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You know GMOs exist, but do you know where they are?
“Assume that all corn is modified unless otherwise labeled,” says Marion Nestle, author and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.
This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) for more.
There's a lot of talk about genetically modified crops today, but the truth is that there are only eight kinds that are currently approved for commercial production — though there are also a number that are considered "at risk" (sometimes classified as "monitored risk") because they are susceptible to cross-pollination by approved GMOs (these include flax, wheat, rice, Beta vulgaris [chard, table beets, etc.], Brassica napa (rutabaga, Siberian kale, etc.], Brassica rapa (bok choy, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, turnip, rapini, tatsoi, etc.], and Curcubita [acorn squash, delicata squash, etc.]).
Click here for the 8 Most Genetically Modified Crops (Slideshow)
According to the FDA, GMOs are assessed based upon their toxicity and allergenic properties. “... Before they [crops] can be planted in the U.S.," according to Thomas Helscher, Executive Director, Commercial Acceptance, at Monsanto Company, "GM crops undergo detailed scientific review by at least two, and often three separate federal agencies, including: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).”
While the accuracy of these safety studies is under scrutiny, there is no denying that there are, technically speaking, only a limited number of modified crops approved for sale.
However according to a recent report, 80 percent of all food in the U.S. contains GMOs, and 12 percent of overall world-wide crops yield from genetically modified seeds. You may not be able to purchase some of them outright, but remember that they are the base ingredients in many processed foods. We have compiled a list of the most often modified foods, based on information from the Non-GMO Project to help you make informed choices about what goes on your table.
Three of the Most Genetically Modified Foods You Need to Know
The phrase GMO has received a lot of attention. The acronym, standing for genetically modified organisms, has been referenced in many wellness articles, placed on labels in grocery stores, and oftentimes avoided like the plague by health gurus. But, what is the story behind GMOs and their addition to our agricultural markets?
GMOs have allowed for larger crop yields. It makes it possible to feed hungry people around the world, prevent the use of toxic pesticides on our farms, and add in beneficial nutrition (like vitamin A to corn) that was not previously seen in certain crops.
These mentioned advantages are all pros of GMOs. However, there are also side effects that can negatively affect our planet and our bodies.
Some of these include: invasive plant species from stronger crops, allergic reactions to GMO food, inflammation, and, in some cases, antibiotic resistance in people.
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When considering these complexities, which GMO foods should we avoid and which should feel safe to continue to incorporate into our daily meals?
Below, we speak with nutrition and wellness experts on the topic as they break down various types of GMO foods and whether or not they are beneficial or harmful to our bodies.
What is the purpose of genetically modifying a food?
Most foods are genetically modified in order to increase crop yield. This is true whether they’re modified to better withstand certain herbicides, naturally repel pests, reduce fungus, or grow more quickly.
And here’s where the controversy begins: some say this will help us feed the world’s poor. Other’s say greater crop yield simply equals more profit for the large agro corporations producing genetically modified seeds and the pesticides they’ve been designed to withstand (like Monsanto and their herbicide Roundup), growing genetically modified crops, or mass manufacturing packaged foods made with these crops.
10 Common Genetically Modified Foods
Genetically modified foods is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days. Now that scientists are able to isolate specific genes, they can insert those genes into organisms -- especially food crops -- to produce desirable traits. New genes are introduced for a variety of reasons, whether it's to grow higher yields, make crops more resistant to infection and pests, or even to infuse them with extra nutrients and vitamins.
However, depending on how you look at it, the practice of genetically engineering crops is either a boon for civilization and the greatest hope to feed a hungry world, or a dangerous interference with nature that threatens both our health and our ecosystem. Regardless of your perspective, you probably ate a genetically modified (GM) food today. Read on for 10 common genetically altered foods or crops you may not have been aware of.
While cotton may not be a food, it's such a ubiquitous crop that it's worth mentioning. China produces more cotton than any country in the world and for more than 15 years, it has been genetically modifying its cotton to help combat the effects of the bollworm. The boll is the protective shell that the soft cotton ball grows inside of, and it's at risk because of the bollworm's persistence.
