Tag Archives: genetically modified

Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


A few things we should know about GMO

by Stan Hirst

indexI met my neighbour Elinor in the supermarket the other day. She was in Hot & Cold Cereals studying the side panel of a cornflakes box. As I strolled up she shook her head and replaced the box on the shelf. I recognized the cereal as one I sometimes buy, so I just had to ask: “What’s wrong with it?”.
“Probably got GMOs in it” she replied.
“So?” I persisted.
“They’re bad for you” she said, and wandered off to Jams and Spreads.

Two things later nagged at me about dear Elinor’s response to my question. The first was her view that “GMOs are bad for you“. That translates into a perception that a food containing ingredients derived from genetically modified (GM) crops such as wheat or flax can be harmful, even dangerous, if eaten. Is that true?

Elinor is hardly alone in this view of GM food. A 2014 online survey by Insights West amongst respondents in B.C. revealed that 66% of consumers had a negative view of GM foods and 56% favoured a ban on GM products. However, when asked why they IDontKnowfelt so negatively, a plethora of reasons was offered, including vague terms like ‘unnatural’, ‘bad’, ‘unsafe’, ‘unknown effects’, ‘better bodies’, ‘seeds’ and ‘altered’. This strongly indicates that the bulk of the public doesn’t really understand genetic modification and what it means for consumers, and that much more public education is needed on the subject (which is unfortunately complex).

We maybe need to ask a more fundamental question first. Do we even have GM foods on Canadian supermarket shelves? We know they have them in spades in the U.S. but this is Canada eh.

The answer is yes. Several varieties of genetically modified corn, canola, soy and sugar beets have been approved by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for cultivation, harvesting and processing, and so may find their way into food products sold in Canadian grocery stores. A second source could be imported fresh and processed food and products made from some varieties of cottonseed, papaya and squash and from bovine milk grown and processed in the U.S.

So how do we know that GM foods are safe to consume?

In Canada we rely on Health Canada’s assurance on that. They apply, in their own words, “science-based regulation, guidelines and public health policy, as well as health risk assessments concerning chemical, physical and microbiological contaminants, toxicants and allergens in the food supply” to protect our health and safety of Canadians.

But that verbiage is a little murky. It turns out that Canadian government agencies don’t actually test the safety of the GM crops or products we consume. Instead, their people read great tomes of information, most of it from the U.S., on the GM products in question and derive their conclusions accordingly.

In the US three regulatory agencies share responsibility for GM crop and product approvals. The Environmental Projection Agency (EPA) regulates biopesticides derived from GM live organisms (usually bacteria). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks after all the rest.

Does all this include testing the safety of GM crops and crop products used and consumed by the American (and Canadian) public?

Actually, no. The U.S. agencies get their intel on GM from the same pile of documents, study reports and assessments that the Canadian agencies use, probably plus a few more that are not passed on.

Well then, where does all the GM intel really come from?

It comes in many forms from studies on GM crops and crop species conducted by thousands of scientists in more than a dozen technical fields. These specialists are housed in labs and research facilities in universities and commercial units located throughout the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

And who pays for all this research and testing?

It seems that the majority of studies and assessments are paid for by Monsanto, Dupont (Pioneer), Syngenta, Groupe Limagrain, Land ‘O Lakes, KWS AG, Bayer, Sakata, Takii and DLF-Trifolium. These corporations collectively control 73 percent of the world’s commercial seed market and 90 percent of the global pesticide market. So basically the same people that synthesize the GM crops in the first place pay for the subsequent safety trials.

This all seems like the proverbial putting the goat out to guard the cabbages, but development and testing of GM crops is a very expensive business. It makes financial and managerial sense to let the developer and potential profiteer bear the not inconsiderable costs of research, development and product development. The alternative would be to transfer some or all of the testing to regulatory agencies and let it be paid for by the taxpayer. Suddenly there is silence in the room.

