Resistance to GMOs works against the hungry and poor

Professor Bruce Chassy

Professor Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an expert in food safety. He's served as an advisor to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and as chair of the Institute of Food Technologists' Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition. He is among the roughly forty participants in the Pontifical Academy for Sciences' "Study Week" on GMOs, and argues that an "overwhelming scientific consensus" supports the safety and effectiveness of genetically modified crops. For Chassy, this is a moral as well as scientific and regulatory question; he believes that delays in adoption of "golden rice" over the last decade may have cost the lives of as many as ten million children in the developing world. Chassy he sat down for an interview with NCR in Rome on Sunday, May 17.

Q: What's your view of the debate over GMOs?

This really isn't about science. The rejection of GMOs is about politics, about ideology, about trade. It's lots of things, but it's not science. The science is pretty clear.

By "pretty clear," you mean it's pretty clear that GMOs are safe?

That's correct. They're probably safer than conventional foods, and undoubtedly safer than organic foods. It's the exact opposite of the risk hierarchy suggested by those who are opposed to GMOs.

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Why do you say that GMOs are safer than organic products?

First, there has never been a safety assessment of organic products of any kind, as is true of many of the conventional foods we have. Second, conceptually, making a GM food is actually less invasive than conventional breeding. It's less likely to produce unintended effects. Third, the claim that organic farming is better for the environment is based on an ideological belief that using natural materials to amend the soil is better than using chemicals. There's actually no evidence of that.

There is a fairly overwhelming scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs.

In the abstract of your paper, you say that resistance to GMOs works to the "extreme disadvantage of the hungry and the poor." What do you mean?

Africa, for example, is very much in the European sphere of influence. Their leaders and intellectuals, including church people, are European-trained. Africa's trade is with Europe. In many cases, there's direct evidence that they're been blackmailed into not using GMOs because they're been told that European companies will no longer trade with them.

I can assure you that if you go out to a poor farmer in Uganda, or Kenya, or anywhere else, and ask them if they would try a corn variety that will produce five times more corn, even when there's a drought, they'll say, 'I'll take it.' If you tell them you've got a seed that will produce a more nutritious corn, so their children won't go blind and die of diarrheal diseases from vitamin A deficiency, the farmer's going to try that. Farmers aren't stupid people. Just because somebody is poor and rural in Africa doesn't mean they're dumb.

There's a very paternalistic, neo-colonial attitude, that comes out of Europe about Africa. They know better what's good for Africa than the Africans themselves do. I've traveled in a number of African countries and have seen the poverty. The problem is that those people have no ability to reach out and get technology for themselves. It has to flow through Europe and the United States, through these various foundations, and if there's a political impasse it will never get to them. That's the tragedy.

Where do you think the opposition to GMOs comes from?

I think this is probably one of the best examples of a nexus between a set of ideological and political views, and corporations, people with various economic interests, getting together … it's a strange bedfellows sort of thing.

Who benefits economically from blocking GMOs?

There are chemical companies in Germany and France that make pesticides. They don't want pesticide-free crops which proponents argue GMOs could deliver. That's bad for their business. European food manufacturers, and European supermarkets, can charge a higher price for 'chemical-free' foods, well above what it costs them to produce. They take their store brand, which is a discount brand, and they turn it into a premium brand by calling it 'GM-free.' There are lots of economic motives.

It's also an ideological threat. I think the organic people are concerned about losing markets, but they also reject modern technology. There are a lot of small and unprofitable organic farmers who are ideologues, and a lot of giant multinational corporations that produce all of the 'organic' food that we eat in the world. Here's a little known fact: 90 percent of the organic food in the United States is produced by two or three multinationals. All of the big food companies have gotten into this, because it's profitable. They're the ones pushing it into the supermarket shelves. The poor little organic farmer down the street never knew how to do that, but big companies do.

There are interests by European governments, who know that their agriculture can't compete with Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada … certainly not in big row crop agriculture, yet they have a lot of row crop farmers in Europe. If you look for a strategy to be competitive, if you block the import of other countries' products because they're GMOs, and keep yourself GMO-free, that gives you a market preference within the EU. The EU is a pretty big market. That's good business, and it also has the effect that European governments have to pay less agricultural subsidies to the extent that their own farmers are able to sell their own produce at high prices.

What are the other factors?

There's a whole other piece that relates to a group of people who are probably left over from the fall of socialism. If you have that kind of mindset, which is very rich in Europe, and which is very present in the church, where do you go? You go anti-globalization, anti-multinational, anti-capitalist. The clever part about the anti-GMO movement is that they managed to get the 'Monsanto and the U.S.' label put on GMOs.

This didn't happen as one grand master plan, but as it evolved, the environmental NGOs, the United Nations Environmental Program, some European governments, a lot of aid foundations, all kind of drifted together in opposition to GMOs. An enormous amount of money was pumped into crafting a set of propaganda messages that framed the debate and defined the issues, somewhere around the mid-1990s. That masterful job of framing the debate is what's in place today, and it's influenced the church.

I don't think people realize that the NGO industry is globally a more than trillion-dollar industry. We have more than 850 corporations in the United States who function in this arena. Their ultimate interest is actually political.

The purpose of this study week is to give voice to the scientific consensus as you describe it?

