Published on January 2nd, 2015 | by Rayne0
Genetically Modified Foods: The Rise of the Planet of the Frankenbanana?
How does one start a movement of people? Quite easy. Firstly you need a topic that isn’t very widely known and introduce it to a population of people who don’t have the training to understand how it works. Secondly you need to rally your troops together by creating an atmosphere that plays on their lack of training and fear. Fear is a great motivator. Thirdly you need to use the population’s lack of training and fear to your advantage by positioning yourself as figure of authority about the topic they are fearful about. This reduces the chance that the population will do any sort of impartial research. Lastly you need to continually bombard them with fear inducing stories and information so the human tendency for pattern recognition and confirmation bias will take over, leaving you free to do other things. That’s how the anti-vaccination movement does it, that’s how Food Babe does it and that’s how the anti-GMO movement does it because it’s worked out pretty well so far to induce the masses into hysteria.
Knowledge of genetics started with Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” in 1859 and continued with the construction of the genetic map in 1913, the study of genetics was considerably advanced with James Watson and Francis Crick proposal of the double helix structure of DNA and 1966 Marshall Nirenberg & Har Gobind Khorana finished the genetic code. 1973 saw the invention of DNA cloning and the first genetically modified DNA organism was created in 1974 and the technology is constantly being improved on. Genetic engineering has a wide range of applications in the medical and technology field .
Today I want to look into Genetically Modified Foods. Much like vaccinations and fluoride, genetically modified foods are a hot topic in first world countries, largely due in part to a fear and misunderstanding of science and the emotional nature of the topic. We need food to survive, without it we’re dust so naturally GM foods are going to elicit emotion in people who are invested in needing a product that will ensure their continued existence.
WHAT ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS?:
Genetically modified foods are foods that are derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified by the process of genetic engineering. An organisms DNA will be genetically modified and the seeds used in farming to produce more of the food (source). There are several different ways to genetically alter food.
There are two different forms of traditional breeding: Cross breeding and Selective breeding. Cross breeding is breeding that can occur between different species, such as a male donkey (Species: E. africanus) and a female horse (Species: E. ferus) can cross bread to produce a mule whereas a female donkey and male horse can produce a hinny. Selective breeding on the other hand, occurs when farmers want to control certain traits of an animal or plant. Selective breeding only allows certain animals of the same species to breed. For example, you can breed different types of cow from the same species to produce a cow that produces more milk.
- Choose or select the cows in your herd that produce the most milk
- Only let these cows reproduce
- Select the offspring that produce the most milk
- Only let these offspring reproduce
- Keep repeating the process of selection and breeding until you achieve your goal (source)
Natural selection is also a form of selective breeding but it isn’t one that is controlled by humans. Selective breeding to get the desire trait you want in an animal can take many generations and is a slow process.
This is the process in which the genetic material of an organism is changed, resulting in a mutation. Mutagenesis may occur spontaneously in nature (via breeding) which sometimes leads to inheritable diseases , or as a result of exposure to mutagens such as radiation.
RNA interference is a quick easy way of shutting down the genes of a plant or animal. Double stranded RNA is introduced into an animal to shut down desired genes, this is commonly used in medical research as a way to combat genetic conditions. This requires rigorous safety testing.
Transgenesis is the process of introducing an exogenous gene (a gene not found within the organism naturally) into a plant or animal so that the organism will exhibit a new trait or property and transmit it to its offspring. This method is much more precise than selective breeding as it allows for far better control over the traits and genetic structure of the organism. By transferring only the specific desired genes from one organism to another, researchers can introduce the desired trait without also transferring the undesirable traits. Like RNA interference, this also requires rigorous safety testing. Some of the traits include improved shelf life, disease resistance, stress resistance, herbicide resistance, pest resistance, production of useful goods such as vitamin enrichment, biofuel or drugs, and use in bioremediation of pollution.
