When the first GM products surfaced in the early 90s, the issue sparked huge debate and resulted in a frenzied backlash among press and public. Deemed “Frankenstein” food, critics warned that playing with nature would have dire consequences, putting both human health and the environment in danger. Giving rise to the fear, the scares have been many, but few have been validated. One highly publicised fright was the story claiming that falling birth rates in the US was directly related to the introduction of GM foods in 1996. According to a historical review of US birth rates, it emerged that the statistics curve showed much more dramatic drops than the one seen in 1996.
Among the doom mongering, there are some valid concerns. The risk that GM food can cause allergic reaction in humans is a worrying possibility, since genes used in the technology might derive from a food that causes allergies in some people. By transferring the gene into another organism, the host could inherent the allergen as a trait. Another » possibility is that a new allergen could be produced when genes are mixed across different species. To avoid sparking allergic reactions, GM food is now routinely inspected for toxicity that can cause allergies.
Production, starvation, balance
Other concerns associated with the debate are that GM crops may pose a threat to biodiversity, as other organisms in the ecosystem could be harmed. By making one form of pest extinct in order to protect crops, an animal could be stripped of its food source. Also, GM crops could prove toxic to certain organisms in the environment, which might lead to the organism’s extinction or its numbers being reduced. Some GM foods are modified using bacteria and viruses – which some believe, can potentially give rise to new diseases.
On the commercial side of the spectrum, small traditional farmers are inevitably set to lose out, while multinational biotech companies will potentially reap the huge rewards. Though none of these concerns can ever be fully validated, they linger in the minds of critics and form the basis of the negative opinions that prevail in some countries. Not helping matters, the US and China have been known to be responsible for incidents in which GM plants have showed up in the wrong food chains of nations where GM produce has not yet been commercialised.
Up until now, world food production has kept a steady pace with population growth. Thanks to an increase in agricultural land, more food is available per person today compared to the 1960s. Another reason for increased availability of food is that a great deal more pesticides and fertilisers are used.
Combined, these aspects could be a reason to harness the prospect of introducing GM crops on a wider scale as the technology could help to preserve forests and biodiversity, as well as reduce nitrate pollution and soil degradation. Fertiliser production alone is responsible for the mining of large amounts of phosphates, meaning that reserves are dwindling dramatically. It’s estimated that phosphate storage will be completely exhausted in 100 years, if the production of pesticides continues.
Indeed, the agenda of the original GM movement was to produce food crops immune or resistant to herbicides or pests. But one of the biggest arguments in favour of the development of GM foods is that it’ll potentially provide a solution for world starvation. Before long, the world’s population will reach such a staggering number that it’ll be too enormous to feed itself. A benefit of GM foods relates to quantity. GM crops have the capacity to solve many countries’ food scarcity and malnutrition issues.
Countries that would benefit from the introduction of GM crops in particular include India – a subcontinent which holds nearly half the world’s starving people. The introduction of GM crops would not only help solve the starvation problem, it would also help to give India’s GDP a boost, and open new market avenues.
GM crops can also reduce the cost and environmental impact of farming as pesticides will be made redundant. Measures are also being taken to make them grow better in harsh environments where droughts and other forms of harsh natural conditions have been known to have devastated harvests. These advances will help provide sufficient yields and quality despite seasons ridden with bad weather.
In terms of cost, GM crops are also more economical, although the initial cost of the seeds is higher than the standard variety. The fact that costs are reduced due to limited use of pesticides is one bank∞friendly aspect, but cost can also be kept down due to the fact that less manpower is needed to tend to the stock.
A tomato a day
Nutritionally, GM foods are far superior to their natural counterpart. Improved food quality is at the heart of the development of GM foods. A soybean, for example, can be engineered to stay fresher for longer, and thereby extend its sell-by-date. GM foods can be manipulated to hold a high content of a specific nutrient. This is particularly helpful when looking to feed the hungry in areas in which the diet is short of that particular nutrient. Akin to a one-a-day vitamin pill, food groups usually associated with a limited set of vitamins will widen their appeal to potentially contain an impressive spectrum of nutrients. In the future, a GM pork chop may provide a whole plethora of nutrients adding to those usually associated with the meat. The so-called “golden rice” is one example of a food type that has been engineered to offer greater nutritional values. In this case, Vitamin A is the magic ingredient.
