Could the health benefits of GM foods outweigh their risks?
Today, genetic modification seems to be the answer to everything. Yesterday the Times revealed plans for breeding genetically modified pigs in order to produce organs accepted by the human body to reduce waiting times for transplants. In the current global hunger crisis, GM foods could prove useful in producing more yield for less acreage and thus feeding more of the population. However, there is more to GM food than its quantity and colour; within the past two weeks the media have drawn attention to a purple tomato created to fight cancer and a soya bean that could help prevent heart attacks. So if GM foods provide solutions not only to malnutrition but health issues, why has Europe taken a stance against them?
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Absence of reports of human illness or environmental hazards implies safety
A decade ago we rejected GM foods, taking the side of environmentalists who branded them “Frankenstein Foods”. Indeed it seems unnatural to mess with the genetic growth cycle of food, but if we consider the potential health advances GM crops could make, it seems a small sacrifice to pay in comparison. In 2007, the USA and Brazil were seen to have heavily embraced GM; it made up 91% of the soya bean crop in the USA, and 65% in Brazil (1) Altogether the number of countries growing GM crops is estimated to be twice the size of Britain (2), yet there have been no complaints of human illnesses or environmental disasters of which the environmentalists had initially warned. As people have been consuming the food with no adverse consequences, it would seem that the food is as safe as scientists maintain. Arguably we are being over-cautious in our approach to GM, constantly raising supposed disadvantages; perhaps such revolutionary biotechnology is deserving of our faith.
Though GM foods have been around for a decade, 10 years hardly seems long enough to demonstrate all the potential side-effects of GM crops. Many have voiced their concerns of the inevitability that there will always be unpredictable health hazards; Dr Mae-Wan Ho explained that many of the genes put into food come from genetic parasites that can invade cells and consequently cause genetic damage and erratic physiological and biochemical effects (3). Arguably, we are likely to be healthier as a result of eating natural food, not that which has been tampered with.
Furthermore, though no evidence of such effects in humans currently exists, research carried out on animals is partly responsible for our suspicion of GM foods. Dr Pusztai found that rats fed on GM potatoes developed a lowered immune system and various damage to vital organs, including a shrunken brain (4). If a GM product was approved for sale which bore similar risks, the human race could be quickly diminished, rendering any efforts to improve quality of health a complete loss.
Revolutionary techniques aimed at battling fatal illnesses should not be abandoned
Colossal time and money is being invested into research centred around the advantages GM food could impose on our health. It is clear that those developing GM foods attribute exceptionally high value to them, as scientists have been so bold as to suggest their function in repelling cancer (5). Some might argue that such resources could be better spent focusing on cures for diseases themselves, but by experimenting in this area, scientists are proposing to us another dimension in which we can fight for better health.
If all goes to plan and GM food is proven to be safe, much strain could be removed from the NHS. People might prefer to eat fruit containing vaccines rather than to undergo injections and may build up their immune systems and reduce their reliance on the health services. As a result this could impact hugely in society in general; if numbers requiring healthcare were small enough, the government could dedicate more of its budget to other worthwhile causes.
(5) The Independent, Monday 27 October 2008
While research into GM foods looks promising for improved health, we cannot make assumptions without evidence of the long-term effects. As long as these are not found, the crops could benefit society’s access to healthcare. However, if a banana can build up resistance against hepatitis B and thus prevent disease, it is just as likely that disease will be promoted if we experience unforeseen results after consumption. Rather than promising health benefits, GM foods could endanger the human race.
Several specific concerns have been raised with regard to the potential health risks. In addition to its unpredictable nature, the genetic modification of food may give rise to a whole host of new allergies, many of which would not be known at the time the food was put on sale. Scientists also suggest the use of antibiotic-resistant ‘marker’ genes in GM crops will make humans resistant to antibiotics and less able to fight disease (6). Clearly the health benefits are not all they are made out to be.
Arguments against GM food are purely environmental; health is a more significant concern
Pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are among those who oppose GM foods: environmentalists. They object to herbicide-resistant crops, which would allow farmers to spray herbicide, killing the weeds yet not affecting the crop, and to use a smaller amount of herbicide which are expensive. However, such opposition groups would be concerned at its impact on the environment.