WHAT TYPES OF FOOD HAVE BEEN GENETICALLY MODIFIED?:
Several foods have been approved to be genetically modified. An example of the approved modified crops include (source):
• Maize (corn)
• Oilseed rape (canola)
Modified genes are being used in the early process with the original whole crop, they may or may not be present in an end product. Some foods may consist of GM crops such as soy flour used in some products may have originated from GM soybeans. Different countries use different GM crops, the United States has several GM crops used and sold in supermarkets whereas the only GM crops sold in Australia are cotton and canola. Cotton and canola can be manufactured to produce different products, GM technology is also being used in Australia to create therapeutic intervention.
THE PROS OF GENETICALLY MODIFYING FOOD:
HIGHER CROP YIELDS:
One of the largest advantages to genetically modifying food especially crops is the ability to mass produce crops resulting in a higher crop yield per year which can help in meeting the supply and demand for food in food poor regions. The introduce traits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance help in increasing crop yields by protecting crops that would otherwise be damaged or destroyed due to pest or weeds. The largest meta-analysis conducted to date “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops” ( Qaim, M. 2014) examined studies researching the agronomic and economic impacts of GM crops. The studies examined were those that were published in English between 1995 and March 2014. The studies has to fit the following criteria to be included in the analysis:
- The study is an empirical investigation of the agronomic and/or economic impacts of GM soybean, GM maize, or GM cotton using micro-level data from individual plots and/or farms. Other GM crops such as GM rapeseed, GM sugarbeet, and GM papaya were commercialized in selected countries, but the number of impact studies available for these other crops is very small.
- The study reports GM crop impacts in terms of one or more of the following outcome variables: yield, pesticide quantity (especially insecticides and herbicides), pesticide costs, total variable costs, gross margins, farmer profits. If only the number of pesticide sprays was reported, this was used as a proxy for pesticide quantity.
- The study analyzes the performance of GM crops by either reporting mean outcomes for GM and non-GM, absolute or percentage differences, or estimated coefficients of regression models that can be used to calculate percentage differences between GM and non-GM crops.
- The study contains original results and is not only a review of previous studies.
A total of 147 studies were included in the analysis. Limitations of the meta-analysis were recognised namely the lack of noted sample size in some of the studies. Few of the studies neglected to discuss the actual number of subjects in the sample size. Overall the conclusions of the meta-analysis were favourable: “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops“.
THE PROS: Weed growth is a problem for farmers as it forces crops to compete with the weeds for sunlight and nutrients, often contributing to significant crop losses. Another problems is that herbicides cannot differentiate between plants that are crops and plants that are weeds which has lead to the use of “selective herbicides”. Selective herbicides are a select group of herbicides that don’t harm the crop, only a select group of weeds. Unfortunately this means that not all the weeds are destroyed, it lessens the problem but does not eradicate it.
Several GM crops have been modified to be resistant to herbicides, this genetic modification enables them to degrade the herbicides active ingredient which renders it harmless to the crop (source). Herbicide resistant crops mean giving farmers that ability to use broad spectrum herbicides that won’t harm the crops but will remove all the weeds in less time. This also means less time spraying the crops and less herbicides being used to treat the weed problem due to the lower incidences of having to use them (source), reduced soil compaction (because there is less of a need to go on the land to spray) and the use of low toxicity compounds which do not remain active in the soil.
Two herbicide resistant forms of crops have been produced to be resistant to RoundupReady (active agent: glyphosate) and Liberty Link (active agent: glufosinate). Soybean, maize, rapeseed, and cotton have been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate and glufosinate.
A literature review conducted by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology entitled “Comparative Environmental Impacts of Biotechnology-derived and Traditional Soybean, Corn and Cotton Crops” concluded that “the environment benefits from the use of HT crops. In the US, for example, no-till soybean acreage has increased by 35% since the introduction of HT soybean. A similar trend is observed in Argentina where soybean fields are 98% planted with HT varieties“.
