GM Food--Another View | The Nation


GM Food--Another View

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Genetically modified food has been the object of extensive criticism by many, including in the pages of this magazine. Here is a different perspective. --The Editors

Read about why Greenpeace and The Center for Food Safety have started a campaign to petition the FDA regarding GM food.

About the Author

Danny Kohl
Danny Kohl, a progressive activist for over fifty years, is a professor of biology at Washington University in St....

Also by the Author

GMO? Hell No!

We knew that Danny Kohl's "GM Foods--Another View" [April 16], on genetically modified organism (GMO) technology used in food production, would provoke controversy, and we weren't disappointed. Below are edited versions of some of the letters that flooded in.
      --The Editors

East Ryegate, Vt.

GMO technology epitomizes the contempt for life that is the basis of science and capitalism. Asian children do not need bioengineered "golden rice" to meet their vitamin A requirement. As the World Bank has acknowledged, eating leafy greens daily does the job, cheaply and efficiently, as Asian families have done for millennia. So why the vitamin A deficiency crisis? It was the Green Revolution, which came from the United States in the sixties, that destroyed families' access to a diversity of field greens. Its "miracle" monocultures displaced cultivated greens from grain fields, while its herbicides killed off the wild greens ("weeds") traditionally harvested along with crops.

Vitamin A deficiency, the most easily and cheaply remedied of the deficiency diseases, signals environmental degradation and poverty. GMOs will remedy neither. Food-based education projects, however, are already helping 3 million people in India combat vitamin A deficiency through home gardening and also by increasing diversity in their diets, to combat the malnutrition of which vitamin A is symptomatic. But few are willing to acknowledge the role of science and technology in degrading the environment and impoverishing the multitudes.

We in the First World face a moral challenge, which is to acknowledge that in our contempt for life, in our claim to be "conquering nature," we are destroying humanity and nature, in effect cutting off the branch on which we sit.


Oakland, Calif.

Danny Kohl's suggestion that genetically altered "golden" rice is the answer for the condition of 2 million children at risk of vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness reveals a tremendous naïveté. Vitamin A deficiency is a symptom, a warning sign of broader dietary inadequacies associated with poverty and with agricultural change from diverse cropping systems to rice monoculture. People do not have vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little vitamin A but because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else. A magic-bullet solution that puts beta carotene into rice--with potential health and ecological hazards--while leaving poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture intact, is unlikely to make any durable contribution to well-being.

Kohl argues that the development of golden rice was "supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds." He fails to mention that all rights have been granted to corporate giant Astra Zeneca, which plans to market it in industrialized countries as a "nutraceutical" (food containing a pharmaceutical agent), while making it available free of extra charges above normal improved-seed costs to those poor farmers in the Third World who can demonstrate that their annual rice sales are below a magic threshold ($5,000 was suggested). Should the farmers bring their tax returns to the seed shop? Most peasant farmers have never paid taxes and probably don't have an identity card or proper title to their land. Nor do they usually buy expensive seeds, preferring to save their own for the next planting. And who would administer this anyway? Get serious.

Food First/Institute for Food
and Development Policy

Cambridge, Mass.

Danny Kohl's call to separate ideology from science or empiricism isn't possible--or desirable. All science occurs in a context; no empiricism is free from ideology. Biotechnology is no more value-free than nuclear power or automobile technology. Starvation is a social disease--caused mainly by poverty, poor food distribution and the conversion of farmland to other purposes. The pursuit of technofixes for hunger, even by well-intentioned scientists, as Kohl proposes, will lead us right back to the golden rice and Starlink messes we have now. The plight of the planet's 800 million starving people can't be addressed by science, absent the real world of political context. Did we learn nothing from the mistakes of the Green Revolution?

Kohl accuses critics of "indiscriminately rejecting GMO technologies," when that rejection is in fact frequently careful, responsible and science-based. The ceaseless promotion of a science that is not ready for prime time deserves more, not less criticism. While Dr. Kohl might well long for a pure examination of this infant science without messy ideological debates, it just can't be done.

Council for Responsible Genetics


When African delegates to a United Nations conference saw images of starving African children used in Monsanto ads claiming that genetic engineering is critical to feeding the poor, they wrote in response, "We...strongly object that images of the poor and hungry from our countries are being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environment friendly, nor economically beneficial to us.... We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."

