What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
GMOs are plants and animals which have been genetically altered under laboratory conditions by the insertion of genes from other organisms into their natural genetic makeup.
Why should I be concerned about GMOs?
To understand the debate surrounding GMOs, we must first understand the problems associated with the world’s food supply. According to the United Nations (UN), the number of hungry people in the world rose to an astounding 852 million in 2002, an increase of 18 million since the mid-1990s. The harmful effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are another problem, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that chemical pesticides cause 20,000 deaths a year and millions of cases of poisoning, the majority of which occur in developing countries. The continual reduction in the world’s biodiversity is a further cause for concern. Biodiversity is vital for proper nutrition, the development of new medicines, and adaptation to harsh environments and resistance to harmful pests. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been reduced by three-quarters over the last century. Just a dozen species of animals provide 90% of the animal protein consumed globally. Half of plant-based calories in the human diet are provided by just four crop species. This makes the world’s food supply more vulnerable to viruses, diseases and pests. The reduction in biodiversity is therefore regarded as a serious threat to both food security and sustainable agriculture.
What is the debate surrounding GMOs?
Right now the vast majority of GM crops (approximately two-thirds) are designed to tolerate herbicides. The company Monsanto dominates this technology, having introduced the first major GMO product, “Roundup Ready” soybeans, in 1996. The “Roundup Ready” soybeans are designed to withstand the company’s own Roundup herbicide. The next most common crop is Bt corn, which is inserted with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, and gives the plants a toxic protein that kills the corn borer pests.
The debate surrounding GMOs is about whether or not genetically engineered foods can help improve the situation for the world’s hungry by providing people with nutritional foods in a manner that is sustainable and has the least possible impact on the environment and on health. To assess this fundamental question, scientists, policy makers and the public alike have to ask themselves whether or not GM foods are safe to eat and whether or not biotechnology can increase food yields and biodiversity in a sustainable manner. Equally important is whether or not GMOs reduce pesticide use, what their overall costs and benefits are to farmers, whether viable alternative exist in their place, and whether there could be potential for disastrous environmental effects.
What are some potential benefits of GMOs?
Those promoting GMO use generally agree that technology has helped improve food production. For evidence, they point to the “green revolution” when agriculture became industrialized and large-scale fertilizer and pesticide use became common practice. GMO advocates believe that GMOs will continue this tradition of technology advancing food security for the growing human population. Critics argue that the indicators used to determine these improvements have not properly measured the long-term environmental effects of pesticides and fertilizers. GMO proponents believe that GMOs have the potential of reducing pesticide and herbicide use, providing better nutrition by increasing the nutritional content of crops, improving crop yields to feed a rapidly growing world population, promoting market competitiveness, and overcoming environmental conditions such as drought and heat.
What are some potential risks of GMOs?
Critics argue that GMOs can reproduce and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby spreading in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. It is difficult to maintain a separation between GMO crops and non-GMO crops due to uncontrollable cross-pollination. Although GMO supporters believe biotechnology can overcome these problems with more advanced products, critics of GMOs argue that the long term effects of this contamination are unknown and potentially disastrous for biodiversity, food security and health. Scientists argue that GMO genetic material is very much unlike ordinary genetic materials. The gene-constructs are said to be designed to invade genomes and to overcome the natural species barriers, thus making the cross over of bacterial, herbicide, and pesticide resistance a much more common occurrence than in non-GM foods. The creation of “super-bugs” that could affect humans and crops is said to be a very real threat by some scientists who warn of the heightened potential for this type of gene transfer. This view contrasts with that of GMO supporters, who maintain that genetic engineering is simply an improvement on the slow and imprecise agricultural methods used for decades, such as selection, hybridization, wide crosses and use of radiation.
Critics argue that the introduction of GMOs into the environment will have adverse effects on beneficial insects, plants and ecosystems. The interaction of the introduced genes with the original genes of the organism may have the potential to cause previously unknown allergens and toxins. GMO critics argue that the introduction of genes is still a new science with too many uncertainties to be safe for widespread agricultural use and consumption. They contrast this to conventional foods which have been part of the human food chain for thousands of years and evolved over billions of years. GMO critics call for more extensive testing of GM goods, more transparency and independence in the research process, and more regulatory oversight before the release of the foods to the public. Until then, many critics call for a complete ban on GMOs, along with increased funding to sustainable agriculture techniques which have proved successful in the past.
