Thursday, January 22

Would you eat genetically modified food

Our immediate reaction may be to say we would avoid eating GMF based food due to the risk to our food source and possibile undesirable long term side effects.

But it is a difficult question becuase of the complex biology and many conflicting scientific views concerning GMF’s safety or otherwise. Patented GM food also represents a concentration of control and ownership over the global food cycle which similiarily applies to new medical discoveries and drugs. The legal protection afforded new patented discoveries with royalty rewards is usually reasonable enough, however whether or not a revision is pertinent to GM foods and medicines (which universally affect our wellbeing) is an unduly complex matter better suited to a separate future posting.

There are many claimed advantages to GMF; reduced need for fertilizers whose run off results in huge problems of leaching into adjoining lands and river systems, more drought tolerant features which conserve our precious water, crops that are resistant to diseases, improved yields and so forth versus the risks of a reduction in our crop diversity, the risk of possible (as yet unquantifiable scientific data as to why this should happen ) undesirable long term biological changes such as the release of killer viruses or contagion to micro orgasms which might attack us and to which we may not be able to find a cure, the risk that the claimed advantages are overstated and the concentration of an exclusive DNA based complex technology to hold poor countries and farmers to ransom.

What is GMF food?

One contentious point concerns the definition itself and the reluctance in many commentaries to succinctly provide an easily understood definition. What we are talking about is any activity that alters genes, (genetically modified) since genes are units of genetic material which make up a string of DNA which enables or carries the directions for cells to perform a specific function.

A definition

GMF must involve the modification of DNA by man made intervention.

If such a definition is appropriate, and it seems to me it is, then we have been consuming genetically modified food for thousands of years; from the time when homo- sapiens first made the major transition from a society of hunter- gatherers to communities supported by harvested agriculture able to sustain its inhabitants beween seasons. Archeological evidence confirms agricultural communities engaged in a wide variety of genetic engineering; in selective breeding, cross pollination and in taking cuttings for subsequent regeneration of altered plant genealogy, since all plants are capable of a single cell development. They generated many new species which not only improved crop yields but were more suited to the rapidly changing weather patterns following the end of the last Ice age.

The proponents of genetic engineering argue they are continuing this age old tradition by using methods such as naturally occurring soil bacteria as the agent to change plant genealogy and alter its DNA composition for improved outcomes. What is clear however is that this new technology represents a much more rapid alteration of a plants genealogy than what occurred in the past and hence its long term effects remain unknown.

Current GMF procedures use an agent (such as soil bacteria) to infuse the desired gene and marker genes to indicate changes within a plant’s DNA. Proponents of GMH counter the argument about long term unforeseen biological risks to remind us that we have been consuming plant genes for thousands of years for no known ill effects, nor have we suffered from soil bacteria present in the soil or marker genes which are no different to any other gene. Problems have arisen much more to do with the domestication and breeding from wild animals for human food comsumption which exposed us to new viruses and pathogens.

Naturally enough there will not always be general agreement between farmers as to the best way to farm alongside nature. There are the large scale technologically based farming that is more reliant on chemicals versus those in favour of a more bio diversified approach that relies more on nature for its sustainability.

Some farmers are keen on the GMH technology while others are more wary or totally against it since they fear it will contaminate their existing crops. Farmers have already tentatively adopted the latest technology and GMH crops have been grown in over 22 different countries by over 10 million farmers from the early nineties.

In Australia in Victoria the government has recently reversed a long standing ban on the planting of genetically modified canola to allow farmers to adopt this technology.

How long ago did GMF first begin?

The latest scientific research puts the time frame for agriculture at about 10,000 years ago (although some assert the date to be as early as 13,000 years as the world emerged from the 'Ice age' ) when the earliest experiments arose in genetic engineering as farmers created the first maize crop from Mexican wild grass. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080626075534.htm

Hence humans for the past 10,000 to 13,000 years or so have practiced this form of gene manipulation to create food combinations that otherwise would never have evolved naturally. Practically all of the cereal crops and fruit we consume today have already been genetically modified in one way or another in the past. In the natural plant world there are an enormous number of compounds that are produced and chemicals to make them attractive or otherwise to bugs. Some are beneficial for humans, some benign and others reach very high degrees of toxicity. Nature uses many different interesting forms of chemical reactions such as ants who have been so engaged in genetic engineering for over 50,000 years. See http://www.innovations-report.com/html/reports/life_sciences/report-38311.html

Selective breeding of plants is also a form of genetic engineering, e.g., only those plants that have the desired characteristics are chosen for further breeding and so on and until such time as a resistant strain is found. If you wanted to create a corn resistant to a fungus, you plant corn and observe how individual plants react to the fungus, replanting the seeds least effected and so until you have created that strain best resistant to the fungus in question.

It is also true that many new species have been bred in this selective manner to reduce the initial harmful known level of toxicity to acceptable levels so that the new variety can be safely added to the human food choice.

