10 REASONS WHY WE NEED BIOTECH FOODS AND CROPS
What is a GMO?
The term “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.” Most often it refers to an agricultural plant, such as cotton or maize that has had its DNA modified using a process called “genetic engineering.”
What are some examples of GMOs?
In GMOs, what is it exactly that has been modified?
How is the DNA of a GMO modified?
What agricultural plants are now available in GMO varieties?
Which countries are growing GMO crops commercially?
GMOs were first approved for planting in 1994-95, and as of 2006 a total of 22 countries (11 developing, 11 industrial) were growing at least some GMOs commercially. Eight countries were growing GMOs commercially on at least .5 million hectares of cropland: the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Paraguay, India, and South Africa.
Farmers in most European countries do not grow GMOs. In the European Union (EU) nine different GMO crop products or plants – mostly varieties of maize, soybeans, and oilseeds were approved for planting from 1994-1998. Today six EU countries including Spain, Germany, France, Portugal, Czech Republic and Slovakia are growing significant quantities of GM crops.
Farmers in many developing countries also do not yet grow GMOs. In Africa, the only country so far to grow GMOs commercially is South Africa. In Asia, The Philippines, China and India are leading growers of GM crops commercially.
What are GMOs good for?
Almost all of the transgenic crops currently being grown commercially have been designed to provide benefit to farmers by reducing the cost or effort required to control insect pests, plant diseases, or weeds. These “first generation” GM crops lower production costs for farmers, but the crop itself is not substantially different for consumers either in appearance, taste, or nutritional value. A “second generation” of GM plants designed with new traits of direct value to consumers is now beginning to appear. A “third generation” of GMOs with greater abilities to resist abiotic stress – such as drought, or heat, or salt is emerging from the research pipeline as well.
The greatest benefits from planting GMOs have so far been realized by farmers in the United States, China, Argentina, India, South Africa and Brazil where more GMOs are planted. The leading GM crops grown commercially are Maize, Cotton, Canola and Soybean.
Can small farmers in developing countries also benefit from planting GMOs?
Would small farmers in Africa be able to benefit from planting GMOs?
Reliable data on the profitability of GMO planting in Africa is limited to just South Africa, the only country in Africa to have allowed commercial planting of any GMOs so far. In South Africa, one widely cited case in which small farmers have profited is the case of small cotton farmers in Makhathini Flats, in KwaZulu Natal. These farmers have been allowed by their government to plant GMO cotton since 1997/98, and one study in 2001 showed that when they switched from conventional to GMO cotton they suffered less insect damage, sprayed fewer insecticides, and enjoyed an average net income gain of $50 per hectare per season.
African farmers might also benefit from planting GMO maize, to protect against insect pests such as stem borers. South Africa first approved the planting of GMO yellow maize in 1997, and by 2002 roughly 20 percent of that nation’s yellow maize crop was GMO, with the net income of farmers who planted GM increasing on average by $27 per hectare per year, under non-irrigated conditions. GMO white maize was introduced in South Africa in 2001. By 2005 GMO varieties were planted on roughly 9 percent of total white maize area and 26 percent of yellow maize area.
Do private multinational companies control GMOs?
In many developing countries, GMOs are being developed not by private companies but by public sector government research institutes (such as KARI, in Kenya). These national agricultural research institutes often have permission to sell the GMO seeds they are developing locally without paying any fees to any foreign holders of patents on the technology, and the local farmers that get these seeds can also save, exchange, and replant them without restriction, in keeping with the “farmers’ privileges” that are recognized in nearly all local intellectual property laws.
How will farmers in Africa be able to get access to GMO seeds?
Do GMOs carry “terminator genes” that make the seeds sterile?
Are there risks to planting or eating GMOs?
Many groups still warn against the possible risks that might be associated with GMOs. This was understandable ten years ago, when the technology was still relatively new. But now, after a decade of wide use without any scientific evidence of new risks, the safety fears that still exist are harder to credit.
