Guest debate: Should we be worried about GM foods?
In a recent open letter to the British public, academics, activists and Hollywood stars warned of the dangers of GM foods. Here, pro-GM labelling campaigner Robyn O’Brien and scientist Dr. Gia Aradottir debate the advantages - and possible dangers - of genetically modifying our crops.
Robyn O'Brien began investigating what goes into food in America when her own child suffered an allergic reaction. She argues that the introduction of GM crops to the US in the mid-90s and the massive increase in food allergies since then isn't a coincidence.
Pro-GM labelling campaigner
Posted on: Wed 12-Nov-14 12:55:15
(22 comments )
The landscape of childhood has changed. It is now much harder for our children to live a life free from food allergies, diabetes and obesity. Nowhere is that more obvious than in America.
Something is going wrong with the health of our children - in the US and in the UK, ours will be the first generation of kids who could have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
In a Letter from America, which we presented to Downing Street yesterday, campaigning groups and individuals like myself are urging British parents to take notice of what is happening in our country, so it might not happen in yours. I am urging you: do not accept genetically modified crops.
Maybe you've not thought about it before. Maybe you're asking, why?
There are a lot of reasons to exercise precaution around GM crops, but for me, the absence of any long-term science around their impact on health is one of the most urgent.
Ill health impacts our lives in so many important ways. Our children's health is already changing the face of American families and our economy. We spend 18 cents of every dollar on health care, managing disease. The pharmaceutical companies can't keep up with demand, and now there are shortages for drugs used to treat cancers.
I believe the solution can be found in the kitchen, not the medicine cabinet. When our youngest child had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a breakfast of blue yoghurt and eggs, we joined the growing number of American families dealing with this condition. It changed everything. I quickly learned that today, 1 in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy. I looked into the ingredients in our food supply and realized that there was so much that we hadn't been told about genetically engineered ingredients and the chemicals that are applied to them.
When our youngest child had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a breakfast of blue yoghurt and eggs, it changed everything. I quickly learned that today, 1 in 13 children in the US has a food allergy.
The potential for genetically engineered foods to cause allergic reactions is one of the reasons why 64 countries around the world choose to label these foods for their citizens, while 27 countries – including France, Italy, Norway, Switzerland – have either total or partial bans of GM crops.
Food allergies have been sky-rocketing in the United States in the last fifteen years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 265% increase in the rates of hospitalisations related to food allergic reactions in eight year period between 1998 and 2006, and the sales of EpiPens, a life-saving medical device for those with food allergies, has also seen a record 36% sales growth.
Whilst correlation does not prove causation, the introduction of GM crops into the US in the mid-1990s has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in a range of diseases including allergies.
Proteins incorporated into GM Crops were found to have similarities to known allergens, and because of this are suspected allergens. This is particularly true for proteins in GM Soya and the Bt protein used in GM Maize, both of which are widely used in the US food chain.
Scientific evidence is continuing to mount, courageously presented by doctors like Mark Hyman, MD, in his ground-breaking book, The Blood Sugar Solution, and paediatric specialists like Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Alan Greene - and it shows clearly the role that diet and nutrition play in the health of our children.
"Children born outside the United States had significantly lower prevalence of any allergic diseases (20.3%) than those born in the United States (34.5%),” said the study led by Jonathan Silverberg of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.
This - the fact that US kids have more than a 1 in 3 chance of having allergic diseases, like food allergies, asthma or eczema, while kids born in other countries around the world had a “significantly lower prevalence” of 1 in 5 - is the reason why myself and so many mothers have driven the labelling laws in each State - so that we can stop the escalation of these conditions, so that grandchildren will not be burdened in the same way.
American children are sounding the alarm bells. Mothers hear it, fathers hear it, and we urge those around the world to listen, too.
If you allow GM crops to be grown in your country and infiltrate your food system, you risk developing the same problems we now labour under in the US. It also makes our own efforts to label and regulate GMO’s in our country more difficult. It is going to take collaboration to address the needs of a world population that is burdened by both disease and malnutrition, but if we work together, we can revitalize our global food system, ensuring healthy soil, healthy fields, healthy food and healthy children.
By Robyn O'Brien
Dr. Gia Aradottir is a scientist working with genetically modified organisms. She says we should accept that food security is an issue in the UK, and that GM is a possible solution.
Scientist working in Chemical Ecology
Posted on: Wed 12-Nov-14 12:55:15
(22 comments )
Like most of us I have different roles in life; in my personal life I am a mum, and in my professional life I am a scientist. My work sometimes involves genetically modified organisms.