With the advent of "Bt cotton," China, courtesy of Monsanto, the controversial biotech company headquartered in Missouri, has been able to cut back on spraying pesticides. The good news is that studies found a sharp reduction in bollworm infestation despite the lower amount of pesticides. It also increases overall yield. The bad news is that Bacillus thuringiensis, the specific pesticide that's actually bred into the cotton, isn't effective on a formerly lesser pest, the mirid bug. And what's worse, now that the cotton is infested, the mirid is becoming a problem for other nearby crops.
The tomato has the distinction of being the very first widespread genetically modified food available in the United States. Starting in 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato was bred with a deactivated gene that kept the plant from producing polygalacturonase, an enzyme that's the starting point for rot. Flavr Savr tomatoes were able to fully ripen on the vine and still be able to stick around for a while in stores. This helped stop the practice of harvesting the crop early and artificially ripening the tomato when it's closer to its final destination.
The tomatoes were a popular product for about four years, until the scientist who invented it went on television and expressed concern over whether the tomatoes could be carcinogenic. This led to bans of genetically modified foods at major food chains, as well as the end of the Flavr Savr tomato.
The ringspot virus was a big problem for the Hawaiian papaya industry for many years, until the 1980s, when they began to experiment with genetically modified versions that were resistant to the virus. It was the addition of the "viral capsid" protein that created the effect of an immune response.
It wasn't until 1999 that the first commercial papaya crops were grown in Hawaii. These papayas now make up about three-quarters of the total output in the Aloha State. Currently, the United States and Canada both give these transgenic papayas the stamp of approval, while the EU has not yet allowed them.
Like most genetically modified foods, rice is being experimented on to make it more resistant to pests. And since rice is the staple food for more than half of the world's population, it's a pretty big deal to keep the rice crops of the world healthy as an important part of preventing starvation.
China is ahead of the game in terms of research, and even though a strain of pest-resistant rice has been approved in the United States, it hasn't yet been used by farmers. Since there's no widespread use of GM rice yet, it's not known what kind of side effects the strains could potentially introduce, if any. The first returns on the Chinese research indicate that farmers could potentially not spray any pesticides on the crops, which would be a marked reduction from the typical four per-year rate on most rice farms.
While the potato industry is lagging behind as far as human consumption goes, the use of potatoes as a raw material is booming. In fact, three-quarters of all the potatoes grown in Europe are used for something other than your dinner plate. Many of the other potatoes are fed to livestock, and the rest are for the alcohol and starch industries. That's a lot of vodka and dry cleaned shirts.
Scientists are beginning to make GM potatoes specifically intended to be grown and sold as starch potatoes. As far as potatoes that you might find in your grocery store, about 10 percent could be genetically modified. These are not just the raw, whole potatoes you'll find in the veggie section. You can also find GM potatoes in processed products containing potatoes.
Corn is everywhere in the United States. In fact, the U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world. Corn is a fixture of U.S. landscapes, food and even industrial chemicals. It's also one of the most heavily modified crops. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 25 percent of corn crops growing in the United States contained genetically modified corn. Products containing corn include beer, salad dressing, margarine, flour and, of course, anything that has corn syrup.
So, are we eating genetically modified corn? That's a tough one. While most genetically modified corn isn't destined for human consumption, one of the biggest concerns in transgenic corn is the possibility of GM corn corrupting unmodified strains. Corn is wind-pollinated, which means that nearby fields can become unintentionally contaminated. The affected area can be great -- in 2001, for instance, scientists even found GM material in wild corn in Mexico.
GM foods are often a double-edged sword. One of the more famous types of GM corn, Bt-corn, was developed to produce a poison that wards off the European corn borer. However, a Cornell study found that the corn killed or damaged monarch butterfly larvae that feed on corn pollen-covered milkweed.
Food applications for GM plants
In the developing world, 840 million people are chronically undernourished, surviving on fewer than 8000 kJ/day (2000 Kcal/day). 14 , 15 Approximately 1.3 billion people are living on less than US$1/day 16 , 17 and do not have secure access to food. Many of these are also rural farmers in developing countries, depending entirely on small-scale agriculture for their own subsistence and to make their living. 18 They generally cannot afford to irrigate their crops or purchase herbicides or pesticides, leading to a vicious circle of poor crop growth, falling yields and pest susceptibility. 18 In addition, the world's population is predicted to double over the next 40 years, with over 95% of individuals being born in developing countries. 19 It is estimated that to meet these increased demands, food production must increase by at least 40% in the face of decreasing fertile lands and water resources. 20 , 21 GM plant technologies are one of a number of different approaches that are being developed to combat these problems. Specifically, studies are under way to genetically modify plants to increase crop yields, or to directly improve nutritional content.
