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Monday, May 10, 2010

Genetically Engineered Food

Global Issues

Genetically Engineered Food

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Thursday, September 26, 2002
An issue that has entered the mainstream media in a lot of countries (noticeably not really in the US) is Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM) of food. A lot of food that we eat today contains genetically modified ingredients and usually without our knowledge.
Supporters of this technology maintain that it ensures and sustains food security around the world as the population increases.
As time goes on, the science behind genetic engineering is no doubt improving. Biotechnology could be the wave of the future and genetically modified foods could really provide alternatives to help increase food production. However, there is a growing wave of concern from citizens, farmers and scientists who question the way the research is currently being handled by a few large, profit-hungry corporations. That is, as well as scientific debates on the merits of genetically engineered food, there are equally, if not more important, debates on the socioeconomic ramifications of the way such science is marketed and used. Critics believe:
  • The problem of food shortages is a political and economic problem.
  • Food shortages and hunger are -- and will be -- experienced by the poorer nations.
  • GE Food is an expensive technology that the farmers of the developing nations would not be able to afford easily.
  • Patenting laws go against the poor around the world and allow biotech companies to benefit from patenting indigenous knowledge often without consent.
  • This is a very young and untested technology and may not be the answer just yet.
  • Crop uniformity, which the biotech firms are promoting, will reduce genetic diversity making them more vulnerable to disease and pests. This furthers the need for pesticides (often created by the same companies creating and promoting genetically engineered crops).
Hence this leads to questions of the motives of corporations and countries who are using the plight of the developing world as a marketing strategy to gain acceptance of GE food as well as dependency upon it via intellectual property rights. That they are against any labeling or other precautionary steps and measures that states may wish to take is of paramount concern.
The way in which we reach the answer to the question, "are GE foods safe?" is where a lot of the problem lies. A quick acceptance of GE foods without proper testing etc. could show corporate profitability to be very influential, while a thorough debate and sufficient public participation would ensure that real social and environmental concerns are in fact adhered to. And this pattern would probably indicate to us how other major issues in the future ought to be dealt with.
There is also the issue of do we actually need genetically engineered food, given that agriculture in small biodiverse farms are actually very productive. Economics and politics at all levels, (international, national and local) have often prevented food from reaching hungry people, not a lack of production. These same causes have also created, or contributed to, a lot of poverty, which prevents people from being able to afford food in the first place.
This section then, looks more into the political issues behind the emerging promotion of biotechnology and genetically modified or engineered foods.

Is GE Food Safe?

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, January 20, 2002
The potential benefits of genetically engineered food are exciting. At the same time though, there are real concerns on biodiversity, the ecosystem and people's safety if such food has not been tested properly and guaranteed to be safe. As economics are factored in, there is also some concern as to who benefits from such technology, people in need, or people who need more.

No Adequate Testing.

The reason that genetically engineered food could be dangerous is because there has been no adequate testing to ensure that extracting genes that perform an apparently useful function as part of that plant or animal is going to have the same effects if inserted into a totally unrelated species. It may be that in the long term, genetically modified food could provide us with benefits and be a safe alternative, but we cannot know that at this time due to the lack of safety testing.
The testing that has been done is often to ensure the crop grows. There has been less emphasis on testing the effects or testing the wider ecology and the associated impacts.
It is often claimed that there have been no adverse consequences from over 500 field releases in the United States. In 1993, for the first time, the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) field trials were evaluated to see whether they supported these safety claims. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which conducted the evaluation, found that the data collected by the USDA on small-scale tests had little value for commercial risk-assessment. Many reports fail to mention -- much less measure -- environmental risks.
— Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), p.102

A Bit Different To The Way Nature Works

In industrial systems, time is money: speed is tied to efficiency because of competition and the need for returns on investments. The control and compression of time is central to the creation of profit. By contrast, in nature everything has its own time, rhythm and season. This natural time is a barrier to productivity and profit (Adam 1998).
— Politics of GM Food:Risk, Science and Public Trust, Special Briefing #5, ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme, University of Sussex and launched at the House of Commons, London, October 18th 1999.
Crossbreeding by farmers and evolution by Nature, has always involved gene transfer between similar species, not completely different species like a fish and a potato.
With the increasing drive for maximized productivity and profits, the diversity of crops used is being reduced. If the diversity is reduced enough the benefits that the diversity gives -- resistance to disease, better ability to cope with environmental extremes, increased yields etc. -- is also reduced.
Scientists have warned that non-target species can be affected by genetically modified food. They also urge a precautionary approach to allow science, law and regulations to catch up with the advances that have been made. Some GM crops still seem to require pesticide useas well.

