Thursday, October 15, 2015

Biotech and the Fear of the Unknown

The American author H.P. Lovecraft said that “The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Many innovations and inventions being used today had to undergo a stage of doubt, resistance, and fear before they were accepted or adopted. The idea of the first automobile was met with much resistance at a time when the horse and buggy was the main mode of transportation and thus considered more safe and reliable. Political, health, religious, and scientific issues were raised against the use of vaccines until its use eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox and similar childhood diseases. Even pasteurization took more than 30 years for its acceptance after objections were raised such as public health, safety, and perceived economic effects.

Now we see that the scenario of fear remains even on the use of modern scientific tools such as biotechnology. “Fear of (biotechnology) is drowning out its potential benefits,” says Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff, a professor of life sciences and biotechnology, and former Science and Technology Adviser to U.S. Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. She adds that almost all the food we consume is genetically modified (GM) and that “genetic modification is the basis of all evolution and that we have devised ways to accelerate the process.”

All the food we consume is genetically modified, according to Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fedoroff notes: “Contemporary GM crops are being blamed for farm suicides in India, tumors in rats, autism, obesity, and even infertility – even after 25 years of government research and a European Union report stressing that crop modification by GM techniques is no more dangerous than conventional products. The fear is being fuelled by electronic gossip and organizations that exploit GM fears for profits.”

Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, World Food Prize awardee and currently Graduate School professor emeritus of Cornell University was amazed as to “why something as promising as this (biotechnology) was met with opposition by certain advocacy groups.” He took interest in studying the evidence that the advocacy groups were forwarding on GM organisms. He opined that they were reasons other than their concerns for health and the environment. “I believed then and I believe now that the misinformation and the resulting action (or lack of action) were and are harmful to low-income people’s incomes, food security, and nutrition, he said.

Prof. Zerubabel Mijumbi Nyiira, State Minister for Agriculture and elected Member of the Uganda Parliament has this to say on the issue. “Our people have been manipulated and misinformed by anti-science activities and have been led to believe that nothing good can come out of biotechnology. This is short changing the many people who need the technology and disarming the fight against poverty and development.”

In exasperation, Dr. Ingo Potrykus, co-inventor of Golden Rice, a GM rice that contains high beta carotene, articulates his disappointment with all the negativity. “There is not a single documented case of harm since its use! It is, therefore, insane not to use it efficiently and prudently. It is immoral to prevent its use for public good. And it is criminal to prevent it from contributing to food-and nutrition security.”

Regular rice (left) and Golden Rice (right).
Photo courtesy of

Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor of the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign questions why there is opposition to and criticism of biotechnology after almost 20 years of successful use on billions of hectares of farmland. “It is not unusual for humans to be cautious and concerned about new technologies… but society will need to move past this opposition in order to capture the benefits offered by biotechnology.”

Mr. Chris Kakunta, a development journalist working for the National Agricultural Information Services in Zambia also shares his thoughts. “As someone who has seen GMO crops in the lab and on the farms and who has witnessed the benefits accruing to farmers, I would say that the media, the industry to which I belong, must work extra hard so that every farmer hears the facts and makes the right decision... It is essential that this information be as pure and untainted as human beings can make it. If the press errs, then the whole of society lives with the same mistake,” the Zambian journalist avers.

The most daunting challenge of biotechnology, according to Professor Wayne Parrott of the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics at the University of Georgia, may not be climate change or pests, but “fear and emotions that do not respond to reason and logic.” Indeed, as Mr. Jon Entine, the founding director of the Genetics Literacy Project and senior fellow at the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California-Davis, cautions: “We can face a perilous future if we strangulate biotechnology advances because of misplaced fears.”

The success of modern biotechnology is seen in the millions of hectares of farmlands planted with biotech crops.

Indeed, issues have gone beyond the realm of science. Thus, many experts, be they scientists, policy makers, or media practitioners, have made their life mission to empower the public to make crucial decisions regarding acceptance and adoption of biotech that is based on evidence. Scientists, for example, now realize that it is not enough to just provide information to a public which wants a more active role in science by having their voices heard. And to a public that relies on information about biotechnology from mass media, the role of journalists is important for they set the agenda and tone for the topic.

As the Polish scientist Marie Curie succinctly said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Read more on experts’ views on biotechnology from ISAAA Brief 50: Voices and Views: Why Biotech? available at: