The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

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Two German economists have quantified the price of GMO opposition in terms of human health and the numbers are staggering. The delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002 – a metric that includes not only those who have died, but those who have suffered blindness and other Vitamin A-related disabilities. The opponents of Golden Rice – Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and the US Center for Food Safety – who have caused this harm should be held accountable. When perceptions of risk and values cause people to become so closed-minded and absolute that they deny or distort the evidence, it is fair for society to refuse the groups’ financial support, publicly challenge the opponents in debates, and confront anti-GMO orthodoxy in meetings in order to hold these groups responsible for the harm they pose to the community.

March 24, 2014 | David Ropeik,

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – actually accounts not only for those who died, but also quantifies the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The full name of the metric they used is Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALYs. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears about the human health effects of Golden Rice thrown around by opponents, none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny. It is absolutely fair to charge that opposition to this particular application of genetically modified food has contributed to the deaths of and injuries to millions of people. The opponents of Golden Rice who have caused this harm should be held accountable.

That includes Greenpeace, which in its values statement promises, “We are committed to nonviolence.” Only their non-violent opposition to Golden Rice contributes directly to real human death and suffering. It includes the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility that claims the credibility of scientific expertise, and then denies or distorts scientific evidence in order to oppose GMOs. It includes the U.S. Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club and several environmental groups who deny and distort the scientific evidence on GM foods every bit as much as they complain the deniers of climate change science do. It includes the Non-GMO Project, started by natural food retailers who oppose a technology that just happens to threaten their profits.

Society needs groups like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to hold big companies accountable when they put their profits before our health, as they too often do. But society also has the right to hold advocates accountable when they let their passions blind them to the facts and, in pursuit of their values, put us at risk. Let’s be absolutely clear. That is precisely what opposition to genetic modification of food is doing, as the study of the Golden Rice delay in India makes sobering clear.

And Golden Rice is just one example. There are several other applications of GM technology that could contribute to food security and reduce hunger and starvation. Skeptics like the Union of Concerned Scientists criticize GM technology for not having fulfilled this promise. But that’s because opposition has prevented these products from coming to the market in the first place. It’s pretty tough to keep a promise you’re not allowed to try to keep in the first place. Opposition to several GMO applications, based on fears that don’t stand up against evidence from extensive safety testing, is denying people food and nutrition, and doing real harm.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, ‘risk is a feeling.’ So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.

When advocates get so passionate in the fight for their values that they potentially impose harm on others, it puts us all at risk, and we have the right to call attention to those potential harms and hold those advocates accountable. And this is much broader than just GMOs:

  • Delay on dealing with climate change exposes us all to much greater risk. We should hold responsible those whose ideology-driven denial of climate change is responsible for some of that risk.
  • Resistance to anything to make it harder for bad guys to get guns puts us all at risk. Society should hold responsible the paranoid arch-conservatism that has created resistance to any prudent gun control and contributed to that risk.
  • Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids put others in their communities at risk. They certainly should be held accountable for this, and in some places, that’s beginning. Several states are trying to pass laws making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids.

To hold advocacy groups accountable, people could refuse to belong to or financially support these groups, and thus avoid personally contributing to the harm. They could belong to the groups but protest certain positions from within. They could chose to stand up to these groups in public meetings and respectfully challenge them to answer for the negative consequences and tradeoffs of what these groups espouse. A more skeptical press could challenge these groups about the harm that some of their positions can cause. Scientists can provide hard evidence about the negative impacts of the positions of these groups, as this new economic study does.

Governments can hold advocates accountable if they are threatening public health. The Australian government just rescinded the tax-exempt status of an anti-vaccine group on the grounds that their misinformation was putting children at risk. (Government intervention on speech like this is a dangerously slippery slope, however, and calls for caution. Also, childhood vaccination is a relatively black-and-white example. GMOs, and guns, and most other issues, are more complex.)

Scientists can also hold advocates accountable by demanding reasoned debate, in public forums, as GMO researchers did recently in the U.K. When anti-GMO groups threatened to trash field trials of GM wheat, researchers invited them to debate the issue first, in public, with this challenge to open-mindedness:

You have described genetically modified crops as 'not properly tested.’ Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained…We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.

