Men unload sacks of onions at a farmers market in Bamako, Mali. Photo by: Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Food security is, and will continue to be, one of our greatest ongoing development challenges. We not only need to provide food and nutrition for a growing global population, but we must do so in the face of mounting environmental challenges. The global climate is changing, and land suitable for agriculture and food production is changing with it. Salinification and desertification, flooding and drought, and natural disasters threaten agriculture across the globe. With changing temperatures, meanwhile, come new risks from pests and diseases.

The GMO Debate

What happens when we remove multinationals and corporate profit from the GMO debate?

In this five-part series, Devex looks at how perspectives of doing good through science versus corporate interests changes the outcome of the polarized GMO issue.

Part two: Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs

Part three: Who are the donors taking on GMOs?

Part four: What are the political drivers for GMOs in developing countries?

Part five: How do corporations perceive their role in the GMO debate?

Agricultural and food security experts are investigating a range of ways to address these challenges. Solutions range from everything from new breeding programs, to better monitoring and evaluation, to farming strategies that reduce waste and increase yield.

But in discussing a food-secure future, the role of genetically modified organisms remains a raging debate.

At the core of the anti-GMO argument is the role large corporations play in the development, implementation, and profit from GMO products — largely Monsanto. Organizations such as Monsanto grew as GMO leaders due to the initial costs involved in the research, development, testing, and intellectual property associated with GMO. Monsanto has developed a range of crops that produce higher yield — including the controversial roundup ready crops, which are pesticide resistant. Monsanto not only makes money from selling high yield seed, but all the associated products that need to be sprayed on them to produce the best output.

Opponents raise concern over the environmental impacts of such crops and the patent stipulations for small farmers, and they challenge the science and information coming from organizations such as Monsanto. This concern has led to the cultivation of GMOs being banned or prohibited in more than 30 regions, not including bans that have occurred at subregional levels, as well as food labelling standards identifying products as GMO free.

Today, as technology is becoming more accessible and less expensive, smaller labs and researchers are able to produce GMOs at a reduced costs — with the seed produced available for public good, not profit. And this allows them to respond to small, localized food production issues such as bananas in Uganda and papaya in Hawaii.

For the development sector — where the impact of lost local crops can mean loss of income, increased poverty and loss of culture — does “public good” GMO change the debate?

In this five-part series, we look at various sides of the GMO debate to understand the continuing concerns. And we explore whether the conversation changes when we remove corporation and profit from the debate.

In part one, we investigate the scientific argument which favors GMOs for the purpose of creating a food secure future.

Science and GMOs

Aside from the corporations profiting from GMOs, scientists are one of the most vocal groups in favor of the use of GMOs. In June 2016, 129 Nobel Laureates signed a letter urging Greenpeace to re-examine and abandon their campaign against GMOs. In their letter, they argue that there has never been any evidence of health issues associated with GMOs and the impact on the environment is less harmful than traditional agriculture. They also noted that GMO has the potential to greatly reduce death and disease from issues such as Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

Today, scientific research continues to find no health risk from GMOs and scientists are being urged to engage on the debate.

Among those leading the charge are Dr Marina Trigueros and Dr Hugo Alonso who have established GMOonly — an initiative dedicated to the promotion of GMOs and the sale of products made with GMOs. Trigueros, with 10 years of scientific research experience in plant molecular biology, and Alonso, a researcher in plant genetics and physiology, told Devex that their frustration over the negative perceptions of GMO led to their initiative.

“We started with this GMO initiative in early 2017,” Alonso said. “We were three scientists, all with experience working with GMO in different stages of research, but found the research was being hampered by policies which were making it difficult to bring GM products to the market. To bring a GM product to market, the approval processes take a very long time and regulations make it extremely expensive. We wanted to be able to do something about it.”

Fighting the negative press

For Trigueros, the science and the rigorous testing and approval processes GMOs are required to go through before reaching the market should build public confidence — they are put through a tougher process than any other food product. But strong lobbying from organizations against GMOs has created a negative public perspective that even science is having a hard time to break through.

