In January 2015 the European Parliament voted to allow EU member states to decide for themselves whether to allow the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in their territories. The environment minister Lord de Mauley expressed the view that GM is a "key agricultural technology for the 21st century" but expressed disappointment that other EU nations could still ban GM produce, expressing concern at the possibility that not having a market for their GM produce might dissuade British farmers from planting genetically modified crops.
We take a look at GM crops, what they are, at the arguments for and against and try to understand whether or not they are as harmless as many in the scientific community maintain.
The benefits of GM crops
When plants are genetically engineered, their DNA is modified to give them desired characteristics that do not exist naturally in that plant. Crops can be genetically modified to give them characteristics such as:
- Increased yields
- Greater resistance to damage from pesticides, insects, parasites, fungi, disease, cold weather and other natural stressors that may damage the plant.
- Give the plant greater nutritional value. Rice for example, has been genetically modified so that it contains the anti-oxidant beta-carotene. It has also been genetically modified to reduce the concentration of glutelin, a rice protein that is undesirable for brewing the alcoholic Japanese drink Sake.
Traditionally, natural traits of crops were enhanced through breeding and crossbreeding but traditional plant breeding methods are time consuming and not very accurate. It could never be guaranteed what the final plant product would be like. Genetic engineering on the other hand, creates plants with the exact desired traits, quickly and accurately. For example, GM corn has been given traits that make it produce its own insecticide against certain pests, or a plant can be given a gene that makes it drought resistant. The possibilities of a drought resistant plant to poor countries that are prone to the fatal effects of drought and famine, are endless.
Fears about the effects of GM crops
Fears about the negative effects of GM crops on animal and human health and on ecosystems have long been expressed and opposition to GM crops is loud and vocal. A statement that was reviewed and approved by the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine on 8 May 2009 said that there was "more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects" and that "animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system."
Fears about genetic modification of plants include:
A 2010 Russian study for example, showed that soy products affected the fertility of hamsters and by the third generation of GM soy eaters, all the hamsters were sterile.
Long term organ damage
What are the long term effects on our health of new genes in common foods? Fears are expressed about long term damage to vital organs such as the heart, kidney and liver. A 2012 study by Giles-Eric Seralini published in The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology claimed to show that rats being fed GM foods suffered severe organ damage. The study has since been retracted by the journal. Criticism included that the findings did not justify the researcher's conclusions and that it did not conform to internationally accepted protocols. On the other side of the GM argument, 182 scientists and biosafety experts condemned the retraction as an apparent “act of scientific censorship”, saying that the study contained findings of potentially critical importance to public health.
It is feared that GM crops may damage biodiversity and disrupt ecosystems.
Herbicide resistant weeds
Genes from crops that are herbicide resistant could be transferred to weeds, thereby creating 'superweeds' that are herbicide resistant.
Allergic reactions in humans occur when a normally harmless protein enters the body and stimulates an immune response. Proteins that do not exist in the original plant could trigger a new allergic reaction in the person eating the product.
Are the anti GM fears justified?
Jon Entine executive director of the NGO Genetic Literacy Project which aims to "disentangle science from ideology" dismisses all fears. In one of his many points he brings details of a study by University of California-Davis geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam. Writing in the Journal of Animal Science she describes how she reviewed 29 years of feeding data covering more than 100 billion animals, from before 1996 when feed was 100 percent non-GMO, until after its introduction when it soared past 90 percent. She also reviewed the pre and post mortem records of cattle that died and were therefore not approved for meat. The conclusion was that a GM corn diet was not detrimental to animal health. Entine concludes that the evidence from 1000 studies and more than 20 years of research on GM crops is consistent both from studies funded by the GM industry or by the European Commission – "GM crops are as safe as other conventional or organic crops and foods—or safer"
So is GM dangerous or not?
The GM battle is far from won. Mainstream scientific opinion claims that GM is perfectly healthy but a body of opinion disagrees. The internationally renowned medical center MD Anderson Cancer Center, advises that "current research on the health risks of GMOs is inconclusive" and that "researchers cannot confirm whether or not GMOs increase cancer risks".
The advice given is that if concerned about GM foods you should try to avoid them by:
- Avoiding crops that are commonly genetically modified such as potatoes, corn and soya products.
- Buying organic foods and meat from grass fed animals only
- Reading the labels to avoid GM foods
Accepted scientific evidence is that GM food is absolutely safe and that consumers have nothing to worry about. However, if you are concerned and wish to avoid GM foods, keep in mind that the Food Standards Agency in the UK advises that:
- Products such as meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on GM animal feed do not need to be labelled.
- Products produced with GM technology such as cheese produced with GM enzymes, do not have to be labelled.
- If a food contains or consists of genetically modified organisms or contains ingredients produced from GMOs, this must be indicated on the label. For GM products sold 'loose', information must be displayed immediately next to the food to indicate that it is GM.
What this means is that if you want to completely avoid GM foods you have to eat organic produce, including organic meat and dairy.
Ultimately it is up to you to look at the evidence and decide for yourself whether you want to exclude all GM foods from your diet. Whatever you decide however, do so from a position of knowledge.