Food Fight: The Battle Over GMOs

The public is worried about GMOs. Scientists aren’t.

March 2022

Script

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The year: 2013.

The place: The Philippines.

The situation: a group of scientists experimenting with a new variety of rice rich in vitamin A.

Now, if that sounds unimportant to you, it … probably means you live in a pretty wealthy country.

But in the poorest parts of the world, the lack of vitamin A in their diets leads to as many as half a million children going blind every year.i And within 12 months of losing their sight … half of them are dead.ii

Imagine being able to cure all that suffering … with rice.

It should have been a great story, right? Science bringing forth technology with the potential to save millions of lives.

Well, it would’ve been — if it wasn’t for one small detail: the group of protesters who destroyed the rice fields.iii

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

As problems facing humanity go, here’s one of the most basic: We’ve gotta eat.

Now, many of us have the luxury of not thinking of it as a problem because we’ve made such incredible strides in reducing hunger in the last several decades. We’ve never been able to get so much food to so many people. Although it’s worth remembering that how good that progress looks really depends on where you live.

But hang on a minute: How did all of this happen? After all, people have worried for centuries that the world’s population would grow faster than its food supply and lead to mass starvation. Yet this reduction in hunger … was happening at the exact same time that the world’s population was exploding.

If you’re looking for someone to thank for this, you should probably start with Norman Borlaug. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know that name. Most of us don’t — but that’s pretty messed up considering that he “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.”iv Over a billion.v

Those aren’t our words, by the way — they’re the words that accompanied his Congressional Gold Medal. Which he put on the shelf next to his Presidential Medal of Freedom. And his Nobel Peace Prize.

Ok, yeah: Maybe we should feel a little bad for not knowing his name. I mean, c’mon, we all know who Joe Exotic is.

Norman Borlaug was the leading pioneer of what was called the Green Revolution, a transformational breakthrough in the middle of the 20th century that fundamentally changed how the world feeds itself.

At the center of this success: Borlaug’s development of new varieties of wheat that could resist disease and produce vastly more food on the same amount of land.vi In India and Pakistan, wheat yields doubled in only five years.vii As that technology spread around the globe and was applied to other crops, huge chunks of the world were kept from starvation.

So, Norman Borlaug: maybe one of the greatest people who ever lived, right?

Oh, before you answer, there’s one more detail you should know: the wheat produced with his techniques … were basically an early form of genetically modified organisms . GMOs.

Soooo … awkward, right? Not exactly a crowd-pleaser.

A 2015 Pew survey found that a majority of Americans don’t think GMO foods are safe to eat .viii But the same poll found a notable exception to that trend. Eighty-eight percent of scientists said they were safe to eat.ix

So, what do they know that the rest of us don’t? Well, for starters: That almost any organism that humans have domesticated has already been genetically modified . Thanks to generations of selective breeding, for instance, many of the foods you love … are nothing like they were in nature.

This even applies to our pets. Honestly, do you think this is a thing that God would have created?

Now, a lot of us don’t find that fact all that comforting. It still feels like splicing genes in a lab is fundamentally different than selective breeding done over generations.

Which it is … but, probably not in the way you think. If you’re looking for one specific gene — say, the ability to make a crop more nutritious or more resistant to parasites — you can’t pinpoint it through natural breeding, which is neither precise nor wholly predictable. You might get what you’re looking for, but you also might get a whole bunch of other things you didn’t intend. The breeding that gives Dalmatians their signature look, for instance … also leaves about 1 in 5 of them deaf. x

GMOs allow for more precision. They’ve allowed us to do things like saving Hawaii’s papaya cropsxi from being wiped out by a virus; creating corn that is resistant to pestsxii — which, incidentally, cut the use of pesticides by about 425 million pounds. It’s even given us apples that don’t brown.

Which is all great, but … is it safe?

Well, in 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine examined over 900 studies and concluded that there’s no difference in the health risks from GMO foods and conventionally grown foods.xiii None. And pretty much every major scientific organization has come to the same conclusion — everybody from the FDAxiv to the American Medical Associationxv to the World Health Organization.xvi

They all agree that GMOs should be carefully regulated to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences. But we do that already … and there haven’t been any. And also, remember: Those same risks are present for conventional crops too.

So, when you see those “GMO-free” labels in the grocery store … they don’t mean much. Especially, for example, when you see things like non-GMO salt.xvii Come on people, salt doesn’t even have genes in the first place!

Those of us in rich nations have the luxury to eat what we want. So, if GMOs skeeve us out, we can leave them on the shelves.

But in the developing world? Fears about GMOs delayed the approval of that life-saving rice by over a decade in the Philippines … while kids died. xviii And, despite the support of over 100 Nobel laureatesxix … that’s the only country in the developing world that’s even allowed it.

Sorry, scientific geniuses. It’s gonna take more than that to get the world’s attention. May we suggest threatening to kill Carole Baskin?

