By: Myles Power Edited by: Peter
I recently became aware of an event that took place at the beginning of September called the GM Health Risk Week. This event was held around the UK, and was apparently an opportunity to allow people to examine the "health risks surrounding GM food". Speakers at the event included Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini (Lead author of the highly discredited Long Term Toxicity paper and president of an anti-GM lobbying group CRII-GEN), Ib Borup Pedersen (a man who's findings change with time and now are identical to the highly unethical and also discredited Australian pig feed study) and Claire Robninson (a woman who proudly claims that she counters misleading spin about the Long Term Toxicity paper, but is yet to reply to any of my emails questioning the research). The events proudly proclaimed on their website under the about section that they wanted to "raise awareness and promote action in response to new evidence which casts uncertainty over the safety of GM food." But what is this new evidence that casts uncertainty over GM-food, I hear you cry. If only someone were to put these uncertainties in a list format that is easy to read and preferably rounded up to a nice whole number. Well it turns out that Joanna Blythman has fulfilled our request with her "10 Reasons to Oppose GM".
For those who don't know, Joanna is apparently an "award-winning investigative journalist, the author of six landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain". Her 10 Reasons to Oppose GM list can be found on the GM Health Risk Week website and starts off with an introduction to the topic. She claims that what we are told by biotech lobbys is an fairy story and should never be confused with the truth. She then states that genetic modification is a "relatively crude technique - think of cut and paste - that moves genetic material across species barriers. As such, it is unprecedented, capable of triggering unpredictable, and irreversible, changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of food" in her professional opinion as an investigative food journalist. Not only is this statement grossly over simplified; it also makes no sense. However before I go any further I feel I need to mention that I do not work as a lobbyist for any biotech company; nor am I employed to spread misinformation by said biotech companies. I am merely a scientist who hates to see his profession bastardised by the likes of uneducated people like Joanna Blythman and those at GM Health Risk Week.
There are many different ways to genetically modify an organism, and some are cruder than others. Some involve simply firing DNA into a host cell, whilst others rely on the ability to cheaply, quickly and accurately print the DNA code you require and then insert it into a cell. The fact is that you can't paint all genetic engineering techniques with one paintbrush as Joanna does. She also seems to imply that no further testing of the GMO is carried out to see if (especially with some of the older, cruder techniques) there are any adverse effects. GMOs on the market now have been extensively scrutinised and shown to have no adverse effects on health. All research that has shown any negative effects has been highly discredited or shown to be for financial or political gain. Genetic engineering also isn't strictly the ability to cut and paste genetic material across species. You can also modify existing genes in an organism. For example I previously worked for a group that looked into modifying the bacteria that produced the antibiotic of last resort, Vancomycin. They altered it so it would accept non-natural sub units to produce a modified Vancomycin molecule which would be as effective as Vancomycin, but which Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) would not be immune to. When Joanna goes on to talk about how genetically modifying something will trigger unpredictable and irreversible changes in the DNA, she shows that she has no clue what she is talking about. I, for one, would like to know what modifications have been made to GM-crops on the market that make them capable of changing/splicing parts of their own DNA. However, Joanna never gives any reference; nor does she give any references for anything else she says in her 10 Reasons to Oppose GM which I am now going to critique.
1. GM doesn’t increase crop yields.
Joanna claims that farmers who plant GM-crop will initially have a good harvest, but then it will dramatically decline thereafter. She goes on to say that even the US department of Agriculture admits “GM crops do not increase yield potential”. As I have said earlier, Joanna never gives any references for anything she says, but in the modern age a quote is as good as a reference. I began to search high and wide for the US department of Agriculture quote, but was unable to find it. Infact the only place where I can find this quote is on other websites that have re-blogged Joanna’s 10 points or one site that using her 10 points as a reference. In reality, providing that GM crops are given the nutrients they require, there is no reason for their yield to dramatically decline thereafter and, with their abilities, they can easily outperform their organic counterparts.
2. GM impoverishes farmers
Joanna makes the case that GM crops should be avoided because in India they have “proved a dismal failure” and caused a large number of farmers to commit suicide. She then goes on to say that “Last month, Indian MPs visited so-called Monsanto model villages to meet the farmers’ widows and see for themselves the grim truth behind the big biotech companies’ marketing spin”. As far-fetched as this sounds, there is some truth to Joanna’s point. A large proportion of India’s population depends on agriculture to survive; and are therefore dependent on precipitation from monsoons to achieve a good harvest. The failure of these monsoons can lead to droughts leading to pressure on farmers and, for many, suicide becomes an option. In 2008 alone 16,196 farmers committed suicide bringing up the total since 1997 to 199,132. It is important to note that not all these farmers were growing Bt cotton (the GMO thought responsible for the suicides of the farmers). A 2008 report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that there was no evidence showing an increased suicide rate following the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002. The report stated that suicide rates among Bt cotton farmers were a fairly constant portion of the overall national suicide rate. It did however admit that Bt cotton may have been a factor in specific suicides. Again I feel I need to stress that only the Bt cotton GMO is in question here and any problems you may have with this specific GMO should be confined to this specific GMO. And if you feel that by boycotting India’s struggling agricultural sector, you are helping these farmers, you are very much mistaken.
3. GM means more pesticides not less
4. GM crops cause the emergence of devastating super-weeds
5. GM crops kill off pollinating insects and encourage secondary pets.
According to Joanna, Swiss researchers (who she does not reference, but I have found) have “confirmed that Bt toxin used in GM maize kills ladybird larvae” but what I think she actually means is the Bt toxin expressed by the GM maize is killing ladybird larvae. I am going to give Joanna the benefit of the doubt and not read the research and say the Swiss researchers are 100% correct and that GM-crops that express Bt toxins do kill ladybird larvae. This again would be a example of just ONE! GM-crop that is causing a problem. This would not be an issue for GM-crops that do not express a Bt toxin, however it would be an issue for the organic farming. This is because the vast majority of organic farmers spray their crops with Bt toxins to protect them against pests. Infact according to the Organic Consumer Association, at least 57% of organic farmers in the US use it.
6. GM food has not been proven to be safe to eat
7. Americans only eat GM foods because they are unlabelled
8. GM won’t feed the world