Genetic modification: fears and facts

Posted on January 16, 2014

by Ari Yanover

GoldenRice Photo: Golden Rice Project

Genetically modified crops can be used to prevent the deaths of millions of children. Despite this, GM foods have an odd stigma attached to them. While these crops would not normally be found in nature, they are safe to eat. Thousands of studies and over 100 credible health and science organizations – including the World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and American Medical Association – vouch for the safety of GM foods. “There is nothing in the genetically modified crop that could possibly cause a problem,” said Patrick Moore, co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace and current leader of the Allow Golden Rice Now campaign. “They’re genes from other food crops which we’re eating all the time. It’s totally organic.” Genetic modification (also referred to as genetic engineering, or GE) occurs by taking the genes from one plant and inserting them into another. Golden Rice is an example of this. Rice does not naturally possess beta-carotene, but by taking genes from corn and inserting them into natural rice grain endosperm, a new variety of rice – golden in colour, hence the name – that will have beta-carotene as part of its genetic makeup can be grown. Rice possessing beta-carotene is a source of vitamin A. This is a very important case when it comes to GM foods, as Golden Rice is the first humanitarian genetically modified crop. Many poorer nations utilize rice as one of the main parts of their diet. This includes 250 million children between the ages of four to eight, two to three million of whom die each year due to compromised immune systems as a result of vitamin A deficiency. “Unlike the other causes of child mortality, [such as malaria and HIV AIDS],” said Moore, “vitamin A is not a disease. It’s not something you have to kill in order to save the child. It’s simply a deficiency that all you have to do is provide the essential nutrients.” One of the best ways to combat vitamin A deficiency is to modify already common crops so they produce vitamin A. Nobody’s diet is changed; rather, the people affected will simply consume a different kind of rice, and become healthier for it. This is just one example of how a GM food can benefit humanity. Genetic modification may also be used to increase a crop’s productivity – growing more food over smaller areas of land, thus ensuring more food can be grown for the world’s increasing population – and increased resistance to disease and pests.


This not only means less pesticide use, but has a humanitarian impact as well. “In an FAO study conducted in 2011,” said Cami Ryan, a researcher at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, “it was reported that 43 per cent of the agriculture labour force was women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was in weeding. New varieties of genetically engineered corn introduced to South Africa has cut down weeding time substantially. This means that women have more time and options to pursue off-farm work, spend time with children, and pursue educational opportunities.” Researchers at the UK’s University of Warwick, as well as Germany’s University of Goettingen, also found that GM insect-resistant cotton greatly benefited women in rural India, gaining them more employment and greater wages. Despite these benefits to GM foods, activist organizations such as Greenpeace are against them.“The truth is that the safety of GE food for humans and feed for animals is still unknown. There aren’t any available independent studies that prove otherwise,” wrote Bruce Cox, a former director of Greenpeace Canada, in a blog post for Greenpeace. In the case of Golden Rice and vitamin A deficiency, Greenpeace believes there are better answers. “By promoting GE rice you encourage a diet based on single starch staple rather than an increase in access to the many vitamin-rich food plants in a diversified diet,” wrote Cox. Greenpeace has also expressed concerns that Golden Rice will contaminate non-GM rice, causing organic farmers to lose their markets. Furthermore, some populations affected by vitamin A deficiency are opposed to GM crops. Greenpeace believes that this, combined with the fact that there are other solutions currently in place to combat the issue, are a strong case against GM crops and Golden Rice in particular. Some of these notions contradict established facts. To say that there are no independent studies that prove GM food is safe for consumption is false, as there have been over two thousand studies by many reputable scientific groups. To say the solution to vitamin A deficiency in poorer nations is a diversified diet is naïve. “They don’t have spinach,” said Moore, who left Greenpeace in 1986. “They have rice. If you put vitamin A in rice, they’ll have vitamin A. If you don’t put vitamin A in rice, they’ll continue to eat rice with no vitamin A, and continue to go blind, or die.” People in poorer nations do not have the same easy access to food as most Canadians. When combating vitamin A deficiency, first world solutions cannot be applied to the third world. It just hinders them. Crop contamination may be an issue for farmers wishing to retain organic status. As many crops are insect or wind pollinated, it is possible for a GM crop to contaminate an organic crop.


This could ultimately lead to the loss of an organic label, which has the potential to cost a farmer. This is an important concern. It is, however, also important to note that there have been scientific studies stating that GM foods are indistinguishable from organic foods, and the stigma is unfounded. In Canada, a product is regulated based on its traits, not by how it was made. Still, GM foods receive stricter inspections than conventional crops. As the anti-GM movement has grown, the inspection times for GM foods have almost tripled over the past 20 years, and it costs about $140 million to safely pass a new GM food. GM crops are relatively popular among Canadian farmers: approximately 17 per cent of Canadian farmland is devoted towards them. As of 2012, Canada is fourth in the world in acres used for GM crops, and 8.1 per cent of the Canadian GDP comes from agriculture. GM food is important both for Canada and for humanitarian and environmental reasons throughout the world. Many anti-GM activists come from the first world where crops such as golden rice are not necessary. “[The first world seems] to have more time to dwell on things and our relationship to food has evolved from one that was wholly ‘functional’ to one that is more ‘aesthetic,’” said Ryan. “We are not only dealing with an urban-rural divide, we are dealing with a north-south divide where we are completely dissociated from what’s happening in less developed parts of the world.” This is what makes advancements in humanitarian GM crops like Golden Rice so important. GM crops are safe for consumption, and have the capacity to save and improve human lives. The first world suffers a disconnect from third world problems and solutions. The greatest thing the average consumer can do is to educate him or herself on just what a GM crop is, how it is produced, why it is not dangerous to consume, and how important they can be to improving the lives of others.


Ari Yanover is a freelance writer from Calgary, AB.