Why is an Arts/Science perspective important in addressing GMOs?
Many now agree that science and technology are never neutral or value-free but always embedded in a social and political context. Scientists and the Sciences have been criticized for adopting an overly reductionist perspective in addressing pervasive global problems. Although scientists’ perspectives work brilliantly in addressing specific problems in closed systems, they have their limitations in the complex systems in which humans live. The so-called genetic determinism perspective, whereby genes are seen to lead directly to certain physical characteristics and behaviours has long been discredited. We now know that organisms, however minute, are constantly interacting with their environments and this, along with their particular genetic compositions, determines their traits. Despite idealistic visions, scientists are now realizing the limitations of trying to change the world’s most devastating problems, such as world hunger, with the addition or alteration of single genes in GM foods.
Furthermore, scientists, and molecular biologists in particular, have been criticized for having their research and its applications driven by profit rather than public good, and for the technological research being heavily directed toward the priorities of the developed world. This, they say, is as a result of many in the field of genetics having vested interests through partnerships with or shares in the biotechnology industry. Scientists such a Miguel Altieri and the well-known Vandana Shiva argue that agricultural research is often oriented towards agricultural industry research rather than research that supports the needs of poor farmers. Research that makes use of indigenous practices and human resources rather than biotechnology, they argue, can provide an affordable and sustainable means for poor farmers to improve their condition without endangering the environment. They further reason that “first world” farming practices and scientific research cannot simply be imported over to the “third world” where the physical, economical and social environments are drastically different. These scientists argue that GMO technologies are created for giant, American super-farms rather than the small-scale agriculture characterizing the majority of the developing world. Other important considerations for scientists and the public are the ethical and legal implications of patents on seeds, GMO products, and even naturally occurring genes.
A complete understanding of the impact of GMOs requires us to understand not only the science and the technology behind GMOs, but the social, political, and economic implications of these products.
What is the political climate surrounding GMOs?
Europe and the U.S. are engaged in a giant struggle over agricultural market domination. Some similarities exist between the strategies used by the two powers. For example, both maintain enormous subsidies for their agricultural sectors, which lower international prices for many agricultural commodities, thus reducing the competitiveness of products grown in the developing world. However, there are differences between European and American subsidy programs. The subsidies from the EU have a significant environmental component, while the U.S. subsidies prioritize supporting the largest actors. The U.S. does not consider organic agriculture while the EU values it highly, and the EU takes a cautious approach to GMOs, while the U.S. is a leading advocate of GMO products.
The forum for this agricultural battle between the U.S. and the E.U. soon became the World Trade Organization (WTO). This happened when the U.S. claimed the E.U.’s cautious approach to GM foods represented a barrier to trade. In 2004 the E.U. lifted its ban on new GMOs. The U.S. would not lift its challenge and pursued further charges over Europe’s regulations on labelling GMO products and Europe’s rigorous system of verification and tracing of GMO foodstuffs.
Many see developing countries as the greatest victims of the GM food battle. Foreign aid sent to developing countries has been criticized as an underhanded way of imposing GM foods on the developing countries without their knowledge or consent.
Are there any international agreements to regulate GMO use?
The Biosafety Protocol is the first international agreement to regulate the international trade of GMOs. It is unique in that it advocates sustainability, prioritizes consideration of human health, and adopts the “precautionary approach.” The “precautionary approach” is from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states that “[w]here there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In the case of biotechnology, the risks are to biodiversity and human health. The Protocol simply requires countries to label shipments of seeds and organisms when they are meant to be released into the environment, and to include information about the genetic alteration made. According to the Protocol countries are permitted to reject GM imports if they have scientific reasons to doubt their safety. They are also permitted to consider socioeconomic factors in their decisions. The Biosafety Protocol came into force in September 2003 and stems from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed by over 150 governments at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992. Countries such as the U.S., Argentina and Canada which produce 90% of GM crops world-wide have not ratified the Biosafety Protocol.
(artwork by Jane Wang)