What's the different about modern day GMF processes

In the past the practices involved thousands of new genes being added to existing plant genealogy and so the effects were more of a lottery spread over longer periods until the best results were finally achieved whereas today the technology allows for single rapid gene changes. Hence genetic based laboratory engineering is now more specific as it allows scientists to select a single gene for a single characteristic and transfer that DNA from one organism to another - even between different species. When scientists genetically modify plants they do so by inserting another gene into the plants existing genes. Only a small number of cells will take up the new gene which will be identified by marker genes for subsequent collection. There are many different biotech technologies used to subsequently infuse the genetically modified plant tissue into plants such as by using soil bacterium as the agent.

The plant seeds are then grown to ensure the gene modification remains intact. Sometimes the gene technology works by effectively 'switching off 'a particular gene characteristic such as allowing fruit to ripen more slowly which diminishes its wastage during packing and transportation.

Conclusion

Once you undertake research into this question what emerges are many shades of grey rather than the definitive answers that seem to fiercely divide communities who are either emphatically for or against GMF Food.

I am afraid there is no common methodology when dealing with nature and how to respect and learn from her. At the end of the day it is more to do adaption and contined vigilance than anythng else. Mankind has been attempting to mimic nature from time in memorial and our endeavors in genetic modification are no exception.

Hence it would be a very good outcome if the sensible genetic modification of crops was able to substantially reduce our reliance on both herbicides and pesticides and lead to more nutritious agriculture. The burning question however is whether or not it is injurious to long term health and to the environment. So far no direct link or undesirable health effects are known, albeit recent large scale production only dates back to the period from the early nineties. Certainly it is important we maintain seed banks of existing types and varieties so that in the future larger scale agriculture is not wholly dependant upon a handful of varieties.

It seems sensible then to proceed slowly and observe the outcomes of GNF crops for any unforeseen heath outcomes.

Food is our source of security and constant vigilance is required over its safety and in understanding through food labeling what we are consuming.
Currently there is a global treaty, called the BioSafety Protocol which regulates any trade in genetically modified food. The EU requires all GMF foods to be labeled, as apposed to the US which does not require transparent labeling of GMF foods.

I think as there are unanwered questions regarding the safety and risks associated with GMF foods, the public should be given the freedom of choice about what they are eating and hence all GMO products should be appropriately labeled. The European Union legislation provides the best approach in the form of labeling -the presence of gene-modified elements must be stated on food packaging if any ingredient contains more than 0.9 per cent of gene-modified components.

The national Academies Press in their comprehensive report indicate some concerns over the results of animal testing but I agree with the overall conclusion of this independent research institution as stated:

Genetic engineering is one of the newer technologies available to produce desirable traits in plants and animals used for food, but it poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods. Any of those methods could result in unintended changes in the composition of the food.

The report concludes that all altered foods should be assessed on a case-by-case basis before they are sold to the public to determine whether unintended changes in the composition of the food could adversely affect human health. Surveillance after a food is on the market might also be needed in some cases
. See http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977 for the full report.

13 comments:

Cart said...

Lindsay, great post, and another of those important issues obscured by ‘who cares’. You are right about genetic modification being an old process, from wild grasses to food crops, the ancients seem to have observed and used the process.
Based on that my objection can hardly be genetic modification per se, purely based on a more scientific approach now. The result is largely the same, except… My objection is when massive corporations seek to dominate, even own whole crop sectors by various methods. I understand these are principally:
1) Patents or other ‘intellectual property’ claims on seed.
2) Seed modified to respond only to proprietary chemicals.
That is the dubious ownership side, the other side is the continual diminishing of diversity. Marketing alone does a great job reducing diversity without pseudo science weighing in.
I recall those glorious days I spent covering agricultural shows in Tasmania, and those wonderful eccentrics who proudly trotted out their annual diversity banks. One guy actually displayed samples of over 30 potato breeds he grew every year. I only hope someone managed to store the result of his work.
In fact Tasmania, as part of its permaculture heritage, does have a seed bank, but unfunded and supported only by passion. If GM was merely adding to diversity there would be no problem, but we cannot allow increasing disappearance of diversity.

Gary said...

Full assessment ande full labelling for all GM products. Amen.

Great detail Lindsay.

DellaB said...

"The burning question however is whether or not it is injurious to long term health and to the environment."

Excellent article, thanks Lindsay.. it's a bit scary to think of and hear about the dangers.. but as you point out the application is not new though the technology is getting more sophisticated and the public scrutiny likewise.

Off on a tangent, I was shocked but not surprised recently about the discovery made that PLASTIC poses a bigger threat to our health than almost anything we actually eat.

LINK: www.organicguide.com

I'd be interested to know your thoughts about this one..

regards
Della

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Cart & Gary

Thanks for your insightful comments. Cart – I agree whoheatedly on the need to maintain diversity and seed banks.

Della

Thank for pointing out the article.

