GM Foods Not the Solution

No Evidence Quick-Fix Science is the Answer

  • Graphic by Clement Liu

In The Link’s last issue, Christopher Hampson described current concerns of population growth, degradation of arable land, and food insecurity as problems to which innovative, science-based solutions are needed, specifically championing genetically modified food.

While providing food security to a global population expected to peak at 9 billion in 2045 is a noble and necessary aim, reliance on corporate controlled, poorly researched and improperly understood genetic modification of our agricultural output is not the right course.

The physical-scientific concerns surrounding GM food include the random location placement and lack of control over a selected gene that affects how all of a plant’s original genes interact, the multiple functions of every single gene, the possibility of consumers developing novel allergens, and the difficulty in protecting surrounding non-GM crops from contamination via pollination.

Further, the peer-reviewed scientific record on human-health impacts of GM food consumption is almost non-existent. The studies that do exist using animal testing—since animals are often force-fed GM foods because they refuse to eat it—or human trials show the development of intestinal lesions—specifically, a gene transfer from digested GM food to human gut bacteria.

In a comprehensive study on the future of food bio-technology in Canada, the Royal Society of Canada stated that the “expression of a new gene and its products […] will be accompanied by a range of collateral changes in expression of other genes,” concluding this could lead to the development of new toxins, amongst other harmful substances.

Scientists issued similar warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though these were not made public until a lawsuit was filed against the FDA. These documents revealed that, “the predominant view [amongst FDA scientists] was that genetic engineering entails distinct risks and that its products cannot be regarded as safe unless they have been confirmed to be so through appropriate feeding studies.”

Moreover, the FDA’s GM food policy was not drafted by its scientists, but overseen by Deputy Commissioner for Policy Michael Taylor—an attorney, who prior to his appointment, was employed by Monsanto, helping them draft pro bio-tech legislation to lobby for. He later left his post in the civil service to return to Monsanto as vice-president for Public Policy.

That aside, GM food represents an attempt at a silver-bullet solution to large, interconnected problems, which, if adopted, may ensure that it is the symptoms, but not the root causes, of soil depletion and food insecurity that are dealt with.

Blind faith in chemical manipulation and corporate guidance of human progress are two of the reasons that our food system is in such dire shape in the first place. A closer look at the problems themselves offers insight into possible courses of action.

Our expanding population does not grow in equal distribution geographically or economically; most population gains since 1960 (a trend which will hold until mid-century) have been in the global south, and accompanied by a massive migration towards urban centers. However, high-income countries consumption of global resources per-capita, and in real terms, remains disproportionately high. Examples and evidence of this inequality are visible in carbon emissions, energy consumption, water use, obesity, etc.

The largest quadrant of our population is in the low-middle income bracket (4 billion people making $996 to $3,945 per year) and alongside their lowest income earners (1 Billion at less than $996 per year) are the fastest growing, younger, least literate, and most likely to suffer from food insecurity.

In terms of environmental impacts, this growing density will be a great tool of resource efficiency (energy, water, etc.), if principles of ecological urbanism can be adopted and implemented.

As larger segments of our population continue using the 20th century Western model of “development,” an added stress will also be on an increased demand for animal-based protein, as there is a wealth of evidence pointing to the disastrous ecological consequences and inefficiencies of current animal protein production.

One calorie of animal protein requires 40 calories of grain, and according to the USDA, “at present, the U.S. livestock population consumes more than 7 times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population [and] the amount of grains fed to U.S. livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.”

The second constraining parameter Mr. Hampson mentioned was soil degradation/depletion. I couldn’t agree more. This is an issue that has unfortunately been disregarded due to a public environmental discourse that measures all ecological problems in CO2 emissions.

Currently, human agricultural activity occupies 38 per cent of the Earth’s non-ice surface. The growth of broad-acre, monoculture agriculture as well as deforestation and contamination due to fossil fuel extraction and mining are all depleting topsoil, or leaving it exposed to erosion and desertification.

Rather than relying on the possibility of a techno-chemical snap cure, we should encourage inquiry into a modality of solutions, with an emphasis on those that are slow, biologically and socially diverse, equitable, and break divides between urban and rural.

Some of these, for your Googling pleasure, include urban agriculture, agro-forestry, higher percentage of plant-based diet, bio-mimicry, permaculture, local-organic food, nutritional education, focus on maternal health and family planning, female literacy and empowerment programs—as there is a direct correlation between female literacy and declining birth-rate—and a renewed vigor for local community-based determination of needs.

The rush to expand the proportion of genetically modified food is underscored by a greedy, quick-fix philosophy which conflates the absence of evidence with evidence of absence. GM food is not a long-term solution for hunger, poverty, land/soil degradation, or earth’s human carrying capacity, and in fact presents new risks that far outweigh any potential short-term benefits.

- Alexander Oster is a former Concordia Student Union Executive, acting as VP Sustainability from 2009-2010 and a current member of the Concordia Food Systems Project.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.

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