“There has only recently been any lobbying in favor of GMO,” Alonso said. “The big problem is that companies or organizations using GMOs are keeping it under the radar. They are concerned that if it goes public, they will receive negative press.”

In the past, the negative press companies such as Monsanto have received, Alonso said, were valid. “They have done things they probably shouldn’t,” he said. “Like trying to control the market. But that was 20 years ago, when they were just beginning in this space.” With the changing market and reduced cost of technology, the science has become more accessible and available to assist with the food and health challenges specific to developing countries — not just the market needs of the developed world.

“GM is a technology that can be used in different ways,” Alonso said. “If a company has a policy that is negative for farmers, it is not a problem with the GMO — it is a problem with the company.”

To promote positive press and encourage governments to open the door to growing GMOs, Trigueros said scientists need to play a critical role — but to date they have been doing a poor job.

“Scientists have not been good at selling, explaining, or educating the public on GMOs,” she said. “We can make it boring and too scientific. And that means we haven’t been able to create a positive viewpoint.”

And this has meant that the concept of “Frankenfoods” continues to be associated with GMOs.

“In Africa, where smallholder farmers have been assisting in the development and testing of GMOs there are still issues,” Trigueros said. “Because of the fear generated around the concept of GMOs, the governments are not allowing it to be introduced. They think it is weird technology and just assume the food is bad.”

Despite there being strong arguments for GMO to support the needs of the developing world, the perceptions of the developed world dominate — and GMO-free branding on products means consumers are more likely to be educated on why they need to avoid GMOs. It is a difficult education cycle to compete against. Combined with supermarkets full of food, Alonso said it is difficult to explain to consumers in developing countries why creating more food should be an important issue to them.

For scientists, GMOs are not the only solution for food security — but they are an important one. “Combined with improved farming conditions, better use of water and reducing waste, GMOs can help to create better food options,” Trigueros said.  

And with the changing environment, she has no doubt that the future of food will be GMO.

“In ten years we are not going to have this discussion,” Trigueros said. “GMOs are going to be there. People will accept them and we hope to even see organic shops accepting them. The new generations will understand this is the food of science, and they will be fine with that.”

Can ‘public good’ GMO change the conversation?

Despite the confidence of Trigueros that a GMO future is a reality, public debate still needs to change to make it a reality. And the concept of promoting GMO as a public good science, not linked to large corporations, is being tested through film.

The documentary Food Evolution, commissioned by the Institute of Food Technologists and narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, has been playing at a range of conferences and events throughout the world to spark discussion and highlight the scientific argument — including at events supported by GMOonly.

The documentary aims to come at the debate from a clean slate, discussing both sides of the argument. It ends heavily in favor of science to promote the social and community benefits in places such as Hawaii and Uganda, while downplaying the role of corporations.

“It is new to us to try and show both sides of the story,” Tigueros said. “It is important to understand that for both sides, it comes from the heart — including from science”

At a screening at the Australian National University in Canberra last September, the audience were asked about their perspective on GMOs before the film — displaying a red, orange or green card to say if they were against, undecided or for GMOs. Red and orange dominated.

After the screening they were asked the question again — and a significant number were changed to green. It was a positive sign for Trigueros and Alonso that the public good debate of GMO had legs. They are hoping the film can encourage debate and discussion among a wide and diverse audience.

Globally, scientists — including Nobel Laureate Richard Roberts — are becoming more vocal on the need for GMOs to assist the developing world and will continue to push for greater acceptance of GMOs within programs to support better food security and nutrition.

But science is just one part of the story.

Continuing the conversation

In part two of this series we will investigate the views of some of the most vocal anti-GMO campaigners within the development space, discussing their ongoing concerns and whether “public good” GMO, in light of changing global conditions, changes the debate.

Read more Devex coverage on food security and agriculture.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.