THE BLOG
08/08/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Genetically-Modified Food: Fantastic or 'Frankenfood'?

The debate over GMOs seems far from being resolved, and many consumers are confused. Here is a new blog I co-authored with a leading physician who researches and writes on environmental health and other issues; we strove for a "fair and balanced" science-based review of the issues that concern many people.

By Ted Schettler, M.D., and Steve Heilig, MPH

About 9 billion humans are expected to be alive by the end of this century -- 2 billion more than now. Hunger and malnutrition have been endemic to our species throughout history and that's true today -- about 870 million people don't get enough to eat now, a result of regional shortages, maldistribution of food, and rising prices. Climate change and water shortages threaten to worsen the problem, perhaps worldwide.

What to do? Biotechnology companies promote genetic modification of some crops and even fish and livestock as essential for addressing worldwide food needs now and in the future. So far, genetic modification has mainly been confined to developing crops that tolerate herbicides and resist pests. They have done little to increase yields, and as predicted, herbicide resistant weeds are becoming a major problem. Foods that add nutrients, like vitamin A-containing rice, and varieties meant to withstand droughts, are just emerging. But these technological approaches to supplying food for a growing planetary population have met a mixed reception. In fact, researchers on all sides say they are demonized in various ways by those who oppose or support GM crops, and scientific and policy debates rage worldwide.

A recent special package of articles in the esteemed journal Nature were summarized in TIME thus:

... while GM crops haven't yet realized their initial promise and have been dominated by agribusiness, there is reason to continue to use and develop them to help meet the enormous challenge of sustainably feeding a growing planet.

A recent unanimous United States Supreme Court decision upheld strict patent rights on GM seeds owned by Monsanto corporation, forbidding farmers from collecting and using seeds from GM plants without purchasing them from the company.

In addition to concerns about corporate control of agriculture, many members of the general public are also concerned with possible personal health risks. An attempt to require labeling of GM products in California failed last year, but consumer campaigns to require such disclosure are having success elsewhere and will likely return here. Grocery chains such as Whole Foods and others are requiring labeling or outright refusing to sell GM products. Online, the claims about GM foods range from them being a panacea for the problems of world hunger, agricultural productivity and the general economy to threatening food security and environmental quality with dire consequences for the human species. What's a doctor to do -- or, rather, say -- to concerned patients, or anybody? In briefest form, here are a few thoughts:

Human Health: A growing and disturbing body of research raises concerns about adverse impacts associated with consumption of GM foods. Novel toxicants, allergens, or changed nutritive value have been reported in various studies, some of which have attracted widespread attention. Unfortunately, the quality of this research varies considerably and debates remain unresolved. Moreover, the FDA has decided that GM crops are "essentially equivalent" to conventionally produced crops and does not require long term feeding studies. Rather, FDA relies on the industry producing the food to attest to its safety.

A former research scientist for Agriculture Canada and GM supporter with much experience in GM work, Thierry Vrain, concludes:

I have, in the last 10 years, changed my position. I started paying attention to the flow of published studies coming from Europe -- some from prestigious labs and published in prestigious scientific journals -- that questioned the impact and safety of engineered food ... I refute the claims of biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and, of course, that they are safe to eat.

Takeaway: The evidence as of today is that GM foods pose little risk to human health. But concern is growing among some scientists that there are potentially harmful effects from long-term consumption of some GM foods and they are not adequately evaluated before regulatory approval. The AMA has joined other organizations in calling or pre-market safety assessment of GM foods, and the Nature editors advise that this be done by non-industry sources, to lessen, at a minimum, the "PR problem" the GM industry now faces. Many consumers wish to take a precautionary approach and avoid GM food whenever possible until these concerns are resolved.

Socio-Ecological Impacts: The USDA has just postponed approval of a new herbicide-resistant GM corn (2,4 D resistant) due to widely-voiced concerns that such products might actually contribute to increased weed resistance, damage other crops, and contaminate those sold as organic. These kinds of concerns have been part of the core resistance to GM foods almost since their debut. And, in fact, herbicide use has increased with more widespread use of herbicide-resistant crops.

Critics also point out that genetically-engineered crops are generally dependent on patented seeds and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that help to perpetuate the highly industrialized agricultural model that many farmers around the world cannot afford and do not want. A UN report, "Agriculture at a Crossroads," concluded that addressing global hunger must be relatively inexpensive, require low-inputs, and utilize local and regional resources as much as possible, with a goal of food sovereignty rather than dependence on outside sources.

Takeaway: Evidence of socio-ecologic problems related to use of some GM crops is growing and fundamental questions about the direction of agriculture are among basic concerns. The calculation of costs vs. benefits in this regard is still evolving and may never be resolved.

The Food System and the Consumer: A 2009 123-page UK "evidence-based" paper titled "GMO Myths and Truths" concluded:

Based on the evidence presented in this report, there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available, and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist.

Inevitably, this report was both lauded and attacked. A book-length 2010 review of GM food issues by the National Academy of Sciences painted a much rosier picture in economic and ecological terms (they did not address human health), but warning that "excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops."

That hints at the broader perspective that is warranted -- in fact, essential. It is increasingly evident that today's dominant food system is unsustainable, not only in the U.S. but also as a global model. As currently designed and operated, this system not only produces a surfeit of food and beverages that contribute to disease and disability but also is responsible for local, regional, and global environmental impacts that directly and indirectly add to the disease burden and degrade ecosystem services on which life depends. Moreover, increasing water scarcity, climate instability, and continued dependence on high inputs of energy, fertilizer, and pesticides challenge the viability of this industrial agricultural model in many regions, even in the near term.

GM foods, even if "successful" in terms of intended impact, fit into this unsustainable model -- supporting practices in terms of resource use and environmental impacts that are unsustainable and unhealthy in the long run.

Takeaway: Consumers who attempt to make "responsible" buying and eating decisions might want to reduce their purchase of GM food products for any one of a number of reasons. Or they might not. But in order to make that choice, labeling of GM products would be required. Thus, we join the American Public Health Association and many of the world's top food authorities in supporting required labeling of GM foods. To do so allows informed choice, not unlike the basic ethical precept of informed consent in medicine -- not to mention another Hippocratic dictum, "First, do no harm."

For more by Steve Heilig, click here.

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