Tyler Cowen and I have several things in common — wry senses of humor, economist sensibilities, and a strong love of interesting and well-prepared food. Those last two traits at least show up in Tyler’s post yesterday about proposals in California to label foods to indicate whether or not they contain GMOs. Tyler summarizes what for me is the material point: despite hundreds of studies over decades, no scientific evidence exists to support the argument that GMOs present a health hazard. None.
Arguments to ban or label GMOs are usually based on, as Tyler says, the “standards of evidence being applied here are extremely weak”. Having read Gary Taubes recently, and having read some sports nutrition research over the past few years, I think that’s right. Nutrition science research does not have a sufficiently high standard of proof for their hypotheses; nor does it use a combination of random trials and statistical techniques that would enable researchers to draw more than basic correlations.
Tyler’s post is worth your time in its entirety; I think he’s right that rather than expending effort on GMO legislation, California’s food activists should instead focus on antibiotics and treatment of animals, the improvement of which would have substantial and scientifically demonstrated benefits for human and animal health and for the environment.
The food-focused GMO argument, though, does not address explicitly the claimed environmental risks, such as this list from the Union of Concerned Scientists:
As discussed in the 1996 UCS-authored report, The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops, genetically modified crops pose six kinds of potential risks.19 First, the engineered crops themselves could become weeds, a broad term that covers plants with undesirable effects.20Second, the crops might serve as conduits through which new genes move to wild plants, which could then become weeds. Third, crops engineered to produce viruses could facilitate the creation of new, more virulent or more widely spread viruses. Fourth, plants engineered to express potentially toxic substances could present risks to other organisms like birds or deer. Fifth, crops may initiate a perturbation that may have effects that ripple through an ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict. Finally, the crops might threaten centers of crop diversity.
Although few problems of the sorts listed above would be expected to surface within the three-to-four-year time frame that the new crops have been in widespread use, the good news is that there have been no serious environmental impacts—certainly no catastrophes—associated with the use of engineered crops in the United States.
Of course, that does not mean that one can conclude that there have been no environmental effects. There may have been modest or subtle changes in animal or plant populations that are simply not dramatic enough or obviously enough connected to engineered crops to attract attention. Other than for insect resistance, there is no systematic monitoring underway in the United States to detect adverse effects of genetically modified crops.21 So much may be going on that we are simply not aware of.
To their credit, this excerpt shows the UCS doing what Tyler is encouraging food writers to do — acknowledge the science as it currently stands. In general, so far we have no evidence for harms 1, 2 or 3, although the UCS expresses continuing concern about harms 4, 5 and 6 to animals and ecosystems. Continued research on these effects makes a lot of sense.
Often lost in this debate are the benefits of GMOs, both to health and the environment: vitamin and mineral supplementation, drought resistance, reduced use of pesticides. Look, for example, at the recent Hunan trial of the revised Golden Rice formulation that now has enough Vitamin A to reduce the incidence of blindness in young children arising from Vitamin A deficiency.
The Hunan trial, conducted in 2008, was meant to determine whether a small bowl a day of genetically modified rice (called Golden because of its yellow colour) could effectively deliver enough Vitamin A to make a difference. Vitamin A deficiency is a scourge of the world’s poor (Vitamin A is contained in fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach). According to the World Health Organization, Vitamin A deficiency affects about a third of the world’s children under 5. It claims the lives of more than a million people a year, including hundreds of thousands of children. As many as half a million children go blind every year because they don’t get enough Vitamin A.
And yet, environmental groups like Greenpeace protest Golden Rice:
Greenpeace is campaigning vigorously to block Golden Rice trials throughout Southeast Asia. And it has lots of allies, including luminaries such as Naomi Klein and groups such as the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, whose mission is “collaborative campaigning for food sovereignty and environmental justice.” These groups insist that what the poor really need is utopian political solutions. “Food insecurity is brought about by lack of enough land, by decreasing rice production and decreasing incomes,” says one Golden Rice opponent. “Only through a genuine land reform which ensures farmers’ access to sufficient rice and other food sources will farmers start to become healthy again.”
Utopian indeed. And in the quest for that collectivist utopia, Greenpeace and their collaborators condemn millions of children to blindness, disease, famine, and early death. How’s that for not weighing the benefits when you emphasize the risks?