Of GM Crops, Safety and Ignorance
By Abdallah el-Kurebe
“Victims live by excuses and ultimately die by them”
“Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, remain controversial, but like so many other politically hot topics, the controversy is more cultural than scientific,” – Dr. Steven Novella, a Senior Fellow and Director of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Science-Based Medicine project.
“The genetic modification of crop plants is the defining feature of the domestication of plants by humans for agriculture,” – Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA).
“As a result and contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.” – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012.
“Genetically modified crops (GMCs, GM crops, or biotech crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques,” – Wikipedia. Therefore, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species.
The domestication of wild crop plants and animals or traditional crop and animal breeding began with the adoption over the years of wild crops and animals by our ancestral farmers. This resulted (unknown to many of us) to what we have today as the domestic animals such as dog (which is a class of the fox); cats, (which is the class of leopard, tiger, etc) and domestic crops like groundnut, which is in the family of wild nuts like the walnut, etc. The domestication of these animals and crops was a systemic modification of crop and animal varieties gave birth to what we find in our homes today.
Ask a typical Hausa man in Nigeria what gwandan daji and gwandan gida mean. He will tell you that gwandan daji and gwandan gida are both sour saps. But while the former is found in the bush, the later is the domesticated one. And, aleden daji andaleden gida are both wild and domesticated pigs, respectively. There are several wild crops and animals that have been domesticated and therefore modified. The distinct features are noticeable having crossed the crop or animal over to an improved status. This has been the practice over the years. The advent of science brought about the improved crops modifications methods carried that are carried out in the laboratories. They are called biotech crops.
Developing and commercialising use of biotech crops, the world over follow regulatory authorities’ verifications in countries in which laws have been developed to regulate them. This regulation is done in accordance with well-established and internationally-accepted standards of risk assessment and with full ascertainment that the crops pose no more risk than crops produced through traditional crop breeding methods.
So far, the standardised development of high-yield varieties and the risk assessment approach by seed companies around the world, including but not limited to Monsanto, CropLife International, Dupont Pioneer, etc have been affirmed by the United Nations Codex Commission. This is why the Commission has affirmed the risk assessment approaches by numerous international organizations. It has also endorsed the health and environmental safety of biotech crops.
The international organizations include the Royal Society (UK); National Academy of Sciences (USA), which posits that “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population;” and the World Health Organization (WHO), which agrees that “GM foods currently traded on the international market have passed risk assessments in several countries and are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.”
Others are the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the European Commission (EU), the French Academy of Medicine, and the American Medical Association.
Summarizing years of research by 400 scientific teams, the 2001 European Commission report on the safety of plant states that most studied and reviewed among food and food ingredient products in the world today are biotech crops. “Research on GM plants and derived products so far developed and marketed, following usual risk assessment procedures has not shown any new risks on human health or the environment… indeed, the use of more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.”
Importantly, there are other institutions which, based on scientific research have made meaningful assessment and arrived at the veritable fact that processing food through biotechnology is not only safe for humans but also contributes to global food security. These include the American College of Nutrition which “supports the use of biotechnology to develop food crops that contribute to global food security and enhance the safety and nutritional value of food”; the American Medical Association which states their recognition of the “many potential benefits offered by genetically modified crops and foods… and encourages ongoing research developments in food biotechnology.”
Twenty-five Nobel Prize winners and more than 3,400 scientists have expressed their support for plant biotech techniques as a “powerful and safe” way to improve agriculture and the environment. Also, the International Society of Toxicology which says that “there is no reason to suppose that the process of food production through biotechnology leads to risks of a different nature than those… created by conventional breeding.” All these are scientifically-based positions.
One of the world major seed company, Monsanto has provided Solid History of Safe Use of Biotech crops. These include facts that – food and feed products containing ingredients derived from plant biotech crops have over a decade of safe use; several billion meals containing biotechnology-derived foods or ingredients have been consumed by people around the world; there is no reliable documentation of any food safety issues resulting from the introduction of genes, proteins or traits through the use of plant biotech and experience to date supports the conclusion that the regulatory process for plant biotech products has been successful and resulted in the marketing of products that are at least as safe as conventionally bred equivalents.
In the same vein, there are emerging evidences that plant biotech havesafety benefits and potential to improve food and feed safety and the safety of food production practices.
Most recently, Allan Reilly who the Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority Ireland called for putting aside the irrational and non-science based fears of new agricultural technologies. “Over the past 20 years, the regulation of the use of genetic modification technology in food production remains one of the most controversial aspects of European food law. Opinions are polarised into pro- and anti-genetic modification lobbies. Reasons for opposition were many – ranging from protectionism, political ideology, food safety, fears of unknown consequences, the unpopularity of multi-national companies and potential environmental impacts.”
Reilly cites a review of more than 130 research projects on GMOs (funded by the European Commission) and involving more than 500 independent research groups as being that of biotechnology. In particular, the conclusion is that “genetic modification is not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Dr. Novella points to the scientific evidences that have continued to evolve against the tidal wave of man-made causes. In spite of revealing evidences that life is a product of organic evolution, he posits that “over the same time scientists, based upon evidence, that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, all these topics remain publically controversial. “Now, the science seems to be converging on the consensus that GMO crops are safe for the environment and human consumption…”
The most major cause for the controversies is ignorance. The lack of understanding of science and the “disconnect between public opinion and scientific evidence is not uncommon. “This,” according to Novella, “represents a serious challenge to scientists, science communicators, and those involved in public policy.”
Although the same ignorance makes humans to conclude that GMO are unnatural and therefore hazardous, “Humans have been altering plants and animals for their own use for thousands of years. Almost nothing that you eat is the product of evolution without extensive human tinkering,” says Novella.
Pigs were first domesticated in central Asia, at least as long ago as 9000 years; Goats (Capra hircus) were among the first domesticated animals, adapted from the wild version Capra aegargus about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago; Sheep (Ovis aries) were domesticated approximately 10,500 years ago; wheat, according to genetics and archaeological studies were domesticated some 12,000 years ago. (Source: Animal domestication). Therefore, modifying plants and animals are nothing new.
Precautionary measures in the introduction of biotechnology are important. However, necessity sometimes makes nations rush into the use of products without taking major cautionary steps.
Take the Ebola vaccine for example. When was it developed?
The example of Ebola Investigational Vaccine
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says: “The Vaccine Research Center (VRC) has developed an Ebola vaccine candidate in collaboration with Okairos…The investigational vaccine, which was designed by VRC scientists,…will enter into a phase 1 clinical trial, which could start enrollment as early as fall 2014, pending approval by the FDA. The VRC is also in discussions with governmental and non-governmental partners regarding options for advancing this candidate beyond Phase I clinical evaluation.”
The vaccine was yet to undergo Phase I clinical evaluation. It is being tested on patients struck by the Ebola Virus Disease.
“A risk vs benefit analysis is therefore most useful. No new technology is without risk, but sometimes opposing innovation has greater risks,” Dr. Novella says.
Abdallah el-Kurebe is a Fellow of Biosciences for Farming in Africa and Chair, African Journalists Network for Agriculture(AJNA).
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