Long Term Effects Are Unknown

Even if there has been some testing, the long term effects to humans, animals and theenvironment are unknown. The full ramifications of modified genes "escaping" and mixing with unmodified ones are unknown.
It may be that genetically modified food can benefit us, but we cannot know that at this time because much needed testing has not been done and current studies point to dangersrather than benefits. However, a group of scientists in UK do claim that GE food may be safe, but mention that the long-term effects are still unknown. (Also, note that a lot of field tests that companies do perform are aimed at assuring that their products are grown as expected, not always necessarily looking into wider effects.)

Reducing Pesticides, Increased Yields?

Part of the promising and exciting aspects of biotechnology is that it could perhaps reduce harmful pesticide use, and increase yields to help provide food for the hungry and large world population. However:
  • As this article points out, pesticide usage has actually remained the same, or even increased, with the use of GE food. And the companies that make pesticides are the ones that also make GE food ingredients. (See the previous link for many more interesting points).
  • The Institute for Science in Society reports, for example, that as well as pesticde usage increasing, yields have been lower with GM Crops.

So Why Are They Still Being Given The Go-Ahead?

  • One reason is that there is a lot of money and profit involved in this. Hence from a business perspective it is more favorable, for example to produce crops that can be resistant to your pesticides (so that you can apply more of them). If you are a chemical company that produces pesticides as well as GM crops, then this is a good way to sell both products, as Monsanto do for example with their Roundup Ready GM Soybeans. (The Monsanto section on this site will discuss this a bit more.) The following also puts it more bluntly:
    Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.
    — Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, quoted from Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?, by John Robbins, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4
  • Another reason seems to be that in campaigns and referendums, a lot of emphasis is put on the fact that transgenic research-animals would help in the field of medicine and so distorts the purpose of the referendums that are usually about patent and food related effects of genetic modifications.
From a science perspective there are many issues to address, and there are chances that the GM technology can improve over the years. However, the issues above hint towards some of the political and economic issues of this which can be very significant. As a result, these factors influence the claims of biotechnology being able to feeding the world comes, which we look at next.

"GE Technologies will solve world hunger"

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, January 20, 2002
World hunger is extensive in spite of sufficient global food resources. Therefore increased food production is no solution. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Therefore measures solving the poverty problem is what is required to solve the world hunger probem
— It is a myth that world hunger is due to scarcity of food, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, October 1998

Genetic Engineering Technologies Will Not Solve World Hunger

For the most part, genetic engineering techniques are being applied to crops important to the industrialized world, not crops on which the world's hungry depend.
— Biotechnology and the World Food Supply, Union of Concerned Scientists
A major theme of supporters of biotechnology is that genetic engineering of food is necessary to help solve world hunger.
However, a report from the Panos Institute suggests that in fact, solving world hunger and food shortage is more of a political problem.
Friends of the Earth point out an important factor that “many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition and hunger because they cannot afford to buy food, not because it is unavailable.”
As highlighted in the poverty and hunger part of this web site, most of the causes of hunger are found in global politics, rather than issues of agriculture and technology (though of course those causes do exist too). As a result, a variety of groups and people are questioning the motives behind biotechnology as the political causes of hunger appear to be ignored.
An article from Food First makes the observation that “[m]ost innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than need-driven” and it questions whether GE technology will really ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world. And with GE Food being an expensive technology, that does not help the case, either. Also, in some cases, it has been noted that some GE crop yields are less than conventional crops.
“Companies like Monsanto keep arguing that genetic modification will feed the world, but that is specious,” argues Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist at Yale University. “The financial benefits from genetic modification will flow mostly to the very largest agricultural producers, putting local agricultural economies at a tremendous disadvantage. That is really the central issue here.”
— Bruce Shapiro, Stalking the wild Frankensalmon, News, May 5, 2000
As noted by Inter Press Service (April 24, 2000), “one of today's great injustices ... is the irony that those who feed the world [agricultural workers] are often least able to feed themselves.” As also pointed out in the same article, 1.3 billion people work in agriculture.

