Jan 15 2015

Marketing Biofortified GMOs

The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to hit the market mainly possessed agronomic traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits mainly benefit farmers, and when consumers accept such produce they expect them to be cheaper because of the increased efficiency.

There is a second generation of GMOs waiting in the wings, however, that have biofortified traits that can directly benefit the consumer. A recent article in Nature Biotechnology reviews these GMOs and marketing research about their acceptability.

There are six GMO staple crops ready for the market but awaiting regulatory approval. These include golden rice fortified with vitamin A, which has been held up in regulation for 15 years. Other products include rice fortified with folate, and multi-fortified crops such as corn fortified with vitamin A, folate, and vitamin C.

It is also possible to increase mineral content, such as iron, zinc, and copper. This can be done by increasing uptake by the roots, transport to edible tissues, or bioavailability (ability to be absorbed once eaten).

The recent review includes research that indicates most consumers would be willing to pay a premium of 20-70% for produce that has enhanced nutrition.

Further, they are effective and cost-effective interventions. The authors write:

The cost effectiveness of enhancing several micronutrients simultaneously is by far the most promising option because it generates aggregated health benefits at a relatively low additional cost ($1.9–9.6 per DALY saved); followed by Golden Rice and folate-biofortified rice. Even so, all transgenic, biofortified rice varieties fall well below the standard benchmark for evaluating micronutrient interventions (i.e., the upper boundary for highly cost-effective interventions of $267.4 per DALY saved in 2013, as set by the World Bank25). This demonstrates that from a public health perspective, these interventions are a worthwhile undertaking.

“DALY” is a disability adjusted life year. Not only are they cost effective up front, much of the cost is in development, and so once they are on the market the ongoing costs will be much lower.

The anti-GMO lobby has been deliberate, in my opinion, in opposing these biofortified GMOs. They run contrary to the narrative they have developed to scare people away from a safe and proven technology. The anti-GMO lobby has a significant overlap with the organic lobby (some believe it is the organic lobby) because opposition to GMOs is proven to benefit the growing organic industry.

The anti-GMO narrative pretends that GMO equals pesticides (referring to Bt crops and glyphosate tolerant crops). This strategy has been successful – I read many articles and comments that talk about GMOs as if they are all about adding pesticides to food. This is part of the strategy to demonize this technology.

Another part of the narrative is to equate GMOs with big agriculture companies, Monsanto being presented as evil incarnate.  It’s easy to demonize large corporations, because they do tend to act in their own interests and will often push the limits of being a good corporate citizen. But the anti-Monsanto narrative is largely built on lies and myths.

The challenge for the anti-GMO lobby is that this second generation of GM crops breaks many of their anti-GMO talking points. The biofortified organisms improve the quality of food, and have nothing to do with pesticides. They were also mostly developed by universities, and represent many different countries. The current research finds that they are acceptable to consumers in many countries as well, including Brazil, China, France, Italy, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, the US and the Philippines (many of which struggle with poor nutrition). This breaks yet another anti-GMO narrative – that of western imperialism raping third world countries. Many are also open source, and so are not protected by patents, breaking yet another anti-GMO talking point.

These biofortified GMOs are the Achilles heel of the anti-GMO lobby. They have the potential to show the world that GMO technology can be open source, international, have no environmental risks or connection to pesticides, may have no issues with cross-contamination, are not connected to Monsanto or Big Agro, and actually improve the quality of the food for the consumer. The authors agree, writing:

Given the market potential of transgenic biofortified crops, their cost effectiveness and the positive consumer reactions, one might argue that their authorization could break the legacy of first-generation GM crops and become a catalyst for the adoption of transgenic crops in the future.

They further argue that the most effective strategy might be to create second generation GMO crops that are multibiofortified and contain a trait that benefits farmers so that they would have a financial incentive to adopt them.

Why, then, do anti-GMO activists oppose golden rice and other biofortified GMOs? Precisely because there is nothing legitimate to oppose. These crops would destroy their anti-GMO line in the sand, and may just weaken the public fear and resistance they have spent decades cultivating.

Their opposition to golden rice is very telling. They have absolutely nothing legitimate to say, so they desperately search for any argument they can use.  They have resorted to arguing that there are better solutions out there than fortifying rice. This is a nirvana fallacy at best. Sure, there are other ways to approach micronutrient deficiencies, and these other strategies are being pursued – but they are not enough. Biofortified GMOs would be an additional strategy that can further reduce malnutrition which leads to disease and even death.

Greenpeace had the audacity to argue that golden rice would not solve the underlying problem of poverty. Neither, of course, does any welfare or aid program. Do they really think we should solve world poverty rather than engage in any program designed to improve the lives of those living in poverty?

Opposition to golden rice and other biofortified crops has also caused fissures in the anti-GMO movement. Some activists are not able to compartmentalize sufficiently to allow millions of children to die or go blind from vitamin A deficiency just to protect their ideological opposition to GMOs.

Although not covered in the current study, there is another recent approach to breaking the anti-GMO ideology that would have us forgo a safe, effective, and marketable strategy for improving the lives of the poor and malnourished, specifically “genetically edited crops.”

Part of the opposition to GMOs is the use of transgenic technology – introducing genes from other species, even kingdoms, that could never be introduced through breeding. Genetically edited crops, however, don’t involve introducing any new genes, just deleting or altering genes already present in the plant.

A 2014 study reviews the current technology of genetic editing and discusses it in the context of common fruits. We have recently been able to map the genomes of many commercial fruits, improving our understanding of the genetics of these fruits and how they are regulated. In addition there are several techniques for precisely editing these genomes.

The potential here is that scientists could enhance disease resistance, control ripening, lengthen shelf life, and enhance nutritional value in many staple fruits simply by editing existing genes, and without introducing any foreign DNA.

It is even possible that such genetic editing might not be covered under current regulations that present barriers to GMOs – so this may be more than a mere branding issue.


Current opposition to GMOs seems to be mainly ideologically and financially motivated. It has, however, been very successful in controlling the narrative and scaring many people off a safe and effective technology.

Push back against this ultimately anti-science narrative has been gaining steam as the deceptions of the anti-GMO lobby have been exposed. It is still an uphill battle, however, and meanwhile the anti-GMO lobby may increase their political advantages (for example by getting labeling laws passed).

The next generation of GMOs and genetically edited crops, however, may be a game changer. They are effective, are targeted at improving the lives of the poor, mainly in developing countries, and the usual anti-GMO talking points are not relevant.

Opposition to these crops from the hard core anti-GMO lobby also exposes their ideological agenda, and shows how far it can be taken. They are willing to let poor children die and go blind if that is what it takes (I know this sounds uncharacteristically dramatic, but I can come to no other conclusion.)

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