Want some good news about GMOs? The Genetic Literacy Project is there. GLP posts a daily newsletter about the science behind GMOs, other food issues, and COVID. I am taking advantage of the free subscription to the newsletter. It does present the other side of the story from what we read in popular media. Although based in science, the site defends a point of view. I use my training in critical thinking to study both sides of an issue. Many of the articles GLP refers us to are from other sites. Many of those sites need either paid subscriptions or registration. Here are some of the articles that caught my eye in recent days:
GMO eggplants in Bangladesh. A long-term research project paired scientists from Cornell and Bangladesh. They introduced GMO eggplant (brindal) to the east Asian country. Bt brindal contains a biopesticide which targets undesirable insects. The brindal is nontoxic to humans and other mammals. Conventional brindal crops need high levels of insecticides. Bt technology lowers pesticide requirements. Bangladesh has serious infrastructure problems. Its roads are not compatible with national distribution. The modified fruit is more prone to show up in local markets. The introduction was not without problems. Resistance to insects did not confer resistance to disease. Application of some fungicides lowered incidence of disease. Total levels of agricultural chemicals declined. Researchers noted that the four varieties approved do not grow well in some regions.
Anti-GMO activists who attempted to shut down the project were unsuccessful. Mark Lynas defended adoption of GMO brindal. Commercialization of the vegetable was successful. The advanced brindal is more sustainable with higher yields and less waste. More money funnels back to local growers who are not displaced by the technology. USAID funded the project.
The promise of Golden Rice now faces a test in the Philippines. After long delays, the government has approved growing the crop in Filipino fields. Introduction of Golden Rice seeks to decrease vitamin A deficiency and child blindness. The most serious micronutrient deficiencies around the world are vitamin A and iron. Biofortification is the process of incorporating vitamin A into rice. Inserting pro-vitamin A into the rice yields a yellow or golden color. The idea is to work within a rice-eating culture to improve nutritional quality of a food staple. The Greenpeace idea to let them eat kale does not consider the predominant culture.
Golden Rice is not without potential problems. Will it grow in different regions of the Philippines to provide enough rice for children at risk? Will children eat yellow rice instead of brown or white rice? Will consumption of the GMO rice be enough to decrease vitamin A deficiency? How many years will it take to learn if its introduction was successful? Much is riding on the results. Golden Rice is a stalking horse for many other GMOs like biofortified bananas. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the rice research.
Are we near the end of coffee, chocolate, and exotic spices in America? These beverages, foods, and ingredients were once luxuries. Now they have become necessary for daily living. Coffee, chocolate, and spices are much desired and not local. They travel the globe to get to our homes. Climate change makes it more difficult to grow these items at current locations.
These crops are not planted and harvested in the same year. It takes years to establish new crops in other locations. Ghana and Ivory Coast may become less suitable for chocolate production. Climate change threatens Madagascar, a prime source of vanilla beans. Coffee is more likely to survive because of its many growing locations. Climate change could lead to regional outages and steep price increases. Plant diseases threaten these commodities. Insects and other pests reduce yield and quality of the crops. At the same time outside groups pressure local growers to reduce the use of pesticides. Greater dependence on distant supply chains could lower availability and increase prices.
Is opposition to GMOs around the world fading? Mark Lynas illustrates the triumph of the anti-GMO movement in Seeds of Science. Is the attitude toward biotechnology changing? Will we see GMOs start taking over agriculture soon? The Genetic Literacy Project paints this picture of a new beginning. Most current GMOs are either corn, cotton, or soybeans. There are many reasons that the technology was no embraced in developing nations. Europe is skeptical of its benefits. Africa’s colonial heritage and European trade relationships kept GMOs off the continent.
Activists invoke the Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Name three activities Americans practice that do not violate this principle. I can’t. Large population growth occurs in countries unable to feed their current populations. African nations are vulnerable. USAID promotes projects to incorporate biotechnology into staple crops to feed the hungry. Africa has adopted few GMOs to this point. Is that about to change? Time will tell.
Leading countries in crop biotechnology innovation are now outside the US and UK. When I was attending plant biology meetings American and British genetic scientists dominated. I toured biotech labs in California, Delaware, and England. Now innovation is thriving overseas in countries that need the technology the most. Corn, soy, and cotton are the major crops grown as GMOs. They are gaining in ground in Asian and Latin American countries. Cassava, an important staple in Africa, may be the next GMO on the continent. The primary targets of modification are insect and disease resistance. Adaptability to changes in regional climates is also of importance.
Is agroecology the answer to solving world hunger? While an advocate for genetic engineering, the GLP site links to opposing articles. One article appeared in Scientific American by Raj Patel. In a passionate advocacy for agroecology, Patel calls out Bill Gates and his embrace of GMOs. “Agroecology applies ecology and social science to the creation and management of sustainable food systems.” The interconnected principles serve to conserve water and recycle nutrients. Unlike advanced farming technology agroecology does not evict small farmers from their land. Fighting hunger in Malawi shows how agroecology works and how biotechnology does not. Agroecology works within native culture and involves input from women in the process. For it to work, agroecology must embed itself into the social construct of the community.
The good news and bad news about bees. In my mailbox this morning I received an appeal from NRDC. “America’s bees are dying at an alarming rate. Help us take on Bayer, a leading maker of bee-killing pesticides,” screams the envelope. Is this accurate? Not according to the Economic Research Service of the USDA. The good news is that the bee population is going back up in the USA. The bad news is that honey production is still down from before the drop in population. It is interesting that pollination services make beekeepers more money than producing honey. Who are you going to believe—NRDC or USDA? Note to all honey lovers: honey is still sugar. The nutritional detriments outweigh its nutritional benefits.
Encouraging debate about GMOs and other food issues is a hallmark of the GLP site. Yes, it is a strong proponent of genetic modification and other agricultural technologies. It presents a side of the issue that rarely gets reported in modern media. Unlike the anti-GMO tracts that bombard us daily, GLP presents a more nuanced view. We learn about the promise and limitations of GMOs in eggplant and rice. The Scientific American article presents an alternate view of GMOs. GLP calls out misinformation about the bees and other aspects of the debate. Critical thinkers must never rely on a few websites, including mine. We should consider differing positions on an issue before making up our minds. We should also be ready to change perspectives as new information becomes available. Or what’s a human mind for?
Next week: Processed weaning foods to fight malnutrition in Africa