Are Modified Genes Threatening The World’s Food Supply?

Allegations of GMO crops spreading out of control have sparked a war of words.
By @FrederickReese |
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    (Photo/John Novotny via Flickr)

    (Photo/John Novotny via Flickr)

    Since Gregor Johann Mendel first cross-pollinated pea plants, science and ethics have clashed in a long series of debates and arguments about humanity’s role in controlling nature. Concerns about the rapidly shifting climate systems and allegations of genetically modified crops spreading out of control have sparked a war of words about the appropriateness of introducing genetically modified foodstuff to the public.

    Recently, anti-GMO advocates have organized marches against seed producer Monsanto. The “March Against Monsanto,” which occurred May 25, saw over 2 million protesters involved in demonstrations in 52 countries and 436 cities. Unapproved Monsanto GM wheat was found to have sprouted in an Oregon farm years after field trials for the modified seed were discontinued, leading to the suspension of wheat exports to Japan and South Korea and the filing of a litany of lawsuits from farmers.

    One of these lawsuits was settled in favor of Monsanto earlier this month. A group of organic farmers sought protection from a possible lawsuit from Monsanto in light of the discovery of traces of the company’s patented genes in their crops. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed that the farmers had no rights to block the company from suing, as the company pledged not to sue if their biotech crops accidentally mixed with the organics. Monsanto, from 1997 to April 2010, filed 144 patent-infringement lawsuits against farmers for use of their intellectual property without consent.

    While most of the corn and soybean grown in the United States come from genetically engineered seeds, efforts to label such products have so far been blocked. The proliferation of GM foods in the food supply is concerning, considering that the majority of the nation’s corn and soybean harvest is used as livestock feed — potentially polluting the nation’s meat supply. Ninety percent of the nation’s canola crop, 88 percent of the nation’s corn crop, 94 percent of the soy crop and 95 percent of sugar beets derived from genetically engineered seeds in 2011.

     

    The safety of genetic modifications

    In the 17 years since genetically engineered seeds were approved for commercial use, questions have been raised about the safety of crops grown from these seeds. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, in a 2009 position paper, stated that “safety assessment of GM foods has been based on the idea of ‘substantial equivalence’ such that ‘if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food.’

    “However, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GMO consumption, including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”

    A 2012 article from Natural News summarizes the opposition to GM crops: “Humanity has reached a tipping point of developing technology so profound that it can destroy the human race; yet this rise of ‘science’ has in no way been matched by a rise in consciousness or ethics. Today, science operates with total disregard for the future of life on Earth, and it scoffs at the idea of balancing scientific ‘progress’ with caution, ethics or reasonable safeguards. Unbridled experiments like GMOs have unleashed self-replicating genetic pollution that now threatens the integrity of food crops around the world, potentially threatening the global food supply.”

    Recently, however, the bioengineers have moved off the defensive and have begun to speak out.

    “It’s time for a new, fresh conversation around the balancing act between the demand for food and the tools and technologies we use to meet that demand,” said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, according to CNBC.

    “We still kind of talk about this like it’s brand new science,” Fraley said. “The reality of it is these products have been used in the marketplace for almost 20 years. They have a complete track record of safety that’s been affirmed by experience.”

     

    A starving world

    There is, currently, a lack of food in the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that between 2010 and 2012, 1 in 8 people in the world, or approximately 870 million, were chronically undernourished. Nearly all of this population — 852 million — lives in developing countries. Poor nutrition is responsible for the death of 5 million children per year — half of the global child deaths per annum. About 32.5 percent of all children in developing countries are malnourished.

    While there is currently enough food worldwide to provide every living person a minimum of 2,720 kilocalories per day, the food is not readily available to the people that need it, when they need it. Changing weather patterns, severe droughts and flooding are making traditional growing areas untenable, and severe poverty is denying many access to the land and means to grow their own food. In addition, overconsumption depletes the global food supply. The United Nations Environment Programme has stated that roughly one-third of all the food that is produced for human consumption is lost or discarded. The sum of the food the richest nations discard per year, 222 million tons, is nearly equal to the net food production of all of sub-Saharan Africa, 230 million tons.

    In the United States alone, 40 percent of the nation’s food supply is discarded, at a cost per year of $165 billion.

     

    A need for GMOs?

    In light of this, new technologies are needed to improve crop yields and reduce loss due to pests and unpredictable weather.

    “It is not a GM crop so much,” said Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, Syngenta’s head of biotechnology. “We need to feed nine billion people on this world. We need to do this on less land.”

    Recently, a connection has been drawn between GMOs and the decline of bee colonies. A study released last year by Purdue University found evidence that pesticide-coated corn seeds may be directly leading to the rise of bee colony collapse. These findings have been disputed by Bayer and Syngenta, but this still raises questions about the safety of GMOs.

    A discussion is needed on the future of the food supply.

    “There is still not a single documented case of harm to any human or animal consumption,” said Professor Alan McHughen, a plant geneticist at the University of California Riverside. “I encourage people to be skeptical, but these companies don’t have to assure consumers that these products are safe. We have safety assessments coming from FDA, USDA, EPA, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and every other professional medical and scientific society worldwide that said categorically these products are as safe as products of conventional plant breeding.”

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