The new rose
trembles with early beauty
The babe sees the beckoning carmine
the tiny hand clutches the cruel stem.
The babe screams
The rose is silent –
Life is already telling lies.
Spike Milligan 1967
Why do I feel a need to avoid GM Foods?
At times I like to question my actions to re-evaluate their relevance. What are my needs that are not being met with GM food? I believe these fall into two categories; firstly, the need for a high degree of confidence in safety and health, and secondly, the need for ecological sustainability and social justice, these being threatened by the agricultural application of GM plants.
What is “genetic modification”?
In general we could describe it as a range of methods from plant propagation, e.g. grafting parts of plants in the garden, through to DNA modification in a laboratory. It is the DNA modification end of the scale that is of concern to many people.
The official definition, from regulating authorities, tells us that a genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism that has had its DNA modified by gene technology; or that has inherited particular traits from an organism that has been modified by gene technology.
This technology is also called “Biotechnology”; as used by the Monsanto Company.
How is it Regulated?
The control of GMO’s in Australia is through federal laws, these being the Gene Technology Act 2000. From this Act, the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) is the responsible authority. http://www.ogtr.gov.au
The stated objective of the Act is: “… to protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs.”
Also involved, is the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). They are responsible for setting standards for the safety, content and labelling. They are responsible for conducting a safety assessment on all genetically modified foods intended for sale in Australia.
Yet, we still see incidences of research organizations and drug/chemical companies making false claims and falsifying data. Whilst these incidences are minimal, they still occur. And, significantly, the regulators do not test for ethics in plant deployment and business operations of these organizations and companies.
What is its Purpose?
Besides maximizing profit for the manufacturers, the purpose of GM plants, as stated from various sources, is to improve crop yield. With many advocates claiming this crop yield will alleviate world hunger!
The “2012 Annual Letter From Bill Gates”, for the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation, states:
“… precisely which plant contains what gene conferring a specific characteristic. This will make plant breeding happen … much faster …. I say that innovation has been and will continue to be the key to improving the world.”.
And, from the Monsanto Company “biotechnology holds promise … for government and non-government advocates seeking to stave off global hunger…”. Makes me feel a little suspicious, that a profit oriented corporation is claiming such altruistic and ethical outcomes.
Typically, the GM plants are designed to:
- resist herbicides
- resist pests
- increase crop yield per plant given the same growing environment (efficiency)
Health and Safety
The health safety issue is possibly the most controversial aspect. With claims by scientific organizations, such as, the CSIRO that any foods produced will be safe to humans and the natural environment.
Yet, I read in a CSIRO publication (OGTR application DIR112 – public brochure) that the aims are “… achieved by grain-specific suppression of expression of a gene in starch metabolism.”. What human safety tests will be conducted, and how transparent and accessible will the results be for public scrutiny?
For me, the mass consumption, by others, of a genetically modified food over a very long period can bring a higher level of confidence in its safety. For GM, I’m not an early adopter!
Another safety concern is the indirect consumption via livestock feed. The standards for which need to be examined.
Sustainable Ecology and Social Justice
The deployment of GM plants in agricultural production is a significant concern to me. This being with apparent lack of consideration of overproduction for existing ecosystems limitations, and for short-term only economic gains for farmers.
The environmental problems can include increased water usage, loss of phosphorus and nitrogen and loss of biodiversity. These are not solely problems associated with GM plants, however the increases in yield will need to be considered in ecosystem services planning. Imagine the Murray-Darling Basin water problems if yield is increased, hence more water is contained in the crops harvested and removed from the region.
Pressure on farmers in poorer countries to use GM plants can cause them to become “locked-in”. Hence, after a few seasons they find it increasingly expensive to maintain and to break-out to re-establish sustainable farming methods. We know from research reports of farmer suicides in India that this phenomena is a contributor.
Primarily, better governance in poor countries to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, efficient internal distribution of food and monitoring of ecosystems, can contribute to significant gains in effective production and long-term viability. These activities can help farmers increase yield using low-impact methods without the need to resort to GM plants.
Sadly, the use of GMOs is mostly seen as a panacea “pill” to fix symptoms rather than taking action to either change or adapt to the causes of a problem!