There are some misconceptions about genetic modification of plants which have already been answered, but I know that by using modern breeding techniques we can safely improve the food we grow, both in terms of nutrition and sustainability. I believe that if we use these methods responsibly they can be of great benefit to us.
In western society, we love new things. We get excited by new technologies, we upgrade our phones regularly and we want the latest computers, iPods or tablets. Our kitchens are full of gadgets to improve our lives and save time - I got incredibly enthusiastic about my new bread maker. We also like new things when it comes to food, people get behind the latest superfoods, eating goji berries and kale crisps aplenty. So what about food production and GM?
Just like getting the latest upgrade, technological advances in agriculture can be of real benefit to us. We need to produce more food on our agricultural land and reduce the inputs into agriculture (fertilisers, weed-, disease- and pest controls), while looking after our agricultural land so it continues to be productive. It is now possible to engineer specific desirable traits into plants using genetic modification that in many cases would not be possible using conventional breeding.
To me, any small step towards improving food security for everyone is hugely important. We need to consider the risk of not embracing these technologies against the benefits.
Food security is a real issue, and not just in developing countries. Most of us will remember when the UK experienced the worst flooding in centuries, two years ago. People were forced out of their homes and many had to live without electricity for days or weeks. A very wet Spring in 2012 affected the subsequent wheat yield as well as the quality of the grain, and in December that year, there were reports of the need to import wheat from Germany and price increases on loaves of bread.
The UK has some of the best scientists in the world, and earlier this year The Sainsbury Laboratory successfully grew the first GM potato that is resistant to late blight - the fungal disease which caused the potato famine in the 1800s - using a gene from a wild relative of the potato. This could drastically reduce use of fungicide when growing potatoes, which are currently sprayed ten or more times per season.
Another leading research group at Rothamsted Research has engineered Camelina plants to produce omega-3-fish oils which are beneficial for health and help protect against heart diseases. These omega-3 fatty acids don’t usually accumulate in plants and currently we get them mainly from marine fish, either wild or farmed. The fish itself doesn't make the fatty acids, but gets them from their diet - currently more than 70% of all the fish oil harvested each year is used by fish farming to feed the fish we then eat. Having a plant with the ability to produce these would create a sustainable way for the production of these important omega-3-fish oils and reduce the pressure on depleting fish populations in our oceans.
To me, any small step towards improving food security for everyone is hugely important and it’s the reason I go to work every day. In my opinion we need to consider the risk of not embracing these technologies against the benefits. We need to be prudent and sensible in our approach, but open minded. There are now increasing limits on the chemicals which are available to protect our crops from pests and diseases, which means that improving both the resilience and performance of our crops becomes even more important. Each trait that is developed, whether it's Camelina plants that can produce omega-3-fish oils or potatoes that are resistant to blight, needs to be assessed on its own merit for the benefits it can bring.
By Dr. Gia Aradottir
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
It's very easy to judge GM foods when your belly is full. But if you cannot feed your family because your crops have failed again then maybe we need to give nature a little tweak.
Is it just me or has the anti-GM post been posted twice? I can't see the post from Gia Aradottir.
It's not about feeding the world, it's about profit.
GMOs might in themselves be safe, who knows - but the pesticides that are sprayed onto them at higher levels than conventional crops certainly are not safe, either for us or the environment.
Widespread use of GM Corn,Soya and beets in American food is not the only dietary difference between UK and Europe.
The food/farming industry in USA is incredibly powerful, and lobbying has stopped the banning of many food additives, pesticides and hormone/drugs (in farming) which are banned in UK,Europe,Canada and Australia... Any of these could also be Behind the differentials in allergy rates.
These same lobbyists are trying to force Europe to open it's borders to allow banned food products in (and deny us the right to clear labelling). This would include hormone injected meat and dairy and GMO soya, corn and beets (these are in pretty much EVERY American processed food, unless it's certified organic). Currently any American food sold here (look at a pack of Reece's pieces for example), should by law have an amended label to declare it has GM ingredients.
People are so unaware of the protection we (in Europe) have with our excellent food, drug and toxic substances laws- and have no idea we are being pressured to lower our standards, drop our labelling laws and deny consumers a choice.
Suggesting we should grow GM plants to produce Omega 3 to protect against heart disease is truly bizarre. Protect yourself against heart disease by eating less and exercising more.
Robyn O'Brien's article is scientifically sloppy in the extreme. Designed to scare you by linking together whole bunch or stuff without any causality.
The hard to swallow truth is that without GM crops the developing world will continue to suffer famine and health problems due to vitamin deficiencies.
Golden rice was a development which increased vitamin A in rice to prevent blindness. But due to opposition from the Anti GM lobby the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children. Golden rice development is continuing supported in part by the gates foundation.
