Verbal clashes at pro-GMO presentation at Sofia Science Festival

Question time following Irish scientist Padraic Flood’s presentation entitled “Why we need GMOs” saw raised voices as he came under sustained verbal attack from members of a Bulgarian anti-GMO organisation.

Flood, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, Germany, opened his presentation by saying that years ago, he too had been opposed to GMOs, but his scientific education had led him to change his views.

Not only were GMOs not something bad but they could be used for good, including to reduce deforestation, species loss and pollution, Flood said.

He detailed a definition of what GMOs are, telling the audience that humankind had been modifying organisms for thousands of years, and pointed to corn as an example.

Much of human civilisation depended on this success, he said.

Flood underlined that the public perception of what a GMO is focused on the process of transgenesis, the transfer of DNA from one species to another. He added that “species” was an artificial construct, meaning that it was not correct to regard the transfer of DNA from ones species to another as unnatural.

“Genes move from one species to another all the time.”

Transgenesis occured in nature, he said, giving the sweet potato as an example. “We have been eating it for 8000 years.”

“Nature is much more diverse than you may imagine.”

Transgenesis was safe, Flood argued, saying that 25 years of research had shown no risk, while it had been in use for 16 years over 150 million hectares by 20 million farmers.

There was no reason to think that transgenesis was risky, he said, adding that fewer changes were made during the process than occured through conventional breeding.

Flood emphasised that “the act of changing DNA code is safe,” but, he said, “it depends on why you are changing it”.

He described the achievements so far of transgenesis as including a huge reduction in insecticide in the US in the 1996/2011 period, a 93 per cent reduction in dengue fever in Panama and safe insulin for diabetics.

But, he argued, opposition and indecisiveness regarding acceptance of the use of GMOs meant “children are dying”. This was because the anti-GMO camp had campaigned successfully against the use of golden rice, which could save the lives of millions of children facing undernourishment.

The development of GMO was not in itself that expensive, but it became prohibitive because of legal fees that meant only the largest companies could take it on.

“Why don’t we have more GMOs? Regulations, costs, fear and lies,” Flood said, adding that the poor were falling victim to the rich who were blocking GMO use.

“The environment and human health are suffering because lies are being told,” he said.

He said that by 2050, Earth would have a population of nine to 10 billion people. Producing the food that would be required would mean either cutting down rain forests or producing more food without changing the environment. GMOs were by no means the only solution but were a key part of the solution, Flood said.

Flood, who had prefaced his presentation by saying just 20 minutes of his allocated hour to speak, and then would engage in answering questions and in dialogue with the audience, promptly came under prolonged and periodically personally abusive attack from members of the audience who introduced themselves as from the Bulgaria free of GMOs organisation.

Struggling, through an interpreter, to keep up with the torrent, Flood dismissed various claims made by the anti camp, reiterating that studies had shown that for 25 years, people and animals had been consuming GMOs with no evidence of ill-effects.

Referring to a photo circulated worldwide by the anti-GMO camp of rats with cancerous tumours, he said that the French scientist who was behind it had links to the anti-GMO lobby and scientists had dismissed his research as unfounded. The rats were of a type prone to cancer and this had nothing to do with GMOs.

Pointing to a pamphlet handed to him by the anti-GMO group, he said, “This is lies”.

At various points in question time, he responded to incidents cited as allegedly linked to the use of GMOs as having nothing to do with them.

Matters periodically became raucous as the anti-GMO group were reluctant to relinquish the microphone for other questioners in the audience.

Challenged to say who benefits from GMOs (the implication of the question, phrased in Bulgarian, was that it was a small group of large corporations), Flood said, “we all can” but this was being stopped by – he said, pointing to his interlocutor – “people like you”.

Also challenged about who he was working for, Flood said that he was not paid by any company but worked for the Max Planck Institute, which in turn was funded by the German federal state, and added, “I am a scientist who values the truth”.

The anti-GMO camp, while in turn drawing shouted objections from other people in the audience for their aggressive behaviour, distributed pamphlets outside the hall. One, at one point, shouted out that the fact of Flood’s presentation was a “disgrace for the festival, a disgrace for Bulgaria”.

At the start of his presentation, Flood asked those in the audience to raise their hands if they were opposed to GMOs, telling them he did not think he would persuade them otherwise in just 20 minutes. At the end of his presentation, the applause for him (whether from approval, conviction or courtesy) far outweighed those who did not applaud.

Further details about the Sofia Science Festival, being held in Sofia’s Zaimov (also known as Oborishte) Park from May 14 to 17, can be found on its Facebook page and at its website. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of the 2015 Sofia Science Festival.

Access to all events for children and most of the events for adults as well as tents with exhibitions and demonstrations, is free, requiring only to ask at the information desk for a pass. Ticketed events cost five leva, with discounts for pensioners and children, and tickets are on sale at the Theatre Sofia box office.

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The Sofia Globe staff

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