Published on 04/03/01

The GMO Controversy and the Ivory Tower

(The following editorial is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2000 issue of the University of Georgia's Research Reporter).

In the age of the Internet, laser eye surgery and high-yielding crops, most people would agree with scientists that basic research and resulting technologies help society.

UGA Photo: Paul Efland

Wayne Parrot (L)
Andrew Paterson (R).

But through events in which technology has fallen short -- from Three Mile Island to mad cow disease – the public has come face-to-face with science's fallibility. No longer a passive recipient of technology, the public increasingly demands a role in deciding how new discoveries will be implemented.

No single development highlights this new public attitude more than the stormy reception of genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically engineered products. The potential benefits of GMOs are enormous: not only increased crop yields, but also reductions in pesticide use, ground water contamination and mycotoxin levels.

'Unsafe, Untested'?

Groups that oppose genetically engineered foods allege they're unsafe, untested and unregulated – notions that gain support from high-profile publicity campaigns and imbalances in media coverage.

Just as the scientific data began to accumulate on the benefits of GMOs, companies like Gerber, Heinz, Seagram, McDonald's and Frito Lay began to avoid GMO ingredients. Now, the saga of StarLink corn in taco shells has led GMO critics to assume their worst fears have been realized.

GMOs are more highly regulated than any other food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates field-testing of GMO crops and any hazards they may pose to agriculture. The Food and Drug Administration determines whether GMO-derived products are equivalent to those currently on the market (and thus not subject to any extraordinary precautions) or are new products, which must undergo further safety testing and be labeled.

New Products Being Developed

All genetically modified foods now on the market fall under the first category, while several products under development fall under the second. Foods derived using genes from known allergens or from organisms outside the traditional human diet also are subject to heightened scrutiny.

The Environmental Protection Agency also must approve plants engineered with pesticidal properties, like StarLink corn. Erring on the side of caution, the EPA approved StarLink for animal feed only. Subsequently, it found no clear evidence that StarLink poses a human hazard, yet found no clear proof that it didn't.

The EPA wants conclusive results before clearing StarLink for human consumption and forwarding it to the FDA for further approval. The StarLink episode demonstrated that GMO contamination of non-GMO products is inevitable. And while the European Community allows 2 percent of GMOs in nonGMO products, the United States lacks such a standard.

Outcry Surprised Scientists

The outcry against GMOs surprised most scientists, considering the federal regulations imposed on the already rigorous peer-review process that has always decided the validity of science. Ironically, many scientists found themselves and their motives attacked by organizations whose goals coincide with their own: a safer, more stable and lower-cost food supply and responsible stewardship of the environment.

The disagreements lie not in the goals, but the best ways to meet them.

With high-profile spokesmen like Prince Charles, the anti-GMO movement created widespread hysteria across Europe. As misinformation spreads, many scientists feel they should stay out of the controversy and remain objective purveyors of unbiased information, safe within the Ivory Tower.

GMO Opponents Not Shy

GMO opponents haven't been so shy. From protests to street theater, from newspaper ads to shareholder meetings, anti-GMO groups have pressed their message, using ecoterrorism and sensationalist terms such as "frankenfoods."

But today's scientists must reach not only their peers but also the public with objective information about the benefits and consequences of their own work. They need to emulate the "activist scientist" roles of Albert Einstein (who vocally opposed militarism, Nazism, anti-Semitism and the careless use of nuclear weapons), Stephen Jay Gould (who defends the teaching of evolution) and Peter Raven and E.O. Wilson (who promote conservation).

The fact that most agricultural scientists and anti-GMO groups share a common set of goals would seem to be the foundation for a partnership, if only they could agree on the best approach. Genetic improvement has expanded agricultural production dramatically to meet the needs of the world's growing population. But agricultural research now receives a smaller portion of public research dollars than ever before.

'Genetic Vulnerability'

The "genetic vulnerability" of many major crop gene pools and the growing concentration of germ plasm ownership in the private sector reflect this diminished public investment. A partnership between activists and scientists might reassert these shared goals as national and even international priorities – before they are forced to the forefront by more widespread disasters such as have befallen Ethiopia in recent years.

Yet, as long as anti-GMO groups totally rule out a role for genetically modified crops, there may never be a consensus.

GMO technology is at a crossroads. Acceptance of GMO-derived products and crops will motivate further progress toward safer food, lower pesticide use, more sustainable agricultural practices and improved human health through more nutritious foods. Rejection of GMOs will likely exacerbate ecological problems as our current agricultural systems struggle to feed a growing world population.

The future of our food supply may well depend on who is most vocal and most convincing: protesters or scientists.

Andrew Paterson is a professor of crop and soil sciences, botany and genetics and director of the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies with the University of Georgia.

Wayne Parrott is a professor of crop and soil sciences with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.