Sources

  1. Vitamin A Deficiency — World Health Organization
  2. Ibid.
  3. "Activists Destroy 'Golden Rice' Field Trial" (Kai Kupferschmidt)  Science
  4. Congressional Tribute to Dr. Norman  E. Borlaug Act of 2006 — 109th Congress of the United States
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Norman Borlaug, Plant Scientist Who Fought Famine, Dies at 95" (Justin Gillis) — New York Times
  7. About Dr. N. E. Borlaug — Pakistan Agricultural Research Council
  8. "5 Key Findings on What Americans and Scientists Think About Science" (Cary Funk) — Pew Research Center
  9. Ibid.
  10. Prevalence and Prevention of Deafness in the Dalmatian (J.L. Wood, K. H. Lakhani) — National Library of Medicine
  11. "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops" (Amy Harmon) — New York Times
  12. Environmental Impacts of Genetically Modified (GM) Crop Use — GM Crops & Food
  13. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects — The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 
  14. Agricultural Biotechnology — U.S. Food & Drug Administration
  15. "GMO Foods Don’t Need Special Label, American Medical Assn. Says" (Rosie Mestel) — Los Angeles Times 
  16. Food, Genetically Modified — World Health Organization
  17. "Food Goes ‘GMO Free’ With Same Ingredients" (Ilan Brat) — Wall Street Journal
  18. Philippines Approves Commercial Use of Genetically Engineered Rice — Reuters
  19. "107 Nobel Laureates Sign Letter Blasting Greenpeace Over GMOs" (Joel Achenback) — Washington Post

Shownotes

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FOOTAGE | AMA // Reuters: Enrico Dela Cruz // Ben Zinner, USAID // National Academies Press // National Geographic // London News // Nations Online // Government of the Philippines: Philippine Department of Agriculture Regional Field Unit 5 // Norman Borlaug: Revolutionary: National Agricultural Chemicals Association / Association-Sterling Films // Genetically Modified Corn – Environmental Benefits and Risks Gewin: John Doebley //World Health Organization // Texas A&M University: Borlaug Institute // FDA: The U.S. Food & Drug Administration // Encyclopedia of Food: Artemas Ward // A Date with Your Family: Simmel-Meservey // Dining Together: Children’s Productions // I Am: Wombat Productions // Bethel Community Dinner: PegTV // Netflix: Tiger King (2020) // John B. Woodward: Thomas Hart Benton // Giovanni Stanch Dei Fiori //John Novotny // Martin Lorenz // Getty: Darren McCollester / Staff, Justin Case, Peter Dazeley, STR / Stringer, David Greedy / Stringer, China Photos / Stringer, Alex Wong / Staff, Steve Eason / Stringer, Pedro Vilela / Stringer, Jes Aznar / Stringer, Dondi Tawatao / Stringer, Burazin, Cavan Images, Hadynyah, Kiatanan Sugsompian, Kmatta, Adrianna Duduleanu / EyeEm, CR Shelare, David Madison, NicolasMcComber, Excentric_01, AaronAmat // Adobe Stock: Drobot Dean, Fotofabrika, Elnur, AB Photography, Igor Dudchak, Vankad, Bmarya83, Dmitriy Syechin, Magann, Kisscsanad // Flickr: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Domiriel, Aqua Mechanical, // Pexels: Pineapple Supply Co., Polina Tankilevitch, Alleksana // Pixabay: AndreyC, Nomad2326, JuliusH, WikiCommons, 588ku, LPuo // Storyblocks: ConceptCafe, Stockbusters, ODesigns, Vivekfx, AdiGrosu, Rivetstudio, Dan Jesperson, Berkerdag, Fredmantel, Syda Productions, RuckZack, Jakerbreaker, Ingus, Eduard_M // Unsplash: Bernard Hermant, Dennis Siqueira, Mariana Ibanez // FreePNGImg: Brett Croft // Okanagan Specialty Fruits // Amazon: Natierra // Assianir //Rosalee Yagihara // Scott Ehardt //Ba Gyee Soe // Nature42 // Fvasconcellos // Tamago915 // Thomas Robert Malthus // Warut Roonguthai //StarPNG: Saksham // കാക്കര // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. World Health Organization
    Vitamin A Deficiency 
  2. Science
    "Activists Destroy 'Golden Rice' Field Trial" (Kai Kupferschmidt)
  3. 109th Congress of the United States
    Congressional Tribute to Dr. Norman  E. Borlaug Act of 2006
  4. New York Times
    "Norman Borlaug, Plant Scientist Who Fought Famine, Dies at 95" (Justin Gillis)
  5. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council
    About Dr. N. E. Borlaug 
  6. Pew Research Center
    "5 Key Findings on What Americans and Scientists Think About Science" (Cary Funk)
  7. National Library of Medicine
    Prevalence and Prevention of Deafness in the Dalmatian (J.L. Wood, K. H. Lakhani)
  8. New York Times
    "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops" (Amy Harmon)
  9. GM Crops & Food
    Environmental Impacts of Genetically Modified (GM) Crop Use 
  10. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
    Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects
  11. U.S. Food & Drug Administration
    Agricultural Biotechnology
  12. Los Angeles Times
    "GMO Foods Don’t Need Special Label, American Medical Assn. Says" (Rosie Mestel)
  13. World Health Organization
    Food, Genetically Modified
  14. Wall Street Journal
    "Food Goes ‘GMO Free’ With Same Ingredients" (Ilan Brat)
  15. Reuters
    Philippines Approves Commercial Use of Genetically Engineered Rice 
  16. Washington Post
    "107 Nobel Laureates Sign Letter Blasting Greenpeace Over GMOs" (Joel Achenback)

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