I’M A SCI­EN­TIST… AND I HATE GM FOOD

UN­EARTHING THE FOOD IN­DUS­TRY’S DIRTY LIT­TLE SE­CRETS

Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS - LUCY HUANG

With the pop­u­la­tion of the Earth ris­ing, sus­tain­able food sup­plies should to be top of the menu for the eco­log­i­cally-minded. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing food ap­pears to be one of the best so­lu­tions – but Lucy Huang shares her con­cerns about GM food and the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try’s dirty lit­tle tricks.

As a child, while my friends and class­mates were all busy watch­ing car­toons

like Poké­mon and Pinky and the Brain, I would watch shows on the Food Net­work. My love af­fair with food went be­yond eat­ing: I loved ev­ery­thing about food, es­pe­cially watch­ing peo­ple cook. I was mes­merised by shows like Two Hot Tamales, Call­ing

All Cooks and The Two Fat Ladies; I was es­pe­cially fond of the orig­i­nal Iron

Chef that had been dubbed in English for Amer­i­can view­ers. Up un­til high school, I was con­vinced that I was go­ing to be a chef – but at high school it was science that be­gan to steal my at­ten­tion.

I wasn’t aware that my two love af­fairs did not al­ways see eye-to-eye un­til the sub­ject of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) foods came to my at­ten­tion. My in­ner foodie cringed at the idea of us­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles that had their ge­netic in­for­ma­tion al­tered. My ‘chef friends’ on the Food Net­work had al­ways ad­vised me to use only the best pro­duce in my cook­ing – us­ing fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles over frozen or canned va­ri­eties. But this ad­vice only ap­plied if the pro­duce were in sea­son – so I de­vel­oped a habit of let­ting Mother Na­ture de­cide what was on the menu. So why al­ter crops when we could just let na­ture do its job? It was not un­til my dad sug­gested that I go to a col­lege with a strong bi­o­log­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing pro­gram that I even thought of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of GM foods. Hav­ing grown up in a rel­a­tively im­pov­er­ished part of China dur­ing the height of com­mu­nism, my dad was acutely aware of the is­sue of world hunger – an is­sue he hoped I would one day solve with my com­bined love of science and food. But even know­ing that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods might one day solve the global food prob­lem, I was still against them. But when I went to col­lege things did not seem so sim­ple, and I be­came in­creas­ingly con­flicted over the GM food de­bate.

Fid­dling with na­ture’s beauty – for good rea­son

My ini­tial reaction to GM foods was one of science taint­ing a beau­ti­ful and nat­u­ral process by tin­ker­ing with ge­netic in­for­ma­tion. My great aver­sion stemmed from the ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing process seem­ing so strange and novel. But as I con­tin­ued my ca­reer in bi­ol­ogy, I re­alised that ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing was a way of giv­ing na­ture a help­ing hand. I was con­verted! And I wanted to con­vince peo­ple who were against GM foods that the science be­hind it had been long es­tab­lished and was com­pletely safe. But it was not that sim­ple. The de­bate on GM crops doesn’t just in­volve bi­o­log­i­cal con­cerns but eco­nomic and le­gal ones too. That there were eco­nomic is­sues sur­round­ing the use of GM crops came as lit­tle sur­prise: one of their key fea­tures is their abil­ity to pro­duce a higher yield – mak­ing them more prof­itable for farm­ers. One mod­i­fi­ca­tion that can im­prove yield is a crop that is en­gi­neered to be re­sis­tant to cer­tain in­sects, mak­ing it less sus­cep­ti­ble to dam­age. For ex­am­ple, 94% of the cot­ton pro­duced in the US in 2012 had

been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to be pest-re­sis­tant us­ing a tech­nique called gene in­ser­tion. Gene in­ser­tion is like copy­ing a sen­tence from one piece of writ­ing and putting it in­side an­other – but it is a piece of DNA, and in­stead of a piece of writ­ing, it is an or­gan­ism’s ge­netic in­for­ma­tion – its ‘genome’. So it’s like copy­ing a sen­tence from The Catcher in the Rye and past­ing it in the mid­dle of To Kill a Mock­ing Bird. The process of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing an or­gan­ism is not new to sci­en­tific re­search, hav­ing origi

nally been dis­cov­ered in the 1970s. To­day, sci­en­tists in­sert pieces of DNA into bac­te­ria or yeast ev­ery day in or­der to ‘en­gi­neer’ de­sir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics. For the pest-re­sis­tant cot­ton, a frag­ment of a gene from the bac­terium Bacil­lus

