by Kit Arrow
With this post, I’m introducing my new associate, Kit Arrow. Kit has been doing research for me off and on since 2005, and has now come on board full-time as a futurist. He did his undergraduate work in molecular biology, and has done graduate work in genetics. He brings a different background to the future than I do, especially in the future-critical area of the biosciences. I hope you’ll find his work interesting and useful. –RW
When dealing with the future of food, there are few issues that are more emotionally charged than Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. No one is lacking an opinion of these crops, and they are alternately hailed as the savior of the starving and of lands with adverse growing conditions, or as the end of agriculture. Since it’s incredibly unlikely that both points of view are right, I’ll present the highlights of the arguments, debunking some while supporting others, and finish with a summary about what should be done.
To start, it’s no exaggeration to say that some people consider that GMOs will be the end of agriculture. They expound on health risks, environmental damage, poisonous genes, and crimes against nature while rallying support to ban all GM products from grocery shelves. But how accurate are their arguments? I’ve looked into some of the major points they make, and am providing my own assessments of the myths and truths in the debate on GMOs.
Myth: GM foods pose health risks
This is one of the top dangers that enemies of GM crops like to advertise. They talk about how GM crops have had poisonous gene interactions that have led to deaths in rats, cattle, sheep, chickens, and humans. How genes will transfer from GM crops to the stomach and intestines of humans and animals that eat them. How micro RNA from the process used to silence or modify certain genes in transgenic plants can travel through humans and infect them with these RNA artifacts. And how eating GM corn led to tumors in rats.
Unfortunately for those opposed to the GMO movement, most of the studies cited for these dangers are the result of poor science and hyperbole. There was one incident in 1989 with L-Tryptophan from genetically modified bacterium, but it is unclear if that was bad genetic engineering or sloppy containment of the bacteria on the parent company’s end. It was a tragedy, but can’t definitively be called the fault of GMOs. Yet this single instance in more than 25 years of people eating GMO produce is trotted out as “proof” that GMOs are dangerous to your health.
The large majority of the studies used by GMO opponents have been debunked. The study linking eating GM corn to tumors in rats was conducted by a known proponent of banning GMOs – someone with an axe to grind – and the rats used in the study were prone to tumors to begin with. There was a severe sample size disparity between the rats fed the GMO corn and regular corn, and many of the rats fed GM corn were actually healthier at the end of the experiment. Additionally, the experimenters failed to use standard toxicological statistical analysis, leading to suspicion that the study cherry-picked the data. Finally, the claim was made that both GM corn and the Roundup™ pesticide had the same effect on the rats, a highly suspicious claim given that the corn was Roundup™ Ready corn, designed to destroy the pesticide.
RNA-silencing is a now common method used for transgenic and genetically modifying organisms, where a special type of RNA is inserted into an organism to prevent a gene from expressing. There was a study showing that the micro-RNA used to silence genes in GMOs had shown up in the intestines of animals and humans that had eaten the GMOs. This was initially greeted with great excitement by the scientific and medical communities. They had been looking for a way to insert gene silencing RNA into patients for therapy, and adding the genes to food would be an extremely efficient way of doing so. Unfortunately, that study was inaccurate as well, as RNA degrades very quickly when kept at room temperature on a sterile lab bench, let alone when immersed in stomach acids.
There have, in fact, been no human deaths attributed due to GMOs in more than ten years. The closest that we’ve come to this was the Taco Bell/StarLink corn controversy, where 28 people developed apparent allergic reactions to the corn. However, the CDC concluded that the people who developed allergic reactions did not do so because of exposure to StarLink corn or the Bt protein used in StarLink.
Truth: Biotech companies that produce GMOs are profit-driven and care little for the environment or for people
Unfortunately, the regulation of GMOs and the companies that produce them are every bit as problematic as the anti-GMO lobby claims. GMO production was de-regulated in America in 1996, with the FDA handing responsibility for safety testing back to the manufacturers, as with every other source of food produced domestically. Monsanto, one of the largest producers of GM crops in the world, has completely opaque testing methods, and does not allow the public insight into their procedures. Every question is stonewalled, which, combined with their draconian pursuit of anyone criticizing their products, has led to the popularity of this company being on par with that of fine dining in sewers. Even if they aren’t hiding anything, their unwillingness to open discussion regarding the safety of their products makes them seem less-than trustworthy.
The farmers are the ones that truly feel this lack of communication and compassion. When Roundup™ Ready canola from Canada ended up in a farmer’s field of Roundup™ Ready corn, likely carried by Canadian Geese migrating south, the farmer called Monsanto and asked what to do, since any pesticide he could use would kill his crops as well. He was told to remove the canola by hand. If the canola had gone to seed, that would have been essentially an impossible task. Furthermore, since the farmer had probably not paid the tech fee to Monsanto for canola that year (why would he, considering he was growing corn?) Monsanto would have sued to prevent him from selling either the corn or the canola. In short, they would probably have sued him unless he removed the canola plants by hand, or destroyed his entire crop. They seem to care only for their own IP, no matter who gets hurt as a result.