Despite society’s modern commitment to the interests of the environment, it seems difficult to argue that its safety should be prioritised over health. The majority of us wouldn’t notice the harmful effect of herbicide, but we would certainly be aware of the estimated strength of our immune systems if we were to consume certain GM foods, once approved, which would develop our health.
To say those who disagree with GM foods are purely environmentalists is to say those who benefit from it are farmers alone. Such an argument has been put forward as farmers are saved large amounts of money; they grow more crops on less land with less fertilisation, so the large farming businesses will welcome GM foods to feed their profits.
While saving health is undoubtedly of more value than saving the environment, concerns are not on such a small scale. The threat of antibiotic resistance is a serious one and should not be ignored, particularly as we may not be able to control GM crops once they have been released into the environment. In Europe it was found that sugar beet which had been genetically modified to resist a certain herbicide had inadvertently acquired the genes to resist another (7). Surely this would defeat the object of GM foods made for the specific purpose of improving health if the crops themselves managed to escape human control.
GM can make crops easier to grow by making them resistant to insects and herbicides.
Through the process of GM, plants can be made to resist weed killers and be insect resistant. Because GM crops can be made to be resistant to weed killers, farmers can easily spray their whole fields with weed killers. They effectively kill off unwanted weeds, while their GM crops remain unharmed. Because farmers wouldn’t have to till as much to get the weeds out if they used GM friendly weed killer, it would have resultant environmental benefits. Because GM crops can be designed so that they are largely insect resistant, the crops can virtually be free of such insects. Opponents argue against this because they say that many kinds of animals will be wiped out in a domino effect if insects become extinct from the food chain as a result of insect resistant GM crops. They say GM crops that are resistant to herbicides will morph into hybrids(super weeds) which will not be able to be killed or controlled. Influencing the food chain is always a risk. This risk is associated with all types of farming. For example, an organic farmer who hoes his field would be equally effective at destroying potential feed and habitats for birds. Not all insects die from GM plants because not all insects feed on GM plants. Weeds that are resistant to one herbicide such as glyphosphate can be killed by another herbicide such as glufosinate.
We don’t need to eat GM food to be healthy
Many of the supposed benefits of GM food are extracted from natural ingredients; why not just eat them? The cancer-defying tomato contains the same pigments found in blueberries, blackberries and cranberries, which are all healthy foods we could eat and gain the same nutrition value, without the risk of unpredictable side effects. Similarly, the soya bean created to protect against cardiovascular disease and diabetes takes omega3 acids which are found in oily fish to do so. Again, people could stick to eating oily fish, or taking vitamin supplements containing omega3. Both options will increase a person’s health without any inherent risks.
If people put a bit more time into considering the value of the food they eat, and did regular exercise, we wouldn’t always be on the lookout for some artificial means to restore us to health. It seems that scientists today welcome any excuse for experimenting with revolutionary technology. Arguably, there is only a perceived need for GM foods, not an actual one.
While blueberries and fish will no doubt contribute to our health, there are some ingredients of GM food which would not occur to us to eat. The two long-chain omega3 fatty acids invested in the soya bean are produced by algae (though consumed by fish), which certainly would not look appealing on a dinner plate. The soya is also made up of fungal and plant genes; most would not have access to such genes but may welcome the opportunity to add them to their diet to further increase health.
In today’s society, many people simply don’t have the time to cook a proper meal, let alone think about what it consists of. Perhaps if GM foods were available in supermarkets people could reap the health benefits without devoting considerable amounts of time to the subject.
It is a huge waste of money to spend on something which carries a lot of risks
While growing GM crops is thought to be an economical benefit to farmers, this only applies to large farming businesses who can afford to buy the seeds in the first place, at twice the price of average seeds. These farmers must be willing to buy new seeds each year as most are patented and will become sterile after 12 months. If GM food is to solve world hunger, seeds will have to be offered to small farmers and those in third world countries at a reduced rate (8).
However, while these large farms benefit from higher profits, the Monsanto corporation, responsible for the overall engineering of GM products, is described as a ‘multi-billion dollar world-wide outfit” (9). The testing process of GM foods is not only controversial but hugely expensive. Vast amounts of money are spent on extensive, complex testing of the foods which is essential if they are to be put on sale for human consumption. But is it really worth the hassle and resources? It seems absurd to invest millions of pounds in preparing food which supposedly will provide health benefits if detriments to health appear inevitable in the long run.
