By Ritika Sood
WASHINGTON — In a three-day summit on science, spirituality, and the environment on Oct 1, 2018, in Rajasthan, India, prominent anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) activist Vandana Shiva declared that “chemical farming” — the use of GMO technology to increase crop yields — was to blame for climate change. 1,000 kilometers south in Maharashtra, a farmers’ cooperative organized an alternative conference dedicated to supporting agricultural technology freedom and the use of herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton despite its nationwide ban. These are two opposing viewpoints that govern the GMO debate. An analysis of GMO concerns in India and Europe reveal that these viewpoints are influenced more by cultural norms and political discourse than objective scientific fact.
Lack of substantial and conclusive information on GMO safety, coupled with little fact-driven discourse from influential individuals, has generated a wide range of concerns regarding GMO use. Drawing parallels to public acceptance of other technologies provides a more insightful understanding of the GMO debate. According to Steven Pinker, modern technologies are widely-accepted norms because of their long-lasting history of proven safety and tactful dissemination of scientific information. Time and public education generate widespread acceptance. In the case of GMOs, however, inconclusiveness has engendered divergent public opinions, causing society to be more hesitant in its support for GMOs. This can be attributed to GMOs’ close interaction with food and health, which are strongly linked to culture and politics.
Adoption of GMO technologies in India and other parts of the world has sparked ethical concerns around fading agricultural traditions, such as seed saving and monopoly boosting, which raise food prices for the poor. These concerns are largely anecdotal, not backed by science and have impacted public policy in countries around the world.
Consider the development of GMO policy in the United States and the European Union. In the former, farming systems have always been more technologically advanced due to its export effectiveness as opposed to Europe’s more subsistence-driven agriculture. The United States is therefore more accepting of GMOs.
On the other hand, European culture is more closely linked with strong cultural food systems. Europe’s conservative GMO policy is seconded by the 2015 Institute of Medicine workshop on food literacy and effective communication. Notable practitioners and academics predominately concluded that food systems are closely linked with culture, traditions and community sentiments. Likewise, any partial deviation from tradition can cause cultural and perceptive agitation. This conclusion can cautiously be applied to the global public sentiment about GMO technology.
There are three main scientific arguments supporting GMOs: GMO products are very similar to existing foods, there’s almost no difference between traditional breeding methods and genetic engineering and the vast majority of the scientific community believes GMO products are safe for consumption.
Despite these arguments there’s sustained skepticism. For example, BT cotton, a pest-resistant variety, was initially very successful in India, and approximately 90 percent of cotton fields began sowing BT seeds, resulting in a 100 percent increase in yields. Economies of scale reduced the cost of BT significantly, though its unit price remained higher relative to conventional seeds. Higher prices caused counterfeits to flood India’s seed market, leading to crop failures throughout the country. This provided an opportunity for critics like Shiva to stir public outrage while turning a blind eye to the scientific and economic realities.
In Europe, a prominent scandal involving Hungarian biochemist Árpád Pusztai in the 1990s illustrated the disinformation surrounding GMOs. Pusztai investigated possible health and environmental hazards of GMO foods and shared his preliminary results on television that only highlighted the shortcomings of GMOs. His inconclusive study showcased potential negative impacts of GMOs, triggering demands for government action. Academic investigations concluded that Pusztai delivered his study on irresponsible grounds and he was dismissed from the research center, but not before engendering public distrust of GMOs. The European incident led to two different public opinions worldwide: GMO supporters accused Pusztai of scientific irresponsibility, while GMO skeptics continued to cite his research. These conflicting schools of thought have since governed the narrative for the region and the world.
The Shiva and Pusztai cases clearly demonstrate how GMO opposition groups’ safety concerns are influenced by culture and political systems while ignoring scientific evidence. Decades of research on GMOs have reduced the worst fears that were expressed in their early stages. Notwithstanding scattered criticism of GMOs, scientists and researchers from credible institutions such as the AMA, Royal Society and World Health Organization (WHO) affirm that GMO-based foods are as safe as conventional foods.
Yet, critics like Shiva have argued that scientists produce biased assessments favoring GMO producers. Most critics base their judgement of GMOs on research that’s one-inch deep and a mile wide. However, with ever-increasing pressure on resources, GMOs can play a huge role in ensuring food security. This technology cannot be dismissed. It is vitally important to effectively communicate its benefits at a grassroots level and build trust with the broader public.