Anti-GMO protestors, who claimed they were just trying to “Take Back the Flour,” first accepted, and then refused. The British press and many in the public held them accountable, rejecting the advocates’ closed-mindedness.

This needs to continue, and expand, on GMOs and any other emotional risk issue. Our values must always have a place in these debates. But when those values cause people to become so closed-minded and absolute that they deny or distort the evidence, and refuse to acknowledge the harmful consequences that our values can sometimes produce, it is fair for society to hold those advocates accountable for pursuing things so stridently that they are putting the larger community at greater risk.

                   

David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception, and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts. An earlier version of this essay was originally posted at Scientific American.


Comments

  • People deficient in vitamin A are so because they fail to eat a broader spectrum of food types.
    Good foods developed well over thousands of years; we all need to eat a wide variety to keep healthy.  Those who fail to eat this broad spectrum of produce, get sick—related to poor education, poverty, bad location, etc.
    SO: PLANT a broader spectrum of good foods for them to eat, local to the—in every neighborhood and door-yard—instead of reducing the food spectrum to mono-foods that can only be grown by AgriBiz far from where it’s needed.. 
    EDUCATE the many who don’t understand importance of adequate spectrum of food eating.
    BRING planting of broad spectrum of foods to neighborhoods where the poor are; get them involved in helping themselves, instead of forcing people even farther from the land and resources. 
    Life cannot all be reduced to profiteering from the poor [well, it can, but the quality of life then becomes terrible for the many]..
    There is far more to nutrition than one or even a few nutrients, which modern science has got tunnel-visioned on.
    By GMO’ing foods, variety is reduced; mono-crops/mono-crop eating means detriment to farming lands, dangerous dependency on mono-crops, greater risk, more dependency on chemicals to grow them, greater increase of related illnesses—it just keeps spiraling out of control..
    In the bigger picture, mono-crops rank as one of the most dangerous things modern science has ever done.
    Industry’s precious “Golden Rice” is not the answer for hunger nor preventing blindness—that’s band-aid thinking—those poor would still be deficient in other nutrients—-so….industry’s next step might be to GMO rice with more basic nutrients—Soylent rice? 
    WHY? Perfectly nature-perfected foods exist, in forms designed to be compatible with human’s development.  EVERY time GMO crops have hit the market, people have gotten sicker and dead, related to those changes—look at peanuts—peanut allergies skyrocketed; children died.
    Chronic ills have increased.
    STOP the madness of tinkering with already good foods; just figure out how to get those to people, reasonably, locally—get those growing locally to populations, instead of on factory farms—let more people grow their own—get them involved—it’s good for the soul, too.

    By Chimonger on 2014 03 26

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    • People deficient in vitamin A are so because they fail to eat a broader spectrum of food types… EDUCATE the many who don’t understand importance of adequate spectrum of food eating.

      Guess what, they know that it is good to eat a variety of food. These people is poor and cannot afford such a large variety of food that is necessary. I can understand that a person that can afford a computer fails to understand this, but it is the truth.

      STOP the madness of tinkering with already good foods

      Mankind has been tinkering with our food since we became a agriculture society. That tinkering is what support you luxurious lifestyle.

      Overall your comment just showed that you have no clue how the situation are in India and Africa nor how agriculture work.

      By robjoh on 2014 03 28

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    • “Industry’s precious “Golden Rice” is not the answer for hunger nor preventing blindness—that’s band-aid thinking—those poor would still be deficient in other nutrients—-so….industry’s next step might be to GMO rice with more basic nutrients—Soylent rice?  “

      Sorry Sauk!  That polio vaccine of yours is band-aid thinking.  People will still be getting sick and dying from other communicable diseases !  So don’t bother !

      By First Officer on 2014 04 05

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  • @Chimonger;

    You make it sound like planting carotene rich crops and carotene rich foods distribution weren’t tried.  They have and while it works to some degree, it’s not reaching millions.  Freely given Golden rice increases crop diversity by adding to the number of strains one can grow.  And, yes, adding more nutrients to rice, by any method including GE, will help even more lives to be saved.  GMO’s have saved lives and not caused a single allergic reaction in anyone to date.  Especially peanuts as not one GM peanut is available commercially.  Some chronic illnesses have increased because they are age related and we are living longer, partially thanks to the availability of foods through GE tech.