Danny Kohl says yellow rice comes from a team of scientists whose sole intent is to bring it freely to the poor. In fact, the lead scientist on this team is a former Novartis researcher who currently holds an interest in dozens of Novartis plant patents. Although the rice was developed with public money, Novartis (through Syngenta, a company it formed in alliance with another gene giant, Zeneca) holds the rights to sell the rice, and a company spokesperson told the Financial Times, "We see it doing particularly well in Japan." The Rural Advancement Foundation International, which works with small farmers worldwide, rightly exposed this ripoff as "millions of dollars of public funding [being] surrendered to a multinational corporation."

Scientists have found yellow rice an unlikely solution to the problem it pretends to address. Dr. Marion Nestle has written in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "Food-based approaches to improving vitamin A status seem especially desirable. The addition of one or two nutrients to an existing food does not constitute a food-based approach."

The real problem the industry seeks to address is not malnutrition but public opinion. The propaganda value of yellow rice has been immeasurable, as industry has shamelessly used it in an attempt to quell growing US distrust of its experimental foods. Faced with a PR meltdown, the biotech/chemical industry is desperately plying the same message it promoted when its pesticides were first exposed as threats to the environment and our health. When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring brought the dangers of DDT to a national audience, the chemical industry responded with a PR blitz centered around its claim that poor people would starve without pesticides. Monsanto, one of the leading chemical polluters of the past century and infamous for its cover-ups (see www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/anniston/1.asp) today is the leading force behind the genetic engineering of our food. While proponents of this experiment distract us with unsubstantiated arguments about future wonders, Americans are unwittingly eating Monsanto's genetically engineered products in thousands of foods from our supermarket shelves. Like Monsanto's chemicals, none of these altered foods have been the subject of long-term study for their effects on the environment or our health.

Like other apologists for this industry, Kohl argues that economic and political solutions to problems of hunger "will not happen soon," implying that it is faster, easier and safer to alter millions of years of evolutionary ecology than to address the man-made inequalities that have been perpetrated over the past few decades.

Yellow rice has been in development for nearly ten years and is still several years away from even small field trials. After more years of research and millions of dollars, what will these researchers achieve? They hope the rice will have beta carotene that humans can assimilate, in quantities that matter, without side effects that harm the environment or human health. Meanwhile, every year and dollar spent on this rice is a year and dollar not spent on projects that truly address sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger.

Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign


The fundamental point upon which the GMO debate pivots is the matter of public trust--trust of government, researchers and corporations that they will be cautious not reckless, generous not greedy, humble not arrogant. While there may be a few geneticists scattered throughout the world working toward knowledge and technology "free of costs and restrictions on property rights," they will unfortunately always be in the overwhelming minority. Moreover, the knowledge created even by well-intentioned geneticists can turn on its creators and those it is designed to benefit. And we cannot put the GMO genie back in the bottle once we have released it. The promise of GMO technology today reminds one of the promise of nuclear power a half-century ago. Better our efforts were devoted to fighting the underlying causes of poverty and malnutrition.


Plainfield, Vt.

Professor Kohl is right about one thing: Corporate control over agriculture and over scientific research agendas is perhaps the most important issue underlying the debates over genetically engineered food. But having acknowledged this, he proceeds to outline a research agenda tailor-made to benefit his corporate benefactors.

Certainly there is a great deal of scientific knowledge to be brought to bear on the problems of hunger and malnutrition. But why is the question always "How can we address these problems through genetic engineering?" and almost never "What is the most appropriate course of scientific research to address human needs?"

A February 3 article in the British magazine New Scientist offered a very different approach to using science to aid the world's poor. Using an impressive array of very low-tech interventions--trap crops for common pests, polycultures replacing monocultures, changing planting times and patterns, etc.--farmers in Africa have been increasing yields by up to 100 percent. That's a huge advance beyond the marginal-yield advantages that Monsanto and the other biotech companies brag about incessantly.

The biotech industry supported the development of "golden" vitamin A rice to the tune of $100 million. Even if the beta carotene content could someday be increased fivefold, as Kohl suggests, it will still take 3 or 4 pounds of rice a day to satisfy a person's nutritional requirements, and that is only if other nutrients are in proper balance. There's much more beta carotene in traditional crops, from leafy green vegetables to squashes, melons and mangoes. The key is helping people regain the ability to feed themselves, exactly what the companies that have brought us genetic engineering are most threatened by. In emergencies, vitamin A supplements are available for just a few pennies.

