The Science and Politics of Genetically Modified Food

The Science and Politics of Genetically Modified Food

As I took my seat on a flight back to England for holidays a few weeks ago, I felt giddy to have 13 hours completely liberated from any thoughts of work - deliveries, suppliers, rosters, and products. But before I'd finished my first gin and tonic, I was lured into an airline magazine article about, well ... food, or more precisely, genetically modified food (GMF). The article opened with the recent announcement that the first GM animal, a salmon, had reached Canadian consumers and, with that, my brain lit up to the potential impact of what I was reading.  

I was aghast at the idea; salmon represents all I hold dear – healthy nourishment packed with goodness and flavour, AS NATURAL AS IT GETS. So a GM version, well, it just felt … really wrong! I replaced the magazine and tried to start my book, but I was distracted. I was trying to visualise how or why anyone would tweak the genes of a salmon. A couple of minutes later, I tapped the cabin crew for a Wi-Fi password, and that was the end of my holiday novel. So much for tuning out and catching the holiday vibe. I was in research mode.

Here I am five weeks later, sharing with you what I learned about the GM world. It’s less about GMFs themselves and more about the politics and nuances, the actors who command the stage and pull our information strings, manipulating consumer sentiment to suit their respective economic, environmental and health interests. I’ve learned a lot about GMFs too, but I’m also frustrated and disappointed at how this hugely important debate is playing out. It’s a dirty fight, so here we go.  

The GMO Headlines – What You Need To Know

A GMF is a food produced from a plant or animal whose DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. We have been modifying and cross breeding plants and animals for food for thousands of years. DNA was discovered in the 1950s, and 30 years later, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first GMO drug, which was a form of human insulin. This paved the way for unlocking the world of GMFs in the early 1980s, when scientists first began genetically engineering plants in a lab setting. 

The first GMF designed and approved for human consumption came to market in 1994 when the Flavr-Savr tomato was approved by the FDA who concluded that the tomato was "as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means". This had been engineered to slow down the ripening process of the tomato and thus prevent it from softening, while still allowing the tomato to retain its natural colour and flavour. The tomato was also made more resistant to rotting.

Today, GM crops have been grown over the last 18 years in about 30 countries on more than 2 billion hectares by more than 17 million farmers, with no adverse ecological or safety impacts observed. The United States, South America, Canada, India and, to a lesser degree, some European countries dominate GM farming. Crops include corn (field and sweet), canola, alfalfa, soybean, papaya, cotton, sugar beet, summer squash, and potato.

Sounds good? I thought so, until I went looking for what the experts think.

It’s been a wearisome process of reading and listening to countless voices on both sides of the fence, and even now, I’m frustrated that I’m left not knowing if I'm for or against - there is nowhere I could find where a rational debate was taking place and far too few places to go to find objective science-based facts that allow for consumers like me to access unbiased information. Google “genetically modified food facts” or “pros and cons of GMOs” and you’ll get hundreds of websites, most very slick and official-looking, peddling the arguments for one side or the other, but seldom both, and rarely fact-based. Few, if any, provide unbiased, scientific-based evidence. The whole topic is rife with mistrust.

There is no doubt that the powerful players in the agri-tech food sector, said to be worth $20bn, have not always behaved well or even legally, and they've paid the price in terms of failing to earn public trust. However, the scientific evidence which supports the industry’s case for GMOs is difficult to refute.  

Then we have the influential NGOs and environmental groups, stronger and more successful in winning the hearts and minds of nervous consumers, despite playing as loose and fast with the facts. It’s human nature, it seems, to resist change and fear the unknown, and NGOs have been quick to take advantage of this powerful emotional trigger. What both sides have in common is a seemingly unswayable global consumer market who just don’t trust either; to me, that’s an un-winnable battle.   

The Big Question – Are GMFs Safe?

Getting an answer I could trust to this question was the single biggest challenge in writing this blog. There’s an overwhelming amount of research available, but parsing the countless studies done on GMF safety requires more expertise than I could have in my lifetime. My challenge was finding unbiased expert opinion in a market crammed with conflicting interested parties: from NGOs, advocacy groups, “experts” of every flavour, to bio-tech and agri-food corporations and farming organisations seeking to influence consumers to vote “yes” or “no” with their wallets.  

After several days, I did narrow the field down to a handful of impartial expert organisations I trust, primarily in the US and Europe, who form a compelling coalition; the National Academies, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society of Medicine and the European Commission are all on the same side. After exhaustive testing and analysis by the best scientists in the world, they believe GM foods are as safe as conventional food, and they unanimously agree there is no evidence supporting the argument that GMFs are dangerous to eat.  

To date, more than 3,000 scientific studies have assessed the safety of these crops in terms of human health and environmental impact. These studies together with several reviews performed on a case-by-case from regulatory agencies around the world have enabled a solid and clear scientific consensus: GM crops have no more risk than those that have been developed by conventional breeding techniques.” Genetic Literacy Project

The Arguments Against GMFs

There are many dissenters, too many to list, but who claim GMFs damage human and environmental health, cause disease and agricultural damage and, ultimately, have no place in the food chain, least of all on a dinner plate. One of the most powerful and loudest voices amongst these organisations is Greenpeace and I was keen to understand and share their position. However, I couldn’t find a credible report authored by them or in their name. In fact, many NGOs have been widely and rightly criticised for scaremongering and propagating misleading information. Not only does this cause massive public confusion, it ultimately prevents millions of people globally from getting access to affordable food.