Increasing nutritional content
In the developed world the nutritional content of food items is not of major concern, as individuals have access to a wide variety of foods that will meet all of their nutritional needs. In the developing world, however, this is often not the case, with people often relying on a single staple food crop for their energy intake. 18 GM technology offers a way to alleviate some of these problems by engineering plants to express additional products that can combat malnutrition. An important example of the potential of this technology is the ‘Golden Rice Project’. Vitamin A deficiency is widespread in the developing world and is estimated to account for the deaths of approximately 2 million children per year. 18 In surviving children it has been identified as the leading cause of blindness. 22 Humans can synthesize vitamin A from its precursor β-carotene, which is commonly found in many plants but not in cereal grains. 18 The strategy of the Golden Rice Project was to introduce the correct metabolic steps into rice endosperm to allow β-carotene synthesis. In 2000, Ye et al. 23 engineered rice that contained moderate levels of β-carotene and since then researchers have produced the much higher yielding ‘Golden Rice 2’. 24 It is estimated that 72 g of dry Golden Rice 2 will provide 50% of the RDA of vitamin A for a 1𠄳-year-old child. 24
Golden Rice was developed for farmers in the poorest countries, and from the beginning, the aim of the scientists was to provide the technology free of charge, which required the negotiation of more than 100 intellectual and technical property licenses. 25 Golden Rice will be given to subsistence farmers with no additional conditions 18 and is an impressive example of a health solution that can be offered by plant biotechnology.
Increasing food production
Crop yields worldwide are significantly reduced by the action of pathogens, parasites and herbivorous insects. 26 Two examples of commercial GM crop growth in this area are the insect-resistant crops expressing the bt gene (from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) and virus-resistant GM papaya. 27 The first of these has been particularly successful in the USA, for example, insect resistant GM maize is grown over an area of 10.6 million hectares and comprises 35% of all maize (GM and non-GM) grown in the country. 28 At the laboratory level, resistance has also been engineered to bacterial and fungal plant pathogens. 29 , 30
A primary cause of plant loss worldwide is abiotic stress, particularly salinity, drought, and temperature extremes. 31 In the future, these losses will increase as water resources decline and desertification intensifies. Drought and salinity are expected to cause serious salinization of all arable lands by 2050, 32 requiring the implementation of new technologies to ensure crop survival. Although a number of promising targets have been identified in the production of abiotic stress tolerant GM plants, research remains at the laboratory-based level. An example is the study by Shou et al. 33 demonstrating that expression of an enzyme in GM maize activates an oxidative signal cascade that confers cold, heat and salinity tolerance.
Are GM foods safe to eat?
GM crops are tightly regulated by several government bodies. The European Food Safety Authority and each individual member state have detailed the requirements for a full risk assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed. 34 In the USA, the Food and Drug Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are all involved in the regulatory process for GM crop approval. 35 Consequently, GM plants undergo extensive safety testing prior to commercialization (for an example see http://www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/KeyTopics/efsa_locale-1178620753812_GMO.htm).
Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.
There is little documented evidence that GM crops are potentially toxic. A notorious study claiming that rats fed with GM potatoes expressing the gene for the lectin Galanthus nivalis agglutinin suffered damage to gut mucosa was published in 1999. 36 Unusually, the paper was only published after one of the authors, Arpad Pusztai, announced this apparent finding on television. 37 The Royal Society has since stated that the study ‘is flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis’ and that ‘no conclusions should be drawn from it’: for example the authors used too few rats per test group to derive meaningful, statistically significant data.
