‘Shame On You, People Are Hungry’

GMO’s Could Be A Solution

  • Graphic Christopher Olson

We need to properly respond to our current reality, that is one of overpopulation and degradation of arable land.

A recent ecological report from Cornell University states that the ideal population of planet Earth is around 2 billion. With current means of production, we have no choice but to find innovative solutions to feed 6.8 billion mouths—and counting.

One of these game-changing solutions, genetically modified organisms, is being suppressed by misguided skepticism and paranoia. I don’t think it should be.

When most people think of GMOs, images of Frankenstein come to mind; mad scientists messing around in a lab with things they don’t understand, defying nature. he truth is that geneticists have a clear understanding of what they are doing and conduct their research with precision.

Specific gene alterations can have massive benefits. They can entice organisms to produce enzymes responsible for the biosynthesis of vitamins necessary in the human diet. Moreover, genetic applications can increase crop yields, resistance to environmental change and rate of growth. There are even bananas which produce the hepatitis vaccine.

You eat GM foods every day. Over 86 per cent of rapeseed (canola), sugarcane, soybean and corn products in the United States are genetically modified.

“GM food needs to pass product registration and approval, they are ‘Generally Regarded as Safe,’ said Dr. Adrian Tsang from the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics at Concordia University. “This is more than we can say about non-GM food.”

Two-hundred-and-fifty-million Africans (40 per cent of the continental population) subsist on a starchy tuber called cassava, which is ground to a powder and made into a gruel called Ugali. Yet these people die with full bellies from malnutrition. The cassava plant has nearly no nutritional value. Furthermore, cassava plants are subject to the whim of nature. Because of inaccessibility to pesticides, a flare up in whitefly population can destroy an entire harvest.

A genetically engineered version with enriched vitamins, minerals and proteins, as well as a resistance to whiteflies has been developed. Still, many African countries are following western skepticism and banning GMO products.

There are many arguments against GM foods, most of which are based on a mediocre understanding of biology.

Some people even believe that by eating GM products, they might be changing their own genetic structure.

“This is one of the funniest parts of the debate,” said Dr. Tsang. “Some people seem to think that they are eating genes only when they are eating GM food. You are eating millions of different genes each day in billions of copies. If that number of genes does not turn you into a pig or a carrot, it is extremely doubtful that an additional transgene can change your genetic structure.”

Wonder-plants usually turn out to be more wonderful for the holders of the patents because typically they introduce a sterility gene that requires farmers to buy new seeds every harvest.

“Their strategy of cross-licensing patents to each other makes it difficult for smaller companies or start-up companies to compete, thereby indirectly stifling innovation,” said Dr. Tsang. Government support for [independent] agricultural research is paltry in many countries, including Canada. Wealthy foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have done an outstanding job in filling the gaps.”

For companies such as Monsanto, patents are critical to their business plan. Changes in legislation have allowed such companies to patent sequences of the building blocks of life itself. Stretching the “utility” clause beyond any common sense, the entire biological structure of an organism can be owned. We cannot construct functioning DNA from scratch, only borrow and replace naturally occurring sequences from other organisms. On these grounds alone the push for patent rights on living things should have failed. There is no “unique utility” when it comes to food.

However, there are ways around these patents. A small variation on a molecular level can achieve the same results while technically being unique from the design patent of a major biotech company.

Should more government funding go towards genetic research and development in Canadian universities. There is a clear and evident solution to a worldwide problem that is being stifled in part by scientific ignorance, but more importantly the billion-dollar racket that has prevented genetically modified food from being utilized and distributed to where it is most needed. Shame on you. People are hungry.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 23, published February 15, 2011.

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