On May 25, 2013, Tami Canal founded the grassroots movement March Against Monsanto after the failure of California Proposition 37 which would’ve required labeling of food products as GMO. Protesters were seen carrying signs that read “Label GMOs, it’s Our Right to Know” and “Real Food 4 Real People.”
All the while Monsanto only reiterated its stance that genetically modified foods were safe and improved crop yields.
What are genetically modified foods(GMOs)?
GM foods or bioengineered foods are foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using genetic engineering. This allows scientists to introduce completely new traits or express more control over old traits. Farmers have been trying to control specific traits of their crops for a long time. They accomplished this using selective breeding and, the more uncommon, mutation breeding. That’s right, mutation breeding. This is where scientists use radiation and chemicals to induce gene mutations to achieve desired characteristics. But now, bio-engineering has given humanity never before seen control over genetic traits expressed in crops. In a sense, humans have been producing GMOs long before we even started calling it a science.
There is no such thing as a lemon
The humble lemon would not exist if it were not for East Asian farmers ages ago who decided to create a hybrid between bitter orange and citron. From there it entered Europe through Italy in 2nd century AD. The carrot was purple, red, white or black. But now when someone says carrot you think orange. What changed? Selective breeding is the answer. Farmers have been making food choices for us for many centuries now. But now that scientists working for corporations are making these decisions people are a bit more concerned that profiteering may enter into the equation and sully the good name of agriculture. But then again, farmers have been selectively breeding what they believe to be the best breed without any scientific proof to improve their profit margins.
Are GM foods bad?
Before we answer this, let us look at why GM foods are produced.
Norman Borlaug is not a household name. Yet, this Nobel Prize winner is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. In the 1960s, he led an effort to successfully develop semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties which led to Mexico becoming a net exporter of wheat by 1963 when up until the ’60s Mexico was importing wheat in large quantities.
Land area is not increasing. In fact, it is shrinking thanks to global warming and the rise of sea level. Unused arable land, land which can be plowed and used to grow crops is becoming increasingly hard to find. Used to be that when humans ran out of space to grow crops we’d just cut down a forest and cultivate there. But that is no longer seen as a good idea.
Instead, what can be done is to improve the yield of crops on the same amount of land.
This is not possible with conventional crops, ie, crops that are not genetically modified. Or rather, conventional crops do provide sufficient yield, but not enough to support the rate at which the human population is increasing.
To support this “unnatural” increase in the human population we have to turn towards “unnatural” foods. GMOs are not inherently dangerous and seem to be the only way to increase food production as the world runs out of unused arable land.
So, what are the concerns?
The food safety considerations for GM crops are basically the same as those arising from conventionally bred crops, very few of which have been subject to any testing yet are generally regarded as being safe to eat. Despite this, a very rigorous safety testing paradigm has been developed for GM crops.
Three main issues when it comes to the safety of GM foods are the potentials to provoke allergic reactions (allergenicity), gene transfer and outcrossing.
Let’s look at each of these.
When transferring genes from allergenic organisms to non-allergenic organisms it has been demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. GM foods are still tested for allergenicity under the protocols developed by the FAO and WHO. No allergic effects have been found on GM foods currently on the market.
Antibiotic resistance genes are used as markers when creating GMOs. Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or bacteria in the GI tract, therefore, would be a cause for concern. Even though the probability is low for this transfer, the use of gene transfer technology that does not involve antibiotic resistance genes is being encouraged.
GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial use have found their way in low levels into products that were intended for human consumption. This migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild is called outcrossing. Countries have adopted strategies such as reducing mixing and including a clear separation of the fields within which GM crops and conventional crops are grown.
Studies conclude that “The lack of any adverse effects resulting from the production and consumption of GM crops grown on more than 300 million cumulative acres over the last 5 years supports these safety conclusions.”
Why all the hate on Monsanto?
When did Monsanto become the evilest company in the world?
Well, it was one of the companies that produced Agent Orange. So it seems like a well-deserved title.
Monsanto’s PR troubles began in the late ’90s when they tried to sell their seeds in Europe. Despite being approved by the European Union, the “Frankenfoods”, as they were called by the British tabloids did not find favor among Brit farmers.
“The Terminator”, a patented seed that could only develop once, did not help matters. Greenpeace and other environmental organizations routinely bring up “The Terminator” when the try to paint Monsanto as the embodiment of corporate evil. Never mind the fact that “The Terminator” never made it to the farms.
Since then, various environmental groups have been targeting people’s emotional triggers with email campaigns and billboard advertisements that turn them against GMOs. This is despite the fact that numerous scientists and scholars have routinely written editorials in various global newspapers that GMOs have not been proven to be bad for human consumption.
Monsanto’s bad image is also a result of them ruthlessly pursuing intellectual property infringements against farmers who are often seen as beacons of hard work and honest labor in society. In a way, the seed business is just another business to them. This stance is offensive to most of the world where farming and agriculture take on a more raw, spiritual face, especially in a country like India.
I leave you with this extract from Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry published in the journal Plant Physiology by Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug:
“The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to feed the 8.3 billion people anticipated in the next quarter of a century. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology. Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. When scientists align themselves with antiscience political movements or lend their name to unscientific propositions, what are we to think? Is it any wonder that science is losing its constituency?”
Before you go, wouldn’t you agree that it is very important that people learn how to identify fake news in this day and age?