Leading scientists around the world have been saying it for some time: genetically modified technology is safe. But many consumers still have their doubts, and GMO critics are a powerful and very vocal group.
Recently, Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) weighed in on the discussion on an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit.
Gates wasn’t simply throwing flame on the fire. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes on some of the toughest challenges facing developing countries: poverty and malnutrition. They allocate funds to innovative companies and organizations that can help provide solutions to these problems. This includes supporting new techniques and crops, such as Green Super Rice, to help farmers in developing countries successfully grow more food and earn more money.
Predictably, his comments prompted a fairly wide-spread reaction in the media. Scientists and global organizations— such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences— applauded Gates for calling attention to the important role GMOs play in helping provide affordable, safe food to feed a world that is projected to grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050. Without the productivity-enhancing advancements made possible by genetics, they point out, the task of providing food for another 2-3 billion mouths could prove extremely difficult, if not insurmountable.
Unsurprisingly, GMO critics weren’t won over, despite Bill Gates’ respected reputation for forward thinking and societal insight. In fact, some critics even chose to use his comments as a platform for continuing to argue against GMOs— despite the growing roster of studies, organizations, and individuals who echo Gates’ comments.
There are many opponents to GMOs, including the highly visible Non-GMO Project and GMO Awareness Organization. Anti-GMO propaganda has gone so far as to include Jennifer X, a Russian Bot, who has been responsible for spreading anti-GMO disinformation through social media. Since many consumers have GMO-related anxieties to begin with, these messengers have been extremely effective in perpetuating fear towards genetic engineering technology.
Non-GMO = Big Business
According to the Genetic Literacy Project, a site dedicated to promoting science literacy, there are more than 35,000 food products certified as “GMO-free,” representing sales of about $16 billion annually. We now have what can be termed as a “non-GMO food supply.” GMO-free food has now become big business— not just a passionate if sometimes ill-informed cause.
Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Commission are among the blue-chip entities that have publicly concluded that GMO foods are safe to eat. Most notably, a large 2013 study on GMOs found no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
Gates’ comments may not single-handedly change the opinion of the hardcore anti-GMO constituency— but, they add a respected global name to the pro-GMO community and stir up more public attention to the importance of genetics and genomics in the modern food system of today and tomorrow.
The more people know about the science behind GMOs, rather than just the emotions surrounding GMOs, the more effective our policies and decision-making will be with regards to our global food supply.