Europe's Coalition of the Ignorant on genetically modified foods?
Well-fed Europeans are seen as generally pro-science on climate change but anti-science on genetically modified food and in recent days have been called the Coalition of the Ignorant. By October a total of 19 EU countries or regions within them, have “opted out” of growing genetically modified organism (GMOs)-based crops within all or part of their territories — Austria, Belgium for the Wallonia region, Britain for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement in 2012:
The EU...has invested more than €300m in research on the biosafety of GMOs. Its recent report states: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, native of Ireland and European commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, also commented in 2012:
Biotechnologies could provide us with useful tools in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, food production and industry. Crop production will have to cope with rapidly increasing demand while ensuring environmental sustainability. Preservation of natural resources and the need to support the livelihoods of farmers and rural populations around the world are major concerns. In order to achieve the best solutions, we must consider all the alternatives for addressing these challenges using independent and scientifically sound methods. These alternatives include genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their potential use..According to the findings of these projects GMOs potentially provide opportunities to reduce malnutrition, especially in lesser developed countries, as well as to increase yields and assist towards the adaptation of agriculture to climate change. But we clearly need strong safeguards to control any potential risks.
The main conclusion to be drawn:
from the efforts of more than 130 research projects;
covering a period of more than 25 years of research;
involving more than 500 independent research groups;
There is no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
This year a joint statement published in Environmental Sciences Europe, a journal, and developed and signed by over 300 independent researchers, "does not assert that GMOs are unsafe or safe. Rather, the statement concludes that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs. Claims of consensus on the safety of GMOs are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature."
Mark Lynas, the political director for the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University, writes in an op-ed piece in Sunday's edition of The New York Times
the chilling effect on biotech science in Europe will be dramatic: Why would anyone spend years developing genetically modified crops in the knowledge that they will most likely be outlawed by government fiat? In effect, the Continent is shutting up shop for an entire field of human scientific and technological endeavor. This is analogous to America’s declaring an automobile boycott in 1910, or Europe’s prohibiting the printing press in the 15th century.
He says last November, Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission president, chose not to reappoint Prof Anne Glover as his science adviser "after lobbying by Greenpeace and other environmental groups" — Juncker has been his own adviser since.
Mark Lynas adds that the European Academies Science Advisory Council, the leading voice of science in Europe, lamented in 2013: “The EU is falling behind international competitors in agricultural innovation and this has implications for EU goals for science and innovation.”
Meanwhile, despite the growth bans "Europe imports over 30m tons per year of corn and soy-based animal feeds, the vast majority of which are genetically modified, for its livestock industry. Imports are preferred to European crops partly because biotech traits make them cheaper. Yet these same traits — such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance — are now widely barred from domestic use."
There may well be more risks from food produced by conventional means than GMO-based foods — New York Times Magazine 2013: The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
The Pew Research Center reported last Thursday that it asked a general US population sample a handful of questions about genetically modified (GM) foods. Pew says the findings show a public largely wary of GM foods, with a majority saying such foods are generally unsafe to eat (57%), whereas 37% say such foods are safe. Further, most adults – 67% – express skepticism that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops, while 28% say scientists do.
On foods generally, that are grown with pesticides, 69% of US adults say such foods generally are unsafe to eat, while 28% say such foods are safe.
The Atlantic Monthly in 1997 said that:
“Norman Borlaug has already saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived.”
Dr Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), an American scientist who became known as the Father of the Green Revolution, began work in Mexico in 1944 on a Rockefeller Foundation-funded project to cut the loss of wheat production due to stem rust, an infectious fungus. Borlaug developed simple techniques for cross-breeding, harvesting, and planting seeds in order to produce unusually disease-resistant strains of wheat. The result was a striking growth in wheat yields. By 1963, largely due to Borlaug's techniques, Mexico was producing six times as much wheat per year as in the year before Borlaug's arrival.
The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament in 1970 awarded Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize "because, more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace."
In 2007 Prof M.S. Swaminathan, president, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India, said at a Congressional Medal of Honor award ceremony for Norman Borlaug at the Capitol, Washington DC:
The impact of the Borlaug-led Green Revolution symphony will be clear from the fact that during 1964-68, Indian farmers increased wheat production in four years by an order greater than that achieved during the preceding 4000 years.
Also in 2007, the late Alexander Claud Cockburn, who had been reared by his British parents in Ireland, made an extraordinary attack on Borlaug:
Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose "green revolution" wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.
Critics charged that Borlaug's high-yield wheat and rice seeds required a lot of fertiliser and water.
Borlaug's response was that he had intended his work to fight hunger, rather than to solve the world's socio-economic problems that existed from time immemorial. "The Green Revolution," he argued, "is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia."
With climate change set to damage poor tropical countries in particular, some choices will have to be made that have risks. The choice of letting people die to await the better ones will not be an option.
Borlaug was quoted in a New York Times blog post in 2008:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. They have never produced a ton of food. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 60 years, they'd be crying out for fertilizer, herbicides, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Pic on top: A field of herbicide tolerant canola in Western Australia.