This time I’d like to discuss one particular topic which is one of the most pressing issues within the contemporary food environment and the one no conscious consumer can escape thinking about or remain indifferent to. Genetic modification, genetic engineering, biotechnology, or recombinant DNA technology – these terms may sound very scientific, but the range of issues that intersect in the debate over GMOs extends far beyond biology to include concerns over human health, environmental balance, ethics of food production and human ascendancy over nature and Earth. What is at stake is not just ecological health of the planet, but such social values as consumer sovereignty, food democracy, freedom of choice and the right to know. To understand how one single food production issue can have such global implications, the GM debate has to be put into context but because this is such a broad and deep subject that it can hardly be dealt with in just one go, I actually envisage writing a series of posts on this topic, but let’s see how it goes! And just as a small warning message – be prepared for a little bit of science here (although I don’t intend to overcomplicate the things) since this is what genetic technologies are all about after all. But let’s start from the beginning.
Genetic Modification refers to a set of technologies that are used to change (manipulate may be a better word!) the genes of a particular animal or a plant to introduce new genes (or change the ones that are already present) to attain desired traits such as, for example, resistance to pesticides or endurance against drought. But biotechnology has developed far beyond such trivialities and you can check out this article listing the most unimaginable examples of genetic engineering to realize there are truly no limits to human imagination (make sure you don’t miss the link to a news clip about phosphorescent cats!). Although some of these examples promise a better future for the Earth and humanity (pollution-fighting plants or a vaccine banana could probably do some good), on an industrial level, however, genetic modification is mainly used to improve and enhance (arguably) agricultural potential – the most common GM plants are round-up ready soybeans and BT corn. The first is a variety of soybeans that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to pesticides, while the second is a variety of corn with in-built insecticide, i.e. a gene which produces a protein that kills crop-damaging insects. The leader in biotechnology is a multinational conglomerate Monsanto, infamous for its biotechnological manipulations, aggressive expansion of GMOs and unethical business practices. The use of GMOs is a matter of great concern – unknown implications for human health, threat of environmental imbalance and huge ethical issues are among the most mind disturbing questions. Here I will only expand on health-related matters but aim to discuss potential ethical and environmental implications of biotechnology in future posts.
In fact, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods for human health – biotechnological industry claims the products to be safe and essentially no different to conventional agricultural produce, while human rights and environmental activists continuously cite the results of various scientific studies proving genetic modification to have harmful and often irreversible health consequences. For various reasons, most of these studies get discredited and considered unfit to inform government policy and regulations. The most striking example of such “buried” study is the Pusztai affair dating back to 1998 – that is when a team of academics from the Rowlett Institute conducted an experiment in which rats fed with GM potatoes exhibited serious problems with growth and development of immune system. After the study findings went public the head scientist was discredited, silenced and fired while the results of the experiment were seized and “reviewed” to be claimed inconsistent. This is just one of a number of examples when various forces, powers and interests have come on the way of the scientific truth about GM’s potential health implications.
Now what is the current state of affairs with GMOs? In the USA, almost half of produced corn and almost 90% of soybeans are genetically engineered, and it is estimated that an average American eater have almost no way to escape GMOs with about 2/3 of products sold in US having GM presence. We are luckier here in Europe where the government is more responsive to public concerns over biotechnology and where the application of genetic engineering is considerably less common plus any products with GMOs – domestically produced or imported – have to be adequately labelled (although quite disturbing news came earlier this year when major UK supermarkets – Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury, Morrisons, Co-op and Marks & Spencer have dropped their commitment to only sell poultry raised on non-GM feed saying that global farming methods had made the no-GM pledge virtually untenable).
The difference between American and European policy in relation to biotechnology, and GM labelling in particular, is a reflection of the difference in approaches – the EU is applying a precautionary principle, stating that preventative actions should be taken where there is a reasonable suspicion of harm even if scientific consensus is lacking, while the US prefers to only consider scientifically justified facts. US view on GMOs is also based on the concept of “substantial equivalence” claiming GM foods to be of no difference to conventional produce and thus not requiring any specific policy treatment, including labelling. Consumers, however, are increasingly conscious about GM products and the public outcry over the need for labelling is gaining momentum in the US with a number of activist movements fighting hard for the consumer’s right to know and make informed choices (the most recent attempt to introduce GM labelling law – Proposition 37 – has been defeated, but you can see why after reading this article).
As I said, the issue of genetic modification is broad, and it is difficult to consider it in all aspects and details in one post. Here I intended to provide a general overview of the issue as well as some problems inherent in it, but come back for more discussions on GM from the perspectives of food production, human health, environment, ethics, policy and, of course, consumers.