell you that the fruit you’re looking at in your grocery store was engineered to need fewer pesticides, not more. They don’t tell you about all the research that went into checking its safety. They don’t tell you that people have been eating it with no ill effects for more than 15 years. They don’t tell you that when you buy it, your money goes to Hawaiian farmers, not to Monsanto.
Some people, to this day, believe GE papayas are dangerous. They want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.
In 1901 a Japanese biologist discovered that a strain of bacteria was killing his country’s silkworms. Scientists gave the bacteria a name: Bacillus thuringiensis. It turned out to be handy for protecting crops from insects. Farmers and environmentalists loved it. It was natural, effective, and harmless to vertebrates.
In the mid-1980s, Belgian researchers found a better way to produce the insecticide. They put a gene from the bacteria into tobacco plants. When bugs tried to eat the plants, they died. Now farmers wouldn’t need the bacteria. Plants that had the new gene, known as Bt, could produce the insecticidal protein on their own.
Environmentalists flipped. What upset them wasn’t the insecticide but the genetic engineering. Thus began the strange backlash against Bt crops. A protein that everyone had previously agreed was innocuous suddenly became a menace. To many critics of biotechnology, the long history of safe Bt use was irrelevant. What mattered was that Bt was now a GMO. And GMOs were evil.
In 1995 the EPA approved Bt potatoes, corn, and cotton. The agency noted that the toxin produced by these crops was “identical to that produced naturally in the bacterium” and “affects insects when ingested, but not mammals.” But opponents weren’t mollified. In 1999 a coalition led by Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements sued the EPA to revoke its approvals. The suit said Bt crops might create insecticide-resistant insects and cause “direct harm to non-target organisms.”
The coalition claimed to speak for environmental caution. But its caution was curiously selective. Thirty of the 34 farmers who were identified in the lawsuit as victims and plaintiffs affirmed that they sprayed Bt on their own crops. Fourteen of the 16 farming organizations listed as plaintiffs said they had members who used Bt spray. One plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, was a “supplier of organic fertilizers and pest controls” whose business “consists of selling foliar Bt products to conventional apple growers.” Another was “one of the largest suppliers of beneficial insects and natural organisms designed to control agricultural pests,” including “several Bt products.”
Greenpeace and its partners weren’t fighting the Bt industry. They were protecting it. They were trying to convince the public that the Bt protein was dangerous when produced by plants but perfectly safe when produced by bacteria and sprayed by farmers.
The anti-GMO lobby says Bt crops are worse than Bt sprays, in part because Bt crops have too much of the bacterial toxin. In 2007, for instance, Greenpeace promoted a court petition to stop field trials of Bt eggplant in India. The petition told the country’s highest court, “The Bt toxin in GM crops is 1,000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays.” But Greenpeace’s internal research belied that statement. A 2002 Greenpeace report, based on Chinese lab tests, found that the toxin level in Bt crops was severely “limited.” In 2006, when Greenpeace investigators examined Bt corn in Germany and Spain, they got a surprise: “The plants sampled showed in general very low Bt concentrations.”
An honest environmental organization, having discovered these low concentrations, might have reconsidered its opposition to Bt crops. But Greenpeace simply changed its rationale. Having argued in its 1999 lawsuit that Bt crops produced too much toxin, Greenpeace now reversed itself. In its report on the German and Spanish corn, the organization complained that Bt crops produced too little toxin to be effective. It argued, in essence, that the Bt in transgenic crops was unsafe for humans but insufficient to kill bugs.
Anti-GMO activists also claim that the insecticidal protein is “activated” in Bt crops but not in Bt sprays, and that this makes Bt crops more dangerous to people. That’s misleading. “Activation” just means that the protein is truncated, which helps it bind to the guts of insects. And each Bt plant is different. A global database of GE crops, maintained by the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment, shows that some Bt proteins are fully truncated while others are partially truncated. Even the fully truncated proteins are just “semi-activated,” according to a technical assessment that was sent to Greenpeace by its own consultants 15 years ago. Unless you’re a bug, Bt isn’t active.