While many biotech companies claim that genetically engineered foods will help alleviate hunger and increase food security, their acts of patenting the knowledge and food that has been developed over centuries itself may be a threat to food security.
Amory and Hunter Lovins are quite blunt about this aspect:
Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.
— Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, quoted by John Robbins, Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4

If Biotech Industry Is Serious About Solving World Hunger, It Is Poorly Attacking Symptoms Only

What is also equally important to bear in mind is that the promise of technologies such as genetically enhanced foods, or any other technologies that could help solve the effects of poverty, such as hunger, cannot be an end in itself. If it is, then the root causes of hunger would continue and the exploitive practices could continue, further increasing disparities between rich and poor. While the rich would be able to provide some rest bite from the hunger through such technologies, they would maintain, even increase, the developing nations' dependencies upon them.
Biotechnology aside, even with increased production in recent years due to the Green Revolution and use of industrial inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, while more people have been fed, world hunger has still been high, even in wealthy countries. Simply increasing food production is not the only answer, as there are many political, economic and social factors that play a part. Indeed, solutions do not necessarily require additional production, as much as addressing political and economic causes of inequality and hunger, as Peter Rosset explains:
Having seen food production advance while hunger widens, we are now prepared to ask: under what conditions are greater harvests doomed to failure in eliminating hunger?
First, where farmland is bought and sold like any other commodity and society allows the unlimited accumulation of farmland by a few, superfarms replace family farms and all of society suffers.
Second, where the main producers of food - small farmers and farm workers - lack bargaining power relative to suppliers of farm inputs and food marketers, producers get a shrinking share of the rewards from farming.
Third, where dominant technology destroys the very basis for future production, by degrading the soil and generating pest and weed problems, it becomes increasingly difficult and costly to sustain yields.
Under these three conditions, mountains of additional food could not eliminate hunger, as hunger in America should never let us forget. The alternative is to create a viable and productive small farm agriculture using the principles of agroecology. That is the only model with the potential to end rural poverty, feed everyone, and protect the environment and the productivity of the land for future generations.
— Peter Rosset, Joseph Collins, and Frances Moore Lappe, Lessons from the Green Revolution; Do We Need New Technology to End Hunger?, Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2000
If biotech corporations are really addressing world hunger through genetically engineered food, then they are only attacking symptoms and not causes of world hunger. And it is a poor offensive too, because it doesn't recognize the root causes, which includes poverty and the inability to afford food or distribute it because of things like certain international politics and economic policies.
Furthermore, as John Robbins points out, biotechnology companies do not appear to be actually investing in technology and crops that would really address food shortages. Instead, they are concentrating on livestock feed:
Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world's food supply is to keep up with population growth. But even with nearly 100 million acres planted, their products have yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. There is no more food available for the world's less fortunate. In fact, most of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that are destined for livestock feed.
— John Robbins, Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4
Richard Robbins, Professor of Anthropology at State University of New York is also worth quoting, summarizing why food is produced in the first place (bulleting and spacing formatting is mine, text is original):
To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.
  • Food is a commodity. ...
  • Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
  • Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
  • More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. ...
The problem, of course, is that people who don't have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don't count in the food equation.
  • In other words, if you don't have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
  • Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (“Supermarket to the World”) to produce food for them.
What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.
Therefore, even with genetically engineered food, people would still not be able to afford it or have it distributed appropriately. Hence, while even an altruistic or valiant effort, it would be a large waste of capital, resources, manpower and the industry. Instead, outcomes would include more profits for the biotech and chemical companies involved in this. Dependency upon these companies would increase too for the use of their patented technologies. Unfortunately though, these outcomes are also enough for such corporations and the biotech industry to expend vast amounts of capital, resources, and manpower that is suggested here as being wasteful, while appealing to our concerns about world hunger.
For sure, there is potential in biotechnology. However, as we see above, this potential, as well as for feeding the world, can also be used to increase profits. Sometimes these two things overlap, but often not. Hence, while perhaps biotechnology should not necessarily be shunned, and more research and testing is needed, the political and economic emphasis and direction of biotechnology research also needs to be seriously addressed so that it is actually productive for society, not wasteful.
As the highly regarded scholar, Frances Lappe Moore suggests, the debate itself, on safety issues of biotechnology, is a distraction from the real causes of hunger which include the lack of democratic accountability, and the urgent need to address them.

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