GMOs must be tested for known risks to human health and the environment before government regulators approve them for commercial use. Large numbers of GMOs have now passed these tests and have been grown and consumed widely for a decade. To date, none of these approved GMOs has been shown to pose any increased risk to human health or to the environment, compared to the conventional non-GMO version of the same plant. This is a conclusion that has now been reached by a considerable number of scientific bodies, including the following:
- In 2001 the Research Directorate General of the European Union (EU) released a summary of 81 separate scientific studies conducted over a 15 year period (all financed by the EU rather than private industry) aimed at determining whether GM products were unsafe, insufficiently tested, or under-regulated. This study concluded: “Research on GM plants and derived products so far developed and marketed, following usual risk assessment procedures, has not shown any new risks on human health or the environment…” (Kessler, Charles, and Ioannis Economidis, eds. 2001. EC-Sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms: A Review of Results. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.)
- In December 2002, the French Academies of Sciences and Medicine issued a report that said, “There [had] not been a health problem . . . or damage to the environment” from GM crops (French Academy of Sciences. 2002. “GM Plants: Reporting on the Science and Technology.”).
- In May 2003, the Royal Society in London presented to a government-sponsored review in the United Kingdom two submissions that found no credible evidence that GM foods were more harmful than non-GM foods (Royal Society. 2003. Royal Society Submission to the Government’s GM Science Review. Policy Document 14/03.).
- In March 2004, the British Medical Association (BMA) endorsed the finding of the Royal Society (Genetically Modified Foods and Health: A Second Interim Statement. British Medical Association. London, March 2004).
- In May 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a 106 page report summarizing the evidence drawn largely from a 2003 report of the International Council for Science (ICSU) – that “to date, no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified foods have been discovered anywhere in the world”. On the matter of environmental safety, this same FAO report found that the environmental effects of the GM crops approved so far, including effects such as gene transfer to other crops and wild relatives, weediness and unintended adverse effects on nontarget species (such as butterflies) – have been similar to those that already existed for conventional agricultural crops.
In this report, Jacques Diouf, the Director-General of FAO, endorsed the spread of more productive GM crops into poor countries, noting that the world would need to feed an additional two billion people by 2030, including 750 million more in Africa alone. Diouf said, “Developing biotechnology in ways that contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry can help significantly in meeting the food and livelihood needs of a growing population.” (The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04: Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor? Rome: FAO, 2004)
How strictly are GMOs regulated?
GMOs tend to be regulated country-by-country, although the European Union also operates a coordinated region-wide approval and regulatory system for GMOs. Given the strong safety record associated with all the GMOs that have been approved so far, current levels of regulation would seem more than adequate.
Internationally, the most important regulatory agreement governing GMOs is the 2000 Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which entered into force in September 2003. This Protocol requires that national governments adopt a minimum set of information sharing and consent procedures when exporting or importing some living GMOs (LMOs)
What do national regulations consist of?
How are GMOs assessed for food safety?
International bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO endorse the practice of allowing GMO foods on the market if scientific testing has shown them to be “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO versions of the same food. The tests used to establish this level of food safety include feeding the food to laboratory rodents to gather data regarding its toxicity, digestivity, and allergenicity and nutrient properties.
As an example of how this process works, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) recently gave its approval to a new GMO maize variety (one that provides resistance to corn rootworm pests) after it had seen the results of a 90-day rat feeding study carried out by an independent toxicology facility complying with Good Laboratory Practice standards. The results of this feeding study were reviewed by toxicology experts at this facility, plus experts at EFSA, plus independent national toxicology experts from New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and England.
European regulatory authorities found no convincing evidence in this data of any new risks to human or animal health from this new GMO variety of maize. Similar procedures had led to similar conclusions in the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, where this new GMO variety had also been approved by technical regulators as safe for human consumption.
Can developing countries afford the costs of testing?
How are GMOs assessed for biological safety?
Does GMO maize pollen kill monarch butterflies?