In its 1999 lawsuit, Greenpeace said Bt crops were dangerous because their toxins were “not readily degraded in the environment.” The organization and its allies have repeated this allegation many times since. But when it’s convenient, Greenpeace says the opposite. Its 2006 petition to block Bt crops in New Zealand speculated that the concentration of toxin in Bt cotton might be too low “because the Bt protein is degraded, linked to heat stress.” The petition added that the plant’s defense mechanisms “may also reduce the insecticidal activity of Bt.”
In fact, the 2006 petition suggested that the low concentration of Bt in Indian cotton was allowing insects to flourish, leading to crop losses, and causing farmers to fall into debt and kill themselves. The suicide allegation was just another anti-GMO fiction. But it allowed Greenpeace to claim that the Bt in transgenic crops was killing people in two ways: by being more persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays, and by being less persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays.
The strangest part of the case against Bt crops is the putative evidence of harm. Numerous studies have found that Bt is one of the world’s safest pesticides. Still, if you run enough experiments on any pesticide, a few will produce correlations that look worrisome. But that’s just the first step in challenging a scientific consensus. Experts then debate whether the correlations are causal and whether the effects are important. They ask for better, controlled experiments to validate the pattern. That’s where the case against Bt crops and other GMOs has repeatedly failed.
But that isn’t what’s strange. What’s strange is that so much of the ostensible evidence against Bt crops is, at best, evidence against Bt sprays.
You can think you’re eating less Bt, when in fact you’re eating more.
In its 2006 petition to regulators in New Zealand, Greenpeace argued that Bt crops, by applying evolutionary pressure, would generate Bt-resistant insects, thereby depriving organic farmers of their rightful “use of Bt as a pesticide.” The petition also warned that the “Bt toxin can persist in soils for over 200 days” and that this “could cause problems for non-target organisms and the health of the soil ecosystem.” But two of the three experiments cited as evidence for the soil warning weren’t done with Bt crops. They were done with DiPel, a commercial Bt spray compound. Greenpeace was asking New Zealand to protect Bt spray from Bt crops based on studies that, if anything, indicted Bt spray.
The 2007 petition against Bt eggplant in India repeated this fallacy. “The natural bacterium Bt is very important in advanced organic agriculture,” said the petition. For this reason, it argued, the evolution of Bt-resistant insects due to Bt crops “would be a serious threat to many types of agriculture on which a country such as India inevitably & rightly relies.” But an addendum to the petition cited, as evidence of Bt’s perils, studies that were done with Javelin, Foray, and VectoBac—three Bt spray compounds.
This paradox pervades the anti-GMO movement: alarmism about any possibility of harm from Bt crops, coupled with relentless flacking for the Bt spray industry. “Farmers have always used Bt sparingly and usually as a last resort,” says the Organic Consumers Association. But that doesn’t square with the product literature for commercial Bt sprays. One brochure recommends “motorized boom sprayers” and says “aerial applications are also commonplace in many crops.” Another explains that “many avocado orchards are sprayed by helicopter.” Saturation is a point of emphasis: “Sprays should thoroughly cover all plant surfaces, even the undersides of leaves.”
Greenpeace says you needn’t worry, because “Bt proteins from natural Bt sprays degrade” within two weeks. But this is a false assurance, because farmers compensate for the degradation by reapplying the spray. A typical brochure recommends reapplication “every 5-7 days.” That’s plenty of time to get the toxin to your mouth, since the product literature tells growers that “ripe fruit can be picked and eaten the same day that it is sprayed.” In YouTube videos, organic farmers deliver the same instructions: You should spray your vegetables with Bt every four days, coating each surface, and you can eat the food right after you spray it.
Bt sprays, unlike Bt crops, include live bacteria, which can multiply in food. Several years ago researchers examined vegetables for sale in Denmark. They found 23 strains of Bt identical to the kind used in commercial sprays. In China a similar study of milk, ice cream, and green tea beverages found 19 Bt strains, five of them identical to the kind used in sprays. In Canada nasal swabs of people living inside and outside zones where Bt was being applied found the bacteria in 17 percent of samples taken before crops were sprayed, as well as 36 percent to 47 percent of samples taken afterward.
Nobody monitors how much Bt is applied worldwide. Last fall the Wall Street Journal estimated that annual sales of biopesticides were roughly $2 billion. Bt has been said to account for 57 percent to 90 percent of that market. In 2001, Bt was reportedly applied in the U.S. to more than 40 percent of tomatoes and 60 percent of brassica crops, which include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Since then, biopesticide sales have risen substantially. In Europe the annual growth rate since 2000 has been nearly 17 percent. Every market analysis predicts that biopesticides will grow at a much faster rate than the overall insecticide market, in part because governments are promoting them. The Journal projects that by 2020, 10 percent of global pesticide sales will be Bt and other biological formulas.
One result of this paradox—GMOs under attack, while biopesticides flourish—is that you can think you’re eating less Bt, when in fact you’re eating more. Suppose you live in Germany. According to a 2014 congressional research report, Germany has some of the world’s strictest GMO policies. It requires labels, discourages GMO cultivation, and has prohibited even some crops approved by the European Union. But U.N. data show that during the most recent 10-year reporting period, for every 1,000 hectares of arable German land, an annual average of 125 metric tons of biological and botanical pesticides (the category that includes Bt) were sold for agricultural use in crops and seeds. That works out to more than 100 pounds per acre per year. By comparison, no Bt corn variety produces more than 4 pounds of toxin per acre.
And guess who’s selling all that Bt: the same companies Greenpeace condemns for peddling chemical pesticides and GMOs. Since 2012 the top four companies on Greenpeace’s list of global pesticide villains—Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF—have spent about $2 billion to move into the biopesticide market. Another agrochemical giant, DuPont, has invested $6 billion. If you’re boycotting GMOs or buying organic to escape Bt and fight corporate agriculture, think again. Monsanto is one step ahead of you.
Anti-GMO zealots refuse to face the truth about Bt. Two years ago the Organic Consumers Association and its allied website GreenMedInfo published the headline “New Study Links GMO Food to Leukemia.” Today that headline remains uncorrected, even though the study was done with Bt spore crystals, which are components of Bt spray, not Bt crops. (The study is a mess. Most of what was fed to the test animals wasn’t Bt toxin, and the write-up, for undisclosed reasons, was withdrawn from an established journal and published instead in a journal that had never before existed.) Meanwhile, last year, Greenpeace published a catalog of “exemplary” agriculture, in which it celebrated a Spanish farm where “the use of Bacillus thuringiensis is being expanded to a greater cultivated surface area.” Both organizations encourage you to buy organic, neglecting to mention the dozens of Bt insecticides approved for use in organic agriculture.
GMO labels won’t clear this up. They won’t tell you whether there’s Bt in your food. They’ll only give you the illusion that you’ve escaped it. That’s one lesson of the Non-GMO Project, whose voluntary labels purport to give you an “informed choice” about what’s in your food. Earlier this year, Slate interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman contacted the manufacturers of 15 corn products bearing the Non-GMO Project label. They asked each company whether its product included any ingredients sprayed with biopesticides. Five companies didn’t reply. Two told us, falsely, that their organic certification meant they didn’t use pesticides or anything that could be harmful. One sent us weasel words and repeated them when we pressed for a clearer answer. Another told us it adhered to legal limits. Three confessed that they didn’t know. None of the manufacturers could give us a clear assurance that its product hadn’t been exposed to Bt.
That’s the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize that the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world. That’s the truth, in all its messy complexity. Too bad it won’t fit on a label.
Right now, across the world, a quarter of a billion preschool-age children are suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Every year, 250,000 to 500,000 of these kids go blind. Within a year, half of the blinded children will die. Much of the affliction is in Southeast Asia, where people rely on rice for their nutrition. Rice doesn’t have enough beta carotene—the compound that, when digested, produces vitamin A.
Twenty-five years ago, a team of scientists, led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, set out to solve this problem. Their plan was to engineer a new kind of rice that would make beta carotene.
