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GM Crops Overregulated?

by Steven Novella, Feb 18 2013

Genetically modified (GM) crops are the target of significant worldwide controversy, to the greatest extent in Europe but also in the US and elsewhere. Are the concerns over GM crops justified by the science? What is the proper balance between the precautionary principle and making potentially improved crops available to a hungry world?

GM “golden rice” – rice genetically modified to produce beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A, is set to be introduced in the Philippines, creating another round of debate on this issue.

Crops have been genetically modified to resist pests or herbicide, to thrive in adverse environmental conditions (cold, drought), and to enhance nutrition. At present GM crops are highly regulated, with proponents arguing that the regulation is too strict while GM opponents argue that they are too lax. Still others argue for a case-by-case assessment of each GM product, which seems to me to be the most sensible approach.

There are many concerns over GM crops – that they will have unintended consequences to health, the introduction of new proteins may pose an allergenic risk, that they pose a risk to the environment (mainly from genes getting out into the wild) and that they are a mechanism by which big corporations (i.e. Monsanto) control our food supply. The safety concerns do seem to vary greatly depending on the exact kind of GM we are assessing.

Golden rice does not pose many of the above concerns. The genetically added nutrient is vitamin A, not a novel protein or an allergenic risk. I also don’t see the risk of a gene for beta carotene getting out into the wild – at least it doesn’t pose the same risk as conferring herbicide resistance to a weed, creating a “super weed.”

Vitamin A deficiency remains a significant health problem in many parts of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports:

An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient.
An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

That is a significant health burden. Efforts are under way to reduce vitamin A deficiency through supplementation and diversification of food supply, but goals for reduction have not been met and deficiency remains a significant problem.

Golden rice is another potential solution. Rice is a staple food, which means it makes up a large part of the diet in certain regions. Staple crops had an interesting effect on human nutrition and populations. The growing of wheat, corn, and rice allowed for a tremendous increase in the number of calories that human farming could produce, and transformed human societies into agricultural societies. However, staple crops lack certain micronutrients, so the quality of human nutrition actually decreased after the initial development of agriculture. Staple crops need to be supplemented with a variety of food sources to maintain proper nutrition.

Enhancing staple crops with specific nutrients, like vitamin A, will create the best of both worlds – a significant source of nutrition that contains needed micronutrients.

Bruce Chassy is speaking this week at the AAAS meeting (American Academy for the Advancement of Science) arguing that the current regulation of GM crops is counterproductive (an opinion he also gives here). He argues that the last 20 years have demonstrated the overall safety of GM crops through multiple plantings and scientific studies. We still need to monitor GM crop safety, but the current level of regulation is harming the hungry and the poor, mostly in the third world.

This sentiment was echoed by an article in Slate magazine by Bjørn Lomborg, an economist who argues that delaying the introduction of golden rice has resulted in the death and blindness of millions of children. Lomborg is a controversial figure stemming from his earlier book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he engaged in denial of many environmentalist issues. His books was widely criticized, including in an 11 page rebuttal in Scientific American. The full details of this controversy are beyond this post, my primary point is that Lomborg remains controversial, which haunts his current efforts, including his recent article on golden rice.

The statistics he quotes in the article that I have been able to check out appear to be valid. He essentially argues that golden rice would be the most cost effective intervention:

Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. Both are great deals. But golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency.

I think these are annual figures. Keep in mind this is the cost of providing supplements not just to each life saved but to the target population.


GM crops remain controversial. While the precautionary principle and concerns over unintended consequences are legitimate, they need to be balanced against the unintended consequences of excessive regulation. The most prudent approach seems to be to take a science-based case-by-case approach to each GM product, and to considers all potential costs and benefits.

Golden Rice, by all the evidence I can find, appears to be a safe and effective way to combat the global health problem of vitamin A deficiency. Resistance to golden rice appears to be based mostly in generic opposition to GM, rather than evidence that this particular product poses risks in excess of benefits.

