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Alexander J. Stein

Economist interested in agriculture, food, nutrition, health, technology, sustainability, economic development & poverty alleviation worldwide. This is a personal account; posts are not necessarily endorsements. More at
Jan 14 '13

Bringing light in the discussion about GMOs?

[updated 08 September, 2014]

These days I received an apparently easy request: “Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…” To which I answered carelessly: “Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…”

I thought I’d have a quick look into my collection of bookmarks and references and post some of the links to satisfy the request. Obviously there would be too many individual studies and crop-specific or country-specific reports, but focusing only (i) on what was published in recent years, (ii) on sources where all this information was already aggregated (literature reviews, meta-analyses, authoritative statements, FAQs, etc.), and (iii) on academic or publicly funded sources should produce a fairly concise list, I thought.

While not unmanageable, the list has become quite long. To get a rough idea of the current state of knowledge, it may be sufficient to peruse the first 1-2 (starred *) references under each heading, and to have a quick look at the abstracts and summaries of some of the others. (Given the controversy surrounding this topic I did not want to suggest just one or two sources, but show a bit the width of the scientific consensus, and to offer some titbits of related information.)

So here are my recommendations to read about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – also genetically modified crops, GM crops, genetically engineered crops, GE crops, transgenic crops, or biotech crops – in agriculture. (Key sources are preceded by an asterisk (*), sources that are behind a pay-wall are preceded by a dollar sign ($), and PDF-documents are marked by (pdf) as download times may be longer.) 

Setting the scene:

General background & scientists’ views on GMOs

Statements on GMOs by scientific bodies & international organisations

Overviews of the literature on the safety of GM crops

Overviews of economic, agronomic & environmental impacts of GMOs

Blogs by scientists who discuss current issues & news about GMOs

Bibliography on farmer suicides in India

Discussion of Golden Rice


Setting the scene 


Why scientific evidence & logic can have
a hard time with emotions & beliefs:

* A journalistic overview of “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” in Mother Jones, and a shorter blog entry at Discover Magazine on “Why Facts Don’t Matter” as well as an explanation of what psychology can teach us why many people fear GM foods at Cosmos

A discussion in the New York Times why and how human subconsciousness distorts risk perceptions and overcomes our powers of reason & a related older blog entry at Nature and one on how we perceive risk at ScienceBlogs. 

A response to the question Why Do People Believe Scientifically Untrue Things? in Reason, looking at how political convictions influence believes in established scientific consensus on various topics. 

… and why an environmental activist changed his mind nevertheless once he looked at the scientific evidence, in a lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013. 

Similarly, a well argued answer to the question: Is anti-GM campaigning actually that left-wing?

And a humorous account in The Guardian of how ardent believers argue against any evidence – and how there is no way of reasoning with them. 

($) An explanation of stupidity in the New ScientistWhat makes (also smart) people do dumb things


How science, opinion & funding are presented in the media, and influence policy-making:

* A call to end “false balance” in the New York Times, i.e. the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. 

… and a scientist’s argument why there is not always scope for both sides, as one cannot agree to disagree on the evidence. 

An article on how journalists may perceive such a “false balance” to be objective by othering, i.e. creating two diametrical camps and putting themselves in the good one. 

An editorial in the New Statesman on the role of science in and for society and how decision-makers should deal with it. 

An article on how private industry standards in the EU and Japan that ban genetic engineering affect decision-making in developing countries

A discussion of what role funding and conflicts-of-interest have on all sides and in relation to all stakeholders. 

($) An explanation of stupidity, i.e. of what makes also smart people do dumb things


General background & scientists’ views on GMOs:

* A literature review in two parts in the form of “FAQ” on GMOs, answered by a microbiologist from UC Berkeley.  

An overview of the “What, How and Why” of GM crops by a molecular plant biologist from UC Davis & an article on “Plant genetics, sustainable agriculture and global food security” by the same author. 

… a similar discussion of “Why genetically modified crops?” by a plant geneticist from the Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK (or a piece at the BBC by the same author).

A point-by-point discussion of common claims about GMOs, based on peer-reviewed literature, by a biochemist from Illinois Univ. and a molecular geneticist from Melbourne Univ. 

A journalistic take in Grist on the question of the safety of GM food and genetic engineering as part of plant breeding


Statements on GMOs by scientific bodies & international organisations:

* New: Somebody else compiled a more comprehensive list of the Scientific Consensus and GMOs

* Statement by the Australian Academy of Sciences on gene technology and GM plants. 

(pdf) Statement by the American Medical Association on the safety of GMOs.

Statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the safety of GMOs. 

