Monday, July 02, 2012

To GM or not to GM

Although agriculture is more productive and efficient than ever before, more than 1 billion people worldwide remain chronically hungry. Hunger isn't unique to developing countries--19 million of the world's hungry live in developed countries. Nor is it simply food shortages the world faces. The fundamental problem continuing to cause both hunger and obesity is that it is difficult, almost everywhere in the world to access nutritious foods. In the developed world, food is abundant, but the most abundant is usually the least nutritious and most calorie dense. In the developing world, you can often still access soft drinks or packaged processed foods, but not the diversity of healthy foods that are needed for good nutrition.

The latest trend among fast food restaurants is to serve foods like fried chicken in containers that fit snugly into your car’s cup holder. Now you can dine and drive with all the style that only a good cup holder can provide. What is natural? Certainly not the wheat that goes into our bread or pasta – not potatoes, not sweetcorn, not most vegetables – the “natural” carrot isn’t even orange!! All of our food has been bred for our purpose usually to make it bigger (tomato, potato), shorter (wheat and barley) or yield more (potato, wheat, sweetcorn) or for longer (fruit trees, strawberries). And much of this breeding is very high tech even if it doesn’t involve GM – it might involve modifying individual cells, or mutation breeding, or crossing between plants in ways that would never happen in the wild. There is an image of the GM silver bullet as the simple solution that the genetic modification will provide an answer to everything that is wrong with our agriculture, our food, our nutrition, our health, or our capacity to cook or eat a balanced diet. Trying to insert all nutrients into one seed, fruit or vegetable is not an answer nor a solution. GM might at times lead to a desired trait, but it is not the cure-all.

Genetic modification is simply a method (technological process) for introducing new genes into crops. There are enough experimental data available to suggest that ‘transformation’ per se does not have inherent unknown risks. Scientists have been routinely ‘transforming’ bacteria with DNA from other bacteria or other organisms since the 1970s, and many of our medicines have been developed using recombinant DNA technology, for example human insulin for Type 1 diabetics and growth factor for treatment of children who can not produce their own. Recombinant rennin is used in many Vegetarian Cheeses available on supermarket shelves. Transformation of plants has been common in scientific labs since the mid 1980s, and the most common unpredicted effect is the loss of activity of the introduced gene. The scientific reasons for such effects are now understood pretty well. In practical terms, field trials are designed to test whether such gene silencing is likely in transgenic crops under assessment.

Of course there may be unknown side effects associated with introduction of particular genes into crops. This is why a stringent risk assessment is always undertaken to assess the likelihood of such events and the potential damage they could cause, before any regulatory approval for sales or dissemination of seed is given. Interestingly, conventional plant breeding which often involves introducing a large number of genes from one species to another does not have accompanying regulatory oversight, yet somehow, disasterous unpredictable effects from introducing new varieties developed in this way have not been reported.

In theory, genetically modified food seems to be just what the planet needs using science–specifically DNA manipulation–to make crops hardier, more productive, and less vulnerable to pests and weed-killing herbicides. And so far, there’s little to indicate that GM food is harmful to humans; already more than 70 percent of the processed foods in the U.S, such as snacks, breakfast cereals and vegetable oils, contain traces of GM crops because common ingredients, including corn, soy and canola oil, usually have been genetically modified. 90 percent of those in a survey said that GM food should be labeled, although only 25 percent said they really understood genetic engineering. There isn’t a single, definitive study of the safety of GM crops. This is because there is no single thing called GM – each crop type, and each type of GM, needs to be looked at separately. One type of GM poses different risks to other types. Also, there can be no overall summary of research because new evidence comes up all the time. Also, scientists have to be critical about what counts as ‘evidence’. Some research on GM has been very controversial because some scientists consider that the data are not valid, the experiments were not done properly.

Critics have raised the spectre of “Frankenfood,” an unnatural creation. Less provocative opponents expressed concerns about the potential for new kinds of food allergies, or accidental cross-breeding with nearby plants to create “superweeds” or unintended damage to other crops or animals in the area. Others argued that GM products would make it that much easier for a handful of companies with the right patents, such as Monsanto, to dominate food production on the planet. Europe has largely been a no GM zone. Only 5 percent of the food sold there has traces of GM crops.

Earlier this month Chinese scientists revealed that through genetic engineering, they’ve created a calf whose milk can drunk by people who are lactose intolerant. In another recent study, also in China, scientists say they’ve created a cow that has omega-3 fatty oil in its milk, which means, potentially, much healthier milk. And in yet another Chinese experiment, announced last year, researchers genetically modified 300 cows so their milk had the same qualities as human breast milk. Yes, these could become major biotech innovations.

 Atlantic salmon given a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and also modified with DNA from an eel-like creature that keeps the gene functioning even in cold weather, unlike normal salmon. So the modified Atlantic salmon reach market size in 16 months instead of 30. The FDA tentatively concluded almost two years ago that the salmon would be safe to eat, but it has dragged its feet on final approval, particularly because members of Congress from salmon-rich states are trying to keep the GM fish from coming to market who refer to it as “Frankenfish.”