    As far as natural foods having been designed for humans, that’s really just creationist talk.  They have not and nor have a great many of our foods co-evolved with us to be edible.  Every single food coming from the Americas could not have co-evolved with us as humans weren’t even present there until just a few thousand years ago.

    By FIrst Officer on 2014 03 26

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  • wow, this is absurd.  I suspect that whatever you are paid to write this kind of dribble gets you much farther than your degree.  Its unfortunate that so many will read this kind of editorial (actually, it’s an advertorial - propaganda cleverly disguised as unbiased editorial) and assume that all of your opinions are justified and accurate, that there is legitimate information here; it’s even more outrageous that SA takes this narrow perspective seriously.  To suggest that individuals (and organizations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and USCFS) who have varying degrees of opposition to GMO foods, and more importantly to those corporations that produce them, are directly responsible for killing people - is completely outrageous.

    By seriously? on 2014 03 29

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  • GM foods are poison. Anyone who has removed theirself from the “food supply” and is now nurturing their own sustainability will tell you of the chemical withdrawals involved for a week or more while detoxing from the “food”.  GM foods are not the answer to our planets woes.  Getting back to nature and waking up to what humanity is doing is the answer to helping everyone on the planet relieve the suffering.  Youtube “Earthlings”.  Wake up.

    By Jennifer on 2014 03 30

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    • When I was a child, not that many years ago, nobody even knew anyone who knew anyone who had cancer

      As my grandfather died in cancer when my father was fifteen I seriously doubt that, but continue to make shit up if that makes you feel better.

      No hunny…....GMO’s are POISON, and your artical is full of crappppolllla…..so step off it already.

      You must be a troll, no one can be this stupid when they argue.

      By robjoh on 2014 04 01

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    • I think you have confused genetically modified foods with the preservatives and additives in the western food supply. While we do our best, within our economic capability, to provide for our own food and eat organic, non-GMO foods, I am also aware that this is a luxury afforded to those who live in the wealthiest countries on Earth. Your view is myopic, at best.

      By Taya on 2014 07 06

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      • Taya,
        Organic produce is luxury in developed countries, too.
        Poverty levels in USA are at double-digits, yet officials falsify counts to far lower—doing that for decades.
        3rd-world countries have suffered epic hunger / unemployment longer, worse.
        It’s easy fraud for industries to convince people they are altruistically solving world hunger issues; Solving world hunger is NOT their prime motive.  Controlling all food sources people have access to, is, because it helps with Profiteering.

        GMO = splicing genes from one organism into another, to get desired traits faster: Animal genes into plants, plants into animals, etc.
        GMO crops require chemical defoliants, pesticides and fertilizers to grow, all patented by Corporations.
        Once let loose,  GMO seeds have hybridized with regular crops, ruining Organics, ruining farms, ruining entire food chains.
        FEW GMO crops, like golden rice, actually had some altruistic motives to start.
        There are downsides to it, too.
        GMO fools consumers into thinking they ate fully nutritive food, when it’s not; also, gene-splicing fails to make clean “keys”—that is, they plug into receptor sites not-quite-right, leaving bits dangling to cause problems in other ways—-like using the wrong key to force a lock—it damages the lock, which has consequences, also.

        FOOD ADDITIVES—many which don’t belong in food, lengthen shelf life or make it more palatable, to cover up the basic ingredients’ poor quality or content [like a Chinese company adding Melamine to milk, artificially raise protein readings—never mind kidney damage, etc.]
        The food additive industry is huge—billions or more dollars annually.  Manmade chemical analogs can fool the sense of taste, while keeping food costs low and shelf life extremely long, which helps food industry’s prime motivator, profits.
        Artificial additives can fool the tastebuds into believing it just ate something that was fully nutritive——yet so devoid of nutritional content, the person keeps craving and eating, with adverse effects they fail to understand cause of. 

