Genetically Modified Organisms remains one of the most controversial issues around, despite many scientists agreeing that the technology is safe and can effectively reduce food insecurity. But many in the general public are skeptical.
Early this year, Pew Foundation released a US poll showing that 88 per cent of scientists think GMO food is generally safe to eat. Only 37 per cent of the public agreed.
Debating on the issue on BBC radio recently, multidisciplinary scientists expounded on the GMO controversy and gave some recommendations to resolve it. Is GMO safe? Or is it a trick by global agribusinesses to use technology to dominate global agriculture through patenting seeds and inputs? Unfortunately, polarising unscientific issues ranging from psychology to corporate politics have hindered the debate, distracting the technology from its positives.
Human beings have experimented on improving food production for thousands of years. Most of the food we eat today is a result of cross bleeding, grafting, or budding methods developed over centuries.
The BBC debate isolated four reasons informing the GMO controversy that need to be faced if there will be progress towards realising the potential benefits of the technology.
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First, is the perception. We have to reckon with the psychology of risks. Psychologists say we are naturally incapable of thinking rationally when processing new information perceived to be risky. Our brains are wired to oppose new, life interfering technology. GMO opponents react precisely out of deeply held life values and because many are really anxious about what science has already done to the environment, they cannot countenance further interference with the very core of nature: the genes.
The important thing now is how to help GMO opponents face their fears. Is there a way to convince them that the same scientific researchers that we have trusted over the years with scientific breakthroughs such as vaccines and medicine can also be trusted with GMO? And years of research and careful analyses has demonstrated that the technology is safe.
A good example of genetic engineering being used for the common good is the making of insulin. Currently, millions of diabetics worldwide use insulin from microorganisms, rather than from pig pancreases. Precautionary arguments about the 'unknown' future of GMO can be applied on everything including relationships, computers, the end of the world, etc.
Secondly, is corporate politics. Opponents worry over the domination of the GMO technology by powerful multinationals. The seed sector for example is literary owned by two companies. GMO is expensive and only rich farmers can afford genetically modified seeds. This is unsustainable. Poor small-scale farmers and an uninformed public will naturally see it as a social-economic threat.
And indeed it is. In Africa, 80 per cent of seeds are informally distributed, shared among friends, and preserved over the seasons. There is a strong social fibre weaving communities around seeds, planting and harvesting. Now, it worries when powerful commercial groups come up with ways of dismantling these social systems, and even influence governments to legislate against use of uncertified (read patent) seeds.
Analysts say that this anti-corporate anger can be abated by incorporating local research organisations in the GMO technology research. That way, local stockholders will have (or feel to have) more control on the technology. So long as they are not, the debate will most likely continue to fall prey to food politics and international agribusiness wars.
This debate on GMO distracts from the real issues behind the technology. Its supporters say rightly that it is not just about science but more importantly about improving farming to feed nine billion people in the next 30 years and reducing rural poverty. We need to look for solutions to resolve the problems of GMO, if any, if only because, despite the scepticism, the technology is irreversible.