Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Shoa L. Clarke, M.D.
BOSTON — Recently, Maine passed a bill to require labels for genetically modified foods (called “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs). The local media has framed the debate as a struggle between a grass-roots movement and “big agriculture.” Unfortunately, the viewpoint of health care professionals and researchers has been absent.
Shoa L. Clarke, M.D., was born and raised in Portland and now lives in Boston, where he is a resident physician at Brigham and Women’s and Boston Children’s hospitals. He also holds a doctorate in genetics.
Born and raised in Portland, I spent much of my youth working with Portland advocacy groups that focused on hunger and food security. Back then, I was a vocal opponent of GMOs. My anti-GMO spiels frequently included the phrase, “I’m not a geneticist, but ... .”
Now, more than a decade later, I am a physician and a biologist with a doctorate in genetics, and it’s clear to me that I was wrong.
The motivation behind GMOs is simple. We need a way to provide good nutrition for the world’s population.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of children die due to vitamin A deficiency, and many more go blind. Careful research has shown that vitamin A supplementation prevents death and blindness. Golden Rice, a GMO, does just that.
Rice is a staple food for billions of people, but it lacks vitamin A. Golden Rice is a strain of rice that has been modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. Because of Golden Rice, more children are living to see their fifth birthday.
This technology’s impact reaches beyond improved nutrition. GMOs use fewer resources, require less pesticide and are able to grow in harsher environments. Last year, Mark Lynas, the famed environmentalist who started the anti-GMO movement, apologized for his mistake.
He wrote, “I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path.”
Despite the benefits of GMOs, it is still important to ask, “Are GMOs safe?” Decades of research tell us “yes.”
Pick up a fresh cut of broccoli at any organic farmers market, and you’ve picked up a genetically modified organism. Broccoli first arose after the genes of two distinct plant species mixed together to form a new species.
Humans further modified the broccoli genome through breeding. Each season, farmers chose the broccoli with the best color, taste and size to produce the seeds for next season’s crop.
For centuries, humans used this process to produce better crops of all types, blind to the fact that they were selecting randomly occurring mutations (genetic changes) that conferred the traits that they desired.
With a modern understanding of genetics, the blinds have been lifted. We can now directly make genetic changes that we know are beneficial, rather than wait for such changes to arise by chance. Traditional plant breeding is simply a slow means of creating GMOs.
Some Mainers are concerned that GMOs such as “Bt corn”are engineered to produce a pesticide. Anti-GMO propaganda suggests that plants that produce pesticides are unnatural and dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For millions of years, plants have struggled for survival against predatory insects. This evolutionary arms race led plants of all types to evolve pesticides. Bt corn has been modified to produce a naturally occurring pesticide that is made by bacteria.
Organic farmers first championed the use of this exact pesticide as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides, and many continue to spray their crops with spores that produce the pesticide. Since our very beginnings, humans have been consuming natural pesticides like that contained in Bt corn.
The safety of GMOs is not only theoretical. Study after study has found no harmful effects of GMOs. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have all concluded that GMOs are safe.
However, campaigns against GMOs have ignored the research. I have seen claims that GMOs are associated with pediatric cancers, increasing rates of allergies and autism. All lies.
This complete defiance of empiric observation – the cornerstone of sound reasoning – worries me. Maine has let fear overshadow fact.
Twenty years ago, the anti-science movement in America consisted of small groups campaigning to teach creationism in public schools. Since then, we’ve seen the spread of climate-change denial, a deadly wave of anti-vaccine parents and the currently growing anti-GMO movement.
We are drowning in misinformation and pseudoscience. Now, more than ever, we must be humble to the data. For GMOs, the data is clear. They are safe, and they are our best hope for a sustainable future where no child suffers due to lack of nutrition.
— Special to the Press Herald