Genetic engineering (GE) – the technology that directly manipulates the genes of an organism, be it a plant, vertebrate or bacteria – has been with us for nearly 50 years. And it’s a subject that remains fraught with controversy. Expat Living contributor CATHIE HEARNS shares her thoughts on GMO. How safe is genetically modified food and what’s the impact on the environment and farmers.
The first genetically modified food crop was introduced to the US market in the mid-1990s. By 2018, nearly 475 million acres of genetically modified (GM) crops including maize, soybeans, rapeseed, cotton, papaya, potatoes, rice, squash, sugar beet and tomatoes had been planted across 26 countries.
While humans have used selective breeding and cross breeding for thousands of years to bring about more desirable traits in plants and animals, these methods can take a long time to develop and it is difficult to make very specific changes. However, by using genetic engineering (GE) techniques, scientists claim they can make more precise changes in a much shorter time period. This technology has been used to create crops that are promoted to have higher yields, a greater resistance to pests and herbicide tolerance, for example.
Ramping up the chemicals
While this all sounds great on paper, reality has painted a different picture. Yields may not have increased significantly but the emergence of superweeds and superbugs, resistant to both the GE crops and their associated pesticides, have. The introduction of these crops in the US resulted in a 239 million kilogram increase in the amount of herbicides being used between 1996 and 2011; in 2011 alone, GE crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-GE crops. This has created a burden of increased costs to farmers and health risks to everyone involved along the chain, from growers to consumers.
Glyphosate, probably the most commonly used herbicide worldwide, was first brought onto the market by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup in 1974. It was subsequently classified as a Class C carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1985. Yet, in 1991, the same year that Monsanto was developing its first glyphosate-resistant crops, the classification was changed to a Class E – “evidence of non-carcinogenicity in humans”. Nearly 25 years later, the WHO’s cancer agency classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
A study by the University of California San Francisco in 2016 discovered glyphosate in 93 percent of urine samples collected across America. Couple this with the recent groundbreaking study that revealed how low doses of Roundup (thousands of times below what is permitted by regulators worldwide) causes tumours and liver disease in rats as well as high rates of premature death, and the alarm bells start ringing.
Even with these concerns on the increase, GE technology has created a second generation of seeds that are now resistant to 2,4-D, a component of the famous “Agent Orange” that has been linked to Parkinson’s disease and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The US Department of Agriculture conservatively estimates that the use of these new GE crops will increase the use of 2,4-D by 200 to 600 percent.
When using more expensive GM seeds, the farmer also locks himself into using the pesticides that the crops are resistant to, creating a win-win situation for the four dominant corporations in this self-perpetuating industry – Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva (formerly DowDupont), BASF and Syngenta/ChemChina. As the genetically modified seeds they create are novel life forms, they can be patented, and their use and distribution controlled. Between them, these companies have unprecedented power to control agricultural practices worldwide and suppress competition. This poses a serious threat to the national food security and diversity of any country where small scale farmers are being displaced by biotechnology.
Some countries are taking a strong stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Earlier this year, Peru renewed its moratorium law prohibiting the entry and production of GMOs within its borders for the next 15 years, keeping their food supply safely in the hands of the 2.2 million small-scale farmers who provide around 75 percent of the country’s produce. Mexico has also banned GE corn and glyphosate-based herbicides while Tanzania announced a halt to GM crop field tests.
So how do you know if you’re consuming GMO products? Simple answer: you don’t! There is no international consensus on mandatory labelling of genetically modified food or food that contains GM ingredients. While that is about to change in the USA, the new regulations will be directed solely at grocery products, and loopholes will exempt many foods. Food sold in restaurants or on airlines is not required to carry any labelling; similarly, meat and poultry, even if they are fed on GM products, are not covered by the labelling law. Most GMO crops become ingredients in other foods, too – think corn starch, corn syrup, canola oil and more – so they are pretty hard to escape.
And genetic engineering doesn’t stop at crops. Genetically engineered mosquitoes were recently introduced in Florida to try and control mosquito-borne diseases. GM non-biting males were released so they can mate with the local disease-carrying females to produce female offspring that die in the larval stage – that is, before they can spread disease.
If history is anything to go by, we should keep an eye on this experiment as I have no doubt that nature will once again find a way to bite back!
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