Friday, November 09, 2007

GM foods are ubiquitous

Almost all the varieties of rice grown in Southeast Asia are genetically modified. A conspiracy by governments and biotech firms to reap big bucks while penalising ignorant consumers and poor farmers? No. They have been 'modified' by "accidentally as the result of mutations, chromosomal recombinations, translocations of pieces of DNA and even deletions of sections of DNA. This rice is consumed everywhere without the requirement of any laboratory tests," as this article rightly points out. Are GM foods the enemy, as some organic food advocates say that they are, or is this moralising about GM foods costing lives which could be saved by improved crop yields?


Monkey said...

honestly i think the biggest issues with GM is not the health risk but the issue of dependency by farmers after they pick up GM. Yes in Europe, the biggest argument is the unnaturality of it all but yes as we all know, gene modification in crops.. i mean that's the most basic of agricultural domestication is the selective breeding. Cept maybe last time no high tech machineries.

personally im against GM food for the impact on farmers. i just watched this documentary of indonesian rice farmers who tried to get cultivate their own seeds because buying was just too expensive and the kind of obstacles they came across - government telling them they can't because they are "uneducated", that even after you succeed, your crops are not licensed, etc. GM also require lots of chemicals to grow which is another problem. so i still say organic is the way to go. i mean there are real action done in india against GM, such as the seed bank by Vandana Shiva and co. Agricultural diversity of unaltered species and all that is equally important. This is something seriously threatened by GM. The world cannot just eat one type of rice. When something happens to that one type, what will happen to us? In Thailand, I was doing research on indigenous knowledge of ethnobotany and they have more species of rice that I've ever seen in my life just growing on their hills. Amazing.

Brandon said...

Of course I'm not suggesting that large biotech firms are entirely blameless. It is the pseudoscientific scaremongering about GM foods which I find most odious. On the other hand, it is equally important to preserve extant crop genetic diversity, because that naturally occurring variation is the raw material from which biotechnology finds the genes to work with and it would be shooting oneself in the foot to destroy this with GM monoculture. Thanks for the comment: tell us more about your time in Thailand!

medic said...

The GM food debate is a complicated mix illustrating the inextricable link between politicians, biotech companies, scientists and farmers. And the fallacious arguments are legion. The article's mention that 'the scientific way of ensuring that crops are safe is to test the product' holds true - in nutritional science the impact of the particular type of food is derived from how it is metabolised, whether it stays in the body, how it affects the systems and so on, but ultimately we are indeed talking about carbs, proteins and fats, aren't we? The scare, then, usually comes from media attention on food-borne diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob, where people are told that genetic modification caused proteins, which we don't metabolise fully, to affect humans and so on. The broad use of the term 'GM' is also misleading - there is a huge difference between plants which are easier on farmers because they require less chemicals and we can grow more on less land, and plants which, when eaten, will help people see better. It matters differently to different individuals, and hence the associated pros and cons should be distinguished.

In terms of biodiversity, I think it can be said that man will never be, for e.g., eating only one type of rice. The fact that rice (and plant!) varieties are grown in differing countries, with a wide range of weather/soil/enemy plant conditions with differing technological abilities renders it impossible to actually have widespread monoculture. There will always be someone somewhere with some variety of the similar plant with a difference in the genetic code; and even if this is not true for some reason (e.g. al gore being right and/or global warming wiping out most varieties), the rice scientists (e.g. the ones working in the International Rice Research Institute, and many other local and regional institutes throughout the world) would most likely have either the variety of local plants grown in store or the ability to reproduce these plants.

Ultimately, moralising about GM foods is probably costing lives, and yes, we should do something about it. It's almost exactly the same case as having the treatment for diseases but not rendering it to the people with those diseases - and so the world's health and nutritional problems will not be entirely solved by better food science alone. It will take better science, better intentions and better co-ordination between all the abovementioned groups to get even remotely close to using the tool of GM foods to improve lives.

Irrelevantly, the BBC has a 4-part programme called 'Rice Bowl Tales' in its documentary archive here, if you're interested. It's about rice in Asia, its different varieties, rice research and how it affects people socially, politically and economically.