Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why the Acronym “GMO” Can Provoke Deep-Seated Anger

Among U.S. citizens, the acronym “GMO” usually elicits curiosity, although people sometimes react with discomfort and even anger.  The latter is a phenomenon I am still seeking to understand.  I see genetic engineering (GE) as a suite of tools for crop improvement that can help us address some of the many challenges to food-system sustainability.  Therefore, it is hard for me to understand the anger directed at me before they even know me or my values.  I must admit, I usually get defensive in the face of such a person, as I have my own stories of being personally and unfairly attacked.  This is probably true for any scientist who offers outreach on genetic engineering, if they do so long enough.  But ultimately, I realize that, the more I understand the concerns of the public, the more effective I’ll be as an educator. 

Figure 1. Latin American friends watching a soccer match.  Note what the red tee-shirt says.
I have been privileged to live in several Latin America countries over my lifetime, most recently during a 6.5-month sabbatical to Nicaragua in 2014.  I was surprised at the level of deep anger and/or anxiety “GMO” provokes (Figure 1).  Again, I have been puzzled by this, but a recent media report gave me valuable insight.

The title of the report caught my attention: “Syngenta convicted: Justice finds company responsible for armed attack on encamped rural workers.” As a researcher who periodically interacts with scientists from Syngenta as a normal part of my job, I immediately stopped what I was doing and read the article.  It reports on a court case related to the murder of an activist apparently encamped on the property of a Syngenta research station in the state of Paraná, Brazil. 

The story is sad.  I don’t know of any excuse for the violence described.

The scientists I know at Syngenta are honorable, decent people, and they live a hemisphere away from the reported events.  I just thought that that needed saying, out of respect for the honorable scientists who work for industry.

With respect to the attack, Syngenta is reported to have said that “the attack was not made by the company it hired, but rather by militia acting on the orders of landowners.”  This sounds credible, as I can’t imagine a multinational corporation ordering the assassination of local activists.  However, I realize don’t have all the facts of the case.  Nevertheless, defending Syngenta is not the reason I wrote this post.  What was important about this report was the insight it gave me into the personal stories behind the emotionally powerful acronym, “GMO.” 

As reported by Terra de Direitos, members of the organization Via Campesina associate the term genetic engineering with “a farming model based on monoculture, gross exploitation of farm workers, environmental degradation, use of pesticides and private appropriate [sic] of natural and genetic resources.”  Let’s call this Perspective #1. 

I understand where each of those points is coming from: 

1.      Large-scale monoculture does have risks: biological risks, economic risks, and social risks.  The local population in this report perceives its food security to be greater with highly diversified small farms (Figure 2) than with large-scale farming (Figure 3).  And in their case, they may be right, though that is too complex a subject to discuss in this post. 

2.      Farm workers can certainly be exploited in large-scale farming systems, in the USA as well as in Brazil.

3.      Large-scale farms can cause environmental degradation.

4.      Farms of all sizes use pesticides, but many large-scale farms depend on certain uses of pesticide.

5.      It seems valid to wonder why patent laws in developed nations might be used to protect the intellectual property of genetic material whose past origin may be a developing country.
Figure 2. Highly diversified, small-scale demonstration farm in Nicaragua.

Figure 3. Large-scale monoculture in Nicaragua.

All of these points have validity.  But what is important from my standpoint as an educator is that the local population perceives GE crops to be linked to all of these problems.  And now, given this story, the acronym “GMO” it is linked to assassination of local leaders.  How awful!  Scientific data are meaningless in the face of that level of pain and mistrust.

In the minds of many goodhearted scientists all over the world, that acronym does not evoke Perspective #1.  While not negating the perspective of the local population, there is at least one other perspective.

Perspective #2:

1.      GE technology is not linked to monoculture, just like plant breeding isn’t linked to monoculture.  There is no reason that a public-domain GE variety couldn’t be used in polyculture on a smallholder’s diversified farm.  A GE variety is simply a crop variety.  Many serious insects and diseases are highly damaging in smallholder plots just as they are in large monocultures; in other words, they are scale-neutral.  Examples include begomoviruses attacking cassava in Eastern Africa, bacterial wilt of banana in Africa, as well as cassava witches broom and the cassava mealybug in Southeast Asia.  These are problems that are screaming for genetic solutions, in part because so many smallholders need them. 

2.      Would eliminating GE crops eliminate exploitation of farm workers?  Unjust as it is, exploitation existed before GE crops were commercialized, and it exists today even in non-GE farming systems.   

3.      GE crops can help us address some of the environmental degradation associated with farming.  For example, GE can help improve fertilizer use efficiency, increase the use of conservation tillage, and maybe even lead to nitrogen-fixing cereals.  Most scientists are enthusiastic about technologies that can help address real-world problems. 

4.      I have no doubt that GE will help lead to progressively greater reductions in pesticide use, particularly against diseases and insects.  This isn’t speculation.  The scientific literature is full of papers reporting on GE traits or techniques that bear directly on pesticide-free pest control.

5.      I do share this concern, at least on a fundamental level, about the appropriation of genetic resources from developing countries.  I personally prefer GE traits in the public domain, and some already are in the public domain, like the Rainbow papaya.  Readers may also be interested to know that all U.S.-patented GE traits revert to the public domain after 20 years. 

So when we talk about GMOS, it is almost like we could be speaking different languages.  When a smallholder in a developing country says “GMO,” s/he is often speaking from Perspective #1.  This has been my experience in Latin America, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time.  Conversely, when I say “GMO,” I am speaking from Perspective #2.  Both perspectives are valid, but they are clearly very, very different.

What I didn’t understand while in Nicaragua was how much the fear of domination underlies any public perceptions about GE.  Nicaragua has a long history of domination: domination by the USA; domination by its home-grown dictators (whose power partially derived from the support of the USA); and domination by multinational corporations.  That was hard for me to understand, because I don’t share their history and their culture, but this article helps me better-understand such a perspective.

I have no grand insights here.  I simply comprehend better that, in order to communicate about the role, if any, of GE crops in sustainability, I will do well to try to understand the varied perspectives of those willing to engage in dialogue.


  1. It seems to me what you're saying is that the common objectives to GMOs are not unique to GMOs and could happen and does happen with all types of seeds. Perhaps the task for the science-based side is to educate by showing how to separate the type of seed from the agricultural practice. -- Michael Fogler

    1. Very good point: the common objections to GMOs are not unique to GMOs. And yes, this should be a point we make when offering public outreach. Thanks for the comment.

  2. This was really nice Paul. I think it is really important to remember that this is just one kind of genetic improvement and that how we use it is up to the farmers. The allegations of "monoculture" make me a little crazy because these plants typically don't belong in an ecosystem and are certainly not in their natural state. If anything, genetic engineering offers some good end-arounds monocultures as we can bring in wider genetics faster. Plus, there's an awful lot of non-GM monoculture out there! Grapes, banana, potato, many others. Nice read.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. Hope to see and hear your outreach contributions someday.