In part, this conference is Ingo Potrykus speaking out of years of frustration. I've written on his 'golden rice,' and I honestly believe he could have saved a million people a year. You can imagine the frustration of the man. He is a devout Catholic, and he sincerely believes that this is the mission of the church. He got into it for that reason. Very few scientists can say that I picked this project because I saw a huge social ill that I could cure. We generally don't do that. Plus, he's like a bulldog … he's stayed on it and stayed on it, and it's been frustration after frustration. So, you can imagine that when he picked the agenda, he wasn't going to bring people who are nay-sayers. He knows there is no legitimate scientific objection. So, he brought to the table the people who could describe what the impediments are, how you can remove these roadblocks, and what's being done.

That's a story that critics really don't want told. They want to stop 'golden rice' for a specific reason. 'Golden rice' doesn't belong to companies. It breaks the image that this is an American product that's being foisted on the world by U.S. multinationals. That won't work anymore, because it's not American and it's a public sector work. It's being put into use in India, and in the Philippines, and in Pakistan. It's going to save lives, it's going to work, and they're scared as hell.

At the end of the day, what difference does it make what the Vatican says about GMOs?

I believe the church is a unique position to tackle this issue, first of all because it's so large. It also has as a core value that helping the poor, the disadvantaged, is a good thing. As I travel around the world, I meet so many Catholics who really believe in this mission, and that gives them credibility.

Further, there are no other central voices of moral authority in the world. Most other churches, other religions, don't have a pope. I certainly watched the process of a pope dying and a new pope coming in, as a non-Catholic, with all of my friends. It's clearly the most organized moral force in the world. It gives the church a unique moral authority to speak out on issues that impact the human condition.

If the Vatican were to make a strong pro-GMO statement, do you believe that would reconfigure the debate?

Yes, I really do. First of all, there are many Catholics who oppose GMOs, and it's hard to totally ignore the pope. I also think that if a pope were to do that, especially this pope, he would make a very reasoned argument. I think we can supply that to him.

I don't think that will be the outcome of this meeting. There are some contrary views in the church. I have the impression that the pope wanted this meeting to happen, because it's an important issue to hash out.

A Vatican statement would really disrupt the opposition. Part of the propaganda campaign is to capture the moral high ground. When the church agrees with them, or some members of the church agree with them, that's a nice happy moral high ground. But when the highest moral ground in the world says we think this is a beneficial technology as long as it's used to relieve human suffering rather than just make a profit, that changes the whole formula.

What's the future of GMOs?

This debate is over. The science is very clear. Asia is adopting the technology. The Americas have adopted the technology. The question is when the train will pull out of the station in Europe, and therefore Africa. It's really those two continents that have gotten it all wrong, and they will eventually figure it out, whether it's ten years or 15 years from now. There will come a time when this is not a debate, and we'll all be growing GMO crops. I don't know what the activists will be doing to make a living, though I'm sure they'll have some other issue.

For the record, do you have any financial relationship to the biotech industry?

No.

Do they fund any of your research?

No.

I have no grants. I once gave a seminar that I got paid $1,000 for at Dow. I have no stock. I don't know where my retirement is invested. I'm just not a capitalist. In fact, I'm stupid when it comes to capitalism. It just doesn't interest me. I have no conflict of interest whatsoever.

Bottom line: What's the heart of the moral argument in favor of GMOs?

Using GMOs is not the silver bullet that will solve hunger and malnutrition in the world. Sometimes the opponents of GMOs claim that we're claiming that, and then take that straw man and argue that it can't possibly be true. Actually, I totally agree with those arguments. Hunger exists because poverty exists. Hunger exists because people don't have land or access to markets, because of lack of education. It could be lack of rainfall, civil war, or corrupt leadership. There are a huge number of factors that cause people to be hungry.

Where GMOs fit in is a fairly narrow and fairly technical niche. About 60 to 70 percent of the hungry are rural people, mostly farmers who grow their own food. If you can give them a seed that will produce more food, they can feed their family and have money to bring about the kind of revolution we've seen in India and China. The essence of what we've seen in India and China is that they learned to feed themselves through the Green Revolution. Then they generated rural income, which became the driver for a national economy to improve. They bootstrapped themselves up from improved agriculture.

It would certainly help poor, hungry people to be able to produce more food. There will be innovations in agriculture that have nothing to do with GMOs. People will use conventional breeding to produce better seeds. Somebody will figure out how to get cheap machinery, or irrigation, or good warehousing and good storage or a good preservative. There are so many things you can do to help the poor, and the GMO issue has been blown all out of proportion. The agriculturalists I know who want to use GMOs see them simply as one tool on a tool belt. Why people have seized on that tool and made such a huge global issue defies credulity.

Other stories:

Vatican science academy pushes GMOs as safe way of feeding the hungry

By John L Allen Jr
While many church leaders from the grassroots to bishops are against the spread of genetically modified crops for environmental and justice reasons, the Vatican Academy of Sciences is increasingly in favor what it calls "life-sustaining and lifesaving technologies."

Fr. Sean McDonagh: GMOs are going to create famine and hunger

Professor Bruce Chassy: Resistance to GMOs works against the hungry and poor

Bishop George Nkuo of the Kumbo diocese in Cameroon: Lone African bishop at pro-GMO meet unsure what to believe


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