Robert Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College, says the anti-GMO lobby has a strong influence in Africa. (Courtesy Robert Paarlberg)
The ongoing debate over the use of genetically modified crops for human food has its origins primarily in North America and Europe, but its reach is global. GM seeds —particularly corn and soybeans — are widely used by commodity farmers in the United States, but many European countries have banned the technology.
Wellesley College political science professor Robert Paarlberg (full disclosure: I took a course with Paarlberg at Wellesley 20 years ago) has looked at attitudes toward GMOs. He found the opposition to them from residents of wealthy countries does not stem from their fear of new risks the products create.
“Because scientists haven’t yet found any new risks,” he said in a phone interview. “The aversion comes, instead, from the absence of new benefits.”
It is a luxury, in a sense, that people in wealthy countries can reject a technology because they do not perceive a need for it, Paarlberg argues. Except for the farmers who plant the seeds and the seed companies that profit from the sales, he said, few Americans or Europeans notice benefits from genetically modified crops.
“GMO crops don’t look any better or smell any better or taste any better. They’re not any more nutritious,” Paarlberg said. “So consumers have been perfectly willing, not seeing any direct benefit, to take a highly precautionary view of the technology.”
He said that contrasts with the widespread acceptance of genetic engineering in medical applications.
“Where biotechnology does deliver new direct benefits to ordinary citizens, such as biological drugs from genetically engineered hamster cells,” Paarlberg said, “I find it interesting that here there’s no resistance at all, even in Europe, despite what is actually a significant presence of new risks as determined in clinical trials.”
Whatever the origins of the resistance, Paarlberg acknowledges that activist campaigns have kept out of the marketplace just about all of the fruits and vegetables, and all of the animals, that have been genetically engineered in the lab. He cites one exception.
When a crop disease in Hawaii was threatening the papaya, an important commercial crop for that state, a genetic modification helped save the fruit, Paarlberg said.
“A GMO disease resistant variety was introduced and now the papaya is doing very well,” Paarlberg said. “You would think that that would leave Hawaiians pre-disposed to welcome GMOs. You’d think that would change some minds about GMOs. But apparently very few minds were changed, even in Hawaii.”
Now, Paarlberg said, some Hawaiians are attempting to prevent seed companies, which like to develop new varieties in Hawaii’s year-round growing season, from planting GM corn.
“There is a political movement in Hawaii now to kick the seed companies out of Hawaii because the crops they are growing are GMOs,” Paarlberg said.
The whole debate over GMOs has become essentially a political and economic one that looks very different in rich countries than in poor ones. Paarlberg’s 2008 book "Starved for Science: how biotechnology is being kept out of Africa", explored why most countries in tropical Africa have restricted or prohibited the use of GMOs. In fact, he’s found some governments even ban research on the technology. In a now-famous incident 10 years ago, Zambia refused hunger relief containing GMO grains, a story at the center of Paarlberg's book. Partly, he explains, governments—especially in poor countries—must protect their European export markets.
“They may not really be fearful of food safety or biosafety issues, but it’s a dollars and cents issue for them,” Paarlberg said. “They don’t want to take any commercial export risk so they keep all GMOs out of their country.”
Though Kenya has a ban on GMOs, a farmer from that country who visited Iowa recently said a task force is reviewing the ban. Gilbert Bor, who grows corn and vegetables and has dairy cows—and is also a lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa Eldoret Campus in Kenya—said he’s hopeful the ban will be lifted.
“In the next three months we should see the Kenyan government changing its position,” Bor said.
Paarlberg said that in India and China GM cotton has reduced small holder farmers’ need for insecticide, a benefit that might also occur in cotton-growing regions of Africa. And, Paarlberg argues, the developing world could also benefit from GMO crops specifically designed to meet the needs of people living in poverty, like what is known as Golden Rice.
Golden Rice is enhanced, using genetic engineering, with beta carotene. It was developed to help prevent blindness in children—a problem not common in wealthy countries where diet provides ample beta carotene.
“This was a product that was designed for use in very poor countries where rice is almost the entire diet,” Paarlberg said, and where the lack of dietary beta carotene puts children at risk of losing their vision. But because so many people—most of whom are not the target audience—oppose all GM food products, Golden Rice has never reached the marketplace.
“The problem is that when we start regulating or responding to technologies using a rich country frame of reference, when those technologies were actually designed for a poor country frame of reference, then we end up wrongly stigmatizing the technology,” Paarlberg said.
Potential future harm from genetically engineered food remains a first world concern, while malnutrition and childhood blindness are contemporary third world problems.