Genetically modified crops and the exaggeration of “interest conflict”

By Daniel Norero

November 3, 2016

A very common criticism against genetically modified (GM) crops, whenever they are mentioned, is to automatically associate them with a certain group of big companies, and also to say that virtually every study of biosecurity about GM crops has been funded and/or carried out by any of these companies. Is it true? Or is it just an exaggeration for simple ignorance?

While it is true that a couple of companies dominated the early commercialization of GM crops in the mid-1990s, investing heavily in research and development, these crops subsequently have been developed by many other entities, such as universities, independent research centers, small companies and state-government agencies, among others, on all continents.

It is interesting that large developing countries, like China, India, Brazil and Argentina, and others of less magnitude, like Bangladesh, Philippines and socialist Cuba, as well as 14 African countries, are investing heavily in the development of GM crops with public funds through public agencies or state-companies to solve the various problems of their own farmers. Each of these nations conducts studies of biosafety, in terms of health and environment. So why say that all biosafety studies are funded by companies?

Image: GM crops by type of developer and development phase in 2008 and 2014. It is noted as new private companies and public institutions increasingly displace over the large companies in regulatory stages and advanced research and development. (Parisi et al, 2015 ).

It is worth mentioning that there are more than 2000 current studies supporting the safety of GM crops a conservative number based on several meta-analysis and reviews from USA and Europe. About half of the global research came from independent financing without money from private companies. This can be seen, for example, through GENERA (Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas), an independent database managed by scientists at the US public sector, which aims to collect and classify scientific peer-reviewed publications that address the risk of GM crops. They currently have grouped more than 1,200 publications, and after the beta test phase, in which the conflict of interest of 400 publications randomly selected was analyzed, it was found that half were funded entirely by government agencies mainly from Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Oceania and independent nonprofit organizations.

On this topic, there is a review that a Chilean researcher published in Nature Biotechnology in 2015, in which he analyzes the conflict of interest (COI) of nearly 700 important publications on food safety of GM crops published between 1993 and 2014. The result showed that 58.3% (406 papers) of all publications had no COI of both professional affiliation of the author and source of funding. In categories such as “unintended effects,” “processing,” “allergenicity” and “digestibility,” the numbers were 77.9%, 77.8%, 71.7% and 69.2%, respectively, of publications without COI.

In addition, the researcher said that the analysis of all 698 reports collected here makes it clear that GM crops have been extensively evaluated for potential risks and that genetic modification technologies based on recombinant DNA do not carry a greater risk than other types of genetic modification.”

On the other hand, there are public statements of more than 270 independent organizations and scientific institutions most of them in Europe that publicly recognize the safety and benefits of GM crops. These include all the scientific academies in North and South America and Europe and most of the science academies of Asia and Africa.

As a final message, I would like to make it clear that we should not confuse genetic engineering (the technology that allows us to produce GM crops) with a particular company. These are two totally different things. Also, we should not fall into the sensationalism of some media that only help spread myths and misguided information on the subject.

Unfortunately, the opposition to this technology only contributes to create greater obstacles and regulations that prevent or hinder the entry of new public and private developers and, paradoxically, leaves the field only to the great players who have the capital to withstand long and costly regulatory processes.

Daniel Norero founded the movement S Quiero Transg nicos (I Do Want GMOs), and is a columnist for Latin American Science. He is a 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow.