The subject of genetically modified foods has been debated for many years. In fact, genetically modified produce is freely available in a number of developed countries. The benefits as well as the negative side-effects have polarised opinion in the scientific world, advanced economies and amongst health conscious populations.
Technological advances in key areas of science are now lifting the debate to new concerning levels.
“GMOs appear the focus of a stunning program: to privatize biology itself, turning sovereign soils and the very act of farming, as much as its produce, into commodities”, wrote Rob Wallace in his book “Big Farms Make Big Flu”.
GMOs (genetic modified organisms) describe foods that have been created through genetic engineering. Scientists identify what trait they want a plant, animal or microorganism to have (such as resistance to pesticides, herbicides or insects), they then copy it and insert the gene into the DNA of the plant, animal or microorganism.
In 1866, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, was able to breed two types of peas, identifying the basic process of genetics. In 1922, the first hybrid corn was produced and sold commercially. In 1994, the first genetically modified produce created through genetic engineering becomes available for sale, a genetically modified tomato.
Since then, science has been advancing and progressing rapidly, as we enter a new phase of genetic engineering. NBT’s (new breeding techniques) such as CRISPR and RdDM, as well as synthetic biology, allow more complex changes to the genetic makeup.
What seems like incredible biological acts of ‘science fiction’ are still very early in their development. Moving too fast in order to commercialise these technologies will undoubtedly see the negative side effects with unintended consequences.
CRISPR cuts the cell’s DNA at a particular site. Like a wound, the cell attempts to heal itself by resealing its break using DNA repair mechanisms. This process can be faulty and not always works perfectly, causing unforeseen problems with unexpected results (new DNA).
In the 1960’s plant scientists in the U.S. bred a new potato variety that was ideal for making into crisps but also contained dangerously high levels of natural toxins. The potato had to be withdrawn from the market in 1970.
There is large concern over GMOs across the world with the sense that gene editing could give rise to dangerous mutations or crops that could be patented by large agribusiness corporations trying to monopolise staple crops.
There are also other factors involved, such as the creation of plants, animals and microorganisms we have not seen before, and by doing so, the impact it may have on our health, the environment as well as evolutionary patterns. Potential risks and biosafety concerns are associated with it. Little is known about the long-term effects and safety associated with GMOs.
According to GMWatch, a number of disadvantages of GMOs foods to humans and the environment have been listed, including allergic reaction by allowing a certain allergen present in the GM crop to enter the body and stimulate an immune response.
Toxicity is also in question. GM foods may increase the production of toxins at levels harmful to humans, as toxins are produced when there is damage in the “gene of interest” during the insertion process. Another concern is reduced nutritional value of GMOs. By making a plant more resistant to pests, the antioxidant phytochemicals are reduced.
Toxins may also be released into the soil causing environmental damage. An example of this is soil bacterium, bacillus thuringensis, present in larval caterpillars, which has a gene that produces certain toxins that destroys insects as well as pests. This gene is inserted into the corn to make it resistant to pests, resulting in the release of toxins into the soil, therefore turning the soil less fertile.
In addition to this, there is also the danger of resistance of pests to toxins, antibiotic resistance, genetic hazards, flow of genetic information, generation of super-weeds, and disruption to biodiversity by interfering the natural process of gene flow.
The United States, Canada, Brazil, India and Argentina have been growing GMO products made from modified soya beans and corn for many years. The majority of U.S. corn, canola, soy, cotton and sugar beets crops are GMOs.
“Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”, said Boris Johnson in his first speech as UK’s prime minister.
Michael Antoniou, professor of molecular genetics at King’s College London, mentioned that the answer is to change our food delivery systems in the direction of “agroecology” by reducing the use of synthetic ferlitisers, pesticides and herbicides, and planting a diverse range of plant strains, to build resistance into the system. At the very least, any crops produced by using genetic editing must be labeled as such.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, argues that genetic engineering should undergo strict regulation. She said:
“If this group of genetic engineering techniques escape classification as GM, they could be completely unregulated. The crops they produce could find their way into our fields and on to our plates without environmental or food safety risk assessments. They would not be traceable and, without labeling, consumers would have no way to identify and avoid them should they wish to do so”.
Since the UK left the EU, it has the power to authorise new GMOs. Brexit legislation gave Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) more power to amend existing GMO laws without going to Parliament.
“Gene editing is a sticking plaster, diverting vital investment and attention from farmer-driven action and research which could be yielding results, right now”, said Gareth Morgan, SA’s (Soil Association) head of farming and land use policy.
“Consumers and farmers who do not want to eat or grow genetically modified crops or animals need to be offered adequate protection from this. The focus needs to be on how to restore exhausted soils, improve diversity in cropping, integrate livestock into rotations and reduced the dependence on synthetic nitrogen and pesticides”, added Morgan.
Recently, GMWatch reported that a U.S. based fake meat maker, Impossible Foods, that uses genetically engineered ingredients, have gone past regulators, mainly in the U.S. and Canada, and are looking into expanding its products into the New Zealand and Australian markets.
Impossible Foods adds GM soy leghemoglobin (SLH), 0.8% and not labeled, in order to make its product look and feel as if it’s bleeding, just like real meat. The issue is that SLH does not have a history of safe use in food.
A rat feeding study that Impossible Foods commissioned on SLH showed worrying effects in the rats, including signs of inflammation, decreased blood clotting ability, changes in blood chemistry, kidney disease and possible signs of anemia.
Would you swop a vegetable burger that tastes of vegetables to a burger that tastes and bleeds like real meat but has been genetically modified with SLH, a product that has not been tested extensively? Are we going too far and too fast without calculated risks? What is the limit to greedy corporations?
Reported by GMWatch this month, five hundred tons of unauthorized GMO rice flour that had been illegally imported by India and sold in the European Union had to be recalled, but authorities could not guarantee that all products would be removed from the market. These batches of white rice were imported into Europe, transformed into rice flour, and sold on the market as an ingredient, including chocolate sweets from the Mars company.
Do we have the assurances and guarantee that genetic engineering will not be responsible for the creation of new disease organisms with no natural resistance and no available cure? Do we have the confidence that these “novel foods” will not harm our environment and our health? Will our scientists, world leaders and corporations assure the world GMOs are 100% safe?
Many questions are yet to be answered. Discussion and debate over the benefits and risks of genetic engineering as well as the ethical questions raised by this technology is essential. We must ask for total transparency and full participation in the decision making process. There is too much at stake, as this may lead us to a path of no return.