Dom Stroud offers up the pros and cons of the uptake of GM foods…
Recently, Owen Paterson MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was quoted in an interview with The Telegraph about GM food, as being ‘very clear it would be a good thing’, and sure that there would be ‘real environmental benefits.’ Cue massive debate.
Not being one to shy away from a forum on food, I thought it would be a good idea to spell out some of the pros and cons touted by each side, so you can make up your own mind on the matter.
1) Crops can be genetically modified to withstand droughts, which can lead to more efficient and sparing water usage. If the crops aren’t at risk of dying from drought, it means…
2) Higher yields from farms that would have had to discard malnourished plants previously. This means more food to meet the demands of an ever-growing population – there’s currently eight billion of us predicted for 2030 and nine billion in 2050.
3) In turn, a bigger harvest means more for farmers to sell, boosting their livelihoods and the economy. The use of GM technologies and methods also means there’s more research to invest in, and more products and seeds to sell for the biotechnology companies that develop them.
4) GM crops can be more environmentally friendly, as pesticides are coded in to their genetics instead of being sprayed on. Because of this, less pesticide is used and there’s no risk of such chemicals running off into nearby waters.
1) Insects can become resistant to the pesticides found within the crops, thus defeating the point and resulting in a ‘super-pest’. If the level of toxin in crops is not high enough to kill, insects can inadvertently inoculate themselves against it. One way to try and stem this problem is to have non-GM areas in fields, where non-resistant insects can remain to live and breed, in the hope that a resistant gene does not spread and become dominant. However, if these areas are not put into place, perhaps due to fears over wasted space or profit margins, the resistance will spread.
2) A variety of GM trials and studies have shown worrying results. A long-term GM feeding trial on mice showed a cellular change in their organs and how they work, and other trials on GM tomatoes and potatoes were shown to cause lesions in the gut wall of the animals they were tested on. A recent study on rats fed with GM corn also showed a higher risk of tumours.
3) Gene transfer is a process whereby a GM gene travels from its food source and into the consumer. This has been shown to happen in trials with humans and sheep. The process can be dangerous and unexpected, and is not well enough explored. The worry is that transferred genes may take effect in the consumer and cause health problems, such as the production of a harmful amount of pesticide in the gut.
4) A lot of GM studies largely inspect a crop’s efficiency (or similar), rather than genetic safety and wider effects. Considering earlier points, this is a concern as even ‘second-hand’ GM intake could pose a risk. For instance, when livestock are given GM food, gene transfer could progress through the food chain and into humans.
An Attempt at a Conclusion
Without wanting to put too much of a swing on it, I believe that like most things in life, you should be allowed the chance to choose whether you eat GM food or not. Yet there’s staunch opposition even to this. In the 2012 US election, proposition 37 – a law that would enforce labelling of GM food – was defeated. Why? Some have attributed it to the sheer weight the biotech giants and those who buy the GM crops can throw around. Food and agricultural blogger Tom Philpott commented: ‘in short, Prop. 37 got crushed under fat stacks of cash: its supporters raised $8.7 million, vs. $45.6 million for its opponents’.
It’s unsurprising that these large companies wouldn’t want the labelling. It could put consumers off. Fear of the unknown (you say you’ve done what to my food?), previous negative press, and (especially for the UK) being led in completely the opposite direction with the benefits and positive nature of organic food products – these are all things that will put people against something highlighted as different. Customers rarely enjoy different. Supermarkets have gone all out with organic foods and their associated ‘healthy’ luxury ranges, and it’s strange that we’ve been taken down this avenue first, only to be told by Owen Paterson et al that we should reap the benefits GM foods can bring. Personally, I don’t get it. I buy a lot of organic groceries for the simple reason that I have been taught that they are better for all parts of the growing process and food chain.
Despite all this bellowing about labels and why they’re good, bad or too sticky, Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) thankfully seems to agree that, whatever happens, the right to choose is necessary. ‘If and when GM crops are grown in England commercially,’ they say, ‘we will implement pragmatic and proportionate measures to segregate these from conventional and organic crops, so that choice can be exercised and economic interests appropriately protected.’