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October 14, 2009

Are genetically modified foods safe?

The Canadian Charger

Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) were on the table, so to speak

The Royal Society of Canada, in collaboration with the French Académie des sciences, held a two-day symposium on that subject on September 23 and 24 at the University of Ottawa.

This scientific technology has implications for farmers, consumers, corporations, and government.  We will look at these, but first we need to define GMO. 

Genetic modification involves the insertion of a foreign gene into the organism or the increase or decrease of some function in the genome of the organism. 

GM is used, in the case of plants, to make the plant less vulnerable to weeds or insect pests, to increase yields, protect against drought conditions or cold, etc.  Now GM sometimes involves inserting more than one gene, called stacking.

Farmers are affected in several ways. 

In Canada, the use of GM canola has meant a substantial increase in crop yield and reduced cost in use of pesticides and weed killers.  There has been marginal contamination of neighboring fields using non-GM methods, but according to the experts at the symposium perhaps as much as 95% of Canadian canola is currently GM. 

Another gain from use of GM has been some elimination of tilling, which has the result of cutting the production of carbon dioxide, aiding in the fight against global warming. 

There are, however, some negatives. 

Because there is strong opposition to GM in some places, especially in much of Western Europe, agricultural products for export may be adversely affected.  Thus, a shipment of flax to Germany ran into trouble because of substantial GM contamination, even though the particular gene modification had been delisted by the government and is no longer allowed. 

Export fears may also have had a role to play in discussions between the government and Monsanto, prior to Monsanto withdrawing a proposal to produce a GM wheat variety resistant to the powerful plant killer Roundup. 

At the biological level, it may be that the long-term effectiveness of the GMO’s protective power will diminish. 

For example, taking the case of canola, cross-pollination between canola and some weeds in the same family could make the weeds Roundup-proof as well.  Additionally, natural selection may favour weeds that are capable of surviving in a Roundup environment.  The same can be said for insect pests. 

Then there is the possibility of undesirable secondary effects.  Take the case from the animal kingdom of the breeding of greyhounds for speed.  It turns out that these animals’ birth canals were too constricted, making it difficult for the females to produce puppies. 

At the Ottawa symposium question was raised about the impact on Third World farmers. 

Yaye Kène Gassama-Dia, Director General of the Agence nationale de la recherche scientifique appliquée of Senegal, spoke to this question.  She saw some important potential benefits.  GM could have a role to play in curtailing the mosquito problem by making them infertile and in fortifying foods with vitamin A and other nutrients.  Use of GM cotton has increased production as much as 30% in some cases.  Increases in production have also occurred with corn and sweet potatoes. 

She would also like to see GM to strengthen crops, promote their longevity, reduce allergens, and increase tolerance to salinity and dryness.  However, she noted that this wish-list will be difficult to fulfill because some genes are very difficult to transform.  Then there is the question of safety, and appropriate regulation is seriously lacking in the Third World.  The lack of regulation and the uncoordinated character of work on GM in Africa have not resulted in health problems so far but, in dealing with food safety, a conservative approach is important.

Gassama raised the question of the impact of GM on small farmers confronted with mondialization.  Will they be able to afford GM?  Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, argued that they will be squeezed out because monopoly prices will be charged for the seed, making only large-scale farming possible. 

Even that form will be constrained in the case of some crops, she argued, because the United States in particular will be exporting the same heavily subsidized agricultural products to their countries.  Thus, local agriculture will in many cases become economically unsustainable in the face of the competition.

Gassama was also asked about the program of USC-Canada of encouraging small farmers to save and use traditional seed varieties that have shown their ability to thrive in local conditions.  “Excellent!” she said.  “The preservation of diversity is extremely important.”

So what do GMO’s mean for the consumer? 

Improvements in agriculture through GMO’s give us more food, and foods with enhanced nutrients.  GM also makes possible the development of animals to produce things for medical use. 

There have been concerns about possible allergy problems with GMO’s, but Jean-François Bach, professor of immunology at Hôpital Necker de Paris, says that plants modified by hybridization are not that different in terms of allergenicity from those modified by GM.  And if an animal eats GM plants, the animal’s digestive system would eliminate any allergic effect in its meat.  He sees little danger of GM increasing allergies.  More generally, in spite of fears that have been expressed, there have been no clearly documented negative health impacts from GM, and the record in Canada goes back 13 years. 

All of this seems on the whole positive, but there are difficulties. 

There are, said Dr. Brian Ellis of the UBC Michael Smith Laboratories, “huge biological knowledge gaps.” 

In GMO’s, we need more hypothesis-driven research to improve knowledge, with experiments and results published and subject to peer review. 

The editors of the Scientific American in the August 13 issue this year give us one reason that knowledge is spotty. 

Speaking of the last decade, they report that Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta “have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research.  Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails.  They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company.  And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.”  One thinks of the problems created in Australia by the introduction of the European rabbit.

Another problem is the degree of certainty we look for in food safety. 

We can never guarantee total safety because you can never prove a negative, but where do we draw the line?  For Smartstax corn, with eight different genetic modifications, approval was given because each modification had previously been approved.  However the combo did not have the same rigorous review. 

Such review processes are extremely expensive, and as Bach put it, “boring” for the scientists doing the work.  Only very large corporations or the government can afford to fund the studies needed to get approval.  Monsanto and other such corporations make big bucks on GM products, but their practices sometimes cause concern, as the Scientific American pointed out. 

Then there was Monsanto’s terminator seed scandal, producing seeds that were modified so that they could not produce fertile plants.  The idea was to make farmers buy new seed each planting season. 

It seems clear that the research process by corporations should be more closely controlled by governments, which should have access to all the data. 

Contracts forbidding independent scientific testing of seeds and comparative testing of products of different companies should be outlawed.  The withholding of data and the forbidding of independent testing is simply unconscionable. 

Because of the tremendous power of a corporation like Monsanto, its anti-scientific secrecy, and its anti-social practices such as with terminator seeds, thought might be given to taking it out of the for-profit sector and perhaps putting it under the control of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

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M. Elmasry

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