GM Foods – No Simple Answers

I recently read an article written by reporter at Grist who had started a series of such on the subject, which, in conjunction with a job interview I attended for a position in a GM plant-creating facility, spurred me to finally look into the facts and furor surrounding GM foods.

My Expertise on the Subject

I’m a molecular and network biologist by training and by trade. Good on Johnson for starting a work-up for a series on the biology of GM foods, which are important facts to understand about the subject. The political and larger environmental issues are pretty serious, too; the dangers of having either corporatist hegemony of our food crops, or of huge investment in single cultivars (GM or not), are both extreme. I’m sure he has come across the story of the Irish potato famine and the current fungal plague on the Cavendish banana – the predecessor of which, the Gros Michel, was made commercially unviable by plague of the same fungus, decades ago – which highlight the dangers of monoculture.

However, what I have to add is that a simple *quantitative* comparison of the genetic – sequence – differences is really not at all indicative of the potential danger of this or that molecule, be it a novel protein or ‘small molecule’ metabolite. The summary of the first article in the series was precisely that: small genetic differences don’t add up to much. In reality, we exist in a network of metabolites, the majority of which would kill us if we’d not evolved to deal with their effects. However, add a few entirely new metabolites (drugs, artificial sweeteners, thalidomide, whatever; they are all basically metabolites and their effects will be highly ideosyncratic) and you have the potential for disaster. This is all about the networks of metabolism, proteins and genes. Even changing the balance of already existing metabolites in food, increasing the amount to which a person is exposed, could be problematic; as Paracelsus, the father of toxicology put it:

“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

Thus, when adding a new or increasing an old metabolite to the diet of an organism, or to an ecosystem, there is good reason to determine ahead of time whether that novelty will prove harmful. The efficacy of studies done to affect such a determination depends a lot on good design, access to GM crops and the nature of the assays used to evaluate the effects of said crops.

‘Conventional’ Foods Aren’t So Thoroughly Tested

I read a recent, pro-GM post in which the authors argued that more conventionally bred cultivars of wheat, created during the green revolution in the 50-60’s, were never tested for human consumption prior to being released. Hybrid forms were simply created and deployed, willy-nilly. They pointed out that there were no mass epidemics as a result, so why should GM foods be subject to more tests than they are already, when it’s basically impossible to do the proper studies in any case; one can prove the presence of something, like toxicity, but not its absence, so nothing can be proven ‘safe.’

Apart from the fact that the same argument could be used to justify the complete deregulation of the drug testing system for medical applications of novel therapeutics, which are essentially ‘just’ another metabolite, let’s consider some data points. First, when humans initially started living in agrarian communities, anthropological assessment of skeletal remains indicates that there was “a marked decline in [skeletal] health indicators” which were largely attributable to dietary changes. So, even though those humans had been eating grains seasonally as hunter-gatherers, eating more grains meant that some proportion of the population became physically dysfunctional. Such a high level of compromise requires a substantial degree of impact on the developmental program of our species.

“Cultures that adopted intensive agriculture typically showed a marked decline in health indicators. This is particularly true of dental health, which usually became quite poor.”

An Uncontrolled Nutritional Experiment

Next, there is the current state of our population at large. To say that we – as a culture – have been involved in an immense nutritional experiment that lacks anything looking remotely like proper controls is not an understatement. For several decades, food has been changing enormously: from homogenisation of milk to the advent of fast food, to the hybridisation of wheat and corn with wild varieties, or their mutagenesis to produce novel variants, to the use of various biocides and chemical fertilizers, the changes are myriad and substantial, to both the base products and their processing. For any scientist to claim that any particular aspect of this might be problematic is very difficult, statistically speaking, yet studies are demonstrating that specific aspects of our current diet that are problematic – consumption of high fructose corn syrup is one example, which has been linked to the diabetes epidemic, first through studies in rats, which were then confirmed in humans. There are also claims that fructose causes intestinal inflammation, through weakening the integrity of the membrane. I will return to the subject of intestinal inflammation later in this post; at this point, it is worthwhile considering how much GM food there is in our food-chain.

How widespread are GM Foods?

One of the many arguments cited in favour of GM foods is that many different crops have been in the food chain of North Americans for decades, without any notable effects on the public. However, as this extensive article from India – where GM crops are big news – summarises, “GM crops still occupy only 3.4 percent of the total farmland globally and are adopted by a minuscule minority of farmers.” In addition, apart from a few crops – the “FlavrSavr” tomato, corn and canola oil – there are very few foods that humans eat which have been modified by biotechnical means and the growth of GM crop planting is slowing, as is summarised in this blog post. This article also claims that the promises of GM plant proponents have also mostly fallen short, principally due to the privatisation of the research, which has meant profit-driven rather than humanitarian goals. Thus, it appears that GM foods are mostly grown by rich farmers – particularly Big Agribusiness – and used to increase the profit margins of already profitable industries. So, GM Foods are not so widespread as proponents would have us believe, certainly not as direct consumables. The question remains, however: are GM Foods safe to eat?

Other Indicators of Detriment

Consider for a moment some other indicators of human health, of less extreme clinical symptoms than cancer, but that would certainly not show up in bone deformations: dysfunctions of the digestive system. There are many and varied types of these, including Chron’s disease, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis… In fact, if one wanted to classify a cluster of bowel-related inflammatory diseases into a single group and examine whether the changes to our diet due to the introduction of hybrid varieties of plants, one may find that the uncontrolled experiment has, in fact, already yielded results indicative of a negative impact of the Green Revolution on our population: an increase in digestive tract dysfunction.