In 2017, 109 Nobel laureates wrote a letter posted online blasting Greenpeace for standing in the way of getting nutritious food to those who need it. They targeted Greenpeace in particular for its opposition to Golden Rice, a ground-breaking GM rice which has the potential to reduce or eliminate death and disease caused by vitamin A deficiency, which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and SE Asia. This has been a fiercely debated issue, with opponents fearing that foods whose genes are manipulated in ways that do not naturally occur might contaminate existing crops. And, they say, the debate distracts from the only guaranteed solution to malnutrition: promoting diverse, healthy diets. I found this report helpful in providing a balanced set of arguments representing both sides.

Richard J. Roberts, one of two winners of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, spearheaded the letter-writing effort to set the record straight. “There’s been a tremendous amount of misinformation being put out by Greenpeace,” he said. Some plant scientists have been “attacked so fiercely” over their views that they’ve gone silent. 

In the letter, the laureates — all but 10 of whom earned their prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry or medicine — contend that GMOs have consistently been found to be safe, stating “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity”.

Among commonly expressed concerns by opponents of GMFs are unwanted changes in nutritional content, the creation of allergens and toxic effects on bodily organs. According to an interview in Scientific American with Robert Goldberg, an esteemed plant molecular biologist at the University of California, such fears have not yet been quelled despite “hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth and people eating billions of meals without a problem”.

What About Singapore?

As for Singapore, we follow the same policies and guidance set out by the WHO, but there is no GMO crop grown on the island. GMO foods and ingredients are allowed, and the AVA list of approved foods is in line with crops grown globally. A survey conducted in Singapore back in 2015 showed that while many were not clear about what GM foods were, about half of the respondents were open to GMF and would consider buying it.

The Future For GMOs

After two decades of GMOs, the future for GMFs looks even more ambitious. Disease-resistant bananas, wheat and potatoes are all in the pipeline, along with drought-tolerant sugarcane and maize. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is taking a gamble, funding projects that aim to create cereal crops that can fix their own nitrogen. This could be a game changer for poorer farmers who can’t access nitrogen fertilisers, and elsewhere could reduce the huge environmental cost of producing and using fertiliser. In the laboratory, genome editing has been used to create disease-resistant rice and wheat, and enhance drought tolerance in maize. The lower cost means projects on smaller-scale crops become viable, and scientists are working to develop disease-resistant citrus trees and wine grapes.

My Conclusions

My take now is based on the facts. The steady growth of GM crops in the past 15 years has shown that GM technology has enormous potential towards contributing to sustainable agriculture, particularly in developing countries. Scientific evidence has repeatedly demonstrated the global benefits of GM crops, which are a significant difference in terms of cost savings, increases in yield and profitability, improving the quality of life of many and reducing the use of pesticide and herbicide. This all leads to a significant saving on fossil fuels and lowering carbon dioxide emissions, thereby mitigating climate change. I find it hard to refute the massive body of evidence that shows the developing world (if not entire world) needs GM technology because it has the weapons to fight poverty, reduce malnutrition and hunger, improve food security, create friendly environments, increase the income of poor farmers, and benefit society as a whole.  

I can't help but feel saddened at the resistance to Golden Rice, a crop genetically engineered to supply more vitamin A than spinach, which could prevent irreversible blindness and more than a million deaths a year. People in developing countries faced with famine and malnutrition are likely to benefit from attempts to improve the protein content of food crops, as well as the amount of vitamins and minerals they provide. Think of the impact this could have where climate change will increasingly require crops to grow in dry and salty soils and tolerate temperature extremes.

I agree that we cannot rule out issues like herbicide resistance and crop contamination. Controversy abounds over the use of genetically modified seeds that produce crops such as soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum that are resistant to a widely used herbicide, glyphosate, the health effects of which are still unclear. 

The bottom line: it's a hugely bewildering issue, no matter how hard we try to understand everything that's involved. The grocery aisles are hard enough to navigate already with free-range, organic, gluten-free and so on, and these options will get even more complex with "GM-free" labelling. I just wish consumers had better access to accurate and balanced information. 

All in all, I remain in the middle; until more time has passed and longer-term research is available I will take a more nuanced approach, but I'd like to see how GMFs will stand the test of time. My inherent and long-standing instinct, albeit as a privileged first-world citizen, is to eat food that’s as close to nature as possible. Would I buy a pink pineapple, genetically enriched with a healthy antioxidant that was 100% safe and healthy? I think I’d still be as hesitant and untrusting as I am of self-driving cars, because neither "feels right", which is the default position most consumers are taking for now. 

However, in researching this blog, I do feel better educated and my mind is definitely more open. I hope I'll be less inclined to take the headlines at face value either way, and I’ve most certainly learned to always vet the source of information. There is no consensus yet and perhaps that's a good thing as the stakes are so high, but I hope somehow, somewhere, the advocates and resisters can find common ground to work together in the interests of safe and sustainable global food supply.

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