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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Food Issue: The Science of Feast, Fuel and Farm
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The Truth about Genetically Modified Food

Proponents of genetically modified crops say the technology is the only way to feed a warming, increasingly populous world. Critics say we tamper with nature at our peril. Who is right?
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KEVIN VAN AELST

In Brief

  • The vast majority of the research on genetically modified (GM) crops suggests that they are safe to eat and that they have the potential to feed millions of people worldwide who currently go hungry.
  • Yet not all criticisms of GM are so easily rejected, and pro-GM scientists are often dismissive and even unscientific in their rejection of the counterevidence.
  • A careful analysis of the risks and benefits argues for expanded deployment and safety testing of GM crops.

More In This Article

Robert Goldberg sags into his desk chair and gestures at the air. “Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” he says. “This the most depressing thing I've ever dealt with.”

Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is not battling psychosis. He is expressing despair at the relentless need to confront what he sees as bogus fears over the health risks of genetically modified (GM) crops. Particularly frustrating to him, he says, is that this debate should have ended decades ago, when researchers produced a stream of exonerating evidence: “Today we're facing the same objections we faced 40 years ago.”

Across campus, David Williams, a cellular biologist who specializes in vision, has the opposite complaint. “A lot of naive science has been involved in pushing this technology,” he says. “Thirty years ago we didn't know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later.” The result, he insists, could very well be potentially toxic plants slipping through testing.

Williams concedes that he is among a tiny minority of biologists raising sharp questions about the safety of GM crops. But he says this is only because the field of plant molecular biology is protecting its interests. Funding, much of it from the companies that sell GM seeds, heavily favors researchers who are exploring ways to further the use of genetic modification in agriculture. He says that biologists who point out health or other risks associated with GM crops—who merely report or defend experimental findings that imply there may be risks—find themselves the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility, which leads scientists who see problems with GM foods to keep quiet.

Whether Williams is right or wrong, one thing is undeniable: despite overwhelming evidence that GM crops are safe to eat, the debate over their use continues to rage, and in some parts of the world, it is growing ever louder. Skeptics would argue that this contentiousness is a good thing—that we cannot be too cautious when tinkering with the genetic basis of the world's food supply. To researchers such as Goldberg, however, the persistence of fears about GM foods is nothing short of exasperating. “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth,” he says, “and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we've gone back to being ignorant.”

So who is right: advocates of GM or critics? When we look carefully at the evidence for both sides and weigh the risks and benefits, we find a surprisingly clear path out of this dilemma.

Benefits and Worries
The bulk of the science on GM safety points in one direction. Take it from David Zilberman, a U.C. Berkeley agricultural and environmental economist and one of the few researchers considered credible by both agricultural chemical companies and their critics. He argues that the benefits of GM crops greatly outweigh the health risks, which so far remain theoretical. The use of GM crops “has lowered the price of food,” Zilberman says. “It has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”

In the future, Zilberman says, those advantages will become all the more significant. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world will have to grow 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Climate change will make much of the world's arable land more difficult to farm. GM crops, Zilberman says, could produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty land, withstand high and low temperatures, and tolerate insects, disease and herbicides.

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