Almost perfectly on time, a recent article was published that examined the effect of GM feed on the health of domesticated pigs. As described in this Grist article, the Australian study reported that the pigs were normal in every way tested – weight gain, mortality, blood biochemistry – but with one exception: the pigs fed the GM feed exhibited over two and a half times more gut inflammation than did pigs fed unmodified feed. Note that one of the feed crops that may have been included in the study would be corn, the concentrated syrup product of which has been claimed to influence gut inflammation in humans, as I cited earlier.

I personally suffer from a small degree of gluten intolerance, which I determined empirically from comparing the effects of eating gluten-free pasta to normal pasta. While that is hardly a double-blind study, I went one further: also available in my local supermarket pasta section was spiral pasta made from spelt, which according to Wikipedia is “an ancient species of wheat from the fifth millennium BCE.” This ancient wheat had the same lack of effect on my digestive tract as did gluten-free wheat, suggesting that my ‘gluten intolerance’ was in some way due to the modifications to modern day wheat during the Green Revolution, which begs the question of what changes were made to crops – in addition to the cultivation changes and use of various biocides – during that time.

Dwarf Plants and the Green Revolution

In short, Wikipedia identifies one principal genetic modification of plants that is pertinent to a discussion of GM food: the introduction of a genetic variation that results in growth of plants with shorter stems, which are consequently able to bear the weight of the larger seeds that develop due to increased nitrogen accumulation, which is another effect of the genetic variation. These ‘dwarf’ variations occur naturally in wheat and rice, and have also been cloned in a plant model organism, Arabidopsis (water cress); in wheat and cress, the variant is in equivalent genes and in all three plant types, the affected process relates to the plant hormone gibberellin, which, among many other things, promotes plant stem growth. The variant forms of the genes cause a reduction in activity of that specific hormonal system and, consequently, smaller plants.

Of course, now that the variant alleles of the genes have been cloned, any existing cultivars of plants could be modified by biotechnological methods to include them, to reduce plant height and give larger seeds. With the advances in gene targeting technologies, the normal genes could be specifically replaced by these allelic variants using transgenic technology. This would be a far smaller amount of genetic change than the crossing of wheat with goat grass, for example, but the impact could still be quite detrimental to our health. As with the Green Revolution, which gave rise to numerous high-yield dwarf wheat cultivars, no-one will know what they are eating, unless companies using GM foods are required by law to label them as such.

Food Labeling – GM and Otherwise

Which brings us to the other major argument about GM crops: labeling. Much has been written on this subject, but the most reasonable line of argument I have read is as follows:

“There is a mountain of evidence that grows daily that suggests that what we eat has a very direct impact on our health. 

…the crux of the matter:

Of all the non-negotiable demands consumers might make, “it’s not ok for companies to hide information about the food I eat” should always be right up there at the top.

…this isn’t really a debate about the science of GMOs, it’s a debate about transparency – and it’s one that’s older than GMOs. . . .

We should never, ever begin to go down the road where we tell food manufacturers that they have our blessing to purposefully hide information about what we consume from us.”

While we are about it, how about labeling primary produce to indicate what chemical and biological elements of green revolution technology have been used? We have ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ certifications for those products made without such technologies, but no labeling to indicate whether cultivars were dwarf stock, nor the specific pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertiliser, hormones and antibiotics that might have been used.

Given the presence of traces of such in our food and the residue of same in the environment, the latter of which have been linked to many problems, from water eutrophication to development of antibiotic resistance to the widespread death of bees, this seems like important information to provide, so that an informed public can make financially impacting decisions about what it consumes.

If the public is not well-informed, that is a separate issue that concerned government agencies and agribusinesses have the responsibility to address: maintaining ignorance is not an acceptable method. With barcodes and applications for reading them, consumers can make on-the-spot decisions based on the entire production chain of a product, be it GM or conventional food, or anything else for that matter.

My Hope for the Future: Ending Representationalism

My principal issue with GM crops is not with the crops themselves; as is very well discussed elsewhere, in the historical context of the domestication of plants, most of the public concern about GM crops is more about the fear of the unknown than it is about the estimable dangers of the organisms themselves. Like the author of this op-ed piece, however, I am gravely concerned about the concentration of control of our food supply in the self-interested hands big business; to me, this represents yet another example of the fundamental dangers of any representational system: that giving up personal control to another person or institution creates the opportunity for corruption; power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Of course, because our species has become increasingly urbanised and specialised, we simply can’t grow all or most of our own food – though there are many projects going on around the world to bring food production back into the cities, even to the extent of designing high-rise buildings to house extensive market gardens, or creating closed-system aquaponics, etc – so we are generally forced by circumstance to delegate the responsibility of food production to other people. Traditionally, for millennia, this has been farmers; more recently, industrial farming is becoming increasingly the norm in the developed world, which in parallel with the rise of corporatism is a very worrying trend. International corporations have repeatedly shown themselves to be beyond cavalier in their treatment of local stakeholders; the public fear of GM food could be seen as yet another example of corporate failure to acquire community license for their products, through their behaving in a typical, high-handed manner.

Similarly, farmers were once the principal source of novel cultivars, which they created through their own breeding programs. Now, this distributed control has given way to centralised control, substantially due to the expense of the green and biotech revolutions. However, approaches to gene engineering mean that the entry price – in terms of both knowledge and material investment – is decreasing, consistent with all known laws of technology; the technological benefits of the human genome project apply equally well to plant biotechnology. Among these are new tools for genetic modification, articles about which I have collected here, that are rapidly approaching a degree of simplicity of design and application that will allow citizen scientists to use the tools to modify plants at their discretion.

Someday, it may be that all the privately and publicly held cultivars of the world could be modified to suit their local environments, by the people who are using them. Imagine that: the re-democratisation of our food chain.


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