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GMOs and Science: What have we learned?

By Peter H. Raven
Pontifical Academician and Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden
September, 2004

Speech given during the ongoing debates at the Vatican conference concerning genetically modified organisms.

It is my pleasure today to present a summary of current scientific views of the potential positive and negative effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). My comments will be based primarily on the “Study Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Food Plants” to Combat Hunger in the World (Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2001), also taking into account the statement by the academies of science of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Third World Academy of Sciences published on their behalf by the Royal Society in 2000 .

These are summary consensus documents that represent well the views of the world scientific community on the issues involved, and they are in agreement with other studies published over the past 30 years.

The explosive growth of the human population from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 6.3 billion today, coupled with the desire by people around the world to achieve higher standards of living (more consumption) and the use of often unsuitable technologies has resulted in the loss of 20% of the arable land that was available in 1950, and nearly 20% of the topsoil.

Some 700 million people, about equal to the combined populations of Europe, the United States, and Japan, are literally starving, receiving less than 80% of the UN-recommended minimum caloric intake, and therefore unable to experience proper brain development as infants or maintain their body mass as adults . As many as half of the total population of the world is malnourished with respect to one or more essential nutrients.

Half of the global population consists of people who are living on less than $2 per day. Thus there is an urgent need to achieve higher levels of productivity in agriculture everywhere to help alleviate these problems.

Any effort to deny access to technologies that are demonstrably helpful in feeding the people of the world must for this reason be judged from a moral and ethical point of view in relation to its real, not imagined, effects on human welfare.

It is important in this connection to realize that we are estimated currently to be consuming the productive capacity of our planet at 120% of its continuing output. Some 55% of total net terrestrial photosynthetic capacity is currently being used, wasted, or diverted by human beings; in addition, we are consuming an estimated 45% of the total sustainable supplies of fresh water. Our demands for water, about 90% of it used for agriculture, are growing rapidly, while the water table is dropping precipitously across wide areas of north China, India, and elsewhere. For these reasons it is predicted that about half the human population, some 3.5 billion people, will be living in regions facing severe water shortages by 2025. We therefore must find improved crops that can tolerate drought better than those than the strains we cultivate now.

Overall, it is estimated that at least two billion additional people are likely to be added to the world population before it can reach stability, and some of the societies in which individuals consume the most are advocating population growth again now. For all of the countries of the world at their present population levels to reach the current standard of living of the industrialized countries would require the productivity of approximately two additional copies of the planet Earth . All of this must, therefore, be judged against the background of a world in which a sixth of us are starving, and half of us are malnourished and living in extreme poverty, with at least two billion more people being added over the next few decades and expectations for even greater levels of consumption endemic to human beings everywhere.

Those who sidetrack new and helpful technologies on the basis of fanciful and sometimes self-serving arguments must therefore be judged in the light of the effects of their arguments on people everywhere, and not simply on the rich societies where most of those who protest the use of modern technologies enjoy lives of abundance. Colorful and threatening terms such as "contamination," "release," and "spillage" have been applied to the cultivation and dissemination of such crops, not to mention even less reasonable ones, such as "Frankenfoods" and "Terminator Genes," but these terms, which reflect a lack of logic and careful consideration, have no place in rational discourse. In the following remarks, I shall concentrate on scientific questions but also address some related considerations briefly as a part of my presentation.

First, I would like to mention that questions concerning the acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the problems that they might pose have been taken seriously ever since the development of recombinant DNA technologies 31 years ago (1973). Following conferences and consultations by the leading molecular biologists, careful containment of the first organisms produced by the transfer of genes from one unrelated kind of organism to another, and detailed examination of the results in hundreds of laboratories throughout the world, it has become clear that there is nothing intrinsic to the process of genetic modification by the production of transgenic organisms that makes them unsafe in any respect.