Known as the Enviropigs, they were created when a bit of mouse DNA was introduced into their chromosomes. The goal was to produce pigs with low-phosphorus feces and to reduce waste at large factory farms.

A Dutch company, says that within the next year it will start marketing a consumer version of a spray it’s invented to kill the bacteria that causes salmonella poisoning.

A stem cell scientist in the Netherlands is growing meat, working on the first test-tube burger. Mark Post is creating a hamburger by capturing stem cells from cow muscles. He says it will be at least November before he has a full patty. Post calls it “shmeat,” short for sheet of lab-grown meat.

The "precautionary principle" states that if there is scientific uncertainty regarding the potential of a technology for irreversible or serious harm, the burden of proof lies with the proponents of a technology having to prove its safety. Unless this can be done, any tests indicating any kind of problem should result in non-approval, ie rejection.
But all information that is to be considered needs to be made clearly and fully visible and accessible to all and not be permitted to be exempted from public access via claiming  commercial confidentiality . If the data/information is based on experiments, the methodology used needs to be fully transparent as to allow for replication and testing of the experiment and for verification of the data/results. Replicability is a key scientific ingredient. For this it is also crucial that any person/scientist wanting to verify the data by carrying out experiments should be granted full access to such samples/specimen, (such as GM seed/crops for feed).

The other big question though is how inclusive and open would such a debate have to be or want to be? Will the full range of arguments, aspects and issues linked to GM crops/foods (and GM organisms in general) be allowed into the debate and be fully taken into consideration? For example: control over seeds, increased herbicide use, soil food web, ecosystem function and resilience, agro-biodiversity, livelihoods, socio-economics, ethics, alternatives, a hugely wide ranging spectrum. People are often very selective about data they use and yet we would need to look at data & information from such a broad range of issues, wide range of fields, different areas of discussion if we really wanted to go into it properly. The question asked would warrant a long and thorough debate recognising the interconnected and interdependent nature of all the issues.

The fast growth, fueled by high expectations towards this new GM technology has provided strong incentives for further research and development of new genetically modified plant varieties. Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops in 1994, the rapidly expanding market of genetically modified seeds has given rise to a multi-billion dollar industry. Considering the high financial stakes involved and shareholder obligations in the industry, concerns are raised over the influence that conflicts of interest may place upon articles published in peer-reviewed journals that report on health risks or nutritional value of genetically modified food products. One study of by Diels’ showed that: “the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light”, ie studies that concluded GM food was safe were more likely to be GM industry-affiliated. Another researcher, Domingo concluded: “most of the studies demonstrating that GM foods are as nutritional and safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible of commercializing these GM plants.”

 So what evidence do we have today? Commercial growing for 16 or 17 years; ten years of experience prior to commercialisation – so say more than 25 years of intensive study – perhaps the most studied thing ever in our food supply chain. Nearly 17 million farmers looking at the crop every year. Something approaching 3 trillion meals containing GM ingredients eaten without one substantiated food issue. A European Commission (which is not known for a pro-GM stance) published a report detailing the 120 projects it had funded over the last 25 years with 500 research groups looking at the safety of GM had at its conclusion? “That biotechnology, and particularly GMOs, are not per se more risky than, eg conventional plant breeding technologies”.

It means at current levels of GM consumption in many parts of the world we can be pretty confident for existing products that it is unlikely there are any general effects that are so acute or serious or universal in scale as to be immediately noticeable across an entire population. But the crucial issue is the relative absence of systematic monitoring of a kind that might pick up some possible kinds of health effect. As with other foods, it remains possible that there exist adverse effects of some GM products that might affect relatively small groups of people. The point to make in this, is to think about this kind of claim made about GM food, that “X million people have been happily eating GM foods for Y years and no bad effects have been proven.” In order to know how relevant it is, we have to think about how much effort is being spent on monitoring for any possible adverse health effects. In itself, it is not an argument against GM. But, just like the difficulties in ever fully demonstrating safety, what this does mean is that we have to be careful about accepting claims that the evidence shows there is “no harm”. On both issues, the science is typically more complicated.

However for socialists one of the most misleading – and dangerous – assertions , is that “we have no alternative”. This is always the way in which advocates of particular positions try to scare others into agreement or at least into silence. As a global society we certainly do have choices. There are different ways in which we can provide nutritious wholesome food in fairer ways for an increasing world population. The key point is, that the different choices are all – in different ways – political. Conventional GM offers one possible pathway that appeals under particular political views. But techniques like ecological/organic farming offer another highly viable alternative. To choose between alternatives is as much political as technical. In other words, it’s about what values and principles we want to prioritise and what sort of world we want to live in. These aspects are at least as important as the technical issues. And the discussions simply don’t boil down to whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’.  We have many more choices than simply ‘GM’ or ‘not GM.

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

n a new report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Georg-August-University of Goettingen tracked the use of genetically modified cotton by smallholder farmers in India over the course of six years.

They found that farmers using the genetically enhanced Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton increased their cotton yields by 24 percent and increased income.

2011, 90 percent of Indian cotton fields, the majority of which are owned by small farmers, were growing Bt cotton.