Do they test the safety of the GM crops, products and derivatives on humans? Officially no, unofficially only in the movies. GM crop and food trials utilize hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of laboratory rats and mice and other beasts, who are categorized, aged, sexed, measured, weighed, fed on GM foods and then eventually dispatched so that their organs can be examined in detail for pathological signs.

So how do they relate the feeding trials with rats, mice and other beasties with potential human impacts of eating the same GM food?

Laboratory animals have been used as surrogates for humans in clinical trials of drugs, foods and other substances for more than a century. The idea is that if a GM foodstuff is going to have any deleterious effect on a human, then it should manifest in some detectable way in a lab rat or mouse.

There is one big assumption built into the testing of all GM foods and products intended for human or domestic livestock consumption. As long as the introduced gene protein is determined to be safe (an initial step in the safety assessment) and the GM and non-GM crops are alike in all other respects (i.e. in the other 99.999% of the genes in the crop plant), then the GM crop is said to be substantially equivalent to the conventional counterpart and it is then assumed that it will not pose any health risks. This assumption is built into all regulatory approvals of GM foods in the U.S. and Canada. It satisfies the experts in the field of food safety while intensely annoying all the many opponents of GM crops and foods.IsGenModFoodSafe

There is of course a rather obvious way of assessing GM food safety, one that isn’t often openly mentioned. The fact is that some GM foods, primarily those derived from corn and soya, have been on the market in the U.S. and Canada but also in the developing world for three decades already. Foods with GM content have been guzzled by countless billions of people over that period, and so far no clear signs of ill effects attributable to GMOs have emerged.

Clearly the many learned and professional bodies which represent international professional medical and scientific opinion think that so far everything is hunky dory on the GM food safety issue, and they’ve proclaimed as much. So has Neil de Grasse Tyson for that matter!

So, if consuming GM foods poses no known risk to the consumer, then there is no problem with the production and marketing of GM crops?

Sadly, the logic extending from GM foods to GM crops is not simple. There may be no convincing evidence against the harm of consuming GM foods, but we need to be mindful of the potential problems surrounding the growing of GM crops.

Most, not all, GM crops are engineered to fit in with large-scale mechanized (or industrial) agriculture which favours monocultures and the use of large quantities of herbicides to kill weeds which compete with corn or soya crops and pesticides to kill off the many bugs that infest monoculture crops and drive down profits.

The herbicide glyphosate has been on the market for more than half a century and is now used globally to the extent of nearly 800,000 metric tonnes annually. Much, not all, of this production goes to killing weeds in monoculture corn and soya, these two crop plants having now been rendered resistant to the glyphosate through genetic engineering. The fact that the seeds and the herbicide are supplied to the farmers and agricultural co-operatives by the same companies enhances the commercial reach and amounts of glyphosate in use.

Glyphosate has been labelled “probably carcinogenic” by World Health Organization but that in itself doesn’t say too much – many agricultural chemicals are carcinogenic if applied profusely or carelessly enough or if inhaled or ingested during application. Glyphosate is used very liberally on many commercial crops. Glyphosate residues have been detected in GM foods at concentrations measured in a few parts per million, and some surveys have found glyphosate residues in human urine. Much speculation but no hard proof exists thus far for any harmful effects of these concentrations on human health. Much more important at this stage is the clear emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds on a large scale due to massive and non-selective application of the herbicide, much of it on GM crops.01roundup.adapt.1190.2

I mentioned two things that nagged at me about Elinor’s reaction to GMOs in the cereal box. One was her automatic assumption that GM ingredients were somehow harmful. The other? She had checked out the GM information on the label (and found none) but she seemed totally unconcerned about the huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the same product, details of which were fully visible on the label. HFCS is inextricably linked to obesity, diabetes, chronic disease and mercury contamination in half the North American population.

This all sounds like crossing the road while watching the oncoming car on the left and getting flattened by the bus coming from the right!