How should we judge generically-modified food?
Posted on April 2nd, 2017
All of us, even those living in remote parts of Sri Lanka or India have been eating Genetically Modified (GM) foods for decades. Most US or Canadian flour is from GM wheat. The bread, buns, etc., consumed by everyone is made of GM flour. Similarly, most Soya products are from GM soya. Many types of legumes including Dahl (“parippu”) are also increasingly based on GM strains. Sri Lanka’s Dahl comes mostly from Canada, albeit often via India. Canola (“Canada-oil”) was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques, and not GM. However, about 80% of the canola grown in Canada now uses a GM variety to make it usable in tandem with the modern herbicide glyphosate. GM-Canola is used all over the world including Europe where it is called “rapeseed oil”. It contains an essential omega-3 fatty acid that our bodies cannot make.
All the food items we eat, without exception today are NOT wild varieties, but results of genetic modification over centuries by farmers who have hybridized plants to “improve” their qualities such as yield, durability, taste, digestibility etc. We can take the rice plant as an example as rice is so basic to us. The “wild” varieties are hardy, do not respond to fertilizers, and don’t produce seed too frequently, as the plant conserves its energy till it is optimal to propagate. Wild varieties need much water, a longer growth time, and the harvest is 1/3 to 1/2 that of modern varieties even if fertilizers are added.
However, man wants food all the time, so we look for rice that gives two harvests, or three, four or even six harvests per year, with minimum water, minimum land area and minimum effort! The traditional method of producing improved hybrids was “trial and error “, because no one knew what controlled the “traits and characteristics” of a plant, or when plants gave fruit, except that it was triggered by the seasons. The early agriculturists were like explorers who did not have maps, and did not have the capacity to send out scouts to secure information, but used trial and error taking many decades to create new breeds. Sri Lanka’s rice scientists who began their work in the 1920s are unsung heroes who have fed the nation while fighting to keep abreast with the demands of an exponentially increasing demographic going from 5 million in 1920, to a topping 22 million.
But all this changed dramatically with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, as well as the revelation that the hereditary “traits and characteristics” of a plant or an animal are written down in a cryptic language which uses just four letters. Each letter is represented by a molecule, and thus there are four fundamental molecules whose arrangement (like beads on two parallel strands) in the DNA molecule spells out all the hereditary traits of a person in a million-word “book” known as the “genome” of that organism. The genome dictates how the embryo will grow, and what cell tissues are to be built and in what manner, etc., as the organism or plant grows. Some traits are hard-wired into “dictator genes” and the code does not allow changes to those specified by those genes – e.g., the colour of one’s hair or eyes. But many other traits are determined by a “committee” of genes, and the way the committee expresses itself is not all that definite. It is subject to environmental and external manipulation.
Today, because scientists have figured out the code language used by nature, we can read the detailed plan spelt out by the DNA of the rice, i.e., the “rice genome”. We can intelligently tinker with it, modify it and create the type of rice plant we want, instead of tedious trial and error breeding. We may like to make a rice plant which has a bit of the carrot gene, giving a golden coloured rice which also has vitamin A, and hence prevents blindness. We will return to the saga of “golden rice” below.
So, in principle there is great potential and one would ask, what are the negative effects? We can even clip out “dictator genes” and introduce totally different genes and create “Frankenstein” creatures. But such exotics will not survive. However, even with good, adaptable and useful mutations, there are requirements that we do not jolt our environment. The negative effects come from the incapacity of the environment to adapt to completely new organisms. If we take a rice plant and attach into its DNA the traits of a different aquatic plant, how will the new plant interact with the already existing plants? It is like introducing a mis-fit stranger into an established society. Many countries oppose admitting large numbers of immigrants too rapidly because it claims that it cannot “absorb so many so fast”. England took to Brexit to avoid the dicta of Brussels on having to absorb a chigh quota of immigrants. Similarly, novel GM plant forms cannot and should not be added to the eco-sphere without acclimatization and further modification to make them “good fits” rather than “misfits’. But GM gives us that capability.