        Living in wealthiest countries is NO protection from food atrocities. Far fewer people know how to grow some produce, raise or butcher an animal, or prepare foods for storage. Fewer can scavenge wild foods.
        In Developed countries, like the USA and in the EU, regulatory agencies are run by Corporate Execs who push their own agendas. 
        For instance:  the USA FDA rules:  ANY single ingredient on the ingredients list of a product, can be up to 90% flavor enhancing or other chemicals, yet not disclose that, and, the 10% remaining should be disclosable—but companies often claim “proprietary” and refuse to disclose that, either.  Labeling has become a sham cover for Food Industries defrauding the public.  That fraud helps jack up health problems glutting the Medical Systems.

        FURTHER, a blossoming industry of Hack Writers, who get paid to write articles stating what the person paying them wants.
        the internet is laced with pseudo-facts, often supposedly from respectable sources….that are no longer are so respectable.
        That helps keep public, politicians, and professionals confused.

        No, not confused.
        I have been working in Medical and Nutrition fields, and tracking Agriculture and FDA rules /effects for over 30 years—much gained BEFORE internet started bringing us all the “Newspeak” which Corporations depend on to keep public confused and afraid.
        The harder we try to stop something known to be poison, the harder Industries try to out-fox regulations and public.
        Like the formaldehyde issue…got most gone, but still some being used, in weird places like Vaccines, or in your favorite Cola drinks.

        These things are everywhere, and growing.
        It’s everyone’s problem.

        Harder questions, like:
          What’s the health of population of Viet Nam been, so many chemicals used there; same ones used now for agriculture—-how has that population been doing, regarding genetic changes/malfunctions, since then?
        Has ANYONE tracked that? WHO?  If it’s the same industries that invented the chemicals, they’ll report what suits their bottom line.
        Not just Agent Orange; they had all sorts.
        What is the new science of Epigenomics going to show us, or is that going to be gotten rid of, because it shows how we affect our bodies daily, with everything we’re exposed to—and chemical industries do NOT want to be ‘found out’?
        Time, Distance, Source, and more factors….all play into the picture.
        LEARN everything you can, before the information, and us elders who still know some things, are gone.

        By Chimonger on 2014 07 06

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  • The comments criticizing the article and it’s author do much to confirm what the author refers to as the characteristics of the anti-GMO movement:  passion without data, lack of reason, and confusion as to whether their issue is Agribusiness or GMOs….characteristics not to be admired, but rather to be condemned along with Climate Deniers.

    By Warren Beeton on 2014 03 31

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    • Actually, I think you are seeing in others comments what you are unhappy with in yourself.  The proof people have is that EVERYONE IS SICK!  And no, they definitely should NOT be.  And do not tell me that they aren’t sick,  because I work with people of this world, and they ARE sick.  When I was a child, not that many years ago, nobody even knew anyone who knew anyone who had cancer.  Now these poor people are being systematically poisoned to death so the medical and big pharma companies can make big bucks off of them.  No hunny…....GMO’s are POISON, and your artical is full of crappppolllla…..so step off it already.

      By Jennifer on 2014 03 31

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      • You wrote, “When I was a child, not that many years ago, nobody even knew anyone who knew anyone who had cancer.’

        I do not understand that.

        I am 76 years old.  When I was a child, I knew of people who died of cancer.  A friend of my mother had surgery for breast cancer; fortunately, they got it all and she survived.  The mother of a friend died of leukemia.

        To be unaware of cancer when you were a child you must have lived in a very isolated and protected environment.

        By F. R. Eggers on 2014 03 31

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      • They’re sick because the’re eating mass quantities of sugar. The research has shown this. No research, however, has shown that GMO’s are necessarily bad.

        By Jim on 2014 05 24

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        • Plenty research shows harm caused by GMO foods.
          Google: “research showing GMO foods cause health problems”
          That comes up with plenty of sites showing effects of GMO foods—both pro and con.
          Peanut allergies rose and became more severe subsequent to GMO’d peanuts; same with corn, wheat, soy.
          Animals given a choice between regular feed and GMO feed, will choose regular feed, only eating the GMO feed if they can’t access regular feed.
          Cattle fed GMO grains fatten up faster—consequences? yes, some, including for those who eat those cattle as their meat source.

