Does the anti-GMO foods movement go against science?

Independent scientists and the ‘big six’ go head to head with a distrustful consumer base in the battle against GMOs.

The anti-GMO movement is very popular. The ‘mob’ mentality has forced the sentiment into borderline threatening, especially where the GMO research community is concerned. This has coaxed many scientists in the field into undercover research lab locations and anonymously published work.

But is this distrust in its place or have the masses misinterpreted the pros and cons of genetic modification?

We've learned that if a disease shows up, we'd better be ready with something to combat it, rather than looking for a solution once the disease is there.

by Kevin Folta, head of Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida

Kevin Folta, head of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, believes that much of the aggression directed at GMOs is a result of poor communication and lack of transparency from the larger GMO producing companies that have become synonymous with the research. 

The GMO ‘big six’ are the largest producers of genetically modified seeds in the world, including Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and, arguably the most recognisable name of the bunch, Monsanto. 

While Folta agrees that Monsanto should be more willing to interact with the general public about their GMO concerns, he argues that most are still resistant when approached by non-affiliated scientists. 

“I’m no big corporate friend. I look at the data, and we make the decisions. We try to distill, for the public, what does the science tell us? Frequently it tells them a story they don’t want to hear.” 

A common argument lies within the synthetic fungicides and antimicrobials used in conventional farming versus the use of naturally occurring compounds, such as copper, in organic farming. Where the synthetic substances were developed to be safely ingested by consumers, copper, a hard metal, is not only potentially harmful to human body, but can also be damaging to the soil and is also more expensive for farmers. 

Samuel Hutton, a colleague of Folta’s at the University of Florida, and a tomato breeder, says the way forward for GMO acceptance might be utilising natural genes in their modifications, versus man-made solutions.

For example, using the Bs2 gene found in peppers to help stop the bacterial spot problem spreading across Florida’s tomato crop. 

“It is a natural gene. We know the protein product, we know what it does, we know it’s safe. And so something like that, a natural defence gene, would come across more palatable to some people,” confirms Hatton. 

From within camp ‘no GMO’, it is clear that the fight for acceptance of GMOs remains a steep, uphill climb. In the two decades since GMOs have been commercially available, a consistent distaste for the mere mention of genetic modification is as evident as ever.

“The public needs to know that something is going into their food that shouldn’t really be there,” says Lorna Paisely of the Label GMOs group. Several states, including Maine and Vermont, have already passed laws requiring labels on food products that include GMOs.

Food outlets and supermarkets have become so concerned about their business and the so-called ‘Monsanto effect’ of using GMO foods, that many have given in to the calls for labelling and even phasing out all GMO products. 

But what are the environmental implications of genetically modified organisms? Is the anti-GMO movement too judgmental or are their concerns in the right place? And finally, who can the consumer trust in the battle for or against GMOs?