Is there any a priori reason to believe that GM crops might be harmful when consumed? The presence of foreign DNA sequences in food per se poses no intrinsic risk to human health. 38 All foods contain significant amounts of DNA and RNA, consumed in the range of 0.1𠄱.0 g/day. 39 Of potential concern is the possibility that the protein produced by the transgene may be toxic. This would occur if the transgene coded for a toxin that was subsequently absorbed systemically by the host. However, the potential toxicity of the protein expressed in a GM food is an essential component of the safety assessment that has to be performed. 40 Potential allergenicity to the novel gene product is another commonly expressed concern. Allergies to non-GM foods such as soft fleshed fruit, potatoes and soy are widespread. Clearly, new varieties of crops produced by either GM techniques or conventional breeding both have the potential to be allergenic. Concern surrounding this topic relates to two factors the possibility that genes from known allergens may be inserted into crops not typically associated with allergenicity and the possibility of creating new, unknown allergens by either inserting novel genes into crops or changing the expression of endogenous proteins.
Assessment of the allergenic potential of compounds is problematic and a number of different bodies have produced guidelines and decision trees to experimentally evaluate allergenic potential. 41 These are effective at assessing compounds which may prove to be hazardous through a hierarchical approach which includes determining whether the source of the introduced gene is from an allergenic plant, whether GM foods react with antibodies in the sera of patients with known allergies and whether the product encoded by the new gene has similar properties to known allergens. In addition, animal models are used to screen GM foods. 40 Tests are not performed to formally assess any risk posed by inhalation of pollens and dusts however, this is not assessed for conventionally grown foods and feeds either, and no allergies have been attributed to commercially grown GM pollen to date. Two examples are frequently quoted regarding GM crop allergenicity:
A project to develop genetically modified peas by adding a protein from beans that conferred resistance to weevils was abandoned after it was shown that the GM peas caused a lung allergy in mice 44
Soya bean engineered to express a Brazil nut protein was withdrawn from production after it was also found to be allergenic in tests. 45
Opponents of GM technology often cite these examples as proof that it is inherently unpredictable and dangerous, although another interpretation would be to say that safety testing of GM plants was effective in both cases, having identified allergenic potential before either product was released to market. It is perhaps a sobering thought, that if conventional plant breeding techniques had been used to achieve the same aims, there would have been no legal requirement for the assessment of allergenicity and the plant varieties could have been commercialized without in vivo testing. However, GM technology might also be used to decrease the levels of allergens present in plants by reducing expression levels of the relevant genes. For example, research was recently undertaken to identify an allergen in soybeans and remove it using GM technology. 46
Most Common GMO Foods
GMO foods refer to crops and foodstuffs that have been genetically modified—typically to protect them from pests or disease, to boost nutrient value, or to improve size and taste. These altered foods are typically cheaper to grow and manufacture, as they often require smaller quantities of energy and water to process, but boost larger yields.
Across America, GMO foods can be found everywhere and in basically everything we consume. Pretty much every stage of the food production process—from crop growth to processing to animal feed—many of these popular foods on your table have likely been genetically modified in some form…
Let’s begin with one of the most obvious. According to researchers at Michigan State University, GMO corn takes up roughly 80-percent of the American corn market thanks to the big conglomerate biotech seed companies (i.e., DuePont/Pioneer, Monsanto, Hi-Bred, Dow, AgroSciences, and Syngenta).
In fact, several studies out of Norway, Hungary, Austria, Ireland, Turkey, and Australia all blame GMO corn used for human eating and in animal feed for raising obesity rates (especially in children) as well as a slough of organ disorders, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Genetically Modified Organisms and Corn
There has been a good bit of coverage in the news over the past few years concerning the marketing and labeling of foods that have been genetically modified. These foods – even now – are on your grocery store shelves. Because of the laws in this country, purveyors do not have to inform you whether the food you are eating contains products that have been genetically modified.
There is some research linking consumption of these products to diseases such as cancer. A study published in The Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal out of London found that rats fed a steady diet of genetically modified corn with trace amounts of pesticides developed tumors, organ damage and ultimately suffered early death.
Compound these facts with another fact about corn corn is universally contaminated with mycotoxins. Given that corn is ubiquitous in the American diet, chances are that if you are eating anything with corn in it, you are getting trace amounts of mycotoxins. Some of these mycotoxins – such as aflatoxin – are among the most carcinogenic naturally occurring substances on earth. Similar to genetically modified corn, any corn products you buy won’t be labeled with any sort of warning for mycotoxins.
