I’M A SCIENTIST… AND I HATE GM FOOD
UNEARTHING THE FOOD INDUSTRY’S DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS
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
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.