Nina Fedoroff, Professor of Biosciences at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, discusses the science behind genetically modified crops.

The chasm between what people worry about and what is true about genetically modified (GM) crops is deep and wide. Indeed, most of what people believe about GM crops is the exact opposite of what is true.

Facts first. Modern genetic methods of crop improvement are responsible for a significant fraction of the recent yield increases in crops where they are used, so farmers who have adopted GM crops have benefited the most. In 2011, 16.7 million farmers grew biotech crops on almost 400 million acres in 29 countries, 19 of which were developing countries. Importantly, 90% of the farmers growing GM crops were resource-poor, small-holder farmers and they produced almost half of the GM crops grown worldwide last year. Between 1996 and 2010, the half of cumulative farm income gain accruing to developing countries was almost US$ 40 billion.

Insect-resistant Bt crops have markedly reduced pesticide use, so they’re good for the environment. Roughly 443 million kilograms less pesticide (active ingredient) was applied to fields between 1996 and 2010 because insect-resistant crops were being grown. Less pesticide means more beneficial insects and birds and less pesticide contamination of water.

Current-generation GM crops improve the sustainability of farming. Herbicide-tolerant crops reduce topsoil loss and improve soil quality. No-till farming keeps the soil on the land and the organic matter and water in the soil. It also reduces carbon-dioxide emissions from tillage. In 2010 alone, this reduction was equivalent to taking 9 million cars off the road.

There is no evidence that GM food is bad for people or for animals after 16 years of commercial cultivation on a cumulative GM crop acreage of more than 3 billion. On the contrary, GM corn, for example, is better for people and animals because it has lower levels of highly toxic contaminating fungal toxins than do either conventional or organic corn.

So why the anti-GM hysteria? The myths are many and varied – they’re scary and stick in our minds, making them hard to dispel.

There’s the widely believed Monsanto “terminator seeds” myth, for example. The very name stirs fear, but the reality is that this was a good idea about how to minimize GM seed dispersal. In the end, it never got off paper because it got a bad name and really bad press. Another is the GM-corn-pollen-kills-Monarch-butterflies story, which attracted front-page attention in 1999 and prompted a multi-state study whose results were published in six back-to-back papers in PNAS in October 2001. The papers got little attention, of course, in a world reeling from the 9/11 attacks. But their conclusion was that in the worst-case scenario, fewer than 1 larva in 2,000 might be affected by Bt pollen.

Then there’s the myth that GM crops are untested. The European Union alone has invested more than €300 million in GMO biosafety research. Quoting from its recent report: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” Every credible scientific body that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion. In fact, in the United States, each newly modified crop must be shown to be equivalent to the original crop and the products encoded by the added genes must be independently tested for toxicity and allergenicity. So GM crops are the most extensively tested ever introduced into our food supply.

The tragedy is that the widespread public hostility to GM crops, effectively fuelled by advocacy organizations, has promoted the development of more complex regulations and, in many countries, completely blocked GM crop introduction. Today we have almost no GM crops other than cotton, corn, canola and soybeans. These are commodity crops, either non-food or primarily animal feed crops, and all of them were developed by big biotech companies because they’re the only ones that can afford to bring GM crops to market. Even the long-awaited Golden Rice is not yet available to farmers even though it has been ready to distribute for almost a decade. It continues to be trapped in regulatory purgatory. Figuring out how to achieve broader public acceptance of GMOs and relax the regulatory stranglehold are difficult problems, but they’re social and political problems. The science is quite clear.

Author: Nina Fedoroff is Professor of Biosciences at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia and is also a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology 

Opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the World Economic Forum.

Image: Farmers walk through a paddy field of genetically modified Golden Rice REUTERS/Darren Whiteside