GM Foods – Solving Hunger or Creating Chemical Cocktails

Between 1999 and 2005, a reported 850 million people were malnourished worldwide (Skoet & Stamoulis, 2006.) The world’s population is expected to reach about nine billion by 2050 (Suzuki, 1999), and available farm land is decreasing (Egide L. Nizeyimana, 2002.)This means that global food provisions must increase in order to supply the growing population (UN E&C Council 2008.) Genetic engineering of food crops as a means of yielding higher quantities as well as better quality produce has been suggested as an answer (Coghlan, 2005). However, recent controversies about the reliability of claims made about higher crop yields, in addition to public distrust of government control of GM food, clouds the argument for this solution. Many books and journal articles are questioning if genetically modified (GM) foods can alone solve Third World food shortage, and in comparison, very few support it.

The new face of hunger

In his (March 2008) article in the Washington Post, the Secretary-General of the United Nations – Ban Ki-Moon highlighted a newly emerging threat to the poor and starving people of the world (Ki-Moon, 2008.) Soaring food prices as well as deflating real wages are affecting fragile democracies and food security. People are buying lesser amounts of food and/or cheaper, less nutritious food, and by doing so are affecting their future health. Ki-Moon calls upon the UN to meet urgent humanitarian needs, strengthen on-going UN programs that are fighting world hunger and build drought and flood defence systems to lessen impacts of weather related distresses to micro agricultures. He calls for increase of agricultural production by ‘introducing vital science and technologies that offer permanent solutions for hunger’. Does the Secretary-General mean GM technologies are part of the future action?

Living with genetically modified foods

The certain differences between traditional breeding (cross breeding within the species’ gene pool that has been with us since ancient ages) and genetic engineering (taking a specific gene out of one genus and placing it into another organism) are clear. It is possible to cross a potato with another type of potato naturally but not with a lemon. Even when groups that are likely to be closely related do succeed in traditional breeding, the litter is generally infertile, like mules for example in the case of horses and donkeys (Anderson, 2000.) With the help of genetic engineering, bio-scientists could place an herbicide resistant gene taken from bacteria into a soy bean to significantly enhance the traditional farm’s chance of controlling weeds, since weed killers could be then sprayed on fields without hurting the soy bean crop. Gene technology provides new ways of identifying particular characteristics of living organisms and transferring them.
Genetically modified foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. In the early 1990’s, GM foods were released to the market without labelling due to the then non-existent laws (Anderson, 2000.) Currently the sale and use of GM foods on the Australian and New Zealand market is controlled by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ.) Despite the relentless and transparent process for assessing the safety of GM foods, FSANZ admits that ‘…the goal of the safety assessment is not to establish the absolute safety of the GM food, but rather to consider whether the GM food is comparable to the conventional counterpart food…’ meaning that they only check the GM food’s chemical composition and not the future effects of the product (FSANZ, 2008.)
It is true that millions of people have consumed GM foods or food ingredients without undesirable effects on their well being, and similarly – there have been no reports of deaths caused by the consumption of GM foods (Roller, 2001.) Nevertheless in countries where hunger is more prevalent than Australia, there are no ‘more-sophisticated’ tests available to ensure public safety – due to expensive set ups of authoritarian bureaucracies. Even though international regulatory services are available to these countries, the implementations of the outcomes of these services are ignored due to the influence of international biochemical companies (Murray, 2003.)

GM foods and corporate globalisation in the Third World

The advances of mainly North American bio companies (Monsanto, DuPont, etc) and the favourable reception by the American public have given GM foods a disputed image. The organisations and their predecessors built their fortunes on local agricultural business operations and were also involved in the ‘Green revolution’ starting in the 1940’s. The debated aspects of this agricultural transformation in the Third World and the questionable business ethics of these companies are the origin of preconceived distrust from consumer protection bodies in Europe (Borlaug, 2000: Murray, 2003.) Africa, where allegedly GM food production could help local communities’ hunger has proved to be an effortless catch by biotechnical operations. Imposed foreign interests are creating confusion with no clear strategy about risk assessment, while access to scientific literature is difficult and public debate is not encouraged.
Regardless, African countries are going ahead with GM food crops. As Maryke Steffens’ June 2008 article states ‘Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda are preparing for trials with Bt cotton – engineered to carry the insect-killing Bt toxin. Kenya is pursuing transgenic maize, sweet potato and cassava. Nigeria is looking into Bt cowpea, and virus-resistant cassava is in the pipeline in Nigeria and Uganda’ (Steffens, 2008.)