45 Responses to “GM Crops Overregulated?”

  1. Willy says:

    I do have to say that it seems that much of the opposition to GM is knee jerk liberalism and it’s handmaiden, knee jerk anti-corporate sentiment. Actual science often takes a back seat as does the oft- touted liberal virtue of humanism. It is strange to see liberals engage
    in anti-science, anti-humanism but it is not the only case, anti-vax being the other.

    • tmac57 says:

      Well,to be fair,if you look at it from the (misinformed) position that they are coming from,it would be they that are allegedly espousing the humanist value.They really do believe that they are acting to protect humanity from harm. That is why it is so important to get them to embrace the scientific method and critical thinking.

    • Max says:

      They don’t trust the industry to regulate itself or fund safety studies of its own products.
      Observe the recent Dreamliner battery fiasco, where Boeing predicted one smoke release event in 10 million flight hours, but ended up having two events in 100K flight hours.

      • Max says:

        This just in

        “[Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals] in everyday products are likely to be at least the partial cause of a global surge in birth deformities, hormonal cancers and psychiatric diseases, a U.N.-sponsored research team reported on Tuesday…
        The team, created by a 17-year-old chemical management body called the IOMC working with a range of U.N. agencies, said a key problem was that manufacturers of consumer products did not identify many of their chemical components.”

    • RCAF says:

      I’m a center-left individual, and I would hope you aren’t trying to characterize everyone on the left as being anti-science. It is only the holier-than-thou elitests that are that way. I know far more conservatives who are anti-science, you know, the ones who swear that the earth is only 6000 years old and was created by an old buy with a beard? Both are equally idiotic, and deserve ridicule.

      That being said, the liberal elite (and I stress elite), are a wack-a-loon group. They are a pathetic bunch of first-world whiners that would rather see death in the developing world from starvation than the use of GMO that would save millions. It’s truely barbaric. I’m sure the people starving would love to have the option of living longer with the extremely minute possibility that it could cause them harm years down the road, rather than the certainty of death or disease in the near term.

      I think these morons should be forced to live in the same conditions they are willing to thrust upon others, and let’s see how quickly they change their tune.

      • Steven St. John says:

        Props to you for recognizing both fringes. Frankly, I think it is more important for liberal skeptics to point out the loonies in their own political ranks – and for conservative skeptics to point out loonies in their own political ranks. I may be wrong, but criticism of the other side’s loonies seem to me to be more likely to be lost in the noise of everyday politics than criticism of one’s own.

      • tmac57 says:

        I see real merit in that point.There is of course the trap that if you are only criticizing your own side,and the other side is also criticizing your side,and not their own,then the consensus becomes that your side is most definitely the one with the worst approach and views.

      • Greisha says:

        RCAF: They cannot be elite by definition. Elite is the best, you are talking about those far from the best at least in terms of thinking and reasoning.

      • RCAF says:

        Greisha, you are correct in the strictest terms. I’m using the term “elite” in the deragatory, in other words, I’m merely referring to those who “think” they are better than the average person, or the rich who think their wealth makes them better than anyone else.

  2. Max says:

    Contrast with the European Environment Agency’s report.

    Thousands of lives could have been saved and extensive damage to ecosystems avoided if the “precautionary principle” had been applied on the basis of early warnings, say the authors of the 2013 Late Lessons from Early warnings report published on Wednesday.

    They accuse industry of working to corrupt or undermine regulation by spinning and manipulating research and applying pressure on governments for financial benefit. “[It has] deliberately recruited reputable scientists, media experts and politicians to call on if their products were linked to possible hazards. Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over-regulation appear to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups and think tanks to undermine precautionary decision-making.”

    About GM Crops:

    “Evidence is accumulating of inflated benefit claims and of adverse effects. The benefits that may have been overstated are the reduction in pesticide use, the reduced use of more toxic pesticides, higher yields and farmer income. The safety of GM crops is presumed when there is a lack of evidence of harm, as if this were equivalent to evidence of lack of harm, when it clearly is not. Hence many of the safety conclusions … are assumption-based, rather than evidence-based, reasoning.”