Unfortunately, in this country and others, there is a delay between research conclusions and the warnings legislators are willing to issue. When moneyed interests are involved, that process becomes even more cumbersome. Despite the fact that our legislators and regulators aren’t willing to stand up to moneyed interests, you still have a choice. Until science proves the safety of genetically modified foods, I choose to avoid them. As far as corn is concerned, I believe that current science proves that corn is contaminated with a type of fungus that can cause serious diseases, so it is officially off my list!
TOP 10 MOST COMMON GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
GMOs are plants or animals that have had their DNA modified. This is a new revolutionary technology that is still in its early experimental stage of development. The consequences of altering the natural state of an organism are unknown but genetically modified foods have been shown to cause harm to humans, animals, and the environment. In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80% of processed food. In most states and countries, products are not GMO’s labeled.
The best thing to do to protect yourself against genetically modified foods is to cook at home with quality ingredients, avoid processed and manufactured foods, read labels, and purchase organic whenever possible – especially for the dirtiest fruits and vegetables, and for the items from the list below if you consume them. Unfortunately, unless you buy organic these days, it’s almost impossible to know what you are eating.
If you have children at home, I would highly recommend being even more careful with these “foods”.
Here are the top 10 Genetically Modified Foods:
Soy is the most heavily modified crop. More than 90% of the soybeans in the U.S. are now genetically modified. Genetically modified soybeans are used in animal feed, which means that the gene is found and consumed in conventional meat. GM soy is also found in food such as soymilk, tofu, soy protein isolates and concentrates, soy burgers, margarine, and infant forumla.
Most corn in the U.S. is genetically modified but is used for animal feed. GMO sweet corn, the one we normally eat, is genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant and to produce its own insecticide. Corn is not only eaten on the cob but can also be found in products such as bread, cereals, cookies, salad dressings, margarine, corn syrup, and infant formula.
Yellow squash and zucchini are genetically modified because they are prone to viral diseases. They have now a gene that protects them against viruses.
Papayas are grown in tropical countries and are now genetically modified to be resistant to the Ringspot Virus, a disease that is lowering yields. Genetically modified papayas are approved for consumption both in the U.S. and in Canada. They aren’t approved in Europe yet.
Tomatoes were the first genetically modified food on the market. They have been genetically modified to make them last longer.
6. Milk and dairy products
Most cows in the U.S. have been given genetically modified rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to help them grow faster and increase their yield. Watch out for all non-organic milk and dairy products, including infant formula, which may contain this GM hormone.
7. Canola oil
Canola, or rapeseed oil is considered one of the most chemically altered oils in the U.S. You don’t have to buy bottles of canola oil to consume the oil. Canola oil is found in many processed foods such as margarine, crackers, chips, cookies, and even in “healthy” foods such as peanut butter and hummus.
8. Cottonseed oil
The cotton plant is genetically modified to be pest-resistant. The plant produces fibers for fabrics, and cottonseed oil, available on U.S. shelves and commonly used in processed food such as margarine, shortening and fried foods and snacks such as potato chips. In the U.S., 90% of the crops are genetically modified.
Sugar beets have been modified by Mosanto to resist herbicides. About 95% of the crops in the U.S. are genetically modified. Stay away from processed foods that have the word “sucrose” or “sugar” on the label such as cookies, cakes, baking mixes, ice cream, candy, and yogurt.
Aspartame is a toxic artificial sweetened manufactured from genetically modified bacteria. This sweetener is link to certain cancers. Aspartame can be bought as a sweetener and is also found in diet foods such as diet soda, diet shakes, and low-sugar or sugar-free yogurts.
Genetically modified crops
Protections that ensure consumers know whether products are made from genetically modified crops and animals have been and continue to be one of the most strongly contested areas of European Union legislation.
The protections that we in the UK have had as EU members are not strong enough: the important Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Organisms in the EU and Switzerland (RAGES) study found that the European Food Safety Authority’s GMO panel’s “implicit and unaccountable risk assessment policies . are far more likely to underestimate the range and severity of possible adverse effects, rather than to overestimate them”.
But these regulations are far stronger than those in the United States of America and many other countries.
There were concerning indications that the government is likely to want to head in the US direction and to throw the EU rules on the Brexit bonfire in a debate in the House of Lords last Thursday.