Asia is not only the world largest producer and end user of food (Feffer, 2004), but has its own problem with food shortages due to its natural disaster occurrences. Should the continent adopt the American attitude towards GM food (that it is safe to eat, safe to grow, and the only way to feed populations) – then the new varieties of crops will change the world. If Asian countries prefer the European view of caution, by labelling GM products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to their source, globalised biotechnology will not have the opportunities it hoped for.
In Central and South America more than 52 million people suffer from malnutrition or hunger (FAO, 2008.)Yet strangely enough, the region is one of the biggest exporters of food. Agricultural GM technology is widely used in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. During the early years of introducing transgenic crops into the region, biotech companies did not charge farmers royalties to use the technology. But now that farmers are keen, the multinationals are pressuring the government for payment of intellectual property rights. Paraguayan farmers have to pay Monsanto $2 per tonne (Altieri & Pengue, 2005.)

Scientists are getting it wrong

Sir David King – former Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the United Kingdom Government Office of Science claimed how useful GM farming could be in feeding the Third World using an example of crop trials around Lake Victoria in Kenya (Poulter, 2007.) During the trial he suggested that scientists discovered chemical identities in plants which attracted root destroying pests. He proposed that by taking this chemical gene element out of crops and inserting it into grass that grow besides commercial plants will encourage pests to eat the grass rather than the food and in turn the crop will produce up to 40-50% more yield. Sir David got it wrong by not properly describing the research in Africa which had no connections to GM technology. Scientists involved with the project found plants that were naturally able to keep weeds away and attract pests. This so called ‘push and pull’ system resulted in the better than expected crop produce. Sir David later resigned from his office.

A virus resistant GM sweet potato, which was developed by Monsanto in the US, failed a three year test in Kenya in 2004. (Gathura, 2004) The transgenic sweet potato was imported to Kenya for tests after it was developed to have a coat protein responsible for virus resistance. The initial genetic engineering work was done at the Monsanto laboratories, using virus-resistant technologies. The study articulated concerns whether the gene expression was adequate or it failed to address the diversity of virus in this region or just that the gene construct was inappropriate. Curiously during the trials non-transgenic crops used as control produced much more sweet potato compared to the transgenic ones. The tests have raised questions that bio-engineered techniques tried out of the continent may not be replicated in Africa with laboratory results.
Australia’s top scientific body, CSIRO was involved in a GM food related controversy recently. Following CSIRO’s campaign to convince the Greenpeace endorsed ‘GM-Free Chefs’ charter’ members not to boycott GM food products, it was revealed that the organisation’s Plant Industry Deputy TJ Higgins have made inaccurate claims. (Wilson, 2008) His CSIRO letter headed personal message to the charter’s top 50 chefs stated assurances that “independently reviewed tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM”. His declarations were dismissed by nutritional biochemist Dr Judy Carman, who was employed by Western Australian government to carry out independent studies into the safety of GM foods. Dr Higgins is CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM Field Pea. The invention process was abandoned because toxicologists found it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice. In his letter to the chefs he also claims that ‘it is untrue to say that GM food has not been tested for human safety. It has, and very widely. These independently reviewed tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM.’ One of the co-operator of tests of Higgin’s GM Pea, toxicologist Dr Aprad Pusztai, disputes this as he says: ‘There is only one partial clinical study with one GM crop (RR soybean) done in Newcastle and published in 2004… No other human study has been published.’ This study found that genetically modified material might survive in the human intestine, something which is not reassuring for the public. The biochemist’s and the toxicologist’s comments raise doubts whether Higgins, as a plant industry scientist, qualified to make the claims in his letter campaign.

GM Foods – solving world hunger or chemical cocktails?

World hunger is not a myth. The collectively held beliefs that have no basis in explaining world hunger are. We let to believe that there is not enough food in the world to feed the hungry. Then why is the Third World providing a large chunk of our planets daily food? GM foods have been proclaimed as a new agricultural revolution, then why are countries (India, Mexico, Philippines) that allegedly benefitted from the last agricultural revolution of the 1940’s still have a hungry population? Should we accept the claim that GM foods will provide the hungry with food, more in quantity and better in nutrition, we are still poised with the problem of distribution, rising prises and poverty.

Arguably genetic modifications of living organisms have been with us since cross-breeding and hybrids, but now scientists are able to manipulate animal and plant cells to the extent that was unimaginable 20 years ago. Gene technology has well-known functions in medicine (insulin, cancer-treatments, etc) not just in our food chain, GM is not evil. However, scientists’ work and reputation can be quickly destroyed when innovations in gene technology get rushed through in commercially funded studies or field tests with possible errors.

Hugh Mackay says, in his ethical and moral aspects examining book titled ‘Right and wrong’ that, ‘Freedom to choose is no freedom at all unless it is accompanied by the confidence of knowing we have made the right choice.’ GM foods will not solve world hunger, and we have not got enough knowledge to safely say it is harmless or dismiss it as chemical cocktails. More research and public education needed.

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