    The study does not dismiss GM crops but says they have limited value as presently employed. Rather than being a widely used technolgy, GM is limited to very few countries and just 3% of the world’s farmland, says the report. “Despite more than 30 years of research and development and nearly 20 years of commercialisation of GM crops, surprisingly only two traits have been significant in the marketplace – herbicide tolerance and insecticide production. And they are grown at scale only in a small number of countries. Industry-derived figures report a large number of global hectares under GM cultivation, but when examined … indicate an uneven global commitment to GM crops.”

  3. I seems disingenuous to argue that lack of implementation is a strike against GM crops, when anti-GM sentiment has been successful in limiting implementation. Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    What you link to looks like evidence of bias on both sides – corporations want to downplay legitimate precaution, and environmentalists want to downplay legitimate advantages.

    Whenever I go to the published literature a more balanced view emerges.

    • Max says:

      The evidence of “inflated benefit claims” are the strike against benefit claims, as in, “Industry-derived figures report a large number of global hectares under GM cultivation, but when examined … indicate an uneven global commitment to GM crops.”

      • tmac57 says:

        Would the efficacy of the polio vaccine’s benefits be inflated if the population were resistant to using it,thus resulting in more cases of polio than were being projected under the assumption that all would be vaccinated?

      • Max says:

        Doesn’t sound like they’re talking about optimistic projections, but about overstated actuals. Also says they overstated the reduction in pesticide use and higher yields.
        The polio vaccine’s benefits would be inflated if it were claimed to be 99% effective but turned out to be 50% effective.

      • RCAF says:

        Can you be more specific? I don’t really know what you mean by “inflated benefit claims”, and an uneven global commitment. Which claims are being inflated, and isn’t the global commitment limited by political protests?

      • RCAF says:

        I saw that in your previous reply, but there aren’t many details in it, which is rather sad for an article in the Guradian.
        I have no doubt that GMO may not be as beneficial in Europe, as the region is a great area for agriculture, but the report doesn’t seem to address anything about other regions where they could be very beneficial. Which is what this article seems to be focused on.

  4. luigiatlarge says:

    “He argues that the last 20 years has demonstrated the overall safety of GM craps through multiple plantings and scientific studies.”

    what a crap study.

    • RCAF says:

      What a briliant argument. I guess that last “statement” – it’s not even a sentence, let alone a paragraph – just disproved the last 20 years of reserach.

      You do know it was “studies” and not a single study, right? However, since you seem to feel that you have some insight into why they are such crap, plese feel free to provide your expert rebuttal.

  5. Trimegistus says:

    Question: how much real-world damage has been done by antivaxers, GMO opponents, antinuclear activists, and other science-haters on the Left, vs. real-world damage done by Creationists? How many lives have been affected for the worse?

    • Max says:

      Not to mention opponents of DDT and asbestos.

    • Mikeb says:

      “Question: how much real-world damage has been done by antivaxers, GMO opponents, antinuclear activists, and other science-haters on the Left, vs. real-world damage done by Creationists?”

      This is exactly the kind of thing that passes for “argument” that keeps me away from politics (and why I have remained undeclared since the early nineties.) “Your idiocy is worse than our idiocy.”

  6. ZielonyGrzyb says:

    One little correction: Bjørn Lomborg is not an economist. He is a political scientist, and his presentation of economic issues has been criticised a lot, too.

  7. Mikeb says:

    I’ve done a one-eighty on this issue (as a mostly-liberal, gay, atheist farmer): Having worked at an organic farm, I’m familiar with the boilerplate arguments against “frankenfoods” and such. Several things happened to change my mind:

    1. Discovering that the Humulin my Type 1 diabetic partner uses to stay alive is a genetically engineered analog to human insulin.

