Cathie Martin has a good way of describing the critics of GMOs. She calls them “the W.W.W.s.” She doesn’t mean the World Wide Web, but rather the Well, the Wealthy, and the Worried.
That’s how the 66-year-old English plant biologist put it last month in an excellent article published by the New York Times.
I’ve followed the debate over GMOs for 30 years. As a farmer in Iowa, I’ve acquired hands-on experience with GMO crops. I’ve read everything on the subject from research literature to ordinary journalism. The recent piece in the New York Times is one of the most accurate popular accounts I’ve come across. “Learning to Love GMOs,” by Jennifer Kahn is a careful account of a contested subject.
In her story, Kahn reveals how Martin has developed a variety of purple tomato that bursts with antioxidants, including a special compound that could deliver amazing health advantages: “When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease.”
Martin’s tomatoes are GMOs because they achieve their positive effects by borrowing a pair of genes from the snapdragon, the common flowering plant that is a relative of the tomato plant.
There’s a big gap between a study involving mice and a proven nutritional gain in people, of course—but these purple tomatoes are a promising technology that could do a lot of good. Who could possibly oppose them?
Leave it to the W.W.W.s.
The Well, the Wealthy, and the Worried are the folks who think they can afford to overlook the incredible benefits of GMOs. They are already healthy (or assume they are), possess enough money that they don’t have to fuss over the cost of food, and rarely know much about scientific evidence.
The Well don’t believe they need a special tomato that boosts nutrition. They think they enjoy good health because they’re already careful about what they eat.
The Wealthy don’t look at food prices when they shop. They’ve never missed a meal because they’ve lacked money.
The Worried don’t trust sound science. Everywhere they look, they see unnecessary risks.
Put them together, and you’ve got the W.W.W.s and their unthinking resistance to GMOs.
“If you’re a W.W.W., the calculation is, GMOs seem bad, so I’m just going to avoid them,” Martin told the Times. “I mean, if you think there might be a risk, and there’s no benefit to you, why even consider it?”
People should be free to choose what they want to eat—and if they want to avoid GMOs, for whatever reason, then that’s their decision. Food producers will, and do, respond to market demands.
Yet the W.W.W.s are wrong and their ignorance hurts others.
GMOs can deliver wellness. It may come in the form of purple tomatoes that improve nutrition, or in the form of golden rice, which supplies additional vitamin A and could defeat a leading cause of blindness among children in developing countries. In July, the Philippines recently became the first country to permit the commercial planting of this crop.
GMOs aren’t for the wealthy: They are essential to abundant production and help keep food prices low. Most of the world’s GMO growers are smallholder farmers in the developing world. They may be poor, but GMOs are helping them climb out of poverty.
GMOs are no cause for worry. They’ve received more scientific scrutiny than any product that finds its way onto dinner plates around the world. Following decades of research, there is no evidence that GMOs cause harm. They are not risky to eat. What we’re finding, in fact, is the reverse: They represent a tremendous potential to improve human health, especially as products such as Martin’s purple tomatoes find their way into the food chain.
There’s only one problem with GMOs: We don’t have enough of them. Although they’ve come to dominate sectors of farming, such as cotton, corn, and soybeans, they are heavily regulated and costly to bring into commercial production.
The skepticism of the W.W.W.s compounds the problem. Their resistance to GMOs makes it harder for ordinary people to achieve wellness, wealth, and worry-free living.
The world must overcome the W.W.W.s.