Sir Richard Roberts talks to an audience
Nobel Laureate and Distinguished University professor in Northeastern’s College of Science, Sir Richard John Roberts speaks on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

by Molly Callahan

If the thought of genetically-​​modified organ­isms, or GMOs, brings to mind vague notions fraught with danger, Nobel lau­reate and Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor Sir Richard John Roberts would say you needn’t worry. In fact, he argued Thursday at North­eastern that the per­ceived dan­gers of GMOs are the result of some­thing of a smear cam­paign by green par­ties that ulti­mately serve only to dis­en­fran­chise those in devel­oping countries.

Roberts spoke to a standing-​​room only crowd during the latest install­ment of the “Beyond the Books” series, a pro­gram orga­nized by Northeastern’s chapter of Delta Tau Delta to con­nect the campus com­mu­nity with oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn out­side the class­room. Roberts and 120 other Nobel lau­re­ates have written an open letter to Green­peace and every United Nations ambas­sador urging an acknowl­edge­ment that GMO tech­nology is basi­cally safe and should be sup­ported for the sake of the devel­oping world.

Here are five key take­aways from Roberts’ talk.

Genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion is not new

Humans have been farming for thou­sands of years, and it’s always been advan­ta­geous for farmers to cul­ti­vate the best, heartiest crops they can, Roberts said. Tra­di­tion­ally, farmers have cross-​​bred plant vari­eties with the goal of iso­lating, then mag­ni­fying the most desir­able traits.

Take, for example, corn. If you want your corn to grow straight and pro­duce large ker­nels, you’d cross-​​breed a variety that grows straight with a variety that pro­duces large kernels—and keep doing that—until you get a single variety that does both.

“With this tra­di­tional way of breeding, you’re mixing two sets of DNA,” Roberts said. “You don’t exactly know what you’ve got at the end, but you can select for the things that grow the way you want them to grow. It’s con­sid­ered per­fectly safe because we’ve been doing this for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years now.”

We can use pre­ci­sion breeding to make this process more targeted

More recently, two scientists—Marc Van Mon­tagu and Jeff Schell—discovered a more pointed process of genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion that was already hap­pening in nature.

In this process, Agrobac­terium tume­fa­ciens (a type of bac­teria) attaches itself to plants and then trans­fers plasmid DNA, effec­tively “selecting a nice home for itself,” Roberts said.

Mon­tagu and Schell won­dered if you could choose which DNA was trans­ferred through the bac­teria, and their research that led to modern genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion in which sci­en­tists “shoot” the new gene directly into plant cells, Roberts said.

To high­light the dif­fer­ence between the two processes, Roberts offered an example: You want to move a GPS device from one car to another. You could take the cars apart, mix all the pieces together, put them back together, and look for the one that has the GPS device in it, or you could specif­i­cally transfer the device from one car into the other.

“When you make hybrids, you don’t really know which genes are going to and fro… Or, we can do this pre­ci­sion breeding in which we take the gene we do want and specif­i­cally put it into the place where we want it to go,” he said.

Sir Richard Roberts talks to a packed Curry Ballroom about GMOs
“How many kids have to die before we con­sider this a crime against humanity? How can you jus­tify trying to stop this kind of tech­nology?” asked Sir Richard John Roberts, Nobel lau­reate and Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Professor. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The vil­i­fi­ca­tion of GMOs started as a form of protest against a per­ceived monopoly

Roberts posited that the seed of this idea that the more pre­cise GMO process was inher­ently unsafe started, appro­pri­ately enough, as back­lash against a seed company.

Euro­peans, wary of big agri­cul­tural com­pa­nies con­trol­ling too big a piece of the food market, fought back not by boy­cotting those com­pa­nies, but by spreading fear about their prod­ucts, Roberts said. When word got out that one of the big com­pa­nies uti­lized genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, a cam­paign against the process began.

People in devel­oping coun­tries suffer the most as a result

Trou­blingly for Roberts, that anti-​​GMO cam­paign, spear­headed largely by green par­ties, has taken root in devel­oping coun­tries that look to the West for guidance.

After all, it’s not Europe or the U.S.—where there is not only an abun­dance of food but an abun­dant variety of food as well—that would ben­efit the most from tar­geted genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion; it’s the devel­oping world—where mal­nu­tri­tion is rampant—that needs it most.

“Let’s take Vit­amin A defi­ciency,” Roberts said. “In Europe, and around here, we don’t have to worry about it. Even if we’re not get­ting enough Vit­amin A in our diets, we can take a sup­ple­ment and solve the problem. In much of the devel­oping world, how­ever, there is a vast shortage of Vit­amin A, espe­cially in the diets of young chil­dren, and espe­cially among those for whom rice is a major staple of their diet.”

This defi­ciency, he said, is the cause of death for between 1.9 and 2.7 mil­lion people per year.

Although sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered a way to put beta carotene (rich in Vit­amin A) into rice grains, green party activists have put obsta­cles in the way of growing it, citing con­cerns with genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, Roberts said.

“How many kids have to die before we con­sider this a crime against humanity?” he asked. “How can you jus­tify trying to stop this kind of technology?”

James Con­dulis, S’18, a member of Delta Tau Delta who helped orga­nize Thursday’s event, said it was this con­nec­tion to the devel­oping world that struck him most about Roberts’ presentation.

“You know, you hear about GMOs all the time, but I didn’t think about the global impli­ca­tions in devel­oping countries—that’s amazing, the dif­fer­ence it can make in these coun­tries,” he said.

We, as a society, have a respon­si­bility to combat anti-​​GMO fearmongering

His con­cern for those in devel­oping coun­tries spurred the move­ment among other Nobel lau­re­ates to write the letter to Green­peace and the U.N. member nations, Roberts said. But they can’t do it alone.

Roberts called for “civil society,” major reli­gious leaders (he’s trying to get in touch with the Pope), and celebri­ties to use their plat­form on the global stage to extoll the ben­e­fits of GMOs and dispel the fears people may still have.

“You have a choice of what you want to eat here, but if you choose not to eat foods that are genet­i­cally mod­i­fied using these tech­niques, don’t pre­tend you’re not eating them because they’re dan­gerous,” Roberts said. “They’re not. They’re safe.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on October 28, 2016.