Antiscience GM crop bans: bad for Scotland but actually costing lives in developing countries

Sophie Sandor September 29, 2016 1
Antiscience GM crop bans: bad for Scotland but actually costing lives in developing countries

The idea that genetically-modified crops are unsafe is dangerous yet it is believed by a surprising number of people because of unfounded suspicion and resulting propaganda that has been peddled by its opponents for decades. A survey run by YouGov and Huffington Post this year found that 39% of people believe GM crops are unsafe, while only 33% think that they are safe and 27% are unsure about them. Across the world countries are banning GM crops with 38 in total, 19 of which are European countries, choosing to prohibit sale and production of them.

Fortunately, this year over a hundred Nobel Laureates have signed a letter supporting genetically-modified organisms and precision agriculture, which is when farmers use various technologies to observe, and then respond to, under what conditions crops most effectively grow. The fact is that there is no evidence out there suggesting that GM foods are harmful to consume, nor that they make the farmers who are producing them in developing countries worse off. In fact, humans have been modifying and tempering with the genes of their crops since the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago in order to improve their longevity and turn them into the most desirable form of produce possible.

The letter explains that foods altered for improvement by biotechnologies are consistently found to be as safe as, or indeed safer than, other production methods. In particular, it is a plea for Green Peace to cease their efforts to stop the growth of GMOs in Golden Rice. The campaign against Golden Rice has been a real tragedy because this foodstuff could potentially eradicate much of the deaths and illness occurring in the most impoverished people in Africa and Southeast Asia as a result of their deficiency of vitamin D (VAD).

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 – 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

Just last year the SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament and Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead made the controversial decision to ban GMOs in Scotland after a European Union ruling opened the door to EU member states being allowed to block GM crops that have already been approved by the EU. Meanwhile in England they have not been outrightly banned, however no GM crops are currently being grown there and there is apparently still no demand for them to be grown in supermarkets.

This is happening because politicians and campaign groups who oppose the growth of GMOs uphold the view that it is better to be safe than sorry, despite there being no evidence suggesting we should not be capitalising on this next stage in agricultural advancement. Not knowing is not a good enough reason. Throughout history innovations have involved elements of risk because we move forward through trial and error and we weigh up the costs and benefits of adopting a new way of doing things. So far there are only benefits to be reaped, with the most recent meta-analysis of GM crops being resoundingly in favour of them being used.

The implications of anti-GM crops movements, as the letter urges, are far more serious than simply preventing people in places like Scotland keeping abreast of the benefits of new agricultural technologies as other unimpeded countries take advantage of the efficiency and competitiveness to be gained. While the ability to produce and sell GM crops improves farmers’ quality of life, health and wealth in developing countries, unfortunately campaigns from Friends of the Earth to Greenpeace can, and are, just as easily taking that opportunity away, as Nobel Laureate Sir J. Roberts explained.

Just golden rice alone, if its development was not being hampered, has the possibility to save many children from blindness and developmental defects. Currently, as many as 2 million children die every year from vitamin A deficiency.

In Uganda, the banana crops are being hit by a wilt for which there is no natural resistance in any species of banana. 30% of the population’s calories derive from bananas. If they lose that important food source millions across sub-Saharan Africa could die.

Yet there is a GMO solution. How many people must die before it becomes inescapable that the Green parties’ positions on GMOs are killing people?

We are seeing similar burdens on opportunities for advancement across many fields, from politicians and black cab drivers blocking Uber to anti-sweatshop movements closing down what is the next-best alternative employment for the locals working in them. Parallels can be drawn from both with GMO opponents as anti-Uber protesters have the same fear of change and reluctance to incur the small cost of black cabs disappearing despite the benefits far exceeding those costs. Anti-sweatshop campaigns are just another example of Westerners thinking they know best for people in developing countries when actually their actions are detrimental if we accept the evidence.

Ultimately, for people in developing countries the anti-GM crop movement is costing lives so it is a scandal that we are not talking about this enough. The Nobel Laureates’ signatures will hopefully make some headway in overcoming a needless hurdle to improving people’s lives.

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