|Frequently Asked Questions - Answered|
How did these 121 Nobel Laureates find out about the joint letter and how did they cosign it? Did you invite the Nobel Laureates? Was there any assistance from the Nobel Committee? How did the other signatories hear about the campaign?
For the Nobel Laureates, I simply sent each one some preliminary materials about GMOs, a draft letter of the final version you will find on our web site and asked them to join me in signing the letter. The Nobel Foundation did not help in this they always avoid doing that.
For the other signatories about 20 joined prior to the public release, but the rest have all signed on since June 30th when the initiative was made public through the web site.
Dr. Alfred Gilman passed away on December 23rd, 2015. Why does his name appear on the list?
Dr. Gilman signed on July 15th, 2015 when he was very much alive.
Since signing, Gunter Blobel, Paul Boyer, Thomas Schelling, Oliver Smithies, James Mirrlees, Leon Lederman, Thomas Steitz, Aaron Klug, Roy Glauber, Zhores Alferov, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Greengard have also passed away.
Why have you have made so much effort to support GMOs?
The reason I have undertaken this initiative is that I care deeply about people living in the developing world who do not have the same access to nutritious food that we do. They desperately need the benefits that GMOs can bring. Thus, I am appalled that Greenpeace and the other green parties would be deliberately trying to deny them the benefits of crop improvement that we enjoy in the West.
Have you personally conducted any research specifically into the safety of Precision Agriculture?
I have not. I am a molecular biologist interested in basic science, mostly involving bacteria. However, I am very familiar with the basic issues here and have read widely on the subject. The issues are pretty transparent to anyone who has studied basic biology.
Why do you use the expression precision agriculture?
I use the term Precision agriculture because the term GMO (genetically modified organism) is so general as to cover almost everything we eat. There are virtually no plants in our food chain that have not been heavily modified genetically both by traditional breeding methods and the natural processes of gene exchange found everywhere in nature. Traditional breeding methods have all been designed to introduce ever greater genetic variation into plant and animal varieties in the hope of finding useful traits. Such methods are not limited to traditional crosses of distantly related plants, but also include chemical and radiation-induced mutagenesis. Such methods are considered perfectly acceptable by organic farmers. In these methods literally thousands of genes are changed and in general we have no idea of how they have been changed. In contrast the newer methods involving the transfer of individual genes are precise. We know which genes we are transferring. We know what they do, where they go and we can monitor their expression afterwards. In my mind this is true precision agriculture.
What do you see as the most obvious flaw of Greenpeace and the green parties?
The problem with Greenpeace is that they have chosen to ignore the compelling results that science and agriculture have produced confirming the safety of the GMO method and products, and instead have resorted to scare tactics that play on peoples emotions. Even when they attempt to use scientific research results to support their campaign, when those results suggest problems with their claims, they continue to promulgate those same results, even when later scientific results show the earlier work to be flawed or simply wrong. Their disrespect for the consensus of scientific experts with regard to GMOs stands in stark contrast to their insistence that scientific expertise be accepted on climate change.
Who can join the campaign?
Basically, anybody who believes in the cause, accepts that the science is solid and cares about our fellow citizens around the world can sign up to join us. This is a humanitarian campaign as much as it is a scientific one. This is not a fund raising effort.
Why do you think that Greenpeace wouldnt admit that this is an issue that they got wrong?
I suspect it is very good for their fundraising. They must surely know by now that both the science and the evidence from massive practical experience confirming GMO safety and benefits are compelling.
Greenpeaces opposition to Golden Rice, while on the surface is based on claims of safety to people and the environment, appears in fact to be much more about socio-economic and political issues. They cannot afford to have a product like Golden Rice on the market delivering positive results to consumers and demanded by consumers. I suspect they fear it will cause a tipping point towards overall public support for all GMOs.
Some people are not against GMO because of the risks but because they just find it unnatural and unethical to interfere in nature. Isnt that a valid point and if not, why?
We have been interfering with nature in so many ways for millennia. The GMO method is no different from anything that nature itself does. Recently there has been compelling evidence that there are many bacterial genes in sweet potatoes that must have gotten there by completely natural means, making it a purely natural GMO by even the strictest definition. Genomics have demonstrated the extraordinary degree to which genes are shared within and between diverse lineages including virtually every living thing on earth. Humans have learned how to create so-called GMOs by finding these mechanisms of gene exchange operating in nature and using them to create improved plant and animal varieties.
