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The benefits and risks of GMOs

Since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) first appeared at the beginning of the 1990s, they have been widely adopted in agriculture. However, their newness has raised a certain number of societal issues. Whilst their positive or negative impacts on production and on the environment continue to fuel debate, the fact that they are harmless to human health has now garnered consensus with the scientific community. Nonetheless, the general public challenges this.
AL034-02 OGM impacts
© Getty Images / Ulrich Baumgarten - Sign illustrating GMO cultivation, Germany, 15 September 2005

Increasingly used, yet subject to debate

In 2011, the percentage of GMOs in world production stood at 83% for cotton, 75% for soya beans, 32% for corn and 26% for rapeseed. This production is the preserve of 29 countries, mainly the United States, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. Meanwhile, cultivation of GMOs remains forbidden in over thirty nations.

In 2015, a majority of European Union countries decided to block the cultivation of eight new types of GMO pending new data and approval from regulatory bodies. Nonetheless, the European Union remains the greatest user of GMOs: 30 million tonnes of genetically modified soya beans and corn are required for animal feed every year.

In most cases, farmers who use GMO technologies do so to increase productivity, either by increasing production yields (minimising pest-related losses), or financial returns (reducing labour or the use of specific phytosanitary products). In 2014, an analysis of 147 studies carried out around the world over the previous 20 years stated that “on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%” (Klumper, 2014).

Although these solutions have obvious appeal for agricultural production, their opponents emphasise that uncertainties persist as regards to their environmental impact. They cite, amongst others, the possibility of transferring genes to other species, the excessive use of certain phytosanitary products, and the consolidation of intensive cultivation at the expense of other more sustainable approaches. The issue remains open and is still debated at most governmental and inter-governmental levels.

The impact on health, a poorly perceived scientific consensus

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers that GMO-based food presents the same health risks as ‘classical’ food. This position is widely echoed by the scientific community, represented by numerous national and international bodies, such as The European Commission, The American Medical Association, The National Academy of Science (US), The Royal Society of Medicine (UK), L’Académie des Sciences française, Die Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften (D), etc. The Swiss National Science Foundation reports the results of the analysis of over a thousand international scientific publications: “Genetically modified plants (GMPs) are not harmful for human health or for the environment. The appearance of adverse effects at sites where certain transgenic varieties are cultivated is not a consequence of genetic engineering. It is the result of poor agricultural practices (such as monoculture)”.

In spite of this scientific consensus, the safety of consuming GMOs continues to be the issue that elicits the greatest disparity in public opinion. In a 2015-published study, The Pew Research Center stated that 88% of scientists from the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) consider that consuming GMO food poses no health issues, whereas only 37% of the population supports this view. This 51 point gap represents the greatest difference in opinion between the public and the scientific community. It is probably partly due to the effectiveness of media activity of organisations that are against GMOs in general. In June 2016, over a hundred Nobel Prize winners contributed to the media debate by asking Greenpeace to cease its hostile campaigns against genetically modified organisms: “We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’”.