Why GM food could help us feed the world without ruining the planet

Genetic modification of food is a subject that arouses passionate debate. But the issues are too important for dogma

Few scientific avenues are as controversial in the public mind as genetic modification of crops. Many scientists are allured by the potential to increase food production, reduce use of pesticides and, ultimately, save lives. Detractors regard GM food with suspicion and warn that scientists shouldn’t play God with nature. We need reasoned discussion – something that these five GM myths all too often blight.

Claim: GM foods are untested

This is not the case. GM foods have been tested to a huge degree, and numerous studies show no health or nutritional difference between GM and non-GM food . The World Health Organisation puts it succinctly: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population”. Claims linking GM foods to cancer, autism and various other ailments are also devoid of merit. GM food is incredibly tightly regulated in Europe; every new agent is subject to an intensive battery of tests and long-term trials by the European Food Safety Authority.

Claim: Monsanto is killing farmers/making terminator seeds

Other anti-GM activists are understandably concerned by what they see as the influence of corporations on farming. The US agriculture company Monsanto seems to get crowbarred into every misconception going. Many of the claims about the company are incendiary and outlandish. It is accused, for example, of causing the suicides of thousands of Indian cotton farmers who had become indebted to it. But these suicides peaked in 1995. Monsanto didn’t start selling modified cotton seeds there until 2002. A subsequent investigation by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that poor socioeconomic status, drought and overexposure to toxic pesticides were huge factors in the deaths. Another frequent claim is that Monsanto specialises in “terminator seeds” that are sterile and cannot reproduce, making farmers dependent on the firm. This persistent myth is also false. It is technically feasible to make sterile seeds, but Monsanto does not sell them (and in 1999 pledged never to explore that avenue).

Claim: GM research is all about big business

Much GM research is academic, humanitarian and free of intellectual-property issues. Golden rice is but one example. Up to 10 million children a year die of micronutrient deficiency in poor areas; because golden rice is genetically modified to have extra vitamin A, it can provide nutrition to the people who need it the most. Sadly, it has been doggedly opposed by organisations such as Greenpeace, on ideological rather than pragmatic grounds. This ideological pig-headedness is even more puzzling when one considers that GM advances could not only save millions of lives but also spare our environment the ravages of intensive farming and pesticides. This is often ignored by people who are ostensibly most concerned for the environment. Three years ago, in England, hundreds of protesters tried to destroy a field where genetically modified wheat was being tested by Rothamsted Research, an independent, nonprofit agricultural institution. Publicly funded researchers there had been working to produce a wheat with a naturally occurring plant pheromone that repelled aphids. Were it successful, farmers would no longer have to use potentially hazardous insecticides, substantially reducing our agricultural footprint. This would be an enormous boon to the developing world, where crop failure often means widespread death and suffering. In spite of the potential, protesters vowed to destroy the experiment, just as they have vowed to destroy many other research crops.

Claim: GM foods can kill lab animals

Despite the lack of evidence for any adverse health effects of GM foods, Prof Gilles-Éric Séralini, a vocal opponent of genetically modified organisms, caused a stir in 2012 when he claimed that rats fed with genetically modified maize died earlier than regular rats. Other scientists almost immediately found holes in Séralini’s claims, and on the basis of its numerous flaws his study was retracted. Despite this it has been republished, almost verbatim, by a different journal, with none of its worrisome scientific flaws addressed, cementing its dubiousness. Some anti-GM activists still cling to it, but the scientific and medical communities dismiss it as junk science.

Claim: GM food is unnatural

Objections to GM food based on the claim that they are unnatural is common but subjective, given the problematic definition of “natural”. We have been genetically modifying crops and animals for thousands of years, selectively breeding species for new and desirable traits, yet this genetic modification is simplistically considered “natural”. Transgenic techniques achieve the same aim more precisely, and so far no evidence suggests that they are somehow more intrinsically harmful than what we have done for millennia. This is a textbook example of the naturalistic fallacy, an essentilist view where “natural” things are seen as good and “unnatural” things as bad. Arsenic, uranium and Ebola are similarly natural, yet we wouldn’t sprinkle them on our breakfast cereal. The conflation of natural with healthy is a non sequitur that shouldn’t derail productive discussion.

These are just some of the common myths that circulate about GM food, too often shaping the tone of the conversation before it even begins. Yet with a world population set to hit nine billion by 2050 we cannot afford this blind reliance on dogma if we intend to feed the world without ruining the planet.

We cannot say with any certainty whether GM will be a big part of the solution, or even a feasible option, but answering this question requires research and pragmatism rather than poorly informed idealism. Science demands that even the most sincerely held belief be adjusted in the light of evidence – evidence that ideology all too often denies to preserve faith in an idea.

Until we learn to value evidence over rhetoric we will continue to let fear guide us, with detrimental consequences for all.

David Robert Grimes is a physicist and postdoctoral research associate at the Gray Laboratories at Oxford University