A particularly good example of interfering with nature is the development of medicines to combat deadly diseases. Almost no one would argue that vaccines, which prevent many infectious diseases, are bad because they interfere with a pathogens ability to grow. Similarly, when diabetics inject themselves with human insulin produced in bacteria (another example of a GMO), they dont consider themselves to be interfering with nature. Im sure they would prefer not to just let the diabetes take its course.
But even if some people are uneasy about GMOs themselves, they should NOT be trying to force their views on others, especially those in the developing nations. That is like saying that cars are dangerous and so I wont drive one, and then trying to ban all cars.
The Pew Research Center found an enormous gap between the public and scientists on the issue. Just 37 percent of adults in the United States said genetically modified foods were safe to eat, while 88 percent of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science said the same. Why do we see this enormous gap?
This is unfortunately a problem with our primary education system in the first place and then the continuing education that takes place via the media principally television. TV journalists, just like many print journalists, love controversy and will draft a story so that it appears to be controversial even if the balance of scientific evidence is heavily pointing in one direction. Climate change is a good example of this. Also, the media just love bad news. Almost all of the news on TV these days is heavily weighted towards the bad happenings around the world. There is very much less emphasis on good news. GMOs are good news!
However, it should be noted that prior to the propaganda campaigns by Greenpeace and the organic food industry (see http://academicsreview.org/2014/04/why-consumers-pay-more-for-organic-foods-fear-sells-and-marketers-know-it/) public opinion was much less cautious and openly embraced GM science. The relentless campaign of lies and deceit by Greenpeace in the EU and the organic marketers in the US have had an impact.
Why is Golden Rice not available yet, despite years of research?
There are many reasons including the typical problems that are encountered in taking a crop from the laboratory to the field and then into general production. However, a major cause has been the roadblocks put into place by Greenpeace and their allies. They have insisted on extensive testing and then made it difficult for those tests to be performed. Vandalizing fields of Golden Rice in the Philippines is but one dramatic example of the problems caused by the anti-GMO movement. It is ridiculous for Greenpeace to charge that because it has taken so long to bring Golden Rice into production there must be something wrong with it, when it is their own actions that continue to lead to interminable delays.
All crops with new beneficial traits, whether developed through conventional or new breeding techniques, that have been proven to work in the laboratory, still require integration into local varieties and pass local regulatory and market acceptance hurdles. Greenpeace and its surrogates have fought the local development of products like Golden Rice through local field trial destruction, lobbying to prevent passage of laws to regulate GMOs, or for laws to impede or prohibit them, filed litigation to block the approvals of specific GMO products and public disinformation campaigns to create market access hurdles.
Did Chinese scientists in any field participate in supporting GMOs? For example, Youyou Tu, the Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2015? As far as you know, what attitude do Chinese scientists hold?
Yes they are listed on the web site (click on 121 in the top banner on the home page). Youyou Tu is not in very good health and I did not have her email address. I did not want to ask a surrogate to bother her if she is really ill. To the best of my knowledge the vast majority of Chinese scientists see no problems with using GMOs. Precision agriculture just represents the next stage in plant breeding.
When did you initiate this joint letter? And when did you set up this website? Why now?
The letter was initiated in July 2015. The web site was set up during the first part of 2016 and made available to the Laureates, but has only been publically available since June 30th. We launched now because we finally had everything ready. You should be aware though that the initiative was started and has been pushed by Rich Roberts alone. Contrary to the impression given in the Washington Post article, Professor Philip Sharp, with whom I shared the Nobel Prize, was not a co-organizer, just one of the 121 Laureates who signed on to this campaign.
Who is funding this campaign?
This campaign has been pretty inexpensive so far. My costs are basically my salary, which I get from my employer, New England Biolabs. Matt Winkler, Chairman and Founder of Asuragen has offered to cover all out-of-pocket expenses. Matt enlisted a friend, Val Giddings, as a scientist with specialist knowledge to help advise. He suggested Jay Byrne, a public affairs professional who works on food and agriculture issues, as somebody who could help with logistical support for the Press Club event, which he did pro bono. Neither New England Biolabs (a molecular biology reagent company) nor Asuragen (a Molecular Diagnostic company with a focus on cancer and genetic disease) has any direct agri-business interests. Both companies do, however, care deeply about their fellow citizens in the developing world.
When did you notice that the R&D of Precision Agriculture was being impeded/hampered by opposition from NGOs? How did you notice that? Have you ever commented on that before?
