Genetic modification (GM) has been on the radar for quite a few years – another really important issue that has been misrepresented and misinterpreted for too long to maintain any sort of clarity in the general public’s consciousness. The problems with GM (of crops or animals) are numerous and fall into three main categories, ethical, ecological and social…although it’s pretty hard to separate the three when discussing any given GM scenario.
Superweeds, superbugs (of both the insect and viral variety), reduced crop diversity, genetic pollution of non-GM organisms outside the GM field, increased suicides and legal intimidation in farming communities around the world, the infamous ‘revolving door’ between Big Biotech and US government agencies, claims that US embassies strategically planned to ‘penalise’ countries that opposed GM….take your pick and try and pinpoint one single dilemma therein, that is not somehow linked to another.
Yet all too often, the arguments for or against GM focus doggedly on one specific element, without considering how complex the whole subject really is.
Aside from the ethical quandary of humans trying to control Nature and natural processes, and the social repercussions of Big Biotech/Government trying to control the diet and lifestyle of people all over the world, there are plenty of ecological possibilities that make GM bad news.
Some of them, like the triffidesque superweeds, have already come to fruition. Others will happen, but still aren’t considered important enough for laws to be changed – like the loss of crop diversity that will occur once reductionist GM agriculture has become the global normality.
Other problems are not so cut-and-dry, like the potential health risks (for humans or other animals) from eating GM food. If we refrain from leaping to the extreme Heaven/Hell alternatives that humans tend to focus on, it is perfectly rational, considering what we already know, to accept that eating GM food consistently (which is what Big Biotech is aiming for) could affect our health in the long run.
Here’s something to ponder. In 1996, Pioneer Hi-Bred International funded research to test the allergenic potential of a transgenic soybean they had modified with proteins from Brazil nut to increase nutritional quality. The study found that an allergen from the nut was transferred across to the soybean, along with the ‘beneficial’ genes – this was the previously-unidentified major Brazil nut allergen, “Ber e 1“. The company was only developing the product for animal feed, but they abandoned it, because of this research…kudos to Pioneer.
Yet ‘Golden Rice’ has just been rolled out, touted to save the malnourished from Vitamin A deficiency, via its extra betacarotene-producing genes from the daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) – a plant which is a known allergen. (I searched for allergen studies of Golden Rice, but couldn’t find anything published – please let me know if you know of any.)
Aside from the lack of scientific information on the potential for unwanted allergens (or even more toxic components) to manifest in GM foods, such ‘quick-fix’ food solutions simply ignore the biological complexity and long-term commitment involved in treating nutritional deficiency and poor diet.
Unbalancing your body’s vitamin/mineral/nutrient proportions (which are highly-complex and interconnected) by the naive use of health supplements and pills has long been warned against by doctors…so how will ‘supplementation’ via GM foods affect our overall health balance in the long-term? Will these foods just create more nutrient imbalances, which then need to be ‘fixed’ with another GM food?
And it’s not just the genetic structure of our food that could cause problems, we also need to consider how reducing the genetic diversity of food will affect our health.
It is becoming apparent that the blanket production and consumption of common bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) in Western countries could be a contributing factor in the rise of gastrointestinal disorders, celiac disease and gluten intolerances – all because of a rogue peptide chain that has toxic and allergenic properties. (The older varieties of wheat (einkorn, emmer, khorasan, durum and Polish wheat) don’t have the culprit peptides, but these varieties are not used in commercially-produced baked goods that most people eat.)
Bread wheat was grown and eaten for over a century before we discovered the effects of the dodgy peptides. Yet the first genetically-fiddled-with crops were produced commercially less than 20 years ago, and are now being pushed as the One variety to grow, harvest and eat the world over.
Should we just eat the GM food put on our plate, “trust” Big Biotech and not complain? Should we support the loss of hundreds of thousands plant and animal varieties, with all their amazing diversity of taste, form, colour, nutritional quality and environmental resistance, in favour of a few artificially-created species that “may or may not contain real food”?
Or should we take a lesson from the history book, and apply the knowledge from all our other experiences, which shows diversity, in any system, is more salubrious than homogeny?
© Manu Saunders 2013
More links of interest:
Michael Pollan’s articles on GM
The Guardian, articles on GM
Rogue Monsanto wheat, USA
Against the Grain, about modern wheat