What is GM food?
What is a “genetically modified organism” or GMO, referred to occasionally as ULO, an “unidentified living organism”? Contrary to what certain people would have us believe, they are not the further continuation of what society has produced up to now. Admittedly, since selection of the first species of the Neolithic period, man has favoured cross breeding in order to obtain the best yields or high resistant varieties. But until recently, only mixes have been proposed with varying results. The production of GM DNA is a different procedure, since it fundamentally changes the structure and even the function of living organisms. Researchers play magician, introducing genes into another organism by bombarding cells or manipulating a virus. They carry out an unlikely process by “tampering” with nature through genetic “contamination”, which they hope will have positive effects but of which they are incapable of really assessing the implications.
Are GMOs useful?
The utility of GMOs is the main argument of those that defend them, starting with the companies that produce it, most of which are North American. Agriculture and health are the two main arguments put forward.
The range of GM plants in agriculture is impressive: corn, rice, potato, tomato, sunflowers, colza, beetroot, tobacco, and in the near future wheat, banana, cucumber, melon, strawberries, lettuce, apple, peas, snails, salmon… Supporters claim these modified substances have only positive effects: increased yields, greater quantities of vitamins or increased resistance to the most toxic herbicides. This approach is particularly developed by the American company Monsanto (the world’s leading producer) which markets transgenic seeds and the herbicide to which they are resistant. GM crops are supposed to reduce workload and increase productivity, whilst decreasing environmental damage.
There are several snags to this appealing logic. As far as concrete results go, studies carried out over the years on millions of hectares in the USA show that the fluctuations in results of GM crops are equivalent to those in traditional crops and that there is no economic justification to favour one over the other. Technical obstacles also exist. Several agriculturalists make use of crop rotation. If corn, colza and sunflowers are artificially given the same resistance levels and a farmer decides to alternate the crops, there is a risk that these plants will proliferate uncontrollably. Such a phenomenon has already been observed. In 2002, transgenic corn unfit for human consumption, was contaminated by 500,000 tonnes of soya intended for our food and everything had to be destroyed. Mix-ups can also occur when these products are sold. In March 2005, the company Syngenta admitted it had mistakenly sold genetically modified Bt 10 corn, unauthorised for sale, instead of another (Bt 11 corn). Furthermore, the argument of minimising pollution through reducing inputs and herbicides or pesticides holds little weight, as statistics from America and Canada indicate a trend of increased consumption of phytosanitary products with the development of GM crops (1).
Amongst other significant risks is the fact that resistant genes are transferred by pollination to related non-edible species, the risk that GM DNA resistant to antibiotics may interfere with certain medical treatments, and the increased dependence of farmers who must continue paying royalties at each harvest including the times when their fields have been accidentally contaminated. In addition, a majority of modified organisms are more fragile. This risk is particularly significant in our era of increasingly unsettled climate patterns. In light of all these issues, seeing GM food as a solution to the problem of world hunger is inconsistent and demagogic. However, even the Vatican, usually relentless on questions concerning the manipulation of life, is allowing itself to be convinced.
The benefits of GMOs to medicine production is a more delicate matter, which has been used in a rather sordid way, bringing parents of children suffering from genetic problems and anti-GM militants into conflict with one another. Beyond the dramatic nature of these situations, three issues make for further debate. To begin with, many medicines can be produced without genetic manipulation. This is the case for insulin or growth hormones. GM is only justified in terms of cost reduction. Furthermore, even when resorting to transgenic technology may prove inevitable, it could be carried out in a controlled environment. Thirdly, do people who invite parents in desperate situations to appear in front of cameras think that these people would continue to support GM crops in open fields if they were told that the risk of GMOs being the cause of new genetic abnormalities in millions of children cannot be scientifically ruled out?
Are GMOs dangerous?
Nobody can seriously claim that GMOs are safe. Researchers regularly declare that fears of GMOs are not “scientifically based.” But this is an understatement which means that their safety cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, rather than denying the fact, researchers argue that today, nothing is 100 risk-free. But is this plausible? It is not a question of rejecting modernity or research, but of evaluating whether the secondary risks are “ethically acceptable.” Would we ask passengers to board a plane with under-qualified staff under the assumption that “nothing is 100 risk-free” and that the plane could crash even with experienced pilots?
It is no longer even a question of “improbable risk” as several cases confirm the existence of serious problems both in the transmission of “wandering” genes, in the reliability during production and in toxicity levels.
In 2000, German researcher and professor Hans Hinrich Kaatz of the Research Institute on Jena bees, observed the transmission of a modified gene from colza to bacteria in the digestive system of bees. This shows the barrier between species can be transgressed by GM DNA, and certain genes can pass into our intestinal flora or even into our bodies.
The reliability of production methods is another worrying issue. In 1996, the company Monsanto obtained permission to market its Roundup Ready soya variety in Europe. The agreement was signed on the basis of a very strict scientific protocol, which stipulated the presence of a single fragment of a gene. In 2000, a second fragment was found. One year later, a Belgian researcher, Dr de Loose, discovered a third fragment of unknown origin, the presence of which was unexplainable (2). Despite these shortcomings and unforeseeable consequences, European health authorities did not ban the marketing of GMOs which have been in our food for eight years.
In May 2005, the British press reported that MON863 genetically modified corn, sold in the U.K., had been the subject of a secret report by its manufacturer Monsanto, which showed that rats had developed abnormalities on internal organs and changes to the blood, which leads us to the question of possible health risks to those who eat this corn.
(1) Ceballos (Lilian) and Kastler (G.) OGM, sécurité, santé. Published by Nature et Progrès 2004 pp57.
(2) Agence France Presse (French Press Agency), April 3, 2002.
Frédéric Durand, Nature et Progrès, september 2005.