Biotechnology does offer one clear advantage--to corporations--over more traditional low-tech solutions: the ability to "invent" new varieties of plants and animals that companies like Monsanto can patent and claim proprietary rights over. While the results of more traditional agricultural research often remain in the public domain--where they properly belong--genetically engineered varieties are subject to the most stringent "intellectual property" rules of the WTO. Farmers all over North America are finding this out the hard way, as they face severe legal penalties even when their crops are contaminated with Monsanto's proprietary genes due to cross-pollination.

For twenty-five years, the narrow agenda of genetic engineering has dominated scientific discussions in the public and private domains, corrupting scientific discourse while enriching those researchers who are most willing to feed at the corporate trough. It's time for a more honest discussion of how science can best benefit human health and well-being.

Biotechnology Project Director
Institute for Social Ecology

Chillicothe, Mo.

Danny Kohl argues that judgments on biotechnology should be based on facts rather than supposition. As a family farmer, I couldn't agree more. But is industry willing to make its GMO research available to farmers and consumers? No. Much like Big Tobacco, it spends millions on PR campaigns and resists all efforts to involve the government in the research, testing and regulation of GMOs.

For family farmers the promise of GMOs stands in stark contrast to the reality. For three decades US farmers have been told that if we are to survive we must (1) produce for the global marketplace, (2) reduce costs and (3) become more efficient. How does this play out with respect to GMOs?

Numerous countries in Europe and Asia have banned the use of GMOs because of consumer concerns, which in effect have closed markets to US farmers using GMO seeds. In fact, many European and Asian countries have begun to market GMO-free products and are paying farmers premiums for crops grown with conventional seeds.

Crops grown with GMO seeds are far more expensive to produce. In 1999 a GMO soybean system cost farmers about 50 percent more than comparable conventional seed and weed management systems. A recent Nebraska study found that GMO soybean yields were 11 percent lower than their conventional seed counterparts and concluded that genetic engineering, not farming practices, was responsible. Similar studies have shown 12 percent and 20 percent yield reductions in GMO cotton and canola, respectively. For the farmer, GMOs mean fewer markets, higher costs and reduced performance. For more information call toll-free (877) 968-FARM (3276).

Missouri Rural Crisis Center

Earthcraft Farm, Bringhurst, Indiana

Danny Kohl shares the hubris of his corporate master Monsanto that we can tamper with life at the basic level of the creation of novel species, and we can understand and control the consequences. What scientists today get corporate funding to keep track of the world's biodiversity with a view to its preservation? The life-and-death sciences have no concern about biodiversity, except to exploit little pieces of it and to turn them into commodities for profit.

And what about human societies in the next year, or next ten years? What is the impact on poor farmers and on native and indigenous people? Maybe they want to preserve and grow natural and traditional varieties of crops, free from genetic pollution. Maybe they have too much reverence for nature to fathom the arrogance of redesigning life. Maybe they just need land to grow food on so that they can feed themselves. But these political solutions "will not happen soon," thinks Kohl, and so he recommends an interim technofix, just like all the other technofixes, the ones that destroyed much of the resource base of viable communal agriculture.

We have an organic vegetable farm, and we sometimes use Bt, a natural biopesticide. Bt is now genetically engineered into many food plants so that they express toxin in every cell, all the time (in its engineered form, Bt does not quickly biodegrade, as it does in natural form). Since there are Bt crops in our area, we expect Bt-tolerant insects to develop and render Bt ineffective, thus making it more difficult to grow food organically. Corporate scientists have predicted this outcome for years. Corporations figure they can sell more toxic pesticides, and scientists count on working on the next technofix.

Monsanto recently won a lawsuit against a Canadian farmer who had Monsanto's GE canola growing in his field without having purchased its proprietary technology. Pollen drift from nearby GE fields ruined his crop and his livelihood. The international repercussions from this and similar outrages are just beginning.



St. Louis

Since a point-by-point response isn't possible in this limited space, I'll try to respond to some themes. For a point-by-point response, visit www.biology.wustl.edu/faculty/kohl.html, then click on the link, GM Food The Nation/April 21, 2001.

Clearly, there is more than one reasonable opinion about the potential for golden rice to make a significant contribution to improving vitamin A nutrition. Some of the reasons the jury is still out were included in my article.