In 1999 a scientist at Cornell University in the United States published the results of an experiment demonstrating that the caterpillars of monarch butterflies could die if forced in a laboratory to eat milkweed coated with pollen from GMO maize. This widely publicized study raised fears that the drifting pollen from large scale plantings of GMO maize might kill valuable “non-target” insects, and thus reduce biodiversity.
In response to this concern, subsequent studies were undertaken by six independent research teams in the United States to examine closely the impacts of GMO maize pollen on non-target species under actual field conditions, rather than in a laboratory. In 2001 the results of these follow-up studies were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. All the studies found that under field conditions GMO maize pollen posed a “negligible” risk to monarch butterfly larvae. This was because the amount of pollen likely to be consumed under field conditions was so little as to be non-toxic. A greater risk to butterflies has been the spraying of pesticides on fields of non-GMO crops.
Do GMOs reduce biodiversity?
All domesticated farm crops, both GMO and non-GMO, reduce the space and habitat available for wild species, and in that sense all crops do tend to reduce biodiversity. A few GMO crops may do this slightly more than their conventional counterparts. In 2003 the UK released data from actual farm fields planted with herbicide-tolerant GMO maize, sugarbeets, and oilseed rape, compared to data from fields where non-GMO varieties of the same crops were planted and conventionally grown.
This comparison showed that in fields of sugarbeets and oilseed rape there were slightly fewer weeds in the GMO fields than in the non-GMO fields. This was because the weeds could be killed more efficiently in the fields with the herbicide-tolerant GMO crops. Fewer weeds and more efficient herbicide use are precisely the advantages that farmers in the UK seek when they consider the use of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops, of course. To refer to fewer weeds in a farm field as a “loss of biodiversity” tends to ignore the purpose of crop farming itself.
Some GMOs may actually increase biodiversity in the farm field. When farmers plant insect-resistant Bt varieties of GMO crops, it usually allows them to control pest damage while spraying fewer chemical insecticides. This protects all the non-target insects in the field, all except those eating the crop itself. So Bt crops tend to produce greater biodiversity in the field compared to insecticide spraying on conventional crops.
When GMOs are planted in the environment do they “escape” human control and become invasive?
Does the planting of GMO crops “contaminate” other crops?
Has GMO maize “contaminated” traditional maize fields in Mexico?
Would the spread of GMO traits into traditional maize crops be a serious problem?
The presence of some GMO genes in a field of traditional maize might pose a commercial risk, if consumers do not wish to buy GM maize, but there is little evidence that it could constitute a significant risk to the environment, or to traditional “landrace” varieties. The spread of a GMO trait to a more traditional variety will not produce an invasive species, since both the traditional maize and the GMO maize are domesticated plants that need human intervention to survive in the wild.
If keeping traditional landrace varieties “pure” is the goal, then it would be necessary to stop planting all new commercial varieties of maize, including both GMO and non-GMO varieties, because both can exchange pollen with traditional varieties. The image of traditional varieties that are “pure” is incorrect in any case, since these traditional varieties are constantly evolving under the care of farmers that save and exchange seeds on a selective basis, looking only for traits that they like. If the planting of GMO (or non-GMO) commercial maize seeds results in a spread of traits that farmers do not like, the farmers will be able to eliminate the trait by de-selecting the seeds that carry those traits.
Do GMOs contaminate the growing of “organic” crops?
Farmers who want their crops to be certified as “organic” are currently not allowed to plant GMO varieties. If pollen drifts in from GMO crops nearby, will the crops of these organic farmers then contain seeds with GMO genes? This difficulty of “co-existence” between GMO crops and non-GMO organic crops is currently being debated, particularly in Europe. Some organic growers cite this problem as a reason to ban the planting of GMOs entirely.
Since it is only possible for GMO pollen to spread to plants of the same species, the amount of contamination that can occur is usually quite limited. For example, on an organic farm next to a GMO maize field, the only risk of contamination would be to maize. Very few of the other crop species that are now being grown organically (especially fruits and vegetables) are currently available in GMO form, which eliminates the possibility of contamination.