In fact “new” GM products are modest alterations, and yet there is a whole community of people who are dead against the introduction of of GM strains. Golden rice, with a carrot gene in it was to be introduced to India, but groups like those of Shiva Vanadana, a “green militant” with a strong following, opposed it purely because it is a GM product, and “on principle”. The anti-GM campaign of Vandana et al., used the technique of mis-information to frighten people by talking of “Franken food”, alluding to the science-fiction story of Frankenstein, the horribly gone-wrong experiment about a person with a transplanted brain.
The opposition of people like Shiva Vandana to GM products is mainly political. They argue that if the farmers become used to GM seeds, then they will become dependent on technology companies which produce them, where as today they have their own seeds and hence guard their “sovereignty”. The likes of Shiva Vandana have made a career of becoming “heroes” of “anti-capitalist, nationalist” militant movements who have annexed themselves the political advantages of public fear-mongering. The opposition to GM foods kindled in India led the Indian government to abandon “golden rice”, while it is estimated that millions of children will continue to be born blind, due to vitamin A deficiency in the mother’s diet. Vandana and others ignore the fact that the society that she lives in today is technological and not artisanal. The computers people use, the cars they ride in, the TV-radio news they see, hear or read, or even the ball-point pens they use, all come from technology, and not produced by artisans in the village. Sri Lanka exports about $11 billion worth of goods and imports $21 billion worth of goods (2014 data). So Sri Lankans are totally dependent on the outside for their existence, and basing its opposition to GM foods on “seed sovereignty” and such stuff is pathetic. Even the rice we grow depends on the import of chemical fertilizers like TSP and urea.
The plan to go “organic” proposes to imported organic fertilizers from India! The claim that chemical fertilizers will build up toxins like As and Cd in the soil, while organics will not is a total myth cherished by the true believers of the “toxin-free nation” propaganda. Any informed reader going through the SEMA webpage hosted by the Presidential Secretariat will be shocked by the fake facts presented there. Sri Lanka’s soil is not full of toxins introduced via fertilizers. If anything, Indian “organic’ fertilizers, coming from a more polluted country are like to have more toxins and more noxious effects. Neither the soil, the fertilizers, nor the herbicide Glyphosate is toxic enough to need wearing boots and other “protective gear” by our farmers. However, boots may be useful to protect them from hookworm and such tropical parasites that may be found in the soil.
It is not just that there is false propaganda on GM foods, herbicides, fertilizers etc., but there is also the creation of “fake facts” by various ideologically committed anti-GM environmental groups. These fake facts are published in fake look-like “science journals” with high sounding names, and the “news” of some dangerous effect coming from GM foods is distributed via the internet. On July 4, 2016, some 117 Nobel Laureates from the life sciences, health sciences etc., issued a joint press release via the Washington Post, admonishing Green Peace (a well-known Green-activist movement) to not to fund biased “research” designed to create biased outputs that they can use for propaganda.
Biotechnology is a science that is available to every one, and the way to not to be slaves to “foreign technology” is to master it. Vietnam has invited Monsanto to set up a bio-technology and GM Research Laboratory and teaching institution in that country, ,instead of attacking this most famous biotechnology and agriculture firm. Vietnam knows that even though it defeated the US in the war, it still needs American know how to become part of the modern world and extract itself from poverty and hunger. Sri Lanka too should master biotechnology and genetic engineering, and use it for its own needs. Since many familiar crops may not be able to face the expected global warming without suitable modification, genetic engineering will be badly needed , and rapidly, to avert future famines.
Give any specific GM food, every individual case must be judged on its merits. All discoveries and inventions, and not GMO products, can be used for good or bad. That is, discovery is morally neutral. It is up to human society to use them properly, and also to adopt them at a speed which does not disrupt the existing norms of societies. Today, one of the problems is that scientific innovation is applied too rapidly in the race to beat rival markets. Hence the long-term effects of anything, not just GM products, are not adequately evaluated, especially in a society where business is in collusion with politics which has gone corrupt, where as the state must exercise a controlling hand on business which are hell-bent on profit making.