Science - January 30, 2015

Ban on gmos has a high price


The refusal by the Indian government to import rice that has been enriched with vitamin A has already cost 1.4 million life years. That is the position taken by professor of economics Justus Wesseler. His calculations cast new light on the GMO discussion.

‘Golden Rice’ is the name of a yellow variety of rice that was developed ten years ago. After genetic modification, this rice contains a large amount of vitamin A and is thus a strong weapon against death and blindness caused by malnutrition. Many developing countries, however, are reluctant to introduce GM products. India, for example, is keeping its borders tightly shut against Golden Rice. Professor of Economics Justus Wesseler studied the consequences of this policy and presented his results at his inauguration as a professor on 22 January. Using his Real Option Model, Wesseler calculated the damage of not introducing the GM rice in India: 1.4 million life years in the past 10 years, most of the victims being children.

1.4 million life years represent so much human suffering. Who is responsible for this?

‘The government weighs the pros and cons: what are the advantages of introducing GMO rice and what are the risks? The WHO and the World Bank support the introduction because it saves children’s lives, that much is certain. But Greenpeace and an influential activist like Vandana Shiva are firmly opposed. And if 10 to 20 percent of the population is also against GMOs, then the government runs the risk of losing the next election. So up to now, the Indian government has decided that the risks of Golden Rice are bigger than the advantages. By calculating the advantages, we now know the cost of the anti-GMO lobby in India. That amounts to at least 200 million dollars a year.’

Opponents of GMOs claim that we can’t exclude the health and environmental risks of GMOs.

‘From a scientific perspective, there aren’t any health or environmental risks in GMOs. They’re as safe as traditional crops. We don’t have 100 percent certainty, but no one can claim a safety level of 100 percent. That just doesn’t exist. And it’s nonsense to talk about ‘unknown risks’ as the opponents do. You can’t study unknown risks; moreover, there might also be unknown advantages. As scientists, we have to think consistently. We can only investigate risks if we have a theory that explains which aspect of GMOs can present a danger.’

You calculate the lost life years to be an economic loss of 200 million dollars annually. How did you reach that amount?

‘In the model the value of a life year in India is set at 500 dollars. That’s not my own ethical standpoint, but rather an amount relating to labour productivity. The poorer a country is, the less economic value is attached to a life year. In the US and Europe, a life year is worth more because labour productivity is higher. But what I find more important is that children die unnecessarily in India.’

The EU is also concerned about GM crops. Have you studied the loss there?

‘In 2007 I calculated that not accepting the GM maize MON810 costs the EU more than 130 million euros a year. And in 2004 I studied what the cost to the EU was of refusing to introduce GM sugar beets. That was 100 to 160 million euros a year. The ban on GMOs doesn’t cost human lives in Europe, but it does lead to lower yields per hectare, a higher use of pesticides and the emission of more greenhouse gasses. The environmental advantages of GMOs are evident.’

The anti-GMO lobby will claim that you’re being paid by industry. Who financed your study?
‘I did my study of Golden Rice in India myself without any external financing. I also study the socioeconomic effects of GMOs at the request of and paid by the European Union. I’m not paid by industry. I believe that we should think about whether the opposition to GMO technology is ethically justifiable if it leads to more dead children in India and in numerous other developing countries.’

Re:actions 4

  • Jeff Harvey

    Bullo, this technology creates genetic combinations that could never occur in nature. Only recently have we obtained the ability to shove the genetic material of some species into the genome of another species with a completely different phylogeny. So you are completely wrong when you argue that the tech is just speeding up what happens in nature. Not in a million years. And again, you cleverly avoid the little matter of staggering R & D costs and intellectual property. Given the US government is a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate state, who is going to enforce cheap access of this technology to the poor? Its simply another form of economic imperialism being foisted on the south under the rules governed by the Washington Consensus. Biotechnology for the most part IMHO is just another example of how our species deals with environmental problems that we cause; we are not dealing with cures but symptoms. At some point we won't be able to counter the effects of a slash-and-burn approach to the biosphere through technology; it will overwhelm us.

    • Hidde Boersma

      Jeff, I recommend this piece: Genes jumping from one species to the other are more common then we think. It is only one of point where you are mistaken, It is fascinating how un-scientific your activism is..

  • Bullo Mamo

    Where are people obsessed and become anti- when it comes to agricultural biotech when the use of GMO in medical and industrial biotech has been around for centuries; staring with use of yeast in fermentation and production of aspirin. For example, vaccines are produced thru the use of recombinant DNA tech, the very same principle used in production of GM crops like Golden rice, bt-corn, round-up ready and others. And there is no public out roar when other sectors enjoy application of biotechnology and consumers are directly putting them into their mouth. Every new technology has pros and cons; and thru policy formulations, governments can ensure that the system would not be abusive to small scale farmers and others. I think the term 'genetic modification" is highly loaded and people get scared when they hear about it. Note that the tech is just adapted from what happens in nature to speed up and develop tailored products for mankind.

