Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Seeds of Discontent

Prince Charles’ interview in Tuesday’s Telegraph, in which he declares that widespread farming of genetically engineered crops would mean “the absolute destruction of everything,” added new fuel to the ongoing debate in Europe about genetically modified foods. Just a few months ago, the European Union was staunchly against allowing genetically engineered crops or food into the market, a measure that hampered trade for many countries (including the United States) that grow GM crops. Recent reports, however, indicate that Europeans seem to be moving towards acceptance of GM foods, as long as they are properly labeled. European scientists are also beginning to acknowledge the value of such technology.

Great Britain, which put a blanket ban on all GM crops in 2004, is now beginning to grant new applications for field trials of bioengineered crops, and British scientists are pushing for allowances to conduct even more GM research. A policy shift among European Union member states would be particularly significant, as most of the global food trade is affected, directly or indirectly, by European regulations. An EU move towards acceptance of GM foods would undoubtedly inundate global markets with bioengineered crops, much to the chagrin of the many protesters in both the United States and abroad.

Seeds

AP

Scientists can engineer seeds that are drought resistant, can withstand harsh chemicals, or that contain extra vitamins.

The debate about the safety of GM foods isn’t going to end any time soon, in Europe or the United States. Here at home, though, debate over the benefits and potential pitfalls of the technology must be framed around the fact that engineered seeds have to pass through the screening procedures of three different agencies, a more rigorous testing procedure than any other food undergoes.

In 1986, the United States established the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, which describes what safety requirements each agency is accountable for monitoring and the intricate detail in which the agencies must work together. The U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluates the seed’s agricultural safety, while the Environmental Protection Agency assesses hazards the new crop might hold for the environment. The Food and Drug Administration ensures that the crop (with its newly engineered protein falling into the “food additive” category) is safe to eat.

While this battery of evaluations is by no means foolproof, it does ensure that genetically engineered foods that make it to our tables are at least as safe, by any testable standard, as other foods on the market. Critics of genetically modified crops, however, raise other issues. They point out that most of the genetically modified seeds that are sold are engineered to be resistant the high levels of pesticides or herbicides. This use of such technology only furthers the interests of the corporations who produce the seeds and, invariably, the chemicals for which they have resistance. It also encourages farmers to use a heavy hand when applying these toxic chemicals to their fields.

Others worry about the lack of definitive tests to ensure the safety of genetically modified foods. The concern is that the engineered crops could produce surprising toxins, or that the spliced-in DNA might escape the digestion process in our stomachs and fuse with our DNA or the DNA of our gut flora, causing mayhem. The list of concerns goes on, and every blog or news outlet will provide a different spin.

Certainly, there are issues to be addressed by policymakers. Foods containing GMOs are not currently labeled, and it is thought that as much as 70 percent of all processed foods on the shelves in American grocery stores contain GM ingredients. Some groups have suggested that there should be some system requiring labels for these products to enable consumers to make informed choices about their food purchases.

Before that could happen, though, there would need to be a better system for keeping engineered seeds from infiltrating organic crops. One of the biggest contentions farmers have with engineered seeds is their tendency, like any other seed, to drift. Many organic farmers have found high percentages (frequently over 20 percent) of their crops to be contaminated with GM seed. One solution might be to establish GMO-free zones, like those in place in California, to allow organic farmers to raise their crops without worry of contamination from nearby farms.

While U.S. farmers, the media, concerned parents, and all the other interest groups continue to go back and forth on this issue, there is a global dimension to the debate that policymakers must also weigh. In small areas of Africa, farmers have introduced seeds engineered to increase the crop yield and the nutrition of those yields. These crops can be a huge source of relief in parts of the developing world where malnutrition affects over 800 million people, a number that will only continue to increase with the rapidly growing global population and the skyrocketing costs of food.

Plants that are engineered to have higher levels of essential vitamins or nutrients help children develop properly and help adults keep their immune systems healthy. Crops engineered to be drought resistant or have higher yields can help stem the global food shortage while bringing much needed income to poor farmers. The first step in any long-term solution to the food crisis is to increase the self-sufficiency of starving populations. This can be partially accomplished by giving farmers access to improved seeds.

At the heart of the matter, the debate over genetically modified crops is really two separate issues. Much of the genetic engineering done on crops in the United States improves the crops’ ability to withstand powerful chemicals. The genetic engineering that could contribute to the malnourishment problem in the developing world improves crops’ ability to feed people. Thus the debate over GMO foods should be conducted as two debates.

The first: whether chemical companies are using biotechnology to sell more of their product and maintain a stronghold on seed technologies and thus agricultural production. And the second: whether supporting the use of biotechnology is an appropriate means to help solve an urgent humanitarian problem that will continue to grow if the global community doesn’t act aggressively. After all, the majority of processed foods in the United States contain some genetically modified ingredients that over the past two decades have not resulted in any immediate adverse health effects, but malnutrition kills ten million people a year. The seeds of this biotechnology have already been sown; it is now our responsibility to make sure we utilize them for good.

Tags: , ,

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.