The controversy surrounding GMOs has been around as long as the practice itself- and if recent events are anything to go by, the issue is not getting any simpler…
A global march against seed giant Monsanto last May witnessed determined crowds from over 50 countries protest a single, significant cause: the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in foods that consumers buy and eat, whether they know it or not.
For years, the questions surrounding – and often plaguing – GMOs have been tossed and toyed with, highlighting just how contentious an issue it actually is. Only adding to its complexity are the polarised opinions in favour or against them – a result, one could say, of the ambiguity surrounding GMOs, causing real facts and debates to be lost in translation.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE MODIFIED
What’s all the fuss about GMOs? Or, simpler still, what are they? I meet Dr Suzanne Piscopo, senior lecturer at the University of Malta and outgoing chairperson of Home Economists in Action. She explains that to “genetically modify” means to alter by removing a gene from one organism – a plant, animal or microbe – and inserting it into another. A gene is a “code” that instructs cells to make a specific protein.
“Typically the purpose of such a practice is to take a desired trait from one organism that will be useful in another. For instance, you want a certain food to be richer in a particular nutrient, so you insert the gene from an organism rich in that nutrient into the food product that lacks the nutrient.”
So was the case with “golden rice”, a genetically engineered strain of rice that has been in the making for many years. The goal was to fortify the staple food of many developing countries with vitamin A, in an attempt to address the deficiency in their diet which often leads to blindness. The project, however, was met with backlash and trials have not yet confirmed it as safe for human consumption. This, perhaps, is the central question hanging over our heads: are GMOs safe or not?
IS THIS MODIFIED?
“Since the 1990s many organisms have been modified,” says Dr Piscopo, although the most common existing or experimental GMOs are soybean, corn, cotton seed, oilseed rape (canola), potatoes, papaya, sugar beet and fish, among others. Fish, she explains, can be modified to grow faster in less time; potatoes are modified to be suited for cultivating in different climates and corn can be modified to have an inbuilt pesticide. “Many GM foods are intended for direct human consumption but others, such as soybean, are mainly for animal feed.
The intended benefits of GMOs are various – for instance, crops with greater nutritional value, a larger yield in less time, plants that are disease-resistant, pesticide resistant and drought-resistant resulting in less losses, foods with medicinal properties, such as an inbuilt vaccine, and food with more desirable traits, such as potatoes that absorb less fat when fried. “Theoretically, many of these benefits would seem to make a farmer’s work easier and more lucrative and also be good for humans,” says Dr Piscopo. But there are numerous cons that leave many people in doubt over their safety.
The more widely-debated downsides of GMOs range from concern for human health and the environment, to concern for the welfare of farmers that is largely controlled by the companies that manufacture GMOs, especially seeds. It has been suggested that they can be toxic, allergenic and increase antibiotic-resistance in humans, as well as increase the risk for a number of health problems, damage soil and the environment.
“A major risk of inserting a new gene into an organism is that you cannot be too sure if, when and to what extent a ‘naturallyoccuring’ gene is affected by the new one,” says Dr Piscopo. Also, a particular nutritional value of a food could be reduced rather than increased, and GM seeds could mistakenly mingle with seeds sown in other fields creating new, undesired crops.
“Crops have been modified to resist herbicides, such as soybean. This is seen as generally good because it results in greater yields due to less losses and there is less use of herbicides. But the seed has created weeds that have become resistant to weed killer –so-called ‘superweeds’ – and so a new weed killer needs to be invented and more weed killer is used,” says Dr Piscopo. “This way, one of the good original intentions for creating that GMO in the first place is lost.”
Such malfunctions also majorly affect the farmer – “though the idea was to make work easier for farmers and perhaps less costly, the farmer will have to buy a specific herbicide to kill the herbicideresistant weed, making the companies that produce such products extremely powerful and leaves the farmer at their mercy.
In the EU, only two genetically modified plants are allowed to be cultivated commercially: a type of corn and a type of potato. All other genetically modified produce is imported. There are three ways in which we can consume GMOs: either by eating the produce itself directly, such as a type of corn or bean or a product made from it, such as cornflakes or cornoil; through a derivative of the GM food, such as an extract used from soybean that is used as an additive in another food; or by eating animals that are fedon GM feed.
The approval of GMOs, it seems, is a somewhat slippery slope. “A decision is made, by the European Commission, after evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority and other EU entities, on whether to allow a GM crop or food onto the market or not based on evidence provided by the company wishing to commercialise the GMO.” Does this mean the material is not reliable? “There are drawbacks to the evidence: tests are generally carried out on animals, mainly rats, by the company itself. Also, tests often run for 30 to 90 days. Is that enough to classify it as safe for humans in the long term?” If a GM food is approved by the Commission, then it very likely makes it onto our grocery shelves.
THE CASE FOR MALTA
What is Malta’s position on GMOs? Malta follows EU regulations. “Whatever is allowed to be placed on the EU market is allowed into Malta – there are EU countries that have made their own laws on GMOs, but we have not and neither do we have a list of the products available to consumers that contain GM ingredients.” Consumers could, however, see what is allowed in the EU through an online register called the EU Register of Authorised GMOs
Do local authorities carry out food tests for GMOs? “From time to time, the Environmental Health Directorate through the Health Inspectorate and the Public Health Laboratory monitors for specific GM ingredients which might not be allowed or be considered safe.
EU regulations also require that any product which is a GMO, or that contains an ingredient that is 1 per cent or more GM, is labelled, leaving the choice entirely in the consumer’s hands. “Even GM additives and flavourings have to be indicated on the label. However, the foods coming from animals raised with GM feed, such as meats, eggs and dairy products do not require labelling.”
And what are the implications of this? She suggests that they are far from ideal – however, we’re somewhat better off than the other countries. “The EU and Malta believe strongly in consumers having the right to know what they’re buying and eating,” says Dr Piscopo. “In the US, for instance, there is no regulation on mandatory food labelling for GMOs… eating foods certified as organic is one way of avoiding GMOs.”
TOWARDS THE FUTURE
Despite the negative outpour elicited from populations around the world towards Monsanto and other similar companies, it is highly probable that the furore is nothing more than a thorn in the giant’s side. The resistance to GMOs worldwide is high, but without adequate labelling laws it is hard to know the full truth about what we eat.
Although it might be premature to slam a practice as 100 per cent incorrect, there is certainly more to be desired on the front
of consumer care. “More scientific evidence is emerging about unintentional and unpredictable impacts and side-effects. Only epidemiological studies (studies of populations) can one day give us answers on the long-term health effects of GMOs – otherwise there are lots of unknowns and uncertainties,” – ones that do not seem to be close to resolution any time soon.