14-20 November 2014 #732

Transgenic foods

While GM foods are argued to be unsafe, the current consensus of major scientific and medical bodies says otherwise
Science bytes by Roshan Karki

Earlier this year, protests against Monsanto led to Nepal’s Supreme Court to ban its GM (Genetically Modified) products in Nepal. This is justifiable given Monsanto’s past notoriety, but it skewed public perception on the biotechnology behind GM foods deemed to be products of ‘evil’ corporations that impose serious health risks.

While the debate on GM food safety has raged on for decades, the current consensus of major scientific and medical bodies is clear: GM foods are safe to consume. These organisations include WHO, FAO, European Commission, national academies of Sciences from USA, France, Brazil, Mexico, China, and India.The most comprehensive meta-analysis of 1783 peer-reviewed publications on GM crops did not demonstrate any health risk and posited little evidence of environmental damage.

Conversely, 30 years of data reviewed in annals of internal medicine, suggest organic food isn’t much nutritious or healthier than GM foods. Despite multiple scientific articles clearing the misinformation about GM food, it continues to evoke both fear and fury.

The fear stems from the idea that GM foods are made by ‘tampering with nature’. Humans have been genetically modifying every food we plant and eat today for thousands of years. Selective breeding has been deemed natural, but the action of myriad genes swapped during the process is difficult to predict. GM technology involves extracting a piece of DNA-usually a single gene- from an organism, modifying it as needed, and incorporating into the DNA of same or unrelated species.

The process is fast, efficient, and allows precise assessment of the modified gene aiding in development of many useful traits: plants that resist pests, herbicides, severe diseases or ones that produce vitamins, like the Golden Rice. In medicine, GM technology has been used to develop safer and cheaper vaccines, insulin for diabetic patients, and gene therapy- a treatment option for cancer.

The impact of GM foods on ecology, environment, and agriculture are legitimate concerns. The growing use of pesticides/herbicides that may result in superweeds and resistance against pests is alarming. The effects of GM foods on sustainable farming, monoculture practices, and farmers-corporations dynamics are noteworthy. However, these issues are even more telling in conventional and organic farming.

For example, GM plants that are able to generate their own toxins to fend off pests would require far less pesticide/herbicide than conventional crops. These contentious issues of environmental and agricultural concerns are thus direct consequence of the methods of deploying technology and farming practices, not the GM technology per se.

In Nepal, we need to be wary of corporate interests who want to profit by hyping their products. But instead of debating the use of GM technology, we require the cooperation of scientists, environmentalists, farmers, and policy makers to implement biotechnology in an efficient manner so as to improve yield, quality, and nutrition of crops at a lower cost, promote sustainability and reduce waste, minimise damage to environment, and most importantly, secure rights, equity, and livelihood of our farmers.

While GM foods may not solve all of Nepal’s food problems, they are a vital tool to address the food security challenges of our country, where more than half the population live in poverty. In this context, the potential of GM technology food has far-reaching implications, and its safety should be extrapolated from scientific evidence, not from culturally popular opinions.

@roshancarkey

Roshan Karki is a PhD in Experimental Pathology from Yale University and this is the first of his monthly Science Bytes column in Nepali Times.

Read also:

The seeds of war

Going to seed

Why Monsanto?, Sascha Fuller

Franken-rice

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