Countries leading the way
Some countries welcome the advancement of GM foods more so than others. In Europe, scepticism remains high, and the UK takes a particularly suspicious stance. But sensational protests have taken place all over the world.
One notable upheaval is the protest that saw Indian environmentalists dressed up as aubergines, protesting against the introduction of GM versions of the purple-hued, bulbous vegetable. Another famous case involved British protestors dressed in radioactive suits and furiously trampling down trials GM crops. The ardent means of objection seen in the UK haven’t been called ‘luddite-esque’ for nothing.
Before the protest took place, Britain was at the forefront of GM technology, both in terms of science and also in » developing procedures to meet environmental and medical safety of the crops. However, the protest campaign was ultimately successful, and brought further development and commercial production to a standstill. Prince Charles, who himself is involved in eco farming, has become something of a mouthpiece for the war on GM food and his voice is heard not only in the UK but across the world.
Meanwhile India, is not holding back when it comes to GM advances, despite zealous resistance from parts of the public. The country has been at the forefront of the movement since the very beginning is the US. With American commercial production legal and commonplace, products don’t have to be labelled. Key product categories include herbicide-tolerant soybeans and insect-resistant corn. The major companies operating on the US market are Monsanto and DuPont – both have passed rigid tests to meet standards in relation to health and environment.
Not surprisingly, China is making enormous progress in the GM stakes. The country has acquired a dominant position in the business of developing and selling genetically modified seed. This is very much an advance employed out of necessity, since the country faces the impossible task of feeding every fifth person on the planet making do with less than one-tenth of the world’s farmland. To ease the imbalance and strain to feed its people, the Chinese government has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into GM crop research and development. The focus is to cultivate plants with added benefits such as resistance to pest and weed so as to ensure healthy and rapid growth of the crops. Ultimately, the move will help farmers yield more food and commodities at a lower cost. Something that is particularly important since much of China’s farmland is being eradicated due to development and drought. China has already started producing papaya, tomato and bell peppers to complement crops of rice, wheat, maize and soybean. The introduction of livestock will soon follow.
China’s advance in the GM stakes indicates that a shift in the market is taking place. During the start-up decade when GM crops entered the arena, most activity was confined to the US. The new era of GM crop may well be dominated by Asia. This is not necessarily good news and might see the controversy that surrounds GM food deepen. Whereas trust is fairly high in the US’s GM production, which owes to its implementation of strict regulations, the same level of scrutiny hasn’t been applied to Chinese crops. Given the rate at which China and its GM production are growing, there are fears that it’ll be difficult to ensure that quality control will keep the same strict rules as those carried out in the US. The concerns that arose over the illegally distributed Bt63 rice contamination only served to plant yet another seed of worry in the suspicious minds of GM sceptics. The infamous GE rice has recently been made illegal in China; as it has not yet been approved as safe in tests for either human consumption or the environment.
Almost anything is possible when dabbling in the science of GM food. Meddling with animals in order to come up with the multi∞nutritional food of the future appears particularly sinister to some, much more so when engineering plants and crops. Culinary curiosities like beef infused with fish oil is only one food category being researched at present.
An innovation introduced to the world in 2004 by Harvard University, the researchers have shown that it is possible to create mammals that secrete the Omega-3 constituent of fish oil in their muscles. Using mice as guinea pigs the study has shown that the meat would combine the benefits of an iron rich food, while at the same time offer the omega 3 quotient recommended by nutritionists. To choose between a salmon filet or srloin steak might not be so tricky, or even necessary, in the future.
In a similar vein, an unconfirmed newspaper report claimed that Japanese scientists had determined that they’d come up with a way to genetically engineer pigs to develop “spinach genes”. Allegedly, the pigs possess a gene called FAD2, which converts saturated fat into an unsaturated fat called linoleic acid. Spider silk has been grown from genetically modified cells for the first time. This could pave the way for the manufacture of super-strong, light and biodegradable materials, according to the Canadian-based company, Nexia, who are behind the study.