The idea sounded crazy. But to Potrykus it made more sense than what some governments were already doing: giving each person two high-dose vitamin A pills a year. Wouldn’t it be smarter to embed beta carotene in the region’s staple crop? That way, people could grow the nutrient and eat it every day, instead of relying on occasional handouts. This was a sustainable solution. It would use biotechnology to prevent suffering, disability, and death.
In 1999, Potrykus and his colleagues achieved their first breakthrough. By transferring genes from daffodils and bacteria, they created the world’s first beta carotene rice. The yellow grains became known as “Golden Rice.” President Clinton celebrated the achievement and urged GMO skeptics to do the same. He acknowledged that genetic engineering “tends to be treated as an issue of the interest of the agribusiness companies, and earning big profits, against food safety.” But in the case of vitamin A deficiency, the greater risk to health lay in doing nothing. “If we could get more of this Golden Rice … out to the develop[ing] world,” said Clinton, “it could save 40,000 lives a day.”
Anti-GMO groups were confounded. This humanitarian project undermined their usual objections to genetic engineering. In 2001, Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace’s anti-GMO coordinator, appeared with Potrykus at a press conference in France. Haerlin conceded that Golden Rice served “a good purpose” and posed “a moral challenge to our position.” Greenpeace couldn’t dismiss the rice as poison. So it opposed the project on technical grounds: Golden Rice didn’t produce enough beta carotene.
The better approach, according to biotechnology critics, was to help people cultivate home gardens full of beans, pumpkins, and other crops rich in Vitamin A. Where that wasn’t feasible or sufficient, Greenpeace recommended supplementation (distributing vitamin A pills) or food fortification, by mixing vitamin A into centrally processed ingredients such as sugar, flour, and margarine.
Greenpeace was right about Golden Rice. At the time, the rice didn’t provide enough beta carotene to cure vitamin A deficiency. But neither did the alternatives. Gordon Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which was funding the project, explained some of the difficulties in a 2001 letter to Greenpeace:
Complete balanced diets are the best solution, but the poorer families are, the less likely it is that their children will receive a balanced diet and the more likely they will be dependent on cheap food staples such as rice. This is particularly true in the dry seasons when fruits and vegetables are in short supply and expensive.
Conway echoed the skepticism of UNICEF nutritionists, who doubted that plants native to the afflicted countries could deliver enough digestible beta carotene. To Potrykus, the notion of home gardens for everyone—Let them eat carrot cake—reeked of Western ignorance. “There are hundreds of millions of landless poor,” Potrykus pointed out. “They don’t have a house to lean the fruit tree against.”
Potrykus and Conway wanted to try everything to alleviate vitamin A deficiency: diversification, fortification, supplementation, and Golden Rice. But the anti-GMO groups refused. They called Golden Rice a “Trojan horse” for genetic engineering. They doubled down on their double standards. They claimed that people in the afflicted countries wouldn’t eat yellow rice, yet somehow could be taught to grow unfamiliar vegetables. They portrayed Golden Rice as a financial scheme, but then—after Potrykus made clear that it would be given to poor farmers for free—objected that free distribution would lead to genetic contamination of local crops. Some anti-GMO groups said the rice should be abandoned because it was tied up in 70 patents. Others said the claim of 70 patents was a fiction devised by the project’s leaders to justify their collaboration with AstraZeneca, a global corporation.
While critics tried to block the project, Potrykus and his colleagues worked to improve the rice. By 2003 they had developed plants with eight times as much beta carotene as the original version. In 2005 they unveiled a line that had 20 times as much beta carotene as the original. GMO critics could no longer dismiss Golden Rice as inadequate. So they reversed course. Now that the rice produced plenty of beta carotene, anti-GMO activists claimed that beta carotene and vitamin A were dangerous.
