1.Revolution on ice - Helen Wallace
2.The hidden costs - Malcolm Kane
NOTE: Interesting food industry perspective in item 2.
1.Revolution on ice
Prospect, December 2007 » Web exclusive »
The promises made for GM crops are the same as those made 20 years ago - and they remain unfulfilled
The story of genetically modified 'golden rice' is indeed shocking, as Dick Taverne says, but not, as he argues, because public reluctance to eat GM crops in Europe has somehow denied a life-saving technology to people in developing countries.
Golden rice was launched on the world with much fanfare in 1999, with claims that it could cure blindness in millions of children brought on by vitamin A deficiency. But the levels of beta-carotene in golden rice were far too low to make an impact on this deficiency. Although scientists have recently succeeded in increasing the levels of beta-carotene, there is still no scientific study that demonstrates that this technology can overcome vitamin A deficiency in humans. In contrast, other proven strategies exist, including supplementation, food fortification and increasing dietary diversity (ensuring that poor children have vegetables to eat as well as rice).
More broadly, the act of engineering enhanced levels of vitamins and nutrients into the food chain is deeply questionable because it does not target nutrients at the people most in need, and may cause harm to others in the population. Food fortification requires paying careful attention to the 'non-target' population””people who are not suffering from the deficiency the fortification aims to address, and who may be harmed by unintended effects. GM crops introduce new dangers because the nutrients are engineered into the plant, rather then being added during processing. This makes it doubly difficult to track where the product will end up, to monitor adverse effects in the food chain or environment, and to withdraw the product should harmful effects be identified.
The value of GM crops in sustainable agriculture in both the developed and developing worlds will continue to be contested. However, there is no doubt that the interests of commodity crop farmers have been prioritised over those of poor, 'low-input' farmers in decisions about crop development. Genetic modification has come to be the focus of crop and food research largely because knowledge about gene sequencing and its use in making GM crops has been patentable. This has driven agricultural research into the private domain, changing research priorities from public good to market potential.
Crop GM techniques arose at a time of changing political views on the purpose of science in British society. We have seen an increasing demand for basic science to meet the needs of business, and for greater links between public researchers and industry. Historically, plant breeding was conducted largely in the public sector, with several research institutes gaining revenue from plant variety sales. But over the past 20 years, plant breeding and associated research has gone private.
It is significant that only two GM traits (herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance) have lead to such large sales of seeds globally. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, by 2002, the 'big six' companies-Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, BASF, Bayer and Syngenta-owned 40 per cent of US agricultural biotechology patents on both key genes and transformation techniques. Through these they can limit the ability of other firms to enter the market. Therefore the economic benefits of biotech seed sales fall almost exclusively within the large corporate seed sector. This is being achieved not by revolutionary innovation and the marketing of new GM crops that meet farmer or consumer needs, but by establishing market control through patents and economic measures.
Public concerns about corporate control of agriculture and the food chain, and about the impacts of GM crops on health and the environment, should not be dismissed. In Britain, the farm-scale evaluations of GM crops a few years ago showed that the changed pattern of herbicide use associated with planting herbicide-tolerant GM crops had adverse effects on farmland wildlife. The health and environmental impacts of engineering pesticides into crops have never been properly evaluated.
In terms of new products, technical difficulties in plant GM place a limit what can be achieved because of the complexity of biological systems. This has proved a particular problem for the development of new traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
There is no evidence that a 'revolution' is just around the corner. The unfulfilled promises around genetic modification remain identical to those made when the first GM crop was produced 21 years ago.
2.The hidden costs
Prospect, December 2007 » Web exclusive »
It is not at all clear how the GM products that have come to market are supposed to benefit the consumer
Malcolm Kane was head of food safety at Sainsbury's between 1980 and 2000
Dick Taverne's article was disappointingly shallow, not just because he regurgitated every half-truth and misleading mix of selected 'benefits' attributed to GM foods by the PR and marketing gurus, but because he failed to think through the true balance of risks and benefits involved in specific GM applications.
Only two GM applications have achieved any significant market penetration: herbicide resistance and insect resistance. The supposed benefits of these applications need careful dissection.
Take herbicide resistance. Historically, weed killers have not been approved for use on food crops-conventional crops would be destroyed. Yet the farmer's need for weed control is understandable-weeds compete with crops for soil moisture and nutrients, reducing crop yields. Weeding is timely and costly, but necessary. GM herbicide-resistant crops allow for easy and effective application of weed killer without fear of crop damage. But this has an unexpected consequence: it means that weed killers can be sprayed directly on to food crops. GM crops therefore contain higher residues of herbicides than conventional crops. This is the true cost to the consumer, ignored by the biotech industry.
Some herbicides have been developed as 'agricultural control agents'; a class of application where the herbicide is used to kickstart certain cereals and pulses, like soya, into the 'desiccation (drying) stage,' allowing for more economical harvesting. Obviously the herbicide used as this desiccation agent cannot be the same herbicide to which the crop has been genetically engineered to be resistant. So a GM crop that is resistant to Glyphosate will require a separate herbicide as a desiccant, such as Glufosinate. So some GM crops can get a double dose of pesticide residues. Exactly what benefit to the consumer is provided by this?
The food industry is obliged to conduct regular analysis of herbicide residues. The cost of this testing is rarely introduced into the GM debate. Glyphosate, the active agent involved with the main herbicide-resistant GM soya product, may well be at the lower end of the toxicity spectrum of herbicides, but that is not likely to change the average consumer's perception of this issue: the unpalatable principle of applying weedkiller to foods.
As for pesticides, surveillance data confirms that in Britain, most conventional food crops have minimal incidences of pesticide residue. Farmers generally manage their crops well, with established integrated crop management systems and effective adherence to pre-harvest intervals (PHI-the period between the last pesticide application and harvesting). Organic growers are similarly diligent, with approved organic pesticides.
GM insect resistance has been given a spurious validity by association with traditional organic growing practices. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has naturally evolved as pathogenic to many insects. Organic growers have long produced slurries of Bt and used it as a 'natural insecticide' spray. Bt acts by producing a toxin poisonous to insects. But when sprayed upon crops, this Bt toxin is a surface toxin only. Organic growers apply a PHI just as carefully as conventional growers do with synthetic insecticides. Assuming organic crops are washed before preparation and consumption, the amount of Bt toxin absorbed by consumers is negligible.
Biotechnologists have created GM crops with Bt toxin throughout crop tissue fluids, by introducing the Bt gene into food crops. The claim that the Bt toxin is 'natural' is therefore highly contentious, as there is nothing natural about Bt toxin existing as such a 'systemic' pesticide. Additionally, there can be no PHI with GM insect-resistant crops. Genes cannot be programmed to switch off a set number of days before an unpredictable harvest date. GM insect-resistant crops will be therefore harvested and consumed with the maximum biologically active concentration of Bt toxin present within their tissues. Not a comforting thought to the consumer.
To make matters worse, there is no established MRL for the Bt toxin, because it has traditionally been classified as natural. The food industry has not asked why this systemic use of Bt toxin should not trigger the introduction of MRLs for Bt toxin.
The biotechnology companies are not likely to focus on the potential disadvantages of their products. Had the industry's leading scientists done so, instead of being blinded by the elegance of the GM technology, we might have been spared the stresses of the last few years. Regrettably, Dick Taverne's article adds nothing to this debate. Nor does he provide any support to the potential benefits of GM technology in the field of medicine by associating it with the tawdry experiences of the food industry over the last decade.