Brian Tokar is correct that for people with no other source of vitamin A, satisfying the Recommended Daily Allowance would require consumption of impossible amounts of rice. (Benefits to vision occur far short of RDA, by the way.) But benefits are not "all or none." Peter Rosset of Food First is, of course, correct. Golden rice is not the solution. The empirical question is whether it can make a significant contribution to improving public health. While many find vitamin A supplements an attractive alternative, it is not inexpensive. In 1994 the World Bank estimated the cost to be 50 cents per person per year (two doses, including administration costs). South Asia might have 1.25 billion people. If only 1 of every 12.5 people (children and adult women) requires supplements, that's $50 million per year.

But the golden rice project is important beyond its possible contribution to alleviating suffering. It suggests one model for allowing scientists to escape the iron grip of profit potential that determines which crops and diseases are addressed. And escaping industry's demand for profit is the task I consider to be the most important. In the case of golden rice, public sector (Swiss and EU science agencies) and philanthropic (Rockefeller Foundation) funds allowed scientists to pursue a product that did not have sufficient profit potential to interest a biotech multinational.

It is true, as Charles Margulis and Rosset say, that a multinational was granted the rights to market golden rice in the developed world in exchange for work done on obtaining waivers of the seventy intellectual property rights agreements that otherwise would have restricted free distribution of seed. I'm comfortable with this trade-off, since it will allow seeds to be distributed without royalties in the Third World. This collaboration with industry after the hard, basic science has been done does not change the fact that there was not enough profit potential to induce any corporation to attempt to develop the product from scratch. Other aspects of the venture worth emulating are the role assigned to public agencies, like the Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology, and the commitment to cross the trait into local varieties, among others.

If, as Margulis writes, in the past the lead scientist (I assume he means Ingo Potrykus) held patents along with a multinational, then I'm surprised Margulis doesn't welcome Potrykus into the light of public interest from the darkness of corporate co-patent-holder. Or does Margulis consider Potrykus to be beyond redemption? I could not agree more with Margulis's assessment that the biotech industry has shamelessly tried to turn golden rice into the poster child for the industry, especially since, contrary to the claim of Tokar, no industry money was spent to support its development. But I am puzzled by the apparent conviction that the golden rice project is somehow compromised by the industry offensive. Surely, we should denounce industry's shameless attempt, but why should their unprincipled effort to co-opt this publicly financed effort reflect badly on the product?

The product should be evaluated for what it is. Many predict it will fall far short of making a contribution to improved public health. If it turns out that way, so be it. But the logic of "my enemies' friends are my enemies" leads to strange places. One small indication that the biotech industry has succeeded in focusing attention on golden rice is that none of the letter writers mentioned my claim that science might contribute to improving cassava.

I admit to also being puzzled by the "either/or" paradigm presented in comments by Beth Champagne, Tokar, Rossett and Darel Paul. I think it's great that 3 million people in India are improving their lives with home gardens, even if (and I do not mean this sarcastically) that is only about 0.25 percent of the people at risk for vitamin A deficiency. I think we should vigorously support any strategy with promise for improving life for poor people, even if it is only an incremental improvement, recognizing that for the most part such projects do not compete for the same funds, such as money made available for science from the European Biotech Program. I absolutely agree that vitamin A deficiency, like hunger, is the result of poverty. GM foods will not cure poverty. The empirical question is whether they can make any contribution to human welfare without major changes in the social structure.

Clearly, Martin Teitel is correct that "all science occurs in a context." There can be no better example than the influence corporations have on the science agenda. What I had in mind when I mentioned "empirical, not ideological" questions were questions like those I asked in my essay; e.g., would golden rice be accepted by consumers, would the yield be less than the parental varieties into which it was crossed, etc. An extreme example of an ideological stance is the statement by Champagne that "contempt for life...is at the basis of science and capitalism." If this leads Champagne to reject all products of science, then we simply disagree. I, for one, am glad that my grandchildren have been immunized against disease, even if some corporation made a profit from it. (Immunization raises issues of benefit/cost ratio, but that's another story.) I'm glad that biotechnology techniques have resulted in bacteria that produce adequate insulin with consistent properties, a far better medicine than that isolated from pig and cow pancreas.

In my editorial, I called for increasing the stringency of the regulatory environment, including requiring multinationals to do the hard scientific work of making it virtually impossible for engineered genes to escape from the GM crop, a problem raised by Jim Rose and Signe Waller's letter. I did realize that this put at risk my status as a "hero of Monsanto," which a number of letter writers assigned to me. So it goes.