  • Jeff Harvey

    Gerben, the problem with many so-called miracle techologies is that they have a nasty sting in the tail (witness the legacies of DDT and other pesticides). Moreover, many technologies are created to counter environmental changes caused by man. For instance, GMOs that have been developed to deal with saline and drought stress, which themselves are the result of climate change. This is an example of dealing with a symptom and not working on a cure. Second, there is no 'war against hunger'. This is a media construct, and, as I said earlier, part of the PR machinery used by chemical corporations to see their product. There is certainly enough food to deal with hunger at present, but there is no drive to creat social justice in the world. The fact that wealth continues to acculumate at the very top is a very worrying development. Elties in the north control power and primarily aim to ensure they maintain that power whilst accumulating more and more of their share of the planet's wealth. Poverty, starvation and environmental destruction are not accidental; they are the by-products of economic and political actions on the part of those who control the bulk of the planet's wealth and power. There's ample evidence to show that western polisies have never been aimed at eradicating poverty. Read planning documents from western state-corporate planners over the years and the real agendas become quite clear. Right now what we are seeing is a crisis of capitalism. The political system of supposedly free markets under the guise of the 'Washington Consensus' is bankrupt and needs to be dumped. Unless we do, things are going to get a lot worse.

  • Jeff Harvey

    I am a senior scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and a visiting Professor at the VU in Amsterdam. I am replying to your interview with Justus Wesseler on the alleged costs of failure to import GMO rice into India.

    To make a long story short, I think that Professor Wesseler is speaking absolute nonsense. The whole shebang about the wonders of vitamin A enhanced golden rice was largely a publicity stunt on the part of western transnational corporations to pave the way for a shift to GMO based economies in the third world, largely ensuring that the corporate sector controls the food chain, much as it already does in the United States. The main emphasis here is that the technology relies on deep PR cover which it finds in the specter of human hunger and starvation, whereas underlying it is the real motive: profits and investor returns. It is too bad that these little inconvenient facts do not filter through into Professor Wesseler’s worldview.
    I find it remarkable that Professor Wesseler can talk about dead children when western foreign policy has long been based on expropriation – another more appropriate word is looting – of resources from poor countries to maintain ecological deficits in the rich over-consumptive developed world. Poverty eradication and social justice have never been high on the list of agendas. Many economists – including people like Samir Amin, Patrick Bond and Tom Athanasiou – have written extensively about this.

    In my honest opinion, Professor Wesseler’s calculations are farcical and effectively meaningless. A lot has been written about Vitamin A enhanced rice, but one point that is overlooked is that Vitamin A deficiency is not necessarily a major problem in Asia. What is important is that the people there have access to a healthy, balanced multi vitamin diet that includes a variety of different foods. Are Indians expected to eat rice and nothing else?

    Professor Wesseler really loses it in my view when he claims that from a scientific perspective there aren’t any health or environmental risks in GMOs. ‘’They’re as safe as traditional crops”. Excuse my English, but this is bullshit. It is his opinion. There are many scientists who vehemently disagree with this view. Moreover, the debate fails to address the fact that the corporations who control this technology are investing billions in it. They aren’t remotely interested in giving it away – just look at the furore that erupted over Monsanto’s terminator seed technology a decade ago – but in maximizing profits. Certainly the corporations that hold patent rights over the technology do not want rupees for their products, but dollars and Euros, and lots of them. This in countries where many farmers can barely afford a shovel.

    The final point is that maintenance of genetic variation is one important benefit of farmers harvesting their own seeds year after year. This variation is an essential pre-requisite to adaptation to any number of environmental challenges. Under the guise of GMOs, this variation is lost as one genotype is exclusively used and others discarded. Farmers then effectively become like workers on an auto assembly line. Ultimately this has nothing to do with food security but about corporate control of the food chain, a terrifying development in my view. As I see it, the current problem is not about food production but about social injustice and wealth inequality in the world. GMOs do nothing to eliminate this – they only make people in the south more beholden to the wealthy elites in the north than ever before. If we don’t address this inequality, then we are in serious trouble. I am profoundly opposed to this technology on political and economic grounds; throw in the uncertainties of science and it is clear that GMOs are not any kind of benefit to humanity.

    • Gerben

      This calls for a shovel count! / I think the no-risk claim is based on the potential health-risks involved and may indeed underestimate the social risks. (dependebility on supernational GMO-seedproducers) However, when smartly implemented I think GMO is a tool that should not be discarded too easily. Salt tolerance and improved resistance against common plant blights can be a huge asset in the war against hunger.

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  • Wim Heijman

    Professor Harvey's reaction proves that he is not a scientist but a political activist. From a scientist I would have expected a balanced opinion on advantages and disadvantages of GMO-crops. His personal opinions do not bring us any further in the debate.

  • bolke

    De "prijs" kan helemaal niet berekend worden zonder de lange-termijnkosten te kennen van het introduceren van deze geheel nieuwe klasse van milieuvervuiling. Als je bij DDT en Softenon ook alleen maar zou kijken naar de voordelen, en de nadelen die bij de marktintroductie nog helemaal niet bekend waren zou negeren, dan zou je ze ook zo opnieuw willen gebruiken. Jammer genoeg bleek het achteraf allemaal wat anders te liggen.

  • Egbert

    Dus met herbicidetolerante bietenrassen zouden we een hogere opbrengst hebben en economisch en ecologisch beter af zijn?
    Poeh, daar zijn toch wel ernstige vraagtekens bij te zetten!