THE CONS: Critics assert that the use of herbicide resistant crops can lead to the development of herbicide resistant weeds and cause damage to the biodiversity on the farm and to the wider ecosystem. Herbicide resistant weeds have been a problem since 1968 with the discovery of herbicide resistant weeds. Resistance to pesticides is not a new phenomenon, according to the University of Minnesota, the first report of insects resistant to insecticides was in 1908, whereas plant pathogens resistant to fungicides were first discovered in 1940. Herbicide resistance for GM crops have been noticed however the idea that herbicide resistance is purely a GM crop problem is incorrect. This isn’t so much a problem specifically for GM foods but for farming in general. GM crops have the ability to cross breed with surrounding weeds resulting in the transference of some characteristics. It was found with the introduction of glyphosate-resistant soybeans in 1996, the result had produced glyphosate tolerant weeds which can increase herbicide use (source).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing a multi-pronged approach to combating herbicide resistant weeds. A position paper endorsed by the Weed Science Society of America has been submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help in finding beneficial strategies to combat resistant weeds.
Attacks on crops by pests (namely insects) is a serious issues for farmers. Insects attack can lead to loss of yields and a reduction in the quality of the crop both in field and when in silo storage. No-one wants to eat food with insect damage.
THE PROS: Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, is a bacterium that is used is some GM foods to combat insect damage. The bacterium is found in soil and produces a protein that while toxic to crop loving insects (mainly against some leaf- and needle-feeding caterpillar), it is non-toxic to human, pets and livestock (source). When Bt is consumed by an insect, the protein is converted to its toxic form which destroys the insects gut.
Bt insecticides are not broad spectrum insecticides, so they do not kill beneficial insects including the predators of crop damaging insects, beneficial pollinators such as honeybees parasites (source). Several different strains of Bt have been identified as well as the insects they will target.
According to the University of Colorado, the one disadvantage of Bt is its susceptibility to degradation by sunlight and its short shelf life meaning farmers will need to spray their crops more often in order for it to have any affect. Genetic modification has extracted the Bt genes needed to produce the Bt toxin and introduce them into crops to help combat against insect damage, the advantage of this means that farmers no longer need to use liquid Bt insecticides on their crops to combat certain insects (source).
Critics fear the use of Bt insecticides will do damage to the environment, the soil and to non crop damaging insects. Extensive ecological assessments have not found any increase in the concentrations of Bt in soil nor any affects on insects that aren’t specifically targeted by the different strains of Bt (source). Studies are being conducted to make sure that insects do not evolve forms of Bt resistance.
WEATHER TOLERANT CROPS:
Another advantage to GM crops is the fast development of crops that can withstand harsh weather resulting in crops that can be grown in conditions that would normally result in a lost crop yield (source).
Genetic modification is being used to increase the amounts of specific nutrients such as vitamins in crops. This useful for crops grown in area that have nutrient specific deficiencies in the population. The most widely known nutritional enhanced crop is GM golden rice. The rice has been genetically modified to be rich in vitamin A and was created to combat the high vitamin A deficiency levels in the general population particularly in children (source). Studies in the ability for GM crops to combat iron deficiencies and the removal of proteins that cause nut allergies are being conducted.
OTHER POTENTIAL BENEFITS:
Other potential benefits include the possibility of introducing vaccines into GM crops, longer self life for crops.
CURRENT FURTHER RESEARCH
Research is being conducted into concerns such as any cross contamination or cross pollination concerns or the creation of new allergens. Rigorous safety testing has been implemented for GM crops to help help with these concerns. The Food Allergy Service, maintained by the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom, asserts that “to date, no food derived from GMOs has been found to cause new allergies.”
One fear around GM foods is that it is in everything we eat which is technically true if you consider substances such as high-fructose corn syrup used in the United States. While HFCS is derived from GM corn (meaning it technically contain GM food) however the end result from corn to HFCS means there is no trace of genetic modification in the end product. It is indistinguishable from any other form of HFCS.
HOW ARE GM FOODS REGULATED?:
World wide government manage the release of GM foods on a case-by-case basis which countries having their own risk assessments and regulations. These regulations by country can be found by following the relevant links on the wikipedia page.
“Substantial equivalence” is the starting point for GM food safety assessments. This process is used widely across various international agencies. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations “Substantial equivalence embodies the concept that if a new food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety (i.e., the food or food component can be concluded to be as safe as the conventional food or food component)” (source).