In a broad-ranging discussion on gene editing , Lord Bethell referred to the European Court of Justice ruling t hat plants and animals subject to mutagensis (gene-modifying techniques such as CRISPR that alter the genome without introducing foreign DNA), saying “the government feel[s] that this ruling is neither scientific nor justified”.
On Twitter later, he roundly applauded a contribution to the debate from Viscount Ridley (yes the coal mine-owning, climate change-doubting Matt Ridley), that called for “encouragement of genome editing in agriculture” and for the government to “break free from the EU approach”. Ridley’s approach might be summed up as “gene edit early and gene edit often”.
But as the RAGES report highlights, gene editing can have unintended effects — and intended effects — that go much further than anyone thought they would: both gene combinations and biological ramifications. They can be significantly different from those produced by conventional breeding, including random mutagenesis.
Many of the contributors to the debate - which mostly focused on the potential use of genome editing in humans - made this very point.
Even Lord (Robert) Winson , who proudly identified himself as a “unashamed gene editor,” said “the risk of gene editing in the embryo is of massive importance”.
He added: “CRISPR is not an accurate technique … It carries the risks of off-target mutations, of epigenetic effects, of possibly producing cancer, of misdiagnoses and of producing completely unpredictable effects”.
I noted a lesson from my native Australia - how, in the hope of controlling a destructive beetle, the release of 3,000 cane toads in Australia in 1935 created a continuing and still expanding environmental disaster.
Biological changes do not exist in a vacuum - they also interact with political, economic and social factors. Viscount Ridley spoke about potentially genetically modifying pigs so that they are not prone to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.
Maybe that means that people will think they can house pigs much more closely together, in far more crowded conditions. What will be the animal welfare ramifications of that? Or the emergence of potential pandemic human diseases such as swine flu ?
But the potential impacts of the GMO route are much broader. The government now is talking the talk about agroecology - the need to produce food and manage land in ways that respects and enhances natural systems.
The approach of genetically modification is the very opposite of this. It treats nature like a machine, in which the throwing of one switch, the changing of one metabolic system, can solve a problem or enhance production, without other impacts.
The apparently simple introduction of glyphosate resistance into crops, and the subsequent spread of this resistance into weeds is one demonstration of the danger of this approach.
There is so much we do not understand, about the operation of biological systems in soils , and about the operation of the microbiome, in humans and other animals. These are incredible complex systems that have developed over millions of years.
I referred to how we are just beginning to understand how what we eat impacts on quiescent viruses (prophages) in the bacteria in our bodies, that may then change the composition of our microbiome.
There’s a further an important practical point to be made about the forthcoming Brexit negotiations: the UK will be sharing a land border with the EU in Ireland, as well as having potentially GM crops not very many miles from EU lands across the Channel.
This is likely to be a point of considerable contention should we risk contaminating their territory with genetically modified organisms it has banned or more tightly controlled.
And it could have massive impacts on plans to export UK products into the EU - possibly including the very Welsh lamb the Lord Bethell was lauding in the debate.
Genetically modified crops? Not in my backfield
Of course we should be opposed to GM. It is about some of the biggest, richest, most powerful companies on the planet seeking to own and control global agriculture, and who would want to support that? It represents the final theft of the means of food production, away from local, regional and even national communities, into the hands of a few international corporate giants, based in America, who will quickly come to dictate, without opposition or discussion, what kind of seeds and what kind of chemicals will be spread over every cultivatable inch of the world's land surface. And if I overstate fractionally the reach of their capability I fear I exaggerate not one iota the extent of their ambition.
It is utterly, inescapably obvious that we don't need GM in the UK and in Europe. Our agriculture is already over industrialised and over productive. We have millions of acres 'set aside' for non-production. What possible benefits could accrue from another step down the road of 'efficiency'? The good news is that most of us are already persuaded by this argument - and by fear of GM safety, of which more in a moment. In Europe at least, democracy has said no to GM.
The only conceivably acceptable pro-GM argument, that it might help us feed the starving in the poorer parts of the world, turns out to be the most cynical and reckless of all. Far from offering hope and independence to Third World farmers and growers, GM represents the new economic enslavement of the Third World - neo-colonialism by proxy. Everybody who works at the hard end of the aid business will tell you that it is politics, war, poverty and drought, and most often pernicious combinations of these factors, that conspire to create famine. Which of them precisely can be cured by a genetically modified seed? I believe they don't yet have one that grows without water, or produces fruits that pacify dictators.
