voting with your fork: why eating is political. part 3 – on “frankenfoods”

Woohoo!  It’s part 3 of Voting With Your Fork!  This week,  I want to look at genetically modified foods.  Are they going to save the world?  Will they turn us into zombies?  Can they skew the global food supply?

Of all issues relating to food, Genetic Modification is one of the most controversial and multi-faceted.  On one hand, GM foods are “scientifically proven” to be safe for human consumption and the environment.  On the other, most of the scientific testing is manipulated by corporate interests.  On one hand, GM foods might save a growing population from starvation.  On the other hand, it could destroy untold species of plants and animals.

Unfortunately, the passionate opinions of both sides make it very difficult to get any real facts – one side is in the business of sales and intimidation, the other is in the business of destroying research crops and shouting about frankenfoods.   It’s probably at this point that I should admit that this time, I’m not going to try to fence-sit.  As it stands, right here and now, I am not in favour of GM.  I think that referring to GM foods as “frankenfoods” is a great way to shoot an argument in the foot with ridiculous exaggeration, but I see more flaws than benefits in growing such crops.  How do I justify that?

1)      Monsanto et al. It’s an old argument, but frankly, Monsanto’s clout in terms of the food we eat scares me.  In 2010, Time magazine published a quote from Barron’s, referring to Monsanto’s ‘stranglehold on the planet’s food chain.’ According to the same article, some 740 million acres of farmland are planted with GM crops.  This would be alarming enough if we were talking about a completely ethical company.  But this is Monsanto.  A company that terrorises small farmers going about their business.  That does not apologise for ruining people’s livelihoods – mistakenly. That changed its name to try to hide from its appalling environmental record.  Obviously, there are other biotech companies involved in GM crops, but the track records of Syngenta and DuPont pale in comparison to Monsanto – and it’s Monsanto that controls up to 85% of the USA’s corn production.  I am vehemently opposed to the idea of any corporation having a majority control over the world’s food supply and profiting from this.  It’s all a little too sci-fi for my liking.

2)      Reduced nutrition.  While I haven’t been able to find much conclusive proof that GM foods are going to kill us all or gradually lead to the downfall of society, there is evidence that they’re not actually equivalent in nutrition to their conventional counterparts.  In a study of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy (doesn’t that sound appealing – your plants are all right and ready to be doused in herbicide), levels of cholin were considerably lower (cholin is a type of B-vitamin that contributes to healthy brain function).  Levels of protein were also significantly lower.  On the other hand, levels of lectin and trypsin inhibitor (allergenic substances) were increased.  Which brings me to my next point…

3)      Lack of regulation.  As I say, there is no conclusive proof as yet (although, there is certainly some patchy evidence around the place) that there are any health problems arising from consumption of GM-based products.  The trouble is that most of the lab testing before such products are marketed is done by the biotech companies themselves and taken for granted by regulation authorities. I suspect there’s a bit of a conflict of interest there.  Put it this way, I’d be much happier to have eaten that GM wheat being developed by the CSIRO that Greenpeace activists destroyed recently than any of the items already on sale, courtesy of the US FDA and Monsanto’s research labs.

4)      Increased herbicide usage.  Most biotech companies will try to convince you that genetically modified plants require less pesticide and herbicide and are thus, more “environmentally friendly.”  Ahem.  Roundup ready, anyone? Cutting of Monsanto’s nose to spite Monsanto’s face?  Unlikely.  Most GM producers are also chemical producers.  As Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association writes, ‘the “benefits” of these herbicide resistant crops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide on their crops as they want – killing the weeds without damaging the crop.’  Presumably, these herbicides will wipe out just about anything green in the vicinity apart from the specific resistant crop.  Apart from this, producing herbicide resistant crops also holds the potential of the resistant gene to be passed to other plants, thus creating “superweeds.”  Which will then need new herbicides…and so the vicious cycle begins.  The same applies to crops that are “pest-resistant” – eventually, it is likely that pesticide resistant pests will emerge, thus requiring stronger pesticides and so on (and I said pest so many times in that sentence that it has ceased to be a real word!)

And that’s the nutshell version of why I am not supportive of GM crops and foods.  It frustrates me immensely when I see arguments such as this one, also from the Organic Consumers Association:

Currently, hundreds of GE “freak” animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government.  One can only wonder, after the wholesale gene altering and patenting of        animals, will GE “designer babies” be next?

Scare tactics based on minimal facts are the best way of shooting a legitimate argument in the foot.  Right here and now, there are clear problems with the biotech industry and the way in which it operates.  If we can go beyond those problems though, there may be the potential for GM to be a “force for good”, so to speak.  If we can develop drought resistant crops, we may be able to reduce human hunger in Africa.  If we can make sure that we don’t only work with major monoculture crops (maize, soy, wheat etc) and that we do adequate, and most importantly, independent,  testing of vitamins and minerals etc, we may be able to address the nutritional deficiencies that exist in every nation.  I’m not against modification per se.  But corporate bullying, lack of testing, failing to consider potential environmental damage and trying to blindfold the public (e.g. not labeling modified foods) are not the way forward.


(Further information from Food Inc. edited by Karl Weber and the Organic Consumers Association [necessary to build some rage for the rational].  All other links included).  Also, sorry this is running late.  Uni’s back, work is insane and our cat is poorly.  Boo.  Excuses excuses.



2 thoughts on “voting with your fork: why eating is political. part 3 – on “frankenfoods”

  1. Just like with energy, our society is so desperate for more food that we don’t take the time to study and regulate genetic modification. Not only that, we accept certain risks much too easily.
    In Canada, there have been debates over genetically modified salmon that grow faster that “normal” fish. The way aquaculture is currently being done, there is risk that GM fish could escape into “the wild”. If that were to happen, the GM fish would have a reproductive advantage over the “normal” fish thanks to their reaching reproductive age faster. Ultimately, the worry is that the GM fish would replace the “normal” species in the wild. Kind of a man-made evolution…
    BUT, on the upside of that issue are efforts being made to create better containment of aquaculture “farms”. The hope is to reduce to zero the risk of “farmed fish” escaping into the wild.

  2. One of the women I volunteer with, at the Australian Museum, is convinced that the increasing number of people with a gluten intolerance/allergy.

    I think Switzerland placed a moratorium on GM crops being used in their country until they could conduct their own research into the matter when they first put it to the vote in 2005. I think it ends in 2012, or so. But apparently Swiss farmers don’t actually mind, since there are apparently benefits to being able to market their export crops as ‘GM-free’. :D

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