In 2001, Friends of the Earth had scoffed that Golden Rice would “do little to ameliorate VAD [vitamin A deficiency] because it produces so little beta-carotene.” By November 2004 the group had changed its tune. Crops that yielded beta carotene could “cause direct toxicity or abnormal embryonic development,” it asserted. Another anti-GMO lobby, the Institute of Science in Society, documented its own shift in a 2006 report:
ISIS critically reviewed golden rice in 2000. Among the observations was that the rice produced too little beta-carotene to relieve the existing dietary deficiency. Since then, golden rice strains have been improved, but still fall short of relieving dietary deficiency. On the other hand, increasing the level of beta-carotene may cause vitamin A overdose to those [whose] diets provide adequate amounts of the vitamin. In fact, both vitamin A deficiency and supplementation may cause birth defects.
To support the new alarmism, David Schubert, an anti-GMO activist and neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, drafted a paper on the ostensible perils of boosting vitamin A. In 2008 he got it published in the Journal of Medicinal Food. In the article he noted that beta carotene and dozens of related compounds, known as carotenoids, could produce other compounds, called retinoids, which included vitamin A. He declared that all retinoids “are likely to be teratogenic”—prone to causing birth defects—and, therefore, “extensive safety testing should be required before the introduction of golden rice.”
David Schubert gave opponents of Golden Rice what they needed: the illusion of scientific support.
Schubert systematically distorted the evidence. To suggest that Golden Rice might be toxic, he cited a study that had been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994. Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer. Furthermore, he claimed that a 2004 report by the National Research Council said genetic engineering had “a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods.” In reality, the NRC report said genetic engineering
has a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods, such as narrow crosses, and a lower probability than others, such as radiation mutagenesis. Therefore, the nature of the compositional change merits greater consideration than the method used to achieve the change.
By omitting the second half of the sentence—“and a lower probability than others”—Schubert made the NRC report appear to raise alarms about GMOs, when in fact the report had explained why alarmism about GMOs was wrongheaded.
Schubert gave opponents of Golden Rice what they needed: the illusion of scientific support. Every anti-GMO lobby cited his paper. The movement’s new position, as expressed by Ban GM Food, was that “Golden Rice is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, and studies show that some retinoids derived from beta carotene are toxic and cause birth defects.”
But the new position, like the old one, relied on double standards. To begin with, every green plant produces carotenoids. For years, anti-GMO groups had argued that instead of eating Golden Rice, people should grow other plants rich in beta carotene. They had also encouraged the use of selective breeding to increase carotenoid levels. If carotenoids were toxic, wouldn’t these plants deliver the same poison?
GMO critics didn’t seem to care how much beta carotene people ate, as long as the food wasn’t genetically engineered. They demanded extra safety tests on Golden Rice, on the grounds that “large doses of beta-carotene can have negative health effects.” But they shrugged off such vigilance in the case of home gardens, saying it was “not necessary to count the amount” of each vitamin consumed. They also advocated the mass administration of vitamin A through high-dose capsules and chemical manipulation of the food supply. By their own alarmist standards—which, fortunately, were unwarranted—this would have been reckless. The human body derives from beta carotene sources, such as Golden Rice, only as much vitamin A as it needs.
In the context of GMOs, Greenpeace claimed to stand for freedom. Its 2009 statement “Hands off our rice!” said “keeping rice GE-free” was an issue of “consumer choice” and “human rights.” The statement complained that GE rice was “controlled by multinational corporations and governments” and “severely limits the choice of food we can eat.” But as long as GMOs weren’t involved, Greenpeace was all for corporate and government control. It lauded the distribution of vitamin A and beta carotene capsules in “mass immunization campaigns.” It praised health officials and food-processing companies for putting vitamin A and beta carotene in sugar, margarine, and biscuits. It suggested that governments could “make fortification compulsory.”
In the Philippines, where Greenpeace was fighting to block field trials of Golden Rice, its hypocrisy was egregious. “It is irresponsible to impose GE 'Golden' rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it,” Greenpeace declared. But just below that pronouncement, Greenpeace recommended “vitamin A supplementation and vitamin fortification of foods as successfully implemented in the Philippines.” Under Philippine law, beta carotene and vitamin A had to be added to sugar, flour, and cooking oil prior to distribution. The government administered capsules to preschoolers twice a year, and to some pregnant women for 28 consecutive days. If Greenpeace seriously believed that retinoids caused birth defects and should be a matter of personal choice, it would never have endorsed these programs.
