From Test Tube to Kitchen Table: OBR-Bay Debates GMOs

Thursday, December 12, 2013

With the global human population in excess of 7 billion, some feel that meeting our growing food needs will require an agricultural revolution made possible only through enhancement of crops by genetic modification (GM).

Proponents claim that genetically modified foods will be more nutritious, more resistant to pests and produce higher yields.  Others worry that the health, environmental and political risks of the introduction of transgenes are still too poorly understood to accept GM food into the food supply.

On December 2, Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable invited local experts to UCSF to discuss the benefits and concerns surrounding genetically modified foods. Invited guests included Antony Evans, founder and CEO of Glowing Plant; John Hamer, Investment Director for the venture capital arm of the chemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto; Linda MacDonald Glenn, Fellow for the nonprofit Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies; and David Zilberman, Chair of the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Future-proofing the food supply

According to the World Health Organization, a genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism whose DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. In contrast to traditional breeding, this is typically achieved using molecular biology to introduce genes from other species (“transgenics”) or from other individuals of the same species (“cisgenics”).

In some cases, the goal is to increase agricultural yields by making crops more resistant to herbicides, insect pests, bacteria, viruses, fungi and even frost. For example, genes isolated from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis are commonly introduced into corn and cotton to confer resistance to destructive beetles and flies.

By lowering the need for pesticides, developers hope to provide economic value to farmers and reduce the environmental burden of large-scale farming.

In other cases, the desired effect of the genetic modification is a bigger or more nutritious product, such as fast-maturing salmon or Vitamin A-enriched rice. Genetically modified organisms have also been developed for medical or health applications, such as goat-milk engineered to produce anti-clotting factors or soybeans that have been engineered not to carry common allergens.

What’s the catch?

Some feel that the promised benefits of GM food technologies cannot compensate for the potential risks, which could include consumer health effects, environmental impact and economic/political considerations. For example, transgenic proteins could cause allergic reactions in some individuals.

Safety testing requirements, however, require rigorous analysis of GMOs for potential allergens before they are brought to market for human consumption. Indeed, no GM food product currently on the market has ever been documented to produce allergic reactions and, in some cases, development of GM foods was abandoned when in vitro and skin-prick tests revealed that they had allergenic potential.

Because GM crops are planted in fields like conventional crops, and often alongside them, environmental concerns have also been raised.

These include the possibilities of gene escape and outcrossing with local plant species, as well as off-target effects on non-pest insect populations and resulting negative effects on biodiversity. In addition to studies of nutritional value, toxicity and allergens, GMO developers are also required to conduct environmental risk assessments of new GM products.

Critics also express concern about the potential consolidation of control over the food supply by agricultural corporations, imposing on farmers the need to purchase seeds annually from a supplier, and the effects of cheap GM food on non-GM market prices.

David Zilberman noted that, paradoxically, the priorities of producers and consumers are not always aligned. A glut of cheap GM wheat, for example, would cause prices to plummet and entail a loss of profits for farmers. Discussions about GM foods have thus been highly politicized over the years.

Regulatory oversight

In the United States, new GM foods are subject to strict regulatory oversight under the combined purview of the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After thousands of studies and decades of research and testing, there appears to be broad scientific consensus that GM foods approved for market pose no greater risk to consumers than their wildtype counterparts. In a 2012 statement issued by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the authors wrote:

“Every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

Even so, some groups have called for mandatory labeling of all foods containing GM ingredients, ostensibly to aid in consumer choice. Indeed, similar laws have already been put into place in the European Union, Australia and India.

A 2012 California ballot initiative that would have required GM labeling was narrowly defeated in a statewide election, the opposing effort being led by Monsanto Company, among other big industry supporters of genetically modified foods.

In the statement noted above, the AAAS differentiated between labeling intended to protect public health (e.g. food allergen information) and labeling intended to aid consumer decision-making (e.g. “Kosher” or “USDA organic”), noting that legally mandating labeling of GM foods could “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

Additionally, labeling seems unlikely to result in greater consumer choice, since stores may actually pull GM products from their shelves in response to the perception that customers may reject them.

Ultimately, the issue seems to be one of trust. While recombinant DNA technology used to produce GM crops is also used in development of medicines and therapeutics, people are generally more accepting of drugs prescribed to them by their doctor.

In the case of GM foods, consumers may be naturally distrustful of profit motives. John Hamer acknowledges that Monsanto missed a key opportunity to educate consumers about the science involved, leading to years of stigma and misinformation.

On the other hand, Antony Evans envisions a world where gene-hacking one’s food is no longer the exclusive domain of big agricultural companies, and where farmers could engineer blight resistance genes into their own crops as needed. By “democratizing” the technology, he says, the link between the science and the people could be restored.