    2. Reading Nina Federoff’s book “Mendel In the Kitchen.”

    3. Checking out the claims of a “scientific study” that purported to show that Bt corn left residues of “pesticides” in the fetuses and umbilical cords of pregnant women (Google Aris and Leblanc, bt corn).

    It was tough going reading that study, but I saw how the authors did not even manage to demonstrate that the women they studied had eaten Bt corn! And as a friend who is a microbiologist pointed out, the test kit they used to detect the alleged pesticide residue is the wrong kit to use for detecting the protein in blood.

    It’s so easy for a lay person to have the wool pulled over his eyes. I now detest the atavistic, anti-GMO, pro-organic movement.

    I recommend the blogs of David Tribe, Kevin Folta, and the gang at Biofortifed. Great critical thinking there.

    • RCAF says:

      Thanks for the references.
      You are correct, it easy to hoodwink the general population because they people have a natural fear of the unknown, and aren’t well trained in how do scientific research. Kudos to you for being able to cut through the misinformation.

      Maybe it’s just me, but I find that the extremes at both ends of the spectrum aren’t that different. They both are trying to tell you how to live your life, and trying to make laws to force you to do it their way. The only difference is the right tries to use a bronze-age fairy tale, while the left tries to scare you into thinking that evil corporations are out to get you.

  8. tmac57 says:

    I just came across this fairly balanced article about GE crops in the Atlantic,worth a look:

    • RCAF says:

      Seems that article is about GE, not GM. ;-)
      It’s well worth the read, and it’s a little surprising because the author works for CSPI, which I’ve always thought had an organic bent.

  9. Oldskool says:

    Question: how much real-world damage has been done by antivaxers, GMO opponents, antinuclear activists, and other science-haters on the Left, vs. real-world damage done by Creationists?”

    umm- Anti-Vaxers are as much of the right as of the left, the right argument is- “Why is the Government injecting this stuff in my child, it must be a Government ploy for control…” same as the anti- Flouride argument, also mainly from the right, and for every..

    What is the point for every discussion I have seen, Libertarians and right wing skeptics are completely unwilling to face reality.

    Great article Steven!

    • Phea says:

      To be fair, science itself should be included in the contest. Science has consistently given us ways to kill each other more effectively.

  10. adrian dubock says:

    Re the costs of Golden Rice. Please may I refer you to: Stein et al., Nature Biotechnology 2006, 24, 10, 200-201. In a nutshell: economists compare health interventions by valuing Disability Adjusted Life Years (‘DALY’s). The World Health Authority value one DALY saved at US$620- US$1860. Stein et al show that (highest efficiency – lowest efficiency). Vitamin A capsule supplementation costs US$134 – US$599 per DALY saved. Vitamin A fortification of food costs US$84 per DALY saved. Golden Rice costs US3.00 – US$19 per DALY saved. (As Stein et al assumed a 12:1 bioconversion ratio from beta-carotenme to vitamin A, and the actual figure is 2.3:1 (see Tang et al 2012) the actual cost of Golden Rice should be signifcantly lower than US3.00 per DALY saved.

    By the time the farmer has the seed, all the development costs have been paid, and this is the bulk of the (conservative) $3.00 – $19.00 calculation. There is no further cost except social marketing/education support. And how sustainable and organic when the technology is in the seed, and the plant makes its own micronutrient nutrition for the consumer, not only in the leaves as before, but now in the grain that we eat as well.

    (Actual vitamin A capsules are cheap, but they also have to be distributed which is demanding for the resource poor who are often in remote locations. About US$1.0 billion per annum is neverthless spent on them – mostly by US and Canadian tax payers throught those countries aid programmes. 23-24% of under 5 years child mortality, and about 40% of maternal mortality would be saved by providing a universal source of vitamin A, such as the beta-carotene in Golden Rice. And rice provides most of the calories for about 3.5 billion people daily.