I have been aware of it for many years, but just started to think about doing something about it in December, 2013. I had attended a symposium honoring the 80th birthday of my friend, Marc Van Montagu, and learned of the difficulties that plant researchers were facing because of the opponents of GMOs. This was resulting in reduced funding and a reluctance on the part of researchers to enter the field. Two days later I had been invited to speak at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission about how science might help to deal with the challenges faced by public health. Originally, I had planned on speaking about strictly medical issues, but after spending a day listening to the difficulties of bringing GMO technologies to bear on the food and nutrition problems of the developing world I chose to talk about that issue instead. I made the argument that without enough good quality food to eat, the citizens of the developing world had little interest in the kinds of medicine we were consumed with in the West. What they needed was food. This European Commission presentation was so well-received that I started speaking about the GMO issue more frequently. In 2015 I decided to do something more formal about it and following a lecture I gave at the July, 2015 meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau (http://www.mediatheque.lindau-nobel.org/videos/34686/richard-roberts-crime-humanity) I began approaching Laureates to sign on. This campaign is the result.
Why does the letter point to Greenpeace instead of other anti-GMOs group? Is there anything special that Greenpeace did to make you believe that it should be the one to be blamed?
Greenpeace has been the most aggressive and proactive of the groups and many others have followed their lead. They seemed the best place to start. If you want some more reasons as to why Greenpeace are guilty of misbehaving you should see Greenpeace Is More Dishonest And Dangerous Than The Mafia - by Henry I. Miller as well as other examples cited elsewhere on our website. This indicates the growing dangers as I see them.
The signatories have specifically chosen Golden Rice as an example. Why Golden Rice rather than some other project? In what way is Golden Rice special?
In part, because this is one of the clearest examples of the humanitarian good that can come from GMOs. But there are many others also such as GM papaya in Thailand, late blight resistant potatoes in Kenya, BT brinjal in India and many more. See our website for other examples.
There are more than 100 Nobel Laureates who signed the letter. Are you concerned that some of them may have a connection to business related to GMOs?
I suspected that very few Laureates would have a direct conflict of interest because of connections to agribusiness and I would not have expected them to sign if they did. There were two who wrote and told me specifically that they did and they chose not to sign so as to avoid any perceived conflict of interest. However, this campaign is about educating the public about these issues, not about trying to sell products. The GMO opponents frequently charge that anyone with even minimal connections to agri-business must be biased and so cannot be trusted. However, one could equally argue that Greenpeace and others are biased because they have used this issue to directly raise money for themselves. I prefer to think that both sides mostly have the concerns for their fellow citizens as their motivation.
A paper published in April by G.D. Stone and D. Glover entitled Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines claims that Golden Rice project has difficulties in R&D and its yield is too low to get the approval of national regulators.
The article by Glenn Stone (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10460-016-9696-1) is not an accurate representation of the real state of affairs. For instance, see the critique by Julie Kelly: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/15/activists-played-no-role-delaying-golden-rice-evidence-challenges-glenn-stones-claim/. Moreover, it seems very disingenuous for Greenpeace to constantly put roadblocks in the way of the development of Golden Rice and then criticize the project for failing to deliver the final product.
What is the scientific consensus of the safety of GMOs?
The scientific consensus is that the GMO method is safe. For more than three decades, the prevailing view among scientists has been that there are no hazards or risks associated with genetically engineered plants or animals with which we are not already familiar from decades and centuries of experience with domesticated varieties. This view has been explicitly endorsed by the European Union, and recently reaffirmed in a major review by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which has been widely reported.
More than 275 scientific organizations around the world have endorsed this view, which has been repeatedly validated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. A small faction of die-hard opponents of agricultural biotechnology insists safety issues remain in dispute, but their claims are not supported by the facts.
However, you have to recognize that GMO is a method for plant breeding, not a thing itself. The products should be treated in exactly the same way that plants produced by traditional methods are treated. In fact, if anything, traditionally-bred plants are of more concern than plants produced by GMO methods. There are examples of toxic substances being produced in plants developed by conventional breeding and of course these are not subject to the rigorous safety testing that is demanded of GMOs.
Who has the appropriate expertise to make judgments about GMOs?
