forum discussion #10

Can Genetically Engineered Crops Help Feed the World?

This week, India rejected what would have been the country’s first genetically modified food crop, a transgenic eggplant.

The company that developed it, an Indian subsidiary of Monsanto, claims the crop can reduce pesticide use and boost yields. But the Indian government has decided not to approve the crop until an independent assessment is conducted to examine possible impacts on human health and the environment.

What does this mean for the future of GM crops in India and elsewhere? And does this technology have a role to play in feeding the world’s hungry? Join our discussion with Dr. Lisa Weasel. She’s a professor of biology at Portland State University and the author of Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. She writes that GM crops are more of “a condiment than a main course” in addressing global food security.
Continue Reading ...

Listen to our interview with Dr. Weasel here.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.
Download MP3

The World’s science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee also spoke with Indian scientist Pushpa Bhargava, a member of an independent scientific committee that evaluated the data on the new eggplant. Listen to that interview on this week’s The World Science Podcast.

Our listeners brought their thoughts and questions to Lisa Weasel.

  • Human beings have been altering plants ever since the beginning of agriculture. Why is genetic engineering any different from the older, more traditional ways of tinkering with crop varieties?
  • Is there any scientific evidence of harm to human health from eating GM food?
  • Why are small farmers in developing countries especially concerned about GM crops?
Hide

The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.
 

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hello Lisa,
    You mentioned that the genetically engineered protein is a bigger concern in eggplant, because it is eaten in a relatively un-processed form, compared to corn or soy. Is that simply because people are more aware of what they’re eating when it’s identifiable? Or is it really because something happens to the protein when food is subjected to heavy processing?
    Thanks!
    Elsa

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Hi Elsa,
      First, most Bt corn is used as animal feed, or in industrial applications like ethanol production. Only about 10% of U.S. corn finds its way into the human food supply, and in those cases, it undergoes harsh chemical processing before it reaches your plate, leaving very little protein intact.

      This is in contrast to Bt brinjal, which will be eaten fresh and with little processing. Of course human digestion will break down proteins, but that is where allergenicity might occur. The products of any secondary metabolic impacts in the plant would also be ingested.

      In this sense, there is a biological argument that Bt brinjal deserves greater scrutiny, and the argument that Bt corn has been eaten for more than a decade and all is well isn’t very scientifically reassuring anyway, is it?

  2. Juanita

    Hello Lisa,

    In your research on GM seeds, do you think they are here to stay and will expand to include all crops or will remain a limited segment of seed companies portfolio?

    Thanks,
    Juanita

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Public acceptance may play some role in how far GM food spreads- for example, GM Wheat has been developed but has not been commercialized due to concerns for the export market, where Japan and the European Union have strong consumer resistance to GM food. (But there are rumors that it will be coming off the shelf soon).

      On the other hand, Monsanto, the market leader in developing GM crops, has recently branched out its seed holdings to include a large grasp on the vegetable seed market, purchasing Seminis and de Ruiter seed companies, some of the largest vegetable seed companies in the world.

      Regardless of new directions, it seems unlikely that the big GM crops like soy, corn and cotton that dominate the US landscape will be disappearing anytime soon.

  3. foodfighter66

    Hi there,

    It seems to me that one of the main problems with GM foods is the fact that it is unfolding in the context of International Property Rights legislation (TRIPS). This has led to the situation where transnational agribusiness & chemical corporations (ie. Monsanto, Cargill, etc) have ownership over the full genetic sequences or certain characteristics of key staple crops worldwide. So, even if genetically modified food may mirror historical plant breeding processes, what of the fact that it privatizes access to survival? In other words, if GM production structures the food system in such a way that you can no longer eat if you don’t have $$ to buy or grow it, is this viable or sustainable in the long-term??

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Definitely, the fact that large companies patent and control genetic material and seeds, especially from food plants, is troubling to many (a landmark 1980 case, Diamond v Chakrabarty, established that lifeforms can be patented), both on general moral grounds relating to ownership of life, and as a practical matter, as you refer, of survival for farmers and citizens.
      Is access to food a universal human right? The FAO’s World Summit on Food held in November declared:
      “We affirm the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.” http://www.fao.org/righttofood/news38_en.htm
      We need more debate on how GM food and patents will impact this goal.

  4. My apologies, will stop back in for more adequate post.
    In the meantime, check Wikipedia for Monsanto history of suing farmers when Monsanto pollen impregnates a farmer’s seed…genetic material is then property of Monsanto/affiliates.
    Also check for the videos about the masses of farmers committing suicide in India because of the empty promise of genetic modification. (see cotton industry)
    In closing, there is no data to support GMO as safe for our world’s genetic material regarding our seed supply, much less, research of long term use or ingestion.
    As a farmer, i have to seal seeds underground.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for stopping by the Forum. About your comment about the Indian farmers committing suicide, I’d like to add that its very difficult to make a direct link between the farmer suicides in India to their use of transgenic cotton. The suicides have been happening since for before the introduction of Bt Cotton, haven’t been restricted to farmers using that transgenic crop. Declining yields and farmers’ inability to repay their debts to the state and local money lenders have forced them to commit suicide. I’m not denying a possible connection to Bt Cotton, but it would be inaccurate to say that that’s the main cause of the suicides.

      For information, see this analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/ifpