I don’t eat at Chipotle, but if I did, I would stop now that it has banned GMOs in its food. I simply won’t support anti-science nonsense.
The company’s chairman, Steve Ells, told Yahoo Health, “There is a lot of debate about genetically modified foods…it’s clear that a lot of research is still needed.” That’s the same garbage you hear from climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, claiming there’s no settled science on the subject. Wrong! Nine out of ten scientists will tell you it is safe to eat genetically modified food. They’ve done the tests — for decades! — and found no evidence to the contrary.
As geneticist Nina Federoff wrote in Scientific American:
Humans began genetically modifying plants to provide food more than 10,000 years ago. For the past hundred years or so plant breeders have used radiation and chemicals to speed up the production of genetic changes. This was a genetic shotgun, producing lots of bad changes and a very, very occasional good one. That’s the best we could do until three laureates (and their colleagues) developed molecular techniques for plant genetic modification. We can now use these methods to make precise improvements by adding just a gene (or two or a few) that codes for proteins whose function we know with precision. Yet plants modified by these techniques, the best and safest we’ve ever invented, are the only ones we now call GM. Almost everyone believes we’ve never fiddled with plant genes before, as if beefsteak tomatoes, elephant garlic and corn were somehow products of unfettered nature.
The anti-GM storm gathered in the mid-80s and swept around the world. Most early alarms about new technologies fade away as research accumulates without turning up evidence of deleterious effects. This should be happening now because scientists have amassed more than three decades of research on GM biosafety, none of which has surfaced credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous. Instead, the anti-GM storm has intensified. Scientists have done their best to explain things, but they’re rather staid folk for the most part, constitutionally addicted to facts and figures and not terribly good at crafting emotionally gripping narratives. This puts them at a disadvantage. One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies that show that GM foods are just like non-GM foods.
I talked this over in more detail with Federoff when she was on my show in July, 2013 — listen to that conversation here.
I’ve also spoken with Dr. Adrian Dubock, project manager for Golden Rice, the brainchild of some scientists who used genetics to try to solve a serious problem in many rice-eating cultures in Asia and Africa — people were not getting enough Vitamin A (beta-carotene) in their diet. That was affecting their eyesight, with millions going blind. So the scientists genetically modified rice with genes from corn and a bacterium to create Golden Rice, which creates Vitamin A in humans. It saved the eyesight of huge numbers of people. Unfortunately, anti-GMO groups started spreading lies about Golden Rice, and at one point destroyed an experimental field in the Phillipines. Listen to my 2013 conversation with Dr. Dubock here.
This weekend, Mark Lynas, who used to be an anti-GMO activist, wrote an op-ed in the NY Times in which he reversed his opinion:
I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on GMOs. There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
In Africa, however, countries have fallen like dominoes to anti-GM campaigns. I am writing this at a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, where the government slapped a GMO import ban in 2012 after activists brandished pictures of rats with tumors and claimed that GM foods caused cancer. The origin of the scare was a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Yet Kenya’s ban remains, creating a food-trade bottleneck that will raise prices, worsening malnutrition and increasing poverty for millions.
In Uganda, the valuable banana crop is being devastated by a new disease called bacterial wilt, while the starchy cassava, a subsistence staple, has been hit by two deadly viruses. Biotech scientists have produced resistant varieties of both crops using genetic modification, but anti-GMO groups have successfully prevented the Ugandan Parliament from passing a biosafety law necessary for their release.
Therein lies the real danger. While Chipotle’s ban on GMO ingredients doesn’t hurt anyone directly, its indirect impact is in popularizing the false claims that GMOs are harmful to humans. And when those lies and rumors spread around the world, they do endanger people, especially in places where access to food is scarce.
I prefer to stand with the late Dr. Norman Borlaug — whose work in creating new varieties of wheat won the Nobel Peace Prize and earned him the nickname The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives — and those genetic and agricultural scientists who are following in his footsteps. They deserve praise and thanks, not scorn from critics, ignorance spread online, and bad laws passed by uninformed politicians which deny the world access to their life-saving efforts.