GM seeds have also risen in price dramatically since their introduction. Initially, they were very competitively priced, since they needed to compete with traditional seed sources before their value was established. Once they got a foothold in the market, though, production volumes of GM crops took off, since they required less work and pesticides, and could result in higher yields. Traditional crops all but vanished in some places. So several years later, when the companies dramatically raised their prices, farmers were stuck. They could pay the vastly higher prices for GM seed, try to find one of the few remaining sources of traditional seed that had no resistance to pests and blights, or give up farming. There were no real good solutions left.
Myth: GMOs are responsible for the rise in allergies
It is true that allergies are much more common now than they used to be. However, the increase in allergies started 25 to 30 years ago, and GMOs have only been in use 15 to 20 years. So unless Monsanto has tachyon-infused corn on the market that can go back in time to be planted, I’m going to call this a non-starter. Moreover, there’s no genuine science linking allergies to GMOs.
Truth: GM crops can change other crops, passing on traits to wild crops and pests
This is not only possible, but is actually happening. There have been grasshoppers and other plant-eating insects that have begun to develop resistance to GM plants that secrete pesticides. Cross-pollination due to insect activity and wind patterns is also producing Roundup™ Ready weeds. And, as mentioned earlier, seed migration though natural means is moving seeds from where they were being cultivated to foreign fields, where they act as weeds. Antibiotic-resistance is being transferred to soil-born bacteria, and from there to other plants and animals.
This is the result of insufficient foresight and field-testing. All of these problems were predictable, and in fact happen all the time in nature. Cross-pollination is a huge issue with some plants, so they have to be kept in greenhouses, away from the wind and insects, and pollinated by hand. Seed migration is also very common, and unfortunately not something for which there is a solution. Plant breeding has been an ongoing and continuous process, because every year a certain number of pests survive and adapt to whatever strategies the farmers used, so new strategies and techniques need to be brought into play.
But closing the market with seed patenting and proprietary IP, as GMO producers do, makes it harder to prepare for the next season, and the new resistances that have developed.
Myth: Even if they don’t pose a health risk, GMOs pose environmental and economic risks.
Do you know who supports GMOs? The Royal Society of Britain, the American Medical Association, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the US Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. And they support the use of GMOs because there have been some notable success stories. These include transgenic papayas in Hawaii, engineered to resist a blight that was destroying the crop; FlavrSavr tomatoes, which last longer and endure transport better; and vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice, which can prevent blindness in children, notably in developing countries where vitamin deficiencies can be commonplace.
Yes, there are problems with GMOs. Yes, these issues do need to be met and overcome. But GM crops will be needed to prevent starvation in an ever-growing, global population. In Africa in particular, many crops have a hard time surviving in their ancient and overworked soils. Modifying new-world crops, and fortifying old-world crops to grow in harsher environments opens up land that was previously considered to be uncultivable. Fortifying crops with vitamins will allow people who are nutrient deficient to lead healthier lives. And GM crops have a higher yield than their regular counterparts, which will be critical as Earth’s population expands to 10 billion and beyond.
What can we do to overcome the problems presented by GM crops?
Well, we can start by undoing the laws that protect certain big GM producing companies. Rather than less oversight and trusting the companies to self-regulate, we need to increase scrutiny of these companies, crack down on predatory practices and policies that strangle farmers, and ensure that every GMO produced has received adequate oversight without killing the field with regulation. We also need to convince nations to allow GM crops, and encourage them to put into place regulatory bodies to provide oversight and verify safety. This is particularly important in poor nations, as the poor nations that would benefit the most from GM crops face pressure not to grow them on pain of import boycott, as many rich nations refuse to deal in GM crops. This means that these poor nations cannot grow any GM crops or they will lose their biggest marketplaces.
We also need to increase communications. Lack of transparency, as evidenced by some companies to protect their IP, has to go. It destroys trust, and may be concealing issues that would prevent certain products from being declared ready for use – and others as being unready for sale. We have transparency in the testing process for new drugs, why not with food? People consume much more food than they do drugs. (At least I hope they do!) It wouldn’t be necessary to subject GMOs to the same stringent testing that is required for a new drug, but at least the in-house testing could be released publicly, rather than having the companies stonewall the public as to what is in their food.
Ultimately, love them or hate them, GMOs are here to stay. They provide real benefits to farmers and consumers, they can increase nutrition in the populations of poor countries, and they will be critical in humanity’s efforts to feed an additional 3 billion people by the end of this century. It would be better to ensure that they truly are safe than to try and legislate them away on the basis of fear and ignorance. Just because GMO producers are greedy doesn’t mean they are always wrong.
© Copyright, IF Research, September 2013.