thuringien­sis, which is nat­u­rally found in soil, was in­serted into the cot­ton’s own DNA. The bac­terium makes a pro­tein that dis­rupts the di­ges­tive sys­tem of cer­tain in­sects, ul­ti­mately killing them – and it is the gene for this in­sec­tkilling pro­tein that is grafted into the cot­ton’s DNA. The method of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing an or­gan­ism may not be new, but the com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of GM crops has only been around for a few decades. Be­fore ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing (GE), farm­ers would use ‘nat­u­ral’ tech­niques such as se­lec­tive breed­ing, crop ro­ta­tion, ir­ri­ga­tion and pest con­trol to in­crease the size of the har­vest. It might not be ob­vi­ous, but se­lec­tive breed­ing is way of ma­nip­u­lat­ing plant genes – but in a way quite dif­fer­ent from ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing. In­stead of al­ter­ing a plant’s DNA in the lab, farm­ers will try to fig­ure out how the char­ac­ter­is­tics are in­her­ited – to one gen­er­a­tion from an­other – and mate the plants ac­cord­ingly. But in­her­i­tance pat­terns aren’t al­ways pre­dictable and grow­ers of­ten get un­pre­dictable re­sults: for ex­am­ple, a farmer want­ing taller wheat can try to mate two strains of tall wheat – but be­cause height is con­trolled by many genes, some of the wheat will still be short. In the­ory, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing guar­an­tees that the de­sired trait will be present in the crop be­cause the gene has been ar­ti­fi­cially in­serted; other tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural tech­niques sim­ply ma­nip­u­late the forces of na­ture.

The sweet taste of profit

In 1992, a GM crop fi­nally ar­rived on the pub­lic scene when the FDA ap­proved the FlavrSavr

tomato, de­vel­oped by Cal­gene to ripen with­out get­ting soft. Cal­gene was able to make this mod­i­fi­ca­tion by adding a gene that in­ter­fered with the en­zyme that nor­mally de­grades the cell wall of the toma­toes, which would nor­mally cause the fruit to soften. Th­ese toma­toes would re­tain their shape and pre­vent them from be­com­ing dam­aged dur­ing ship­ping. But this new breed of tomato was short-lived: it was taken off the mar­ket 1997 be­cause the high cost of pro­duc­tion was not prof­itable. De­spite the fail­ure of the FlavrSavr tomato, other GM crops have re­mained on the mar­ket. In fact, the land glob­ally used to grow GM crops has mush­roomed from 4.2 mil­lion to 420 mil­lion acres since 1996. In the United States, com­mer­cially grown GM plants in­clude the soy­bean, corn, canola, cot­ton, pa­paya, sugar beets and zuc­chini, with soy­beans, corn, cot­ton and canola be­ing the most pop­u­lar. To­day, 93% of soy­beans, 94% of cot­ton, 93% of canola, and 88% of corn pro­duced in the United States is the GM form.

The voice of the Chris­tian farmer

Even though 165 mil­lion acres of land in the US was used to grow GM crops in 2010, there is still con­tro­versy over whether or not we should con­tinue to use th­ese crops com­mer­cially. I was able to get more in­sight to the ar­gu­ments against GM crops when I went to the farm­ers mar­ket in Saratoga Springs, and was in­tro­duced to Michael Kil­patrick from the Kil­patrick Fam­ily Farm – a 100-acre farm lo­cated in Mid­dle Granville, NY. The Kil­patrick Fam­ily Farm’s grow­ing prac­tices are cer­ti­fied by two or­ga­ni­za­tions: NOFA