Like the many other methods that have been used to modify crops since the dawn of agriculture some 10,500 years ago, transgenic methods must be judged on the basis of their products, and not the methods by which they were produced. Idiosyncratic arguments are sometimes presented by those arguing against the adoption of GMOs, presumably for social or other reasons, but the facts reviewed by thousands of independent scientists throughout the world for three decades make this point as certain as any scientific conclusion can be. We should not therefore conduct our discussions of this matter in an atmosphere of murky, imagined threats, but rather in the light of world scientific consensus as to the safety of the methods involved. There is simply no justification for regarding imprecise traditional methods of transferring genetic traits as safe, but modern precise ones as unsafe, and we must more forward from that point as rapidly as possible.

Secondly, concerning the use of GMOs to produce food, there is no theory or set of theories that contradicts the generally accepted conclusion that those currently in use are safe as food for human beings and domestic animals, and no single case of illness resulting from consuming foods produced by GMOs, even though billions of people throughout the world use them regularly. Most beer and cheese consumed worldwide is made with the aid of GMOs, as are hundreds of different medicines.

As in the first point, arguments about the lack of safety of these foods are apparently ideologically driven, lacking a factual basis. Obviously it would be possible to produce a poisonous food with the help of gene-splicing techniques, but who would do this or put it on the market? No foods consumed by human beings are tested as extensively as those produced by GMOs, and there is no evidence of any lack of safety in such foods. To discuss these questions on the basis of an imaginary threat to human health is misleading and ought not to be acceptable to the members of a rational society.

Third, the ecological effects of GMOs differ according to the properties of the individual transgenic organism. Gene flow between species is a regular feature of most groups of plants , and, depending on the pollination systems of the groups involved, may extend over long distances. Studies recently reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have demonstrated the Roundup Ready genes in bentgrass can be disseminated more than 20 km to natural populations. When wild or weedy relatives of GM crops grow near them, it can be assumed, and has been widely demonstrated, that gene flow is likely to occur .

Consequently, the transgenes introduced into the crops are likely to be present in some or many of their relatives, the proportion depending on the selective advantage of that particular gene in the wild or weedy populations. But then what? It all depends on the role of the transgenes in the wild or weedy populations. If they are resistant to a particular herbicide, would that in itself be harmful? Would the ability to produce natural insecticides make them more serious weeds? Are they likely to harm natural communities in some unknown way? The kinds of questions we should be asking would be along the lines of "what if the wild relatives of sunflower in the United States produced an insecticide? what then?" rather than, "did the genes escape?" And "Could any kind of maize survive in nature?" not "What will genetically modified maize do to natural habitats where it is grown?" Is the spread of genes from GM bentgrass worse than the spread of other genes from cultivated plants that has been going on for some 10,500 years? To create such a straw man flies in the face of
logic: it all depends on the particular characteristics, and not on how they reached the plants in which they occur.

There is no ecological theory that supports the idea of wild plants acquiring a transgene and then wrecking havoc in a natural community, but plenty of examples of introduced, invasive plants that have not been genetically modified playing such a role. While common sense must be a guiding principle, it is not logical to imagine consequences that have never been observed at the cost of denying people access to food or adequate economic return for their efforts. Simply to repeat the claim that widespread problems are likely to occur, or that the operation of nature is so mysterious that we can never know what will happen denies logic and flies in the face of the available facts at the cost of hungry people who deserve better treatment from those of us who are so much more fortunate than them.

I have spent my life in fostering efforts to understand biodiversity and to conserve it, and in helping to build capacity for sustainability in developing countries around the world. I therefore find it most distressing that the very techniques that could spare biodiversity and feed hungry people are so often being retarded for illogical and selfish reasons. It is unquestionably true that the development of crop agriculture, along with the domestication of animals, which began about 10,500 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean region, has been and remains extremely negative for the survival of biodiversity. The areas devoted to agriculture and grazing have grown as the human population exploded to its present 6.3 billion. Some 11% of our planet's surface is devoted to the production of crops, and an additional 20% is grazed, usually unsustainably. The "cleaner" the agriculture, the worse for biodiversity.

