Monday, October 22, 2012

This anti-GMO army is going against the grain

A woman during a past protest against GMOs in the city. Photo/FILE

A woman during a past protest against GMOs in the city. Photo/FILE 

By WAGA ODONGO

A picture in Wednesday’s Daily Nation showed the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition demonstrating against GMOs. A while back the lobby opposed the importation of maize from South Africa, saying it was genetically modified.

I wonder who funds these anti-science crusades. The most prominent sign on the picture had a barely visible subscript with writings in German.

Upon googling the words, you are led to a German website for a faith-based organisation concerned with matters nutrition. Surprise, surprise. GM is the 21st century’s Galileo’s telescope.

No one does anti-science hysteria like a religious organisation. One of the placards in the photos shows a skeleton; this is despite the fact that there has not been a single case of a person dying from eating GMO products.

I am just glad that the protesters were willing to show us the names of the bankrollers of their confected outrage so that we may put their protest in perspective.

In the background was a partially hidden placard repeating the allegation that GMOs cause cancer.

In Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, Michael Specter writes about how whole subsections of society refute evidence of a scientific nature and turn away from reality.

Their version of truth is their own belief not backed by evidence, but because of a rapidly changing world. In their topsy-turvy world, they dismiss scientific evidence as just another scientific point of view and march off to the fringes of pseudoscience to forage for “studies” that conform to their internal belief.

So that is how you find manufactured “debates” where the remains of discredited and discarded studies are exhumed, touched up by a mortician, and put on display. You end up with claims such as GM food causes cancer.

This claim also recently appeared in the Nation a while back. Thankfully, the letters page robustly discredited the study cited.

If the government wants to make policy using science and evidence, there is no question; GMO is the way to go. If the government wants to make policy based on superstition and single issue lobbyists, it should ban GMOs.

All plant and animal breeding is based on rearranging genetic material. All our food is the result of human intervention unless it is harvested from the wild.

We have been doing it for several millenniums and, more importantly, nature has been doing it through evolution for millions of years. Agriculture has been the story of mankind’s interference with plant and animal species for his own purposes.

I am sure there were a few foragers who opposed the domestication of animals. Others questioned the use of irrigation as opposed to rain-fed agriculture. Some objected to the plough. Or oxen in the field.

Now we have this lot who think that modifying the genes of food to make it better is wrong. Anti-GMO campaigns are a sort of biological Luddism (opposition to technological progress) and aversion to change that has its roots in superstition.

It stems from the idea that anything contrary to nature will wipe us out. Forgetting what a cruel mistress nature is. They claim that nature knows best despite the fact that 99 per cent of all species of animal and plants that have existed are extinct.

Now, humans who eat more GM foods live longer. Is this a coincidence? Even in societies that have had a longer experience with GM foods, the average life span has been going up progressively.

GM crops have the potential for higher yield, need less pesticides (hence better for the environment), and require less weeding. They could be made to grow in less than desirable locales, and some are even resist to viruses.

It really is a silver bullet for feeding seven billion mouths.

The acreage under GM crops is now about a billion worldwide. We passed the tipping point a few decades ago. It is no longer on the fringes; it is mainstream agriculture.

So far, scientists are working or have developed beans that are fortified with iron, rice that can grow in saline environments, and high-yield bananas. They even have vitamin-enriched rice in China.

The anti GM debate comes from the fact that some people think that natural is better than lab-manufactured. It has all the makings of an anti-human belief, where men are encouraged not to trust in their own intelligence but that of nature/ divine forces.

Natural, I say, is not always best and humans can, and have, improved the work of nature.

Next up we shall hear squeals when we start eating cloned meat because it is genetically identical to whatever it was cloned from. So if it is okay to eat the original, the copy will be just as sweet.

Cloning also is the logical conclusion of artificial insemination and there is no moral or scientific reason people should not eat cloned meat. But predictably when eventually meat/ milk that is cloned is introduced locally, you will see the luddites, and the pitchforks foaming at the mouth claiming that it causes cancer.

The imported apples and bananas that we eat are usually cloned. So why should beef not be cloned for consumption? The irrational fear occasioned by cloning is due in part to the fact that these are animals and our lingering superstition that perhaps living things have souls in them that animate their movement and exist after death.

Plants do not have souls, so there is absolutely no problem with cloning them.
GM foods have to meet the high standards of safety set by expert bodies working for the public interest. They are only approved when the men in charge of the standards are completely satisfied.

Remember the GMOs are more rigorously tested and approved than traditional crops and in all the time they have been in use, not a single case of rash, tumour, or illness has been attributed to GM foods in over 40 years.

Recall that the number of food servings involving GMOs must have run into the trillions. (By trillions I mean the American trillion which has 12 zeros, not the British trillion which has 18 zeros — yes, there is a difference.)

So, really a one in a trillion is all that is being contested. An absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, but is it really worth considering a one in a trillion risk?

Respond at [email protected]

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Is the absence of evidence, evidence of absence?

Food safety should be judged on the basis of past events, not future possibilities. It should be judged on cases that have actually occurred in the past, not abject conjecture on what might happen in the future.

Risk and food safety should be done on a balance of probabilities. Using this very rational approach, a past absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. Forty years of using GMOs is long enough.

So GMOs are perfectly safe. If there has not been an event in 40 years, with over a trillion chances for the event to happen, any reasonable man would call off the search party. But we clearly are not dealing with logical people.

Africa and Kenya in particular needs GM crops. Kenyan farmers must improve their yields and increase their income. This can only happen if they adopt GMO crops. GM technology can and will save Africa if given a chance.

Food security is so great a concern that we cannot afford to underutilise or reject technology because of irrational fears.

We should discourage this pastoral, science-hating fear mongering that merges superstition, ignorance, and fear.

Finally, there are demands that we should label GMO food. What the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition hopes to achieve is not an awareness based on which foods are GM and which ones are not, but to spread fear.

They want to create a difference where there is none. The demand is a case of negative labelling and should be discouraged.

If there must be a label, they should campaign for a positive label such as those that say which foods are “organic”, as purportedly organic foods have. The labels should say non-GM foods as opposed to labelling GM foods.

The public should also be made aware that the differences between the two are cosmetic.

The “organic food” label is misleading because all food is organic. Organic usually stands for grown without synthetic chemicals. Many poisonous plants are organic, and not all organic food is safe to eat.

“Organic” food is no more nutritious than the other type grown with fertiliser. According to the British food standards agency, there is no measurable health benefit of using “organic” food as compared to food grown using pesticides.

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