NY’s Farmer’s Pledge and Cer­ti­fied Nat­u­rally Grown. When talk­ing to Michael, his pas­sion for farm­ing and for pro­vid­ing the best food pos­si­ble was ob­vi­ous. Michael has been farm­ing since the age of five and has reg­u­larly at­tended con­fer­ences to speak about farm­ing. As a Chris­tian farmer he be­lieves “it is about be­ing a stew­ard of God’s great earth, of care tak­ing and nur­tur­ing it.” He is morally against the core meth­ods be­hind ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and what could be per­ceived to be the gen­eral tam­per­ing with an or­gan­ism’s DNA. He also has reser­va­tions about the process of com­mer­cially pro­duc­ing GM crops be­ing fairly new. It is a chal­lenge to fore­see bi­o­log­i­cal risks: how do we know whether GM foods are safe in the long run, and how can we tell for sure whether or not GM plants might have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment? Be­cause ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing in­tro­duces a for­eign gene into an or­gan­ism, could un­fore­seen is­sues arise within the or­gan­ism re­sult­ing from the gene in­ser­tion? Given Michael’s con­cerns, I de­cided to re­search whether there was any data to sug­gest that GM crops were bad for hu­man con­sump­tion. The out­come? At present, no sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence ex­ists to sug­gest GM foods pose any threat to hu­man health. But could GM crops have an un­fore­seen im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment? Since ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion es­sen­tially in­tro­duces a form of an or­gan­ism that can­not be found in na­ture, could there be a risk that ex­ist­ing species are killed off? The an­swer ap­pears to be ‘no’. The National En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act re­quires the FDA to con­sider the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact be­fore ap­prov­ing any GM crop – and I was un­able to find data to sug­gest there has been a de­crease of bio­di­ver­sity in the US since the in­tro­duc­tion of GM crops for com­mer­cial use. In fact the op­po­site ap­pears to be true: some GM plants are ben­e­fi­cial to the en­vi­ron­ment. For ex­am­ple, the use of Bt-cot­ton, a pest-re­sis­tant GM cot­ton, has brought about a de­crease in the use of pes­ti­cides, with a 2006 study of the global im­pact of GM crops, pub­lished by the UK con­sul­tancy PG Economics, con­clud­ing that the global use of her­bi­cides and pes­ti­cides had de­creased by 15%.

The great GM con­spir­acy

Even with the ben­e­fits of in­creased crop yields and de­creased pes­ti­cide use, there is still con­tro­versy that goes be­yond bi­ol­ogy. On the face of it, GM crops hold the prom­ise of a so­lu­tion to world hunger. On aver­age, GM crops pro­duce a higher yield than their non-GM crop coun­ter­parts: farm­ers in de­vel­oped coun­tries saw a 6% in­crease in yield while in un­de­vel­oped coun­tries the in­crease was a whop­ping 29%. But it’s not all good news. The ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing re­search is be­ing car­ried out by pri­vate com­pa­nies who hold patents on their GM crops and de­cide who gets to use their in­ven­tion. The only way to get a hold of this tech­nol­ogy is to pur­chase it from them – a cost that puts the crops be­yond the reach of poorer de­vel­op­ing na­tions. Those for whom GM crops of­fer the great­est ben­e­fit are the ones least likely to reap the re­wards. Even when a pur­chase has been made, the ben­e­fits are short-lived: the seeds have been de­signed as ‘ter­mi­na­tor seeds’ that only last for one sea­son. Af­ter har­vest, farm­ers must again pur­chase the pre­mium priced seeds. Patent pro­tec­tion has an­other sting in its tail.

Any farmer us­ing th­ese seeds with­out pay­ing for them may be sued for vi­o­lat­ing copy­right laws – de­spite there be­ing un­con­trol­lable forces of na­ture at play. The thing about seeds is that they are able to travel: wind can pick up seeds and move them to a dif­fer­ent field. So some farm­ers have ac­ci­dently grown crops that they do not own the rights to – only to be tech­ni­cally guilty of copy­right in­fringe­ment. Omi­nously, by March 2011, Mon­santo had filed law­suits against 60 farm­ers who had un­in­ten­tion­ally pro­duced GM crops de­signed by them. Many of my ini­tial feel­ings about the safety of GM crops have now been re­placed with con­cerns over the prac­tices of the pri­vate ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing re­search com­pa­nies. Al­though I sup­port ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing in the spirit of sci­en­tific ad­vance­ments, I have be­gun to change my shop­ping habits at the su­per­mar­ket be­cause I do not sup­port the in­dus­try that ex­ploits this tech­nol­ogy. So, while I let out a small whim­per out when I pass the frozen nov­el­ties at the gro­cery store, I feel a lot bet­ter about eat­ing my home­made straw­berry pop­si­cles in­stead of ones con­tain­ing corn syrup from GM crops.

BE­LOW: Those most in need of GM crops are

de­nied it.

Lucy Huang has a de­gree in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy from Skid­more Col­lege and is Guru’s first of­fi­cial in­tern. When she isn’t in­tern­ing for Guru, she is busy re­hears­ing for dance per­for­mances and mak­ing cups of tea at David’s Tea shop in New York City.

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