    The technology in Golden Rice has been donated free of charge by its creators Professors Potrykus and Beyer. There are no additonal costs associated with it. Farmers are free to save seed, replant, sell locally. Cost of production is expected to be no more than white rice.

    No individual, except those that will live or retain their sight if they consume it, nor company will benefit from its adoption. See for more information.

  11. Phea says:

    While far from objective, this film, (“The World According to Monsanto”), did raise some interesting questions. It’s free to watch. Here’s a link:

  12. Gilles says:

    > This sentiment was echoed by an article in Slate magazine by Bjørn Lomborg, an economist

    He’s not:

    “Lomborg spent a year as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, earned an M.A. degree in political science at the University of Aarhus in 1991, and a Ph.D. degree in political science at the University of Copenhagen in 1994.

    He lectured in statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus as an assistant professor (1994–1996) and associate professor (1997–2005). He left the university in February 2005 and in May of that year became an Adjunct Professor at Copenhagen Business School.”

    So, no hard science background.

    And even if he were an economist, considering the track record in that field…

  13. Felix Hummel says:

    Claming GM crops could improve the health of people in developing countries could only be somewhat realistic if there was no financial interest in the research. Since this research is expensive, there is no chance that this will happen. I really wish people would quit repeating that. There are other benefits in GM crops, but feeding the world is not one of them.

  14. itsgrimupnorth says:

    Better to grow carrots ?

    First of all I need to say i’m just a person with a new found interest in “critical thinking” and “skepticism” I do not have a science background (much to the disappointment of my late father bless his cotton socks) and my command of english grammar is sadly lacking (much to the disappointment of my mother)

    Just giving people more rice with extra Vitamin A merely treats the symptoms not the cause, GM doesn’t stand for “Great Medicine” even if a lot of the pro GM people seem to think it does.

    What I think these people need is more help to grow decent vegetables for themselves (carrots in this case), educating these people in empowering technologies (i’m thinking in this case about water extraction) thus helping them to provide what they need for themselves would be of longer lasting benefit and also give them a sense of personal independence, something that would go along way to making a persons life more fulfilling.

    I’m thinking along these lines quoted from

    “Agnes Syombua Kilnozi lives in Mutusya village, Ngomeni division, Mwingi district with her 8 children. She and her husband have a 7 acre plot but couldn’t grow enough to meet the needs of their large family so her husband left home to find employment at a town some 150 Kms away.

    Agnes searched & eventually found water on her land at a depth of 39 feet from which she drew water manually with buckets and started to grow onions, kale, amaranths (a local green vegetable) and spinach. She joined FARM-Africa’s Dryland Farming project and has received a drip irrigation kit (rubber piping) and training in using drip irrigation which has reduced the time she spends watering her vegetables and the amount of water she uses. She has also been able to borrow tools such as a wheelbarrow, mattock and jembes (hoes) from her farmer group. Agnes also received training in how to set up vegetable seed beds and nurseries and she is now providing vegetable seedlings to the other 8 project groups in Ngomeni division.

    Agnes has benefitted a lot from increasing her vegetable cultivation. Villagers come to her farm to buy vegetables and she also sells a significant amount at a nearby market in Kamusiliu providing her with regular income. The income she gets is enabling her to pay school fees for her children, buy clothes and other food. With the help of the project Agnes has also started planting mangoes and papaya. She plans to invest some of her income from vegetable and fruit sales into a pump so that she can increase the amount of her land she has under irrigation and grow more fruit and vegetables. ”

    OK Agnes doesn’t grow carrots but i’m sure she could, not only that but she can help others in the community too, something that wouldn’t have happened just because she had Golden Rice to eat.
    I should finally point out i’m not against GM foods per se, I was writing to someone the other day explaining my cross breed chickens are technically genetically modified ie; 2 different breeds of chicken to make a new one and no one runs around screaming “frankenchicken”
    Great blog by the way and thanks for letting me post on it.

    Call me an Idealist, Call me Naive, just call me.