Large quantities of money are invested each year in developing medical treatments which fail, or are found to have adverse consequences. It is not expected that all research will find all products to be successful, or the need for testing would be redundant. Yet this is analogous to the research processes for testing GM foods which hold potential health benefits; it is simply another method of improving health without medicine and so should be welcomed with open arms.
However, this is not the case. Many in Britain instantly criticise GM foods on the basis of supposed risks which have not yet been discovered in human testing. Once the foods have been approved and have passed the criteria of several different phases of experiments, they will surely be safe for human consumption. Given the success of GM foods in other countries during the past decade, it is likely any risks which do occur will be much smaller in proportion to a stronger immune system.
If we allow GM foods, where will science stop?
Mixed views on the production of GM foods exist in the UK and worldwide; the topic is hugely controversial. Some oppose it because it guides farmers in a direction as to which seeds to grow and restricts their personal choice, others because of its unnatural stigma and the majority out of concern for health. Once GM foods are implemented, we may have no control over the modified crops which may function in their own ways as a result of inadvertent genetic abilities.
However, this is the least of our problems. Like any new development, it is unlikely that the developers of technology will be willing to stop there. Traditionally doctors prevented illness through medicines, and now food is suggested as a more direct route. But how much more direct can developments get? It has already been announced by scientists that it will be possible to create GM humans by 2020. Prof Collins suggested in 2001 that only a decade later, most disease genes would be recognised. While this could prove advantageous as drugs could be tailored to the individual’s genetic make-up to provide against side-effects, it could also encourage people to exploit such knowledge to enhance their own genetic health (10). If GM foods are going to be implemented, strict boundaries must be imposed with evidence of which food is suitable and which is not.
It seems ironic that the majority’s argument against GM foods relates to their impact on health, when this is exactly what recent research is aiming to promote. Such developments are benevolent; it was recognised that third world countries experience blindness due to a vitamin deficiency so GM “golden” rice was created to contain an exceptionally high content of vitamin A. GM foods have been at the forefront of public debate for ten years, initially with the aim of protecting crops, but now with a much more valuable cause. As complex research is critical to the success of the food, it is unlikely that GM foods will be available in Britain for a while. Furthermore, it is one thing interfering with food, but another thing to interfere with humans. Those that favour GM foods will not necessarily give in to the concept of picking and choosing one’s own genes; while it is uncertain if such technology would be put to good use, it is clear that GM foods will offer significant health benefits.
Big business has demonstrated predisposition to valuing profit over community interests.
The legislative framework and historical behaviour governing and guiding the operation of big business is geared towards maximising shareholder returns . This propensity has been demonstrated time and again and might suggest that the GM companies are not modifying the food in the interests of better health, but of better profit.
This is reinforced by the nature of many of the GM modifications, including terminator seeds (infertile seed requiring a re-purchase of seed stock each season), various forms of pest and herbicide resistance potentially leading to pests (and weeds) resistant to the current crop of chemical defences. One of the more disturbing manifestations of this is the licensing of genes that are naturally occurring and suing those who dare to grow them, even if they are there because of cross contamination by wind-blown seeds or some other mechanism.
One has only to look at the history of corporations under North American and similar corporations law to see the effect of this pressure to perform on behalf of the shareholder. The pollution of water supplies, the continued sale of tobacco, dioxins, asbestos, and the list goes on. Most of those anti-social examples are done with the full knowledge of the corporation involved, e.g. tobacco sales. Incidentally, one effective (though difficult) way to reduce pressure on your national health service or public health system is to stop people, selling, buying and using tobacco.
An article by Michael Pollan  illustrates this quite starkly:
"By ''opening and using this product,'' the card stated, I was now ''licensed'' to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year - something I've routinely done with potatoes in the past - I would be breaking Federal law."
 Dr Janis Sarra quoted in Bakan, J. The Corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power.
 Michael Pollan (1998-10-25). "Playing God in the Garden", The New York Times Magazine, [online] available at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03EFD8143DF936A15753C1A96E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
What do you think?