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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 00 > Article

The GMO Controversy and the Ivory Tower

by Wayne A. Parrott and Andrew H. Paterson

The state exists for man, not man for the state. The same may be said of science [as of the state]. These are old phrases… I would hesitate to repeat them, were it not for the ever-recurring danger that they may be forgotten, especially in these days of organization and stereotypes.    - Albert Einstein

Whether engaged in basic or applied research, scientists believe their discoveries will benefit the public. In the age of the Internet, wireless phones, laser eye surgery and high-yielding crops, most would agree that basic research and resulting technologies help society.

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 the fallibility of science. No longer a passive recipient of technology, the public increasingly demands a role in the decisions of how new discoveries will be implemented.

No single development highlights this new public attitude more than the stormy reception of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 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.

Groups that oppose genetically engineered foods allege they are 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 additional safety testing and be labeled. All genetically modified foods currently 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 that are 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 did not. 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 nonGMO products is inevitable. And while the European community allows 2 percent of GMOs in nonGMO products, the United States lacks such a standard.

The outcry against GMOs surprised most scientists, considering the federal regulations superimposed on the already careful and rigorous peer-review process that has always been the arbiter of the validity of science. Ironically, many scientists found themselves and their motives attacked by organizations whose goals coincide with their own: the desire for 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 those goals.

With high-profile spokesmen like Prince Charles, the anti-GMO movement created widespread hysteria across Europe. As misinformation on GMOs 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 have not been so shy. From protests to street theater, rom newspaper ads to shareholder meetings, anti-GMO groups have pressed their message, using ecoterrorism and sensationalist terminology such as “frankenfoods.”

We are in an era when scientists must reach not only their peers but also the public with objective information about the benefits and consequences of their own work. Today’s scientists 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).

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.

The “genetic vulnerability” of many major crop gene pools and the growing concentration of germplasm ownership in the private sector reflect this diminished public investment. A partnership between activists and scientists might re-assert 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 now 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-nutritional 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.


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Parrott and Paterson

Wayne A. Parrott (left) is a professor in the department of crop and soil sciences; Andrew H. Paterson is a professor in the departments of crop and soil sciences, botany and genetics, and the director of the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies.

(Photo by Paul Efland)