It is easy to be anti GM from the comfort of your centrally heated kitchen. Am all for labelling food properly, but we need GM to help solve the nutritional problems of the developing countries.
Society needs groups like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to hold big companies accountable when they put their profits before our health, as they too often do. But society must also hold advocates accountable when they let their passions blind them to the facts and, in pursuit of their values, stop the introduction of technology that can help protect the vulnerable, the weak and the poor of this world
"Whilst correlation does not prove causation, the introduction of GM crops into the US in the mid-1990s has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in a range of diseases including allergies."
"Diseases"? Like what? Malaria? Polio? Ingrowing toenails? How can something so completely vague be even worth saying?
And hear hear elastamum I think that is an extremely good and well put point - neither unchecked corporates nor unchallenged advocates.
Do people really believe that GM foods cause allergies? Yes allergies are a complex multifactorial disease but I can't imagine the theoretical mechanism by which GM food could cause allergies.
It is a myth that GM will feed the world. Fifty percent of GM ingredients are used for biofuel and the other half go into making ingredients that fuel the junk food industry. i.e. high fructose corn syrup etc. Likewise, GM has never produced consistently higher yields or larger profits which is why so many farmers around the world don't want to use it anymore. GM technology is 20 years old - it is not a new or effective way of solving hunger or getting missing vitamins into our food. Despite, the biotech industry's attempts to convince us otherwise, it simply doesn't work. We need to find more advanced, better and dare I say, sustainable ways to feed a growing global population.
@ArgyMargy - The omega-3 GM crop is about trying to stop overfishing by giving fish a source of omega-3 that isn't other fish!
@ stillinneedofadvice - you're conflating other issues and calling it GM. Biofuel isn't necessarily GM. Where food goes isn't a result of whether it's GM or not. The agricultural industry is vast - this isn't because of GM.
People who are against using GM to try and solve problems like vitamin A deficiency in certain parts of the world need to take responsibility for the cost of not doing this. What is a sustainable solution to vitamin a deficiency?
Society might want to think about the impact of handing over control of their foods to the large corporations who are currently trying to impose laws that will mean they are able to sue Governments who reduce their profitability by such means as labelling GM foods etc.
The TTIP and TPP are trade agreements being discussed pretty much behind closed doors - but the outcomes have the potential to be fairly severe for people trying to avoid GM crops, and for those who prefer to grow their own crops, and for those who are smallholders who go to farmers' markets etc.
Smallholders in the USA have already been sued and shut down because of Monsanto - people are under thread of imprisonment because of Monsanto - it's actually nicknamed "Monsanto Law" in the USA because it allows them rights that over-ride the Government.
Allergies are indeed multi-factorial but I still think that the increased use of pesticides may have some bearing on it. And remember that a large selling point of GM crops was supposed to mean less use of pesticide - but that's not what happened.
@Thumbwitch - I agree that TTIP is happening behind closed doors, and although a lot of what has been written about it is quite hyped up and sensationalist - the lack of transparency is worry enough.
I find it frustrating that every 'debate' about GM seems to descend into Monsanto this and Monsanto that. Preventing the use of GM, as the current situation in EU, means we'll never see any of the potential benefits of the technology.
And the ridiculous point is that you can have two crops that are genetically identical - one produced by conventional breeding, one produced by GM - and only one would have to go through years and years of tests and regulations. Where is the sense in that!?
I am anti-GM crops. I fail to see their "benefits" as being higher than their risks. As I said to a lecturer many years ago, which has rather been borne out since, the problem with it is that it is uncontainable, and we have no idea what the knock-on effects will be; and worse still, once it's out there, there will be no way of going back.
Mexico don't want it. GM corn has affected the production of many of their traditional crops.
Guatemala don't want to give "Monsanto Law" house room. They're wiser than many Western nations, IMO.
It's not just Europe who don't want a bar of it.
And then there are the bees...
I am shocked that people think GM is a solution to world starvation.
There is currently enough food to feed everyone on the planet - and more.
The reason why many go hungry is NOT to do with lack of food.
It is to do with access to land and distribution of resources, for a start.
GM is bad news for poor farmers because it is an expensive technology.
GM also ties farmers into using the pesticide, for which the GM seed is modified to resist.
GM serves the companies which patent the seed. Once a seed is patented, it can be owned. Farmers in North America are sued for having unlicensed GM seeds arrive on their land.
As for Golden Rice, there are far cheaper and safer ways to prevent Vitamin A deficiency.
The International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology (IAASTD) report - to which over 400 scientists worldwide contributed - concluded that GM is not appropriate for alleviating hunger.
