GMOs a solution, not a problem, says British Nobel laureate


A Nobel-prize winning scientist is making a strong case for the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to help the world achieve food security.

Speaking in an exclusive interview to The Nation, Dr Sir Richard J Roberts, Nobel Prize winner for medicine in 1993, also took at a dig at those who were opposed to GMOs.

“GMOs can help and Europeans need to realise that there is no reason for them to be against it,” the British scientist said in Bangkok.

“If they don't want it, don't use it. But don't pretend it's dangerous. Don't try and tell the rest of the world who really need these…”

Molecular biologist Roberts was awarded the Nobel in 1993 for his discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing.

The 80-year-old said that most of what he does these days is look at material on a computer and analyse DNA and protein sequences on a computer.

He and a number of Nobel laureates have got together to advocate utilising GMOs to solve global issues such as food security and poverty.

“For the developing world, for the 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night, food is medicine. They don't need drugs. They don't need all, they need food. And here was a way to do it.”

Dr Sir Richard J Roberts during the interview in Bangkok

GMOs as a solution

It was November 2013 when GMOs came to his attention. Roberts was attending the 80th birthday celebrations of Belgian molecular biologist Marc Van Montagu, and spent the whole day hearing how difficult it was for plant biologists in Europe to get funding for their research.
“Every time they spoke, Greenpeace would demonstrate against them. They just had so many problems because of the anti-GMO movement,” says Roberts.

Ten years later, Roberts said things are better but not because “Europeans care about the developing world”, but they realise now that champagne grapes don't grow very well in Champagne anymore. They're having to grow them in the South of England, which could be fixed using GMO techniques.

More than food security, Roberts says modified crops could double yields, which will help lift many farmers out of poverty.

If modified plants could absorb CO2 twice as much as they normally do, it can be a game-changer in the fight against climate change, he says.

Roberts was in Beirut earlier this year. He talked to the Dean of the Business School, who is now going to try and do something in Lebanon in order to try to lift the farmers out of poverty using GMOs.

Recently, he was in Bangladesh talking about the same issues, and he said people there began to see that GMOs could be solutions to help lift farmers out of poverty.

“So here you have food, climate change, and poverty,” said the Nobel laureate.


Greenpeace in the mix

The non-governmental organisation, Greenpeace, has been a vocal opponent of GMOs in recent years. Roberts said that the NGO has never had a better fundraising campaign than opposing GMOs.

“Greenpeace has spent huge amounts of money scaring everybody. And along the way they were also successful in making sure that they got political power as a result of it,” said Roberts.

The political power Roberts referred to was very evident when he went to Rwanda. The agricultural minister thought GMOs could help solve hunger, but the trade minister had to say no because using the technology meant Europe would stop trading with them.

There was a similar situation in Uganda. Roberts said he told the prime minister of Uganda to just not trade with Europe anymore. “Trade within Africa, sell your products around. Forget Europe.”

“We have to flip it around and be in a way that makes the producer kind of force the buyer to buy what's available,” he says.

Dr Sir Richard J Roberts during the interview with The Nation in Bangkok

Roberts was in Thailand for the Japan-ASEAN Bridge Series event, facilitated by the International Peace Foundation. He went to several universities to talk to the next generation of scientists in Thailand.