Most of the major issues around GMO technology can be understood by scientists in any field who have taken an upper division biology class. The two major weekly scientific journals, Science and Nature, which are read by virtually all scientists, continually publish articles on GMO technology and the political issues surrounding them. There is a wide understanding in the scientific community of these issues. A good example is the recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences (http://www.nap.edu/read/10977/chapter/2#15). A thorough, recent review can also be found here https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Nicolia-20131.pdf.
Isnt there something basically unnatural about GMOs?
No. Gene transfer between unrelated species does not just occur in plant breeding labs. When groups like Greenpeace first developed their views on GMOs, the full extent of gene transfer that occurs in nature on a regular basis was not fully appreciated. It was thought that gene transfer (GMO) technology was something rare and could perhaps generate some kind of completely unexpected problem. It is now known that gene transfer between unrelated plant species occurs all the time in nature (e.g. http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/05/05/404198552/natural-gmo-sweet-potato-genetically-modified-8-000-years-ago).
Even if GMOs are completely safe, what do you argue against those that say people should have the right to know anyway?
The issue with labeling is that merely labeling something based on the method by which it is produced tells you nothing about the safety or otherwise of the product. It is the product that needs to be tested for safety and if there are any issues (e.g. the presence of allergens) then that information should be included in a label. Also, it is important to note that in the U.S., labels are required to carry information related to health, safety, and nutrition, and this material is required to be presented in a way that is accurate, informative, and not misleading.
You have to realize that the impetus for mandatory GM labeling is to mislead consumers, to raise (unwarranted) fears that will lead them to avoid GMO products. Labeling proponents have been very clear in admitting this, knowing that many consumers will assume that if GMOs are required to be labeled as GMOs then it must be due to some safety issue. This notion is also being pushed by the organic food marketers who are looking for any way to increase the market share for their products; again, they've admitted this explicitly. However, our campaign is testifying to the fact that the method itself is safe and its use should not be used to vilify the product. The products should be considered separately for their safety irrespective of how they are produced.
Why is genetically modified Golden Rice of such great importance?
Golden Rice is important because it exemplifies what is possible using GMO methods and has become something of a poster child for the campaign. It is hard to argue against GMO crops that improve human health. There are now a large number of nutritionally improved GMO crops and their release is being held up by unreasonable and unnecessary regulations. These include GM papaya in Thailand, late blight resistant potatoes in Kenya, BT brinjal in India and many more.
Why are Greenpeace -and like-minded organizations- campaigning against Golden Rice?
The campaigns against Golden Rice recognize that if it is approved and widely disseminated, their arguments will lose their appeal. They have decided to kill this initiative at all costs.
Is Golden Rice a means to widening the door to more genetically modified foods?
Golden Rice does open the door to the introduction of other GMO crops with added nutritional value. Many are already being prepared in laboratories around the world.
Golden Rice holds part of the answer to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition. Why hasnt it been more widely used after 20 years of research?
The current problem with Golden Rice is that the very best strains of rice that can produce beta-carotene in a robust manner with the good yields necessary for routine use are still not available. This points to much of the dishonesty used by Greenpeace to promote their agenda. They have constantly introduced roadblocks to its development and then try to claim that it because it is not ready there must be something wrong with it because it is taking so long to get it into the hands of children in the developing world.
How has the anti-GMO movement responded to your campaign?
There have been a few articles published that reiterate the standard arguments from Greenpeace and their allies, including a lot of factual misrepresentations as usual.
However, the most significant development is that on July 6th, just one week after I sent out the letter and made it publicly available, Gary Ruskin from the U.S. Right to Know Organization sent a request to Prof. Randy Schekman (2013, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine) at Berkeley demanding that he make available all of his emails related to Golden Rice, Supportprecisionagriculture.org and Greenpeace. Could this be a coincidence given that there has been a systematic effort by groups opposed to GMOs to harass scientists involved in plant breeding or who speak out about these issues? They use the Freedom of Information Act, which promotes transparency in publically funded institutions to demand thousands of pages of emails which wastes many hundreds of hours of the scientists time. It is worth mentioning that in publically funded agricultural Universities that professors, as part of the Universities mission, are required to provide assistance to the public including companies.
Is there other misleading information out there?
It is worth noting that the day after the announcement, an unknown person purchased a domain similar to that of my website in an apparent attempt to link it to an independent 501(c)3 NGO (the Genetic Literacy Project) that has also fought to correct the record against the false and misleading claims of agbiotech opponents. Although there would be nothing wrong if there were a relationship, there is none. But as documented on the www.supportprecisionagriculture.org website and as is well known to governments around the world through sad experience, the dirty tricks of the opposition are without limits.