          GMO’ing foods is a briefly good idea, to help feed starving people.
          BUT, it’s being done badly; as has happened to many inventions over time—the basic invention starts out for the good, but ends badly as some use it to do harm.
          The bad effects can come from what genes are spliced into the food to make it be more productive, and/or be from the chemicals used to raise those crops.  Thinking that just fixing that one food source is key, but failing to figure what effect it might also have on the rest of creation, is a big mistake….like, the multi-fish hybrid that’s been released—supposedly only for farmed fish—but some have already gotten loose into the wild—what effect will those have on other fish sources? 
          IF corporations formed food sources by simply making better plants, similar to what Gregor Mendel did with Peas, for instance, then people could keep using seeds from crops to grow more and better crops, actually helping reduce hunger, for instance. 
          But instead, the GMO crops are made to minimize ability to use seeds from crops to grow new crops, and, to be dependent on using chemicals to prepare fields and to grow the crops. NOTHING is truly replenishing the soil those grow in.
          Commercial Fertilizers fail to replace anything but basic few nutrients needed to grow a mostly cosmetic crop, not replenish minerals and other nutrients in the soil to grow optimally nutrient-dense food.

          The truly poor will eat cheap sugar to get ANY calories, in an attempt to survive long enough to get food….IF they can even get that.  Some tribes have a tradition of eating special clays, if they can find them, to help give mineral nutrients and avoid starving entirely. 
          In America, manufactured foods are largely those that become sugar, or have lots of sugars added; loaded with empty calories of starch, salt, sugar, bad fats—-but those are better than starving!?
          Those who are moderately poor: their bodies fail to distinguish between fake foods that should have the nutrients they need, and the actual nutrient dense foods that could satiate their hunger——the fake foods are cheaper—-so they crave and eat, getting fat off empty calories.  Empty-calorie foods—those with not enough nutrients in them—-are cheapest, because they have longest shelf-life—I call those “bomb-shelter” foods—-enough to sustain basic life, but NOT at anything near optimal health.
          I DO know what starvation is, and the very interesting body chemistry that can happen while starving—-some so-called Breatharians experience some of that, thoroughly believing they are having a spiritual experience—until they keel over. 
          Also that starving people not only don’t have access to healthy foods, nor a variety of foods, but often don’t even get access to the so-called miracle GMO foods like Golden Rice. 
          In arid zones where starvation happens often, by the millions of population, they often can’t even get clean drinking water, unless hiking for miles carrying what jugs they can carry daily [using calories they can’t afford to spend]; or, corporations have swept in to privatize / limit access to local wells drilled to relieve water shortages, forcing poor people to pay exorbitant prices for clean drinking water—-or drink from filthy puddles. 
          There must be better ways to relieve hunger, than GMO foods contaminated with chemicals, and spliced with genes many people may be allergic to.
          It appears that corporate goals of profiteering at any cost, is more at the bottom of the troubles world-wide with healthy food and water access.
          Basic clean water and decent basic foods should be a freely accessible right of all creatures—-not wrapped up in corporate profiteering.

          By Chimonger on 2014 05 24

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  • Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice (and all GMOs) is purely ideological.  Though they search for reasons, however tenuous they may be, to bolster their position, they really don’t care.  They have gone on record saying that even if all concerns about Golden Rice, however germane or obtuse, were 100% answered and allayed, and unequivocally proven to be greatly beneficial, they would still oppose Golden Rice on principle.

    By First Officer on 2014 04 05

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    • Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice (and all GMOs) is purely ideological.  Though they search for reasons, however tenuous they may be, to bolster their position, they really don’t care.  They have gone on record saying that even if all concerns about Golden Rice, however germane or obtuse, were 100% answered and allayed, and unequivocally proven to be greatly beneficial, they would still oppose Golden Rice on principle.

      It’s fine to be ideological.  Being ideological should include putting the welfare of people much higher than theoretical ideas which are unproven.

      By F. R. Eggers on 2014 05 24

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