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Happy New Year! Getting serious about GMO risks in 2011

January 1, 2011 - 23:34 -- Mark Benedict

As a gift to start 2011, I thought I’d help the anti-GMO-no-way-no-how folks with a critique of their arguments, and I’ll offer some real meat for them with which they might get greater respect. Let’s start 2011 by establishing some common ground.



As many of MW readers know, Oxitec and the Cayman Mosquito Research and Control Unit released Oxitec’s bisex lethal Aedes aegypti GM mosquito on Grand Cayman last year. All in all, it was a successful program on which I congratulated them both. As a first step, this is the kind of safe, self-limiting GM mosquito that should be tested. You may also know that releases are planned for Malaysia.



Since before the Grand Cayman releases, I’ve been following the GM mosquito press via an automated Google search. (Sorry, but I was limited to English language articles.) Oh my, did the wild-eyed objections come oozing out of the blogosphere and letters to editors! The Malaysian press was particularly liberally infiltrated with silliness. The results of the Google searches have covered the main objections pretty well, and the same arguments keep coming up. (In fact, there is so little original insight that often numerous outlets simply reprint the same letter!) Many arguments are specious, none are specific, others are muddy and a few are so far out there that they don’t deserve a response. (Among the latter are those in which dengue is believed to be spread to new areas by some business/government conglomerate so that they can then rush in with a GM solution! Clever aren’t they. Arguing with these folks just proves that you too have been turned.)



Let’s start with a few arguments that are used by objectors but, when you think about it, are actually pretty weak. Then I’ll offer a tip for improving the objection.

1. “We don’t know what the long-term effects will be.” That’s true. We don’t. We also don’t know what the long-term effects of veganism are. We don’t know the long-term effects of mobile phone use. We don’t know the long-term effects of using email. So there is nothing particularly worrisome about not knowing long-term effects…unless one can propose a plausible, testable risk scenario based on the real biology of the phenomenon in question. So tip 1 is: study the biology of the specific GMO where it will be used. Propose a measurable long-term effect that is more specific than “boogie men will result someday.”

2. “They’re motivated by greed and are just out to make money.” This argument often runs afoul of the widely recognized fact (noted by the same objectors) that Oxitec has NOT been making money. “Well. They want to. That’s enough.” Oh. I see. Do you expect Oxitec or any other manufacturer to give away their product? Tip 2: specify in your arguments how a company not making a profit is a sustainable strategy.

3. “They are releasing a new species, and we know there are many introduced species disasters.” This one ironically appears with the opposite argument that is often made in the same articles; “They are wiping out a species and leaving an empty niche!” Tip 3: please decide which you are concerned about, the new species or getting rid of one. And on a related matter, state whether you think that eliminating an exotic species is a problem. Aedes aegypti is a global exotic invader and this technology could push it back. This argument is confused and would work better if you decide which scenario you are really concerned about for particular releases.

4. “Its not going to work! It’s a waste of money.” It might be, in which case you have nothing to worry about. A few trials will be performed, they will fail or be too expensive, and the technology disappears. You needn’t do anything at all. But some money usually has to be spent to try any new technology. That’s part of the process and is unavoidable, and it’s also one reason why these projects start small. Tip 4: Don’t waste your ammunition on the mortally wounded.

5. ”Did you see Jurassic Park? That was GM technology, and things got a little out of hand there!” This one is great don’t you think? Referring to a science fiction movie as an example of what can happen in real life. I’m glad the astronauts didn’t take 2001, Star Wars or Star Trek as examples of what to expect in space travel. This argument would be funny if some didn’t think find it persuasive. Tip 5: Drop referring to sci-fi books and movies for risk scenarios. There is a reason they call them sci-FI.

Now here are a few arguments you might get respect for - and serious discussion:



1. “Eliminating one species will leave an empty niche.” In some cases this will be true, and this is a subject of considerable study. The risks are known pretty well for specific locations, and this is taken into account when planning. So if you want to object, do your homework and determine whether the specific release you are talking about poses this problem. But when one posits that a new species will become established AND an empty niche will result it looks like all options are being covered without much thought.



2. ”Use of GMOs will change the social or economic structure in undesirable ways.” In democratic countries, the citizens have a right to oppose changes that they find undesirable, so go for it! But if the objections are primarily socio-economic, say so proudly, justify it and stick with it. Adding bad technical arguments eliminates credibility.



3. “We don’t want technology created in other (formerly colonialist) countries. We want our own solutions.” If you don’t want technology that is developed elsewhere, think carefully about what you should give up if you will be consistent. Is that really what you wish for?



4. “There are other solutions to dengue. We don’t need GMOs to get the job done.” You might not, so a demonstration in your area would be a very convincing proof. Heaven knows the world needs more success stories.



My hope for 2011 is that there can be some genuinely honest dialogues between scientists, the public and activists regarding GM mosquito risks. Believe it or not, the scientists who are developing this technology are not making tons of money, have no neo-colonial goals nor desire to introduce harmful technology. They are not dupes of a government conspiracy nor crazed monsters. They are just applying their knowledge and skill to looking for new solutions to difficult problems. It’s about that simple.



May your new year be happy, healthy and prosperous. Is that not a wish that we can all agree upon?


Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

Hi Mark,

Thanks for this insightful contribution. Like you, I have been following all correspondence related to the Oxitec trials in the various Malaysian newspapers and online media. This morning I read that the proposed releases have been put on halt again, see

Whether or not this is true remains to be seen of course. The fact remains that the trials are now stigmatised as 'non-transparent', 'business-driven', and 'high-risk'. This may have come from the bad press that followed the releases on Grand Cayman that provided ammunition for opponents.

What strikes me, like you, is the fact that the Malaysian government has, on several occasions, tried to explain what is planned with these releases, what the risks are, etc., but that this has not put an end to the critiques we continue to see in the newspapers and online.

What remains though, is the fact that anyone, whether informed or not, can influence public opinion with arguments that touch sentiments rather than rationale. This is the bad side of the web. This is, regretfully, something we cannot stop and need to manage, but the big question is: how?

This is a key question that all those working on the development of GM mosquitoes for disease control should be focusing on - how do you manage public opinion at a time when it is turning against your (good) intentions?

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

it was a achieving program on which I congratulate them both. As a first step, this is the kind of safe, self-limiting GM mosquito that should be tested. You may also know that liberty are planned for Malaysia.
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Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

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Submitted by Talaha (not verified) on

Good post!