By now it has become clear, as British environmental writer Mark Lynas said in a speech this week at Cornell University, that controversy over GMOs
represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
What’s been most disconcerting to me is that smart environmentalists, food writers, and scholars perpetuate this fear and misunderstanding. Some of them are finally getting called out for this irresponsibility.
It is this group of media influentials, such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle, who I hope take the time to read Nature’s special issue on genetically modified (GM) crops, which, as the introduction puts it, “explores the messy middle ground.”
The collection of articles and commentaries puncture some of the biggest myths and falsehoods that poison debate on GMOs, like the oft-repeated claim that GM cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide (false), which I have previously written about here and here. At the same time, Nature admirably drills down into some of the thorniest issues, like the contention that GM crops have bred so-called “superweeds” (true). But this story is also complex and must be viewed in a larger context:
On balance, herbicide-resistant GM crops are less damaging to the environment than conventional crops grown at industrial scale.
This kind of nuance is what eludes most GMO critics.
What’s most impressive about Nature’s special issue is its even-handed treatment of a highly politicized subject. For example, one article by three UK-based scientists ends on this subtle, carefully considered note:
Genetic engineering is not essential, or even useful, for all crop improvement. But in some cases, it helps to improve yields and nutritional value, and reduces the risks and costs associated with the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Excluding any technology that can help people to get the food and nutrition that they need should be done only for strong, rational and locally relevant reasons.
There’s much more in the issue to read, including a report on new technological developments that are giving rise to the next generation of biotech crops. Kudos to Nature for its multi-dimensional coverage and for finding that “messy middle ground” in the GMO debate.
[These genetically modified plums contain a gene that makes them "highly resistant to plum pox virus." Photo and source: U.S. Agricultural Research Service.]