This week’s New England Journal of Medicine has an opinion piece calling for a review of approval policies for GMO crops. This article, co-authored by a medical researcher and a crop scientist, does not call for a loosening of approval processes to enable more rapid movement of GMOs onto the market; rather, it calls for the approval process to be revisited to take into account increasing evidence that GMOs are bad for human health and bad for the environment. The article makes three main recommendations:

  1. “the time has therefore come to thoroughly reconsider all aspects of the safety of plant biotechnology”
  2. The EPA should “delay implementation of its decision to permit use of EnlistDuo”, a specific herbicide that has been developed to combat herbicide resistance due to GMOs
  3. GM foods should be labeled to enable consumers to reject its use

The article basically makes the point that past assessments of GMO crops’ impact on human health were limited to a few studies that assessed the direct effect of genetically modified material on the human body, rather than the much more serious issue of over-use of herbicides; that there is new evidence that the herbicides being used on GMO crops are carcinogenic; and that the growing problem of herbicide resistance is leading to the reintroduction of dangerous chemicals. The article states that there are now 100,000 acres of arable land in the USA that are infested with herbicide-resistant weeds and the use of Glyphosate has increased by a factor of 250 in 40 years. Past assessments of GMO safety did not consider the dangers due to herbicides, and new evidence suggests that Glyphosate is a carcinogen. Thus GMOs have gone from a wonder crop to a hazard, both to the future of farming (through the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds) and to human health, in a very short period of time. It should also be noted that herbicides and pesticides have huge environmental effects outside of human health – such as the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi river – and, as this Lawyers, Guns and Money blog post describes, while the health risks of herbicides entering the human food chain may be low due to good processing and quality control, they pose a much, much greater occupational risk to the farmers and farm labourers who work with the crops. As more herbicide is used these farm-gate risks increase.

The environmental movement has been making the case against herbicide and pesticide resistance since at least the time when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, and this case is also linked to the growth of antibiotic resistance (the main cause of which is use of antibiotics on cattle). Anti-environmentalist rhetoric consistently ignores this issue, preferring to paint the opponents of industrial spraying and GMOs as kooky and anti-science despite the strong scientific evidence that these chemicals and crops need to be deployed very carefully. A classic example of this deliberate ignorance of science is the campaign to have Rachel Carson declared “worse than Hitler” because her efforts to ban DDT led to the deaths of millions of children due to the end of anti-malaria campaigns. This rhetorical drive, which is still commonly seen in the anti-environmentalist movement, is ignorant on so many levels: DDT is not banned for anti-mosquito use, but is not used because mosquitos developed immunity rapidly due to DDT overuse, and modern campaigns use targeted spraying of an actually effective chemical in a way that balances the risk of resistance against the health benefits. The loss of DDT from our arsenal of anti-malaria weapons arose precisely because of its over-use in agriculture, and we’re seeing the same phenomenon occurring with Glyphosate; yet opponents of the GMOs at the root of this problem are described as “anti-science” by people who continually and deliberately ignore this issue. Just as DDT was simultaneously causing harm in the environment and to human health as its target vectors were building up resistance, so Glyphosate may be causing harm to humans and the environment, while its over-use is rapidly making it ineffective in its target ecological niche, and requiring the introduction of more types of more dangerous herbicides to supplement it.

The world is fast entering a period when we are going to need every tool at our disposal to ensure maximum crop yields and prevent major epidemics of malnutrition. Global warming and increasing pressure on water supplies are going to create a perfect storm of reduced yields, increased salinity and increased pest pressures at a time when some of our best tools to ensure high yields are being over-used and rapidly becoming ineffective. Pharmaceuticals and chemical products like herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics need to be seen not as some kind of magic cure-all that can be thrown at any problem no matter what, but as precious resources, that need to be carefully monitored and conserved in order to ensure they retain their potency. We also need to recognize that they have serious environmental and occupational health risks that need to be taken seriously. This means paying careful attention to the science and, yes, listening to the objections of opponents of these technologies.

I’ve said before on this blog that the environmental movement has a long history of being right about really serious threats to human health, from overuse of insecticides through the clean air act and the ozone layer to global warming. It isn’t always right, but dismissing the concerns of the environmental movement out of hand because of foolish stereotypes of the movement as anti-science and lunatic hippies is a stupid and counter-productive move. In the battle of science and GMOs it is the FDA and the agribusinesses that have been proven wrong; the anti-GMO movement has, in fact, been correct about the biggest threats to human health and well-being that GMOs pose. GMOs hold a lot of promise, and they’re going to become more important as we fight to maintain crop yields in an era of record temperatures, reduced access to water and pressures on arable land. But in order to realize that promise, it’s going to be necessary to listen to the environmental movement and take their concerns seriously, rather than dismissing them as anti-science when in fact, once again, it is the opponents of the environmental movement and the supporters of the agriculture lobby who are deliberately ignoring the science. It’s disappointing that it has taken this long for complaints about GMOs that were being aired by environmentalists years ago to finally make it into the pages of medical journals. With a better, more scientifically thorough approvals process and greater caution, we might have less GMOs in use, but they would be much more likely to be living up to their promise.