The technology that creates genetically modified organisms (GMOs)--for example, corn with built-in insecticide--has aroused opposition from much of the left equal in intensity to that induced by sweatshop labor and racism. Does GMO technology warrant this reflexive rejection, or can it make a contribution to human welfare?

Products that contribute little or nothing to improving human welfare do not justify taking even a small risk. Who needed bovine growth hormone? Does anyone really care that engineering an increase in potato starch content makes better potato chips? But GMO technology can also address extremely important issues. For example, the ravages of severe vitamin A deficiency among poor children, especially in Southeast Asia, annually results in the death of several million children and blindness in 250,000, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Work aimed at contributing to amelioration of this nutritional deficiency has resulted in the widely publicized "golden rice." By adding two plant genes and one bacterial gene, this genetically modified variety allows beta carotene to be synthesized in the edible portion of rice, rather than primarily in its leaves. Beta carotene, whose main dietary source is deeply colored fruits and vegetables, is converted by humans to vitamin A. If society were to eliminate poverty so that families could afford a balanced, nutritious diet, there would be less need for attempting to fortify rice. But since that will not happen soon, surely improving the beta carotene content of rice is worth diligent effort.

Despite the apparent altruistic motive in developing golden rice, the anti-GMO movement has vigorously attacked the project and succeeded in influencing public debate. For example, in a March 4 New York Times Magazine essay, Michael Pollan concludes that golden rice is no more than a poster boy for biotech companies. This is ironic since the work was supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds with the commitment that golden rice would, in the words of Ingo Potrykus, a lead scientist on the project, "reach subsistence farmers free of charge and restrictions."

Whether golden rice can make a positive contribution to health depends on the answers to a series of questions. But these involve empirical, not ideological, issues. Among them: Will poor Southeast Asians be able and willing to buy or grow golden rice? How much beta carotene will golden rice supply and with what efficiency can malnourished children convert it to vitamin A? Will the plausible three- to fivefold increase in beta carotene content be realized as the result of further research? And, as important, what impact might a product like golden rice have on the structure of agriculture, and how might those structural changes affect the rural poor?

Instead of indiscriminately rejecting GMO technology, we should direct our ire at corporate control of the research agenda, since under corporate control profitability rather than public need determines which projects are pursued. This results in crops and pharmaceuticals of immense importance in the developing world being "research orphans." With little potential for profit, corporations are not competing to develop virus-resistant cassava, for example, despite cassava's being the third most important source of calories worldwide [see Ken Silverstein, "Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor," July 19, 1999].

Most of the potential problems activists have highlighted are the result of racing to market. One such problem is escape of a transgene from an engineered crop to wild relatives. This would be virtually eliminated if the pollen of a transgenic corn plant, for example, were able to fertilize only other identically engineered corn. There are strategies for accomplishing this consistent with current knowledge of plant reproduction. A second example is the presence in many GMO crops of the gene for a protein that degrades antibiotics. Such genes are often inserted into the plant genome to facilitate creation of the genetically modified plant. Using existing techniques, this antibiotic resistance has been eliminated from golden rice. We should insist that genetically modified plants incorporate features like these before any GMO products are approved for marketing. And the more trivial a product's contribution to human welfare, the higher should be the safety bar.

While opposing corporate domination of the research agenda, we should encourage government and philanthropic organizations to support research, development and marketing of products aimed at alleviating the most serious problems afflicting poor people without regard for profit potential. When immense good with little risk is the likely outcome, we should celebrate not only with the people who benefit from the product but also for the success of a project motivated by humane values rather than the pursuit of profit. There are scientists in the forefront of genetic engineering who have a far different agenda from that of the multinationals. Their commitment is to bring modern science to bear on problems of importance to the Third World "free of costs and restrictions on property rights," in the words of Ingo Potrykus (www.rereth.ethz.ch/biol/selb.gruissem/gruissem/pj.01.html). The Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture, in Australia (www.cambia.org.au), operates on a "bottom up" principle. In its words, "CAMBIA develops technologies that enable local researchers and producers to regain an appropriate measure of control over breeding, utilization of genetic diversity and management of agricultural systems."

We need to be talking with such researchers. They can help us identify truly important potential uses of GMO technology, risks associated with it and strategies for minimizing the risks. For our part, we can encourage such researchers to insist on appropriate regulatory vigilance and to resist being co-opted by corporate devotion to the bottom line.

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