Despite this, the anti-GMO lobby went ballistic when scientists fed Golden Rice to 24 children during clinical trials in China. The trials, conducted in 2008, were designed to measure how much vitamin A the rice could generate in people who suffered from vitamin A deficiency. One group of kids was given Golden Rice, a second group was given beta carotene capsules, and a third was given spinach. The researchers found that a single serving of Golden Rice, cooked from 50 grams of grains, could supply 60 percent of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A. In a separate study, they found that an adult-sized serving could do the same for adults. Golden Rice was as good as capsules, and better than spinach, at delivering vitamin A.
When Greenpeace found out about the trials, it enlisted the Chinese government to stop them. It accused the researchers of using the kids as “guinea pigs.” In a letter to Tufts University, which was responsible for the trials, Schubert and 20 other anti-GMO scientists protested:
Our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.
In these circumstances the use of human subjects (including children who are already suffering illness as a result of Vitamin A deficiency) for GM feeding experiments is completely unacceptable.
For all the scare talk about beta carotene, Schubert and his colleagues never mentioned the kids who were given beta carotene capsules in the studies. Nor did Greenpeace. Their sole concern was the rice.
Supporters of Golden Rice were baffled. In a letter to the Daily Mail, six scientists wrote, “The experiments were no more dangerous than feeding the children a small carrot since the levels of beta-carotene and related compounds in Golden Rice are similar.” But anti-GMO groups were determined to discredit the studies. They discovered that although the consent forms given to the children’s parents said Golden Rice “makes beta carotene,” the forms didn’t specify that this had been achieved through gene transfer.
Greenpeace was outraged. Its press release titled “Greenpeace alarmed at US-backed GMO experiments on children” quoted a Greenpeace official in Asia: “The next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children. Should we allow ourselves to be subjects in a human experiment?” In another press release, Greenpeace questioned whether the Chinese parents were “properly informed of the risks.” Yet in the same statements, Greenpeace praised the Philippines for administering vitamin A to pregnant women and for putting beta carotene in the food supply.
Eventually, Tufts commissioned three reviews of the clinical trials. Two were internal; the third was external. The findings, released in 2013, confirmed that the reviews had “identified concerns” about “inadequate explanation of the genetically-modified nature of Golden Rice.” But the more important verdict was that “the study data were validated and no health or safety concerns were identified.” The university explained:
These multiple reviews found no concerns related to the integrity of the study data, the accuracy of the research results or the safety of the research subjects. In fact, the study indicated that a single serving of the test product, Golden Rice, could provide greater than 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in these children, which could significantly improve health outcomes if adopted as a dietary regimen.
This verdict didn’t suit opponents of Golden Rice. So they ignored it. For 16 years they’ve ignored every fact or finding that doesn’t fit their story. Their enmity is unappeasable; their alarmism is unfalsifiable. Take the question of allergies. In 2006, scientists found no allergens among the proteins in Golden Rice. The critics refused to accept this finding. They demanded additional tests. They said climate change could undermine the rice’s “genetic stability.” They claimed that unforeseen environmental interactions could cause unintended changes in the rice after several generations, and therefore, regulators should indefinitely delay its approval.
The critics openly advocate unattainable standards. ISIS says the “instability of transgenic lines” makes “proper safety assessment well nigh impossible.” Greenpeace says of Golden Rice:
It would not be a surprise if additional unexpected changes in the plant occurred, posing new risks to the environment or human health. … However, it is virtually impossible to look for unexpected effects—by definition, one cannot know what these effects might be, or where to look for them!
And these standards apply only to GMOs. They don’t apply to alternatives favored by the anti-GMO movement. Three years ago Greenpeace recommended marker-assisted selection—essentially, breeding guided by genetic analysis—as a better way to increase levels of beta carotene and other nutrients. One argument quoted in the Greenpeace report was that genetic engineering caused “unpredictable integration sites, copy numbers and often spontaneous rearrangements and losses”—in short, that it screwed up the DNA of the altered organism. Shortly afterward, a study found that Greenpeace had it backward: In rice, marker-assisted selection caused