Instead, the IAASTD report said that agro-ecological approaches were the most appropriate methods for tackling food security and hunger.
That is because ecological approaches do not need expensive technology or equipment to produce sufficient food; these methods nourish the soil thus ensuring food for future generations. By building up organic matter, they also help prevent drought.
Inexpensive and safe methods of feeding the world already exist. We do not need such a risky technology such as GM with its unforeseen and unpredictable health and environmental consequences.
These websites give more information including about the IAASTD report mentioned above.
Coincidentally, a news item has just cropped up (ha!) in my FB news feed that Russia have banned GM products, at least for the next 10 years.
I think this debate misses the points on both sides.
A vague idea that GM causes allergies isn't the anti GM stance, and the idea that GM can feed the world is a corporate propaganda stance.
When I think about GM I can see that it is a modern/technological type of natural selection and is quite scientifically exciting. Insert this gene and the crop will be resistant to x disease, or will grow in x conditions, etc.
But then I think about the unknowns. If we did insert that gene, what are the incidental consequences? When will they become clear? Will they be advantageous or damaging?
And next, yes I do think about the ethical responsibilities of the companies that own the technology, or the Monsanto this and Monsanto that argument
Finally, it makes me think about where we go from here, our future, our planet, our race and I have to switch off. Stop thinking about it because it hurts my head. I'm just not convinced GM can come without consequences that we might regret and moving too fast with it is the very worst thing we can do.
Dr Aradottir, you really really need to read and reflect on the recent paper by Nicholas Nassim Taleb et al. They are renowned scholars of risk, and they say you are risking global ruin.
I am of the opinion that handled correctly GMO may be of benefit in small areas. Its a science that could have great potential, but could equally give negative results if handed with less care and research.
We need to uphold the EU regulations and proceed with caution when we change not only the food we eat, but anything that may impact on our countryside and farming land for generations to come.
Other non EU countries do not have the regulations or the laws in place that we currently have the advantage.
The more I hear of the positive work of Rothampsted scientists I am hopeful that the true benefit of this science may help the next on this planet. But equally I hear the negative side. The ongoing damage growing food from GMO seeds handled by those with influence and unethical practices who may be working perfectly legally in other countries.
Food production is constantly changing, the food we buy is not just food, its a product and is made for profit. Not every company works in ethical ways, and some have harmed human health and land we live on.
we should maintain our caution and have the ethical right as parents to choose to feed our families with GMO food or not.
We in UK take for granted our food label rights in this area, but, I suspect with the power that global food companies have there may be an erosion of our rights in this area. We need a wake up call, we need to think carefully about how our lives and how our health may change if our current laws are ignored, eroded or removed with regard to food law, food production and its links to GMO.
The paper I linked to above is sufficiently important that I thought I should quote the abstract, with one sentence highlighted:
"The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it. PP is intended to deal with uncertainty and risk in cases where the absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge carries profound implications and in the presence of risks of "black swans", unforeseen and unforeseeable events of extreme consequence.
This non-naive version of the PP allows us to avoid paranoia and paralysis by confining precaution to specific domains and problems. Here we formalize PP, placing it within the statistical and probabilistic structure of “ruin” problems, in which a system is at risk of total failure, and in place of risk we use a formal "fragility" based approach. In these problems, what appear to be small and reasonable risks accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm. Traditional cost-benefit analyses, which seek to quantitatively weigh outcomes to determine the best policy option, do not apply, as outcomes may have infinite costs. Even high-benefit, high-probability outcomes do not outweigh the existence of low probability, infinite cost options—i.e. ruin. Uncertainties result in sensitivity analyses that are not mathe- matically well behaved. The PP is increasingly relevant due to man-made dependencies that propagate impacts of policies across the globe. In contrast, absent humanity the biosphere engages in natural experiments due to random variations with only local impacts.
Our analysis makes clear that the PP is essential for a limited set of contexts and can be used to justify only a limited set of actions. We discuss the implications for nuclear energy and GMOs. GMOs represent a public risk of global harm, while harm from nuclear energy is comparatively limited and better characterized. PP should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs."
And another news item - the Hawaiian island of Maui has declared a moratorium on GMO crops - so Monsanto is taking them on legally to say that their decision is legally flawed and to force them to accept GMOs
Golden Rice turned out not to be the answer to vitamin A deficiency as a huge amount of rice would have to be eaten in order to provide enough beta carotene (which is converted to vitamin A) and moreover you need the right fats in order for it to be absorbed. Rice is also problematic in Asia due to arsenic content so it is important not to eat too much if possible.