Bisphenal A is in hard plastics, tins and even paper cups; just about everyone will come into contact with it through leaching into the drink or food container.
The FDA (Food & Drug Administration) in the USA has said it believes there exists an adequate margin of safety for BPA levels of exposure from food contact uses. It maybe premature to blame heath problems to our exposure to chemicals but there is a growing number of studies which point out the risks and many scientists are convinced about the harmful effects of Bisphenal A. Tests on rats seem to indicate much lower levels may be more harmful than what was previously believed. . Here is another reference

http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2009/01/09/to-ban-or-not-to-ban/

Under the new Obama administration hopefully the FDA will be asked to have a fresh look into the latest sicietific tests and available data that indicate the greater risks now thought to be associated with BPA.

Best wishes

Sarah J Clark said...

I'm trying to give up sugar. Does that count?

Rachael Byrnes said...

Here Here Cart, I agree another top post! Happy Birthday dad. I hope you are enjoy the local produce I gave you and that those basil and chills will be a gift that keeps on giving!!

Cart said...

Thank you Rachel for your kind words, and Happy birthday Lindsay. In a world now used to radical conservatives it is good to know there is room for conservative progressives. You do a great job LB!

Seraphine said...

logically, the idea of modified foods makes sense, in that drought- and disease-resistant crops are needed to feed mankind.
but after witnessing the messes we get into with unsafe drugs and financial instruments, i'm convinced if we do modify the food supply, we need to have some heavy and consistent regulation/protection built into the system.
but i'm sure even then, time will erode the constraints and a food disaster is going to happen. one way or another.

susan said...

A major problem I've read about is that of the unintended consequences that frequently follow genetic modification of particular crops particularly in regard to drift to other plants. The slow ways allowed the environment to acclimatize to new varieties of plants which genetic engineering does not take into account. The world is not a sterile lab but a dynamic interrelated system.

Cart and Sera both made excellent points. Happy birthday, Lindsay, and thanks for a very well thought out post.

Zee said...

Happy birthday Lindsay!!!
Have a genetically modified beer on me:)
Your summary/article was excellent.
Yes indeed, crops where always "manufactured" by genetics since the time of old. It is debatable who was first to succeed, Persia or South America...but that is not the issue at hand today.
I tend to agree with Cart somewhat, he pointed out issues I would have mentioned myself.
My biggest concern with GM foods is the loss of diversity on one hand, and the monopoly of seed distributors (Monsato) on the other, who then tricked farmers into using seeds who will create plants who are not able to produce fertile seeds themselves. Hence a company like Monsato will have unrestricted control of who plants what and when.
The poor farmers will have to buy new seeds every year (and the policies of Monsato are such, that you can't keep excess seeds for the next season, they "own" the seeds and you would have to return them.)
That is just one aspect. The other is, that many GM crops are modified in such a way, that you MUST USE a particular pesticide (again delivered by Monsato exclusively) for them being able to survive.
So you can sense my reservation about GM foods, because it is a greedy attempt by private cooperation's to dominate the world marked. Nothing more, nothing less.
Mexico used to have about 60 different species of corn and maize, but as we speak it is dwindling in rapid pace. The farmers there used to be self-sufficient and proud of their different varieties, being also able to regain their own seeds for the next season.
Now, when these big companies come in with their GM seeds, it destroys the whole infrastructure of these peoples and makes them slaves to cooperate greed of people who don't even reside in that country.

If new genetically modified crops and food products can make any sense, it can only be done in a way that EVERYBODY profits from it, which means that the research can't be done and held by companies-for-profit, either by patent ("a patented apple a day keeps the doctor away, NO WAY) or by any other means of claiming "rights" on nature.
As the criminal pursuit against humanity continues unhindered by companies as Monsato, depriving resources to indigenous and local people all around the globe, the question is really not IF someone modifies crop - but WHO, and for what purpose!!!!
There is, as you know, a parallel battle going on globally, and it is all about water-rights. Water being the commodity of the future. In the US alone, vast resources for fresh water are being bought up by Coka Cola Corp. Wise move for the company, but where will it end? It wouldn't surprise me if some joker comes along and buys up air and then sells it again.
To end this long rant: Nature does not belong to companies, may it be crops, soil air, water etc... she belongs to every human being that still breathes on this earth.
Regards, Lukas.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Sarah, Rachael, Sera, Susan & Zee
Thanks for all of your insightful comments & birthday greetings.
Sera & Susan
It’s critical to maintain our diversified seed bank and bio diversity in the field. Many farmers share your concern Susan.
Zee - I agree you make valid points in relation to monopolization of the food chain and its effect on farming. Who owns the air ? no one!
Best wishes

vanessa said...

I agree we need labelling

vanessa said...

Re plastic bottles - I did some research on this when a small mentioned turned up in time magazine. At the time I was using polycarbonate (bad) bottles to feed my baby. This involves putting boiling water in which is the worst thing that can be done as it accelerates the leaching. There are numbers (in australia) which indicate the safe plastics. There have been over 100 studies done on this issue and usurprisingly all of the independent studies found a problem and all the plastic industry funded studies found no problem. The bad stuff is usually very hard clear plastic which is what 95% of the baby bottles are made out of