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

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.