The fact is that if you want to feed the starving, you must dodge bullets, negotiate with warlords, and rebuild infrastructure. If you want to help the starving feed themselves, you must give them ploughshares and irrigation. If you want to help them compete effectively in the global food marketplace, then give them access to markets and a fair price for the products of their labour.
If, on the other hand, you want to own them and control them and make them mere pawns in your industrial empire, then sell them a strain of genetically modified seed and a patented production system that means the seed cannot germinate without your additives, cannot grow without your fertilisers, cannot prosper without your weedkillers, and cannot even produce a viable seed for the following year's harvest. You will effectively then own these farmers, and their crops, even to the extent that you will be able to tell them who to sell to and how much for.
Not that GM companies wouldn't go to extreme lengths to convince us of their benign intentions. In one of the most cynical public relations exercises of all time, Monsanto are currently flying around the world a group of cotton growers from Africa, who have for several seasons now been participating in a pilot project growing cotton using Monsanto's GM seed. They are giving interviews to the world's media, telling them that GM cotton has increased their productivity, their wealth, and boosted the prosperity and facilities of their community. Yet all this on a pilot project whose success was guaranteed from the outset. Of course Monsanto has the power and wealth to transform a small agricultural community and ensure its short term prosperity, just as it has the power to give them a fabulous all- expenses paid trip to charm the world's press. It tells us nothing about their ability to improve the lot of the subsistence farmer and everything about their lack of corporate integrity and cynical opportunism.
So, GM to feed the world? Pull the other one. In fact, the exact reverse is far more likely. A GM dominant agribusiness in the third world will create the classic preconditions for hunger and famine: firstly ownership of resources will be concentrated in too few hands (this is inherent in farming based on patented products), and secondly the emerging food supply will be based on too few varieties of crops too widely planted. These are the worst possible options for Third World food security. No wonder there is not a single aid agency or famine relief charity that thinks GM holds significant answers to Third World hunger problems.
But of course, given an almost inexhaustible supply of Western apathy about the plight of the Third World, the above arguments are perhaps less likely to engage the man in the street than the other Big Question about GM. Its safety. So it's worth knowing that here too, large lies are being told by men with remarkably straight faces.
Perhaps the biggest lie is that 'science' has 'proved' GM to be safe. In fact science has done no such thing. The astonishing truth is that science has shown a marked reluctance to undertake any worthwhile investigation of GM safety at all. And as Craig Sams, the chairman of the Soil Association says, the few studies involving safety testing - by feeding GM foods to animals - has produced disturbing results.
Here are a few examples:
Tests on GM Flavr Savr tomatoes resulted in lesions in rats. Scientists at the US Food and Drug Authority even asked for it not to be approved.
Dr Arpad Pusztai's notorious experiments with GM potatoes and rats showed severe gut problems in the test animals compared to those fed non-GM potatoes. Despite the largely successful attempt to discredit him publicly, Pusztai's paper had been peer reviewed six times prior to publication. Compared to most GM research sponsored by GM companies it remains a model of experimental propriety and credibility.
In GM chicken-feed experiments, twice as many chickens fed GM maize died as those fed the conventional crop. Despite this, the GM maize was approved by the Government but later withdrawn following public pressure.
All of the above should make us worry. But the bottom line, of course, is that not nearly enough time has elapsed for us to be in the least confident of GM safety. Meanwhile, what's the best comparable example that the kind of transgenic tampering that is the essence of GM might eventually lead to some pretty grizzly consequences? Well, for about 30 years there was 'hard scientific evidence' that feeding high levels of animal proteins to grazing ruminants (ie dead sheep to live cows) was 'safe', in that no significant health problems seemed to have arisen. Then suddenly, Bingo! We had BSE.
The production of GM foods is in many ways comparable. It involves combining strands of DNA, often animal derived, that could never naturally come together, then introducing these mutant strains to both the animal and human food chain. Such unprecedented and unnatural steps are producing entirely new materials for both the biosphere to contend with on the macro scale, and the human gut to deal with on the micro scale. Why should we be in the least surprised if at some point, something very nasty happens?