It is nearly 20 years since the first GM crops were grown.
Some 28 countries cultivate them on a commercial scale, and many hundreds of millions of people now safely eat GM food – directly or indirectly – on a regular basis. Yet, to judge from the rhetoric of anti-GM activists – from the rough-cut environmentalists to the smooth-talking purveyors of organic food – you could be forgiven for thinking that medical catastrophe and genetic Armageddon are upon us, courtesy of the “Frankenfoods” revolution.
Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard, is not one to mince his words when it comes to genetically modified crops. To paraphrase his speech at McGill University in Montreal later today, Juma believes the time has come for the vociferous opponents of GM to put up or shut up. The use of transgenic crops, he points out, has to date prevented the spraying of 473 million kilograms of toxic pesticides, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 23.1bn kg – equivalent to taking 10.2 million cars off the road – and saved 108.7 million hectares of land from being turned into farmland. Rather than creating environmental havoc, GM crops have, by and large, been better for the environment than growing the equivalent conventional crops, with relatively lower yields and higher chemical input.
Equally, no-one has died or fallen ill directly as a result of eating GM food. Studies showing that GM food damages the health of laboratory animals have been discredited. Contrary to what the pro-organic lobby would have us believe, it is actually more dangerous to eat organic food – as the 53 people in Germany who died in 2011 from eating organic beansprouts tragically discovered.
It is no longer tenable to say that GM technology benefits no-one but the multinational agrochemicals industry. Scientists in Africa are working on GM crops that could directly benefit Africans, such as a transgenic banana plant resistant to bacterial wilt disease, and a GM blackeyed pea that can fend off attacks by insect pests.
These are real technological breakthroughs that could help those who would otherwise find it difficult to grow enough food to sustain a rapidly growing population. To them, the real Frankenfood is the sort that never reaches their plates because of losses in the field or during storage.
Those who have actively opposed GM technology have frequently expressed anti-science rhetoric – hence the Frankenstein allusion – but it is now incumbent on them to produce the scientific evidence to back up their claims. It is no longer possible to argue on simplistic grounds that GM is “unnatural” and therefore inherently wrong – if we opposed everything that is unnatural we wouldn’t practice medicine for a start.
GM crops are cultivated for good reasons, supported by scientific evidence. It is time for GM opponents to accept the facts.