None of this in itself has anything to do with the particular genetic methods used to produce the crops, although the less land that can be cultivated for an equivalent amount of production, the better for the survival of biodiversity in adjacent areas. Nothing is more destructive to biodiversity that widespread, low-yield, traditional methods of agriculture, and it is highly misleading to romanticize them, as if all were in harmony before there were so many of us that agriculture was intensified. The estinction by Polynesians of about 1,000 species of birds (about a tenth of the world's total bird species) on the Pacific islands, along with an unknown number of other kinds of organisms, during a period about about 1,200 years, offers one kind of solid evidence to the fact that all agriculture (combined in this case with hunting) is highly destructive to biodiversity. If the world's population is to be fed well, and starvation is be alleviated for the hundreds of millions of people who are suffering now, agriculture must become more productive. The development of GM crops, with precisely determined characteristics that make them survive well in the extremely diverse places that they are grown promises major increases in productivity and a greatly enhanced ability to preserve biodiversity.

As to the reduction of diversity in the crops themselves, that is a long-term process that has little to do with the application of current methods. It is often argued that GM methods are suitable only for large-scale agriculture and that their introduction has led to the reduction eliminated variety in the crops, but that is simply not the case. Certainly large farms tend to have less genetic diversity in their crops than an equal area occupied by small ones, but there is no logical connection between that observation and the use of transgenic methods to produce the crops. For example, more than 500 strains of soybeans in the United States, each adapted to a particular agricultural situation, have been genetically engineered, and the whole array of strains that was present initially, with all of its genetic diversity, is still being used commercially.

There is no reason in principle why minor crops grown by small-scale farmers cannot be genetically modified to make them more nutritious, better able to grow in dry or saline habitats, or whatever else is desired, thus actually helping to maintain crop genetic diversity. If smaller amounts of pesticides are applied, the case with many GM crops, the survival of biodiversity will be enhanced; for example, an estimated 70 million birds are killed by pesticide applications on croplands annually in the United States alone! Lessening the use of pesticides will also help to alleviate the estimated 500,000 cases of sickness and 5,000 deaths around the world that occur annually now as a result of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Despite heavy applications of pesticides, especially in Europe, there is an estimated global loss of $244 billion in crops per year, and the applications of these chemicals have serious negative consequences for the environment. In this connection, it has been estimated that if half the maize, oilseed rape, sugar beet, and cotton grown in Europe were genetically modified to resist their pests, there would be a reduction of about 14.5 million kilograms of formulated pesticide product applied, a saving of approximately 20.5 million liters of diesel, and the prevention of the emission of 73,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Clearly, we must develop new productive, low-input systems of agriculture, a strategy that would involve the modification of many current practices. These efforts will be aided substantially by modern genetic methods. Cotton is already a global success story, and those who cultivated GM cotton are clearly better off than ever before.

In view of these considerations, it is remarkable that the major negative finding of the British study of GM crops reported in 2003 was that biodiversity was lower in the fields where GM crops were grown – because weed control was more effective there! No college of agriculture in the world teaches that it is better for productive agriculture to include more weeds, and very few places – certainly none where hungry and needy people live in the developing world – have the luxury of managing their primary fields in such a way as to encourage anything but productivity. If all of the agriculture in the world were run in such a way as to encourage weeds, there would be many more starving people, a situation that we should very much wish to avoid. Concentrating agriculture as much as possible in highly productive lands and encouraging biodiversity in uncultivated lands managed in other suitable ways is the path that we logically should follow.

As Per Pinstrup-Anderson, a leader in efforts to feed the hungry and poor people of the world, has put it, it seems natural to people in Europe and other more developed regions to use medicines produced through genetic modification, but to a mother in a famine-struck region of Africa, the disease she and her children suffer from is hunger and the cure is food. The efforts of organizations such as Greenpeace to block efforts to feed people adequately throughout the world by battling biotechnology resolutely are doubtless helpful to the finances of that organization, which does not spend a cent of its money will go to alleviate starvation or to help people, but they are outrageous, scientifically unfounded, and should be rejected out of hand by any moral person.

In our reports, we of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences stressed that it is a moral imperative for the fruits of all new technologies to be made available to all of the world’s people, and more especially to those who are truly needy. Neither corporations nor wealthy nations have the right to block access to such technologies, and there is in fact a general willingness to encourage full access to them. The distribution is limited in part by the relatively small numbers of scientists in most developing countries, not much more than 10% of the world’s total in the less developed countries, which include 82% of the world’s people. This factor makes it difficult for many countries to evaluate on their own terms the fruits of scientific and technological advance in the rest of the world.