Why were Greenpeace and their colleagues denied access to the Press Conference at the NPC?
At the Press Conference two representatives from Greenpeace and Food and Water Watch showed up, without press credentials and without registering ahead of time. Because of this they were not allowed into the press room, but rather watched on closed circuit TV in an adjacent room. The fear was that they were only interested in trying to disrupt the proceedings, as has happened in the past. When the conference was done and the real journalists were leaving, I invited the activists to come in and talk to me. Instead they hightailed it out of the Press Club claiming it was too late. Too late for what I ask myself and the only answer I could come up with was that it would be too late to disrupt the meeting.
Doesnt GMO technology merely enable Monsanto and other big agri-businesses to dominate the agricultural field and force small farmers out of business?
This conflates two issues. The one that we are addressing as Nobel Laureates is whether or not the basic technology by which GMOs are made is safe. We conclude it is. The other issue is the possible misbehavior of big Agri-business as exemplified by Monsanto. I think you would find no disagreement that Monsanto and others have behaved badly. However, that is a completely separate issue based on their desire to dominate the agricultural market. This they have been pursuing for decades using traditional breeding techniques. In fact, they have been quite successful and are merely continuing their old corporate policies.
However, it should be noted that GMO plants for use as crops can be developed locally and completely beyond the control of big agri-business. Such crops could be developed specifically for use by smallholder farmers, although in general most farmers will continue to depend on seed companies (not necessarily big ones) for the seeds they plant.
I would point out that in addition to GMOs enabling massive agricultural practices that can be dominated by big business, the farm machinery used on these large farms also enables big business. Should we ban tractors and the other specialized machines that enable these companies to control agriculture?
Please don't misrepresent precision agriculture (GMOs) as being the villain here. It is the companies that need to be restrained, not the methods for making better nutritious foods.
What is the scientific basis for the safety of GMOs?
The scientific consensus is that the GMO method is safe. However, you have to recognize that GMO is a method for plant breeding, not a thing itself. The products should be treated in exactly the same way that plants produced by traditional methods are treated. In fact, if anything, traditionally bred plants are of more concern than plants produced by GMO methods. There are examples of toxic substances being produced in plants developed by conventional breeding and of course these are not subject to any safety testing. There are many links to the relevant literature on this subject on the website, including the recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences and the website put together by the UK Royal Society.
Anti GMO organizations like Greenpeace claim:
a) mice fed on GM corn (NK603) for two years contracted cancer ( see http://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-014-0014-5)
This study has been completely debunked. It was badly flawed. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seralini_affair and the many scientific references cited therein.
b) GMOs will disturb our ecosystem by allowing the development of superweeds.
This issue is not one that is unique to GMOs. Any plant that has been bred by any means to become resistant to pesticides or herbicides has the potential to spread its genes to other species. There is no reason to think that GMOs pose a special danger in this regard. Furthermore, the data show that the evolution of weeds resistant to herbicides has remained essentially unchanged with the advent of GM crops (see http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2013/05/superweed/).
How can GMOs contribute to our society? Are there concrete examples in addition to Golden Rice?
There are many ways in which farmers and consumers can benefit from GMO crops. In particular, in the developing world hunger and poor nutrition are a major problem. At the moment there is a real problem with bananas in Uganda, which are suffering from a blight that threatens to eventually destroy the entire banana crop. However, using GMO methods it has been possible to engineer bananas to resist the blight and save the crop, which is a very important food source within the country and an important source of income through the export market. Similar blights are affecting sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. In the latter case work carried out in Kenya has led to the development of late blight resistant potatoes that can flourish well. This blight is the same one that caused the potato famines in Ireland in the mid 19th century. However, unless the country puts in place appropriate regulations for testing these crops they will never make it to market. The delays are mainly due to green party activists who are opposed to GMOs.
Do you see any problems with GMO's in general?
As with every new technology one can always imagine there might be some problems. However, it is not the technology that is the problem GM is just a method for introducing genetic variability into crops. Rather it is the product of those methods that might be problematic. Just as it would be preposterous to blame the spoon for stirring in a poisonous ingredient, it is equally preposterous to vilify the method of genetic modification. It is always the end products themselves that need to be scrutinized and held to high standards - standards which are the same, regardless of whether the product comes from organic farming, GM technology, or any other source. We should always advocate for the highest standards for the safety and quality of our foods.