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The myths and realities of GMOs

Feeding the world is becoming increasingly difficult. Population levels keep rising, economic growth increases demand for food, and climate change and devastating natural disasters strain the global food supply. The more resilient crops with higher yields provided by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one suggested solution to hungry mouths around the world.

“How do we feed the world?” was the question asked at the inaugural A. Jean de Grandpré Seminar hosted by Paul Simard, the Director of Development at Macdonald Campus, on October 16. Three panelists representing both GMO and environmental organizations discussed the potential consequences of biotechnology, and specifically GMOs, on the looming food crisis. Panelists included Jay Bradshaw (president of Syngenta Canada, an agricultural business that uses GMOs), Mark Lynas (an environmentalist author known for Six Degrees and The God Species) and Morven McLean (a McGill alumnus and the director of the non-profit Center for Environmental Risk Assessment).

All the panelists agreed on the existence of a negative connotation around GMO foods. This impression is due to various factors such as the lack of transparency of GMO use in food, media-generated fear about the health risks of consuming GMO food, the misuse of outlier scientific papers, and belief in the existence of malicious corporate interests.

One of the most prominent examples is the infamous anti-GMO Seralini study linking GMO to the production of cancerous tumours in mice. This study was deemed scientifically weak by independent scientists due to its methodology. After being reviewed by the scientific community, the study faced international academic condemnation from various institutions such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB), and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

Outlier studies usually deviate from the existing scientific agreement based on credible literature. McLean commented on the effect of outlier studies such as the Seralini study, saying, “It’s always outlier studies that get media attention […] [The studies] have led to [GMO] bans in Europe that translates very quickly to developing countries.”

“Regulatory systems [are required] to ensure human health and environmental protection goals are being met and promote public confidence.”

These outlier studies have had strong impacts on countries’ attitudes toward GMOs and are responsible in part for the absence of GMO crops in many parts of Africa. Lynas gave an example: “In Kenya the public health minister had recently recovered from a type of cancer. She was approached by environmentalists who told her [the] cancer was caused by GMOs. She […] urged the president to have an immediate ban on the imports of GMO products – the ban is still in effect.”

Anti-GMO organizations have been criticized for citing unsubstantiated correlations between GMO use and cancer or autism. The panelists recommended several changes to address the misconception of GMOs. Lynas emphasized the need for labelling of GMO food to encourage transparency. Currently, corporations do not explicitly mention use of GMOs in their products, causing suspicion and distrust. Labelling would allow the consumer to make informed decisions.

Labelling remains a controversial topic, however, as the specifics of the biotechnical processes and the technicalities of what constitutes a GMO product are oft-debated topics. McLean said, “Regulatory systems [are required] to ensure human health and environmental protection goals are being met and promote public confidence.”

The panelists were keen to highlight the vast amount of literature being published in biotechnology and how the field has progressed since the 1990s. Today there are 28 countries using GMO crops, with 20 of them being developing countries where GMO crops can arguably have the biggest impact, as they allow countries to gain self-sustenance through increased yield and pest resistance. Bradshaw also commented on the 100-fold increase in the use of biotechnology in agribusiness (agricultural business) between 1996 and 2012.

McLean and Lynas both suggested that there should be more public research done, as most patents and advances are currently being made by private firms such as Monsanto and Syngenta. Public research would provide more impartiality by representing the needs of the people without having the economic goals of corporations.

An example of a GMO crop success story given at the panel was the development of ‘Golden Rice’ for developing countries to provide much needed vitamin A to children. White rice lacks essential vitamins, and because it is a staple food in Asia, vitamin deficiencies are common among the impoverished. The project headed by Professors Ingo Potrykus (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg) generated a rice seed that contains the vitamin A necessary to prevent a deficiency that could cause blindness and death from a weakened immune system. The seed was released for public use instead of being patented by a corporation, and having strict contract conditions applied.

By no means are GMOs the sole solution for solving the global food crisis. The World Health Organization describes some potentially negative effects on human health such as increased allergenicity (allergic reactions), gene transfers (from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract), and outcrossing (GMOs contaminating natural crops). The Union of Concerned Scientists mentions the risk of creating “super weeds” through the use of GMOs that could result in the increased use of pesticides in the long run. However, at this point there are no confirmed detrimental health effects from consuming GMO foods.

There are definite arguments for and against the use of GMO crops. This highlights the need for more impartial public research in the field to get a comprehensive picture of the potential negative impacts on the environment and human health. What is needed is broader discourse and better communication between the scientists, policy makers, and the general public.