Beyond GM’s GMO Wheel of Chance, is based on a traditional wheel of fortune. Topics are divided into four key areas where agricultural GMOs can have a significant impact: consumers, farming, the environment and the marketplace. Each spin leads to a pop-up of bite-sized information for the user to consider. However if you wish to see all the information in one place this can be found on pages dedicated to each key area.
Genetically modified crops are vigorously promoted as a way to feed the world. Yet in the more than 20 years since they were introduced, the problem of world hunger has got bigger rather than smaller and has grown to encompass not just those in developing nations who are starving, but those in developed nations whose diets are so high in calories, and low in nutrients, that they too are malnourished.
In fact, very few people eat GM crops directly; instead they are eaten as ingredients such fats and oils, soya fillers and high fructose corn syrup, which go into a variety of highly processed and snack foods. These foods don’t feed those who have access to them well, and they are certainly not the answer to world hunger.
In addition, because GMOs are the ultimate commodity crop, farmers will sell them to the highest bidder. At the moment, about 40% of all GMOs are used to make biofuels to feed cars not people. Using agricultural crops to make fuel has been shown to be a significant waste of food resources as well as energy resources since it can take as much, if not more, energy to manufacture biofuels than the finished fuel eventually yields.
Studies show that we already produce enough food to feed 14 billion people, twice the global population. Much of this is carelessly thrown away; the rest consistently fails to get to those who need it the most.
When it comes to feeding the world, a recent United Nations report suggested that while “international policy discussions remain heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production,” hunger is not caused by a food shortage but by “a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient.”
GM crops are not the answer to these problems.
One argument used to promote GM crops is that man has been altering the genetic make-up of plants for thousands of years and that genetic engineering is simply a different type of plant breeding.
However the definition of a GMO – one that applies in both law and science – is an organism whose DNA has been altered in a way that cannot happen in nature. This definition is important because it is what allows biotechnology companies to patent the plants that they produce (and all GMO plants are patented).
Patenting of any living organism is controversial and biotech companies have pushed this issue almost as far as it can go and, in so doing, have caused a fundamental shift in the relationship between man and nature.
Living biological material like seeds and plants, which until now have been part of our natural and common heritage, are being appropriated and taken into corporate ownership through the use of patents and other forms of so-called intellectual property rights.
The “inventive step” which justifies the patent might be a small part of a GMO plant’s gene sequence, but it is used to claim ownership of the plant’s entire genome and all of its uses.
This gives the GM companies enormous power over plant breeding and farming; it takes away farmers’ traditional rights to save and swap their own seeds; it squeezes traditional plant breeders out of existence; and it concentrates genetic resources in the hands of a few companies, giving them control over the future of food and farming.
An often-used argument in favour of genetic modification in agriculture is that it takes less time to produce a huge variety of new plants than traditional breeding. But to produce an agricultural GMO actually takes a lot of money and a lot of time – around $136 million (£97 million) and 13 years per plant product.
Initially it can be faster to produce a new plant of some kind using genetic engineering, but only a few plants out of many hundreds will turn out to grow normally and exhibit the desired trait – such as herbicide tolerance. For a variety of reasons, both known and unknown, in the research and development stage, many genetically engineered plants fail to thrive, or fail to show the desired trait, or are even toxic and are therefore discarded.
What this means is that genetic engineering is potentially more ‘hit and miss’ than traditional plant breeding – which is why after more than 20 years there are still only two widely commercialised traits of GM plant in the world: those that are resistant to certain herbicides and those that produce their own insecticides.
GMO food products aren’t more nutritious, they aren’t cheaper to grow and they don’t fetch a premium at the farm gate or in the grocery store. In fact, public rejection of GMOs means that convincing consumers to buy them can be difficult.
One reason why manufacturers have consistently refused to label their products as containing GMO ingredients is that consumers have indicated they would not buy them if they knew they contained GMOs.
Manufacturers persist in using GMOs because they are cheap to buy and can easily be turned into ingredients – such as high fructose corn syrup or soya fillers – and additives, enzymes, flavourings, artificial sweeteners and processing agents for highly processed foods. Studies are showing that more than half of the Western diet is made up of these highly processed foods which, although cheap to buy, are also nutritionally poor and therefore contribute to increasingly levels of malnutrition in people who otherwise appear to be well-fed, or even over-fed.
Strong regulation, at its best, can protect people and the environment as well as supporting a healthy and dynamic economy. But where profits are at stake, regulation is often lacking.
The regulation of GMO crops varies throughout the world, but in all places it is inadequate. There is a universal lack of rigorous independent health and environmental evaluation before these crops hit the market – and virtually none afterwards. The assessments that are undertaken take their lead from confidential corporate studies which are not open to public scrutiny.
In the US, the regulatory system is fractured by an arbitrary split between government agencies and rests on a presumption of safety until risk can be proven. Whilst in Europe the Precautionary Principle, which is enshrined in EU law, and allows regulators to take action to prevent potential harm, even where there is scientific uncertainly, is set aside in GMO safety assessments.
Throughout the world GMO regulatory policy is based on the notion that GMO plants are “substantially equivalent” (i.e. mostly the same) to a non-GMO plant, and therefore safe. This ignores the fact that to achieve a patent – and all GMOs are patented – they have to be significantly different to anything that has existed before.
It’s important to note also that regulation often lags far behind independent science. This can be seen with conventional GM crops, where current regulation fails reflect emerging health and environmental risks. But the problem is especially acute with newer types of GMOs, such as gene drives and CRISPR, which are so radically different from their predecessors that current regulations cannot provide adequate protection, and many governments don’t know, yet, how to regulate them.
Despite the best efforts of the biotech industry, consumers all over the world remain staunchly opposed to GM food. Surveys consistently show that the majority of consumers don’t want GMOs in their fields or their food.
The most recent Europe-wide poll on consumer attitudes to GMOs, carried out by Eurobarometer, found that nearly 60% of Europeans believe that GM food is not safe for their or their families’ health or for future generations. An even larger majority (70%) said that genetically modifying foods is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 61% said that GMOs made them “feel uneasy”.
Other major concerns centre around the corporate takeover of food and science, too many unknowns in terms of health, environment and safety and a feeling that the genetic modification of food simply isn’t necessary.
In America, where the vast majority of GMO-containing foods are consumed, and where concerns about their safety are rising, consumers overwhelmingly favour labelling of these foods so that they can exercise the right to choose – or refuse – to eat them. Manufacturers, however, have fought hard against GMO food labels.
As with many other complex issues, consumers look to those in ‘authority’ to take the initiative in terms of understanding the issues – and to ensure things like accurate labelling and that that their food choices are generally sound.
In general, consumers want the government to take action; government believes the marketplace should be left to sort it all out; and the marketplace says it’s is led by the consumer. Because the interests of consumers, government and business are not always aligned, often no one takes action.