Substantial equivalence also takes in account the fact that non GM foods often contain natural components toxic to humans (called anti-nutrients) and are still able to be consumed safely, the statement “the dose make the poison” in action. There is a small chemical risk taken with all foods therefore a comparative method for assessing the safety of GM foods has been implemented to assess the risk of the food (source).
To assess whether the genetically modified food is substantially equivalent to non GM food, the GM food is tested for unexpected changes in certain components such as toxins or allergens. The toxins and allergens in the GM food is compared to the same toxins and allergens in the non GM food to see if they become changed. That data is then sent to a regulatory body for further assessment, other data such as data of the genetic modification process itself is also put forward to the regulatory body (source).
If the regulatory body determine the data to show no significant differences between the GM and non GM food, further assessment is not required. If the data shows differences, further assessments will be carried out.
Trends in Biotechnology (2003) identified seven main parts of a standard safety test: (source)
1. Study of the introduced DNA and the new proteins or metabolites that it produces;
2. Analysis of the chemical composition of the relevant plant parts, measuring nutrients, anti-nutrients as well as any natural toxins or known allergens;
3. Assess the risk of gene transfer from the food to microorganisms in the human gut;
4. Study the possibility that any new components in the food might be allergens;
5. Estimate how much of a normal diet the food will make up;
6. Estimate any toxicological or nutritional problems revealed by this data in light of data on equivalent foods;
7. Additional animal toxicity tests if there is the possibility that the food might pose a risk.
In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” The American Medical Association, the National Academies of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine have stated that no adverse human health effects related to GM food have been reported and/or substantiated in peer-reviewed literature to date.
THE SERALINI STUDY:
In 2012 a study by Giles-Rice Seralini entitled “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize“ published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, claimed a link between the consumption of genetically modified corn and a variety of illnesses, including cancer. The researchers aimed to study whether there were effects from consuming corn that had been genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate. As mentioned before some GM foods have been modified to resist herbicides, so when a certain herbicide is sprayed on crops – the weeds are destroyed but the crops are unaffected.
The study was conducted using a control group and an experimental group of rats. The experimental group were fed various combinations of genetically modified corn over the course of their lifespan which lead Seralini to conclude the experimental rats had a shorter life expectancy, developed more tumours and had more liver and kidney problems than the control group. Images of a rats with large tumours have been circulating around social media ever since.
The scientific community reviewed the paper and found several flaws. The control group was too small, there was no mention of whether the control group rats had developed tumours, data was widely improperly interpreted, the was no dose-response relationship mentioned and the strain of rats used were already genetically susceptible to developing tumours (source). It was noted that the research group refused to provide advanced copies of their work to reporters unless they signed agreements not to consult other experts. The study itself has been deemed to have little relevance to humans as the diet the rats were fed does not remotely resemble the diet consumed by humans. The study has since been retracted from the journal that original published it, it however has been republished by another journal with no response in regards to the criticisms of the study. The final decision from the European Food Safety Association states “that the conclusions of Séralini et al. are not supported by the data in the published paper”.
Seralini is a vocal anti-GMO advocate with a history of being chastised by the European Food Safety Association (EPSA) for improper analysis of data. Prior to 2012 he had conducted three studies in regards to GM foods which attracted criticism from the EFSA. The studies can be found here and here. Also prior to 2012, he had written two books regarding genetically modified food.
Other publicly funded long term studies, have uncovered no health issues.
ARGUMENTS FOR LABELLING OF GM FOODS:
Different countries have different regulations around the labelling of GM products. The author sees no issue with labelling of GM food as it provides a useful tool for consumers in making informed decisions on which food they wish to buy. However the featured word is “informed” decision. One cannot hope to be informed on GM foods with the current trend of fear mongering and hysteria around GM food. Labelling GM foods will not change the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of GM products, you can find these studies curtsey of Biology Fortified. Fully informed consent cannot be given unless the science behind GM crops is understood.