All countries should develop their own standards for the evaluation of GMOs and other technologies, either nationally or regionally, and put in place regulations that will serve them properly in such matters. In these considerations, the matter of intellectual property rights must be considered carefully and not be allowed to block the access of the poor to modern innovations that can help to alleviate their condition. In addition, the application of transgenic methods to the many different systems of agriculture that are appropriate to different conditions around the world should be accelerated and treasured for the value that it promises.

For example, the development of transgenic rice resistant to salt water using genes from mangroves, being carried out at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Institute in Chennai, offers great promise all around the shoreline of India, where the sea is encroaching on croplands for which the existing supplies of fresh water are inadequate. The development of protein-rich potatoes that is being pursued in India, China, and South Africa is but one example of a simple strategy that will serve well to help alleviate hunger and poverty. In general, public-sector research adequate to provide benefit for poor farmers in developing countries should be supported at a much higher level than is the case now.

World trade, which is one important element that will affect the way that the growing 6.3 billion of us learn to live together, can be an instrument for good or ill depending on how it is organized. World standards are required, as are mechanisms for reaching agreements that benefit people everywhere. GMOs are one very small part of such trade, but one that has proven controversial and has been used in various ways to limit commerce. We must move to a period of reconciliation, one in which our common needs are taken into account, and not only on the basis of what is considered good in one region or another, but what the scientific and social facts may be. Doing so would allow the greater number of people to lead healthy lives that are worthy of we who live in rich countries.

The drive to feed hungry people and to redress the morally unacceptable imbalances that exist around the world should take precedence over other considerations; in this case there are no valid scientific objections to utilizing these technologies with due consideration to the implications of each new proposed transgenic crop for the environment.

In conclusion, one might well ask why a general ban on GM foods and the cultivation of GM crops exists in Europe. In view of the lack of scientific evidence that such cultivation would be harmful, one can only conclude that the reasons for the ban are emotional, personal, and political. The major drop in genetic research in Europe over the past five years or so clearly has to do with this ban. Extended, it will continue to limit greatly the potentially important fruits of European research in this area and indeed to threaten the continent's economic development. Where does the gain for anyone lie in the perpetuation of this situation?

Whatever policy might be adopted for Europe, persuading governments responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa to forego food aid on the basis of politically or economically motivated disinformation seems to me to constitute a serious crime against humanity. I maintain that those responsible for this misinformation bear a responsibility for the lives of the people who are dying, and urge them to begin to deal rationally with the situation by allowing the fruits of human ingenuity to be applied to the solution of the extremely serious problem of hunger.

Fortunately, India and China, as well as many of the countries in Latin America, have decided to utilized GM crops to improve their economies and the nutrition of their people, which leaves Africa and some countries of South East Asia, notably Thailand, left to be pushed hard by the European Community on the issue. It is important to keep in mind that all of this controversy is taking place without a single case of human or animal sickness or environmental problem anywhere in the world reliably attributed to GM crops!

If allegations that the European Union or individual nations are funding pressure groups such as Greenpeace or "The Catholic Institute for International Relations" (not affiliated with the Vatican, and perhaps not officially with the Roman Catholic Church) are true, they clearly indicate a misuse of taxpayer funds to support ideological causes that are unsupported and harmful to the development of Europe and its individual countries.

It is exceedingly difficult to understand why public spokespeople such as former U.K. Minister Michael Meacher persist in making idiosyncratic and scientifically unfounded comments about this area. Such statements have affected a majority of European consumers and sadly led them to believe that great dangers are lurking somewhere in the practice of this particular kind of genetics. Their beliefs are doubtless sincere, but unfortunate for the future of European science and for the hungry people of the world. At any rate, for them to welcome the use of transgenic technology for beer, cheese, and drugs, while denying it to those in need of food, seems to me to be truly obscene.

Loving people throughout the world in a truly Christian way demands much more of us in return for the privileges that we enjoy.