FAQ on GMOs by the World Health Organization of the United Nations (WHO). 

FAQ on GMOs and their approval in the EU by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

FAQ on agricultural biotechnology by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

FAQ on food from genetically engineered plants by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

(pdf) Statement on GM technology to address society’s global food security and safety needs by the Crop Science Society of America.  

(pdf) Statements on the safety of genetically modified food and on “green” genetic engineering by German academies of sciences.  

Assessment of GM crops by the UK’s Royal Society

(pdf) Statement on agricultural biotechnology by the French Academy of Sciences (#7). 

Proceedings of a study week of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which do not necessarily reflect the position of the Holy See

(pdf) Declaration of the African Science Academies on Biotechnology for Development

An Editorial in Science by an illustrious group of distinguished scientists who are “Standing up for GMOs”.  


Overviews of the literature on the safety of GM crops:

* A review of nearly 1,800 studies on GM crop safety research over the last 10 years (2002-12), covering both food safety and biosafety, published in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology in 2013. 

* A review of the literature on the health impact of GM crops in feeding trials, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012. 

* Compendium of results of EU-funded GMO safety research since 1985, published by the European Commission in 2010.  

A discussion of what scientific uncertainty is remaining after 20 years of research into the compositional changes of GM crops, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2013. 

($) A comparison of different studies on the safety of GM crops, published in New Biotechnology in 2012. 

A list of 600 peer-reviewed scientific publications “that can be used to analyze the relative risks of genetically engineered plants,” about 1/3 of which are independently funded studies. 

A list of more than 470 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature “which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.”

An analysis of livestock productivity and health of billions of animals over the last 28 years surrounding the introduction of GM feed in 1996, in the Journal of Animal Science in 2014. 

Scientific references on the use of GMOs in feed by the Federation of Animal Science Societies. 

Report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on the safety of current GMOs


Overviews of the economic, agronomic & environmental impact of GMOs:

* A literature review of the economics of GM crops, published in the Annual Review of Resource Economics in 2009. And a perhaps more general-audience discussion of GM crops by the same author is published in the Milken Institute Review (pdf). 

An IFPRI literature review from 2009 on the economic impacts of transgenic crops at the micro and macro level. 

An overview of the economic impact of GM crops: global income and production effects 1996-2012, published in GM Crops and Food in 2014. 

A report for the European Commission on the economic performance of GM crops from 2011 (pdf). And a related meta-analysis on costs and benefits of GM crops in the journal Sustainability. 

A report on the track record of GE crops in the US, published by the National Research Council in 2010. 

A university working paper from 2013 with a review of agronomic, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM crops from 1996-2012 (pdf). 

A reconstruction of the facts (pdf) about GM cotton in India in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2013  

An overview of the costs of regulatory policies and of not growing GM crops, published in the EMBO Reports in 2012. 

A review of the GM crop varieties and traits that have been launched in the last 18 years, published in Food and Energy Security in 2012. 

($) A review of the socio-economic impacts of currently commercialised genetically engineered crops, published in the International Journal of Biotechnology in 2013. 

($) A discussion of second generation GM crops, their benefits for consumers, more detailed safety assessments and challenges for the sustainable management of GM crops, published in Current Opinion in Plant Biology in 2013. 

($) A literature review on the impact of currently cultivated GM crops, published in Nature Biotechnology in 2010. 

($) Results of an international conference by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on agricultural biotechnologies, published in the Journal of Biotechnology in 2011. 

($) A review of the literature on the agronomic and environmental impact of GM crops in the last 15 years, published in Progress in Physical Geography in 2012. 

($) A discussion of the use of crop biotechnology for the environment, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics in 2012. 

($) A meta-analysis of the economic and agronomic performance of GM crops by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, forthcoming in the Journal of Agricultural Science. 


Blogs by scientists who discuss current issues & news about GMOs:


GMO Pundit: 

Illumination, e.g. with an entry on
What is ‘Genetically Modified’? and the Frankenfood pardox” 


Bibliography on farmer suicides in India:

A short overview of some background literature on 
farmer suicides in India 


Discussion of Golden Rice:

Golden Rice: What it is, what it does and how good it is at doing it. 

A comment addressing common concerns about Golden Rice, incl. an explanation of how “the best use of our resources” can be determined when it comes to micronutrient interventions. 

Another comment addressing other concerns about Golden Rice, incl. an explanation of how the impact of interventions with different time horizons can be balanced and evaluated in a consistent framework. 

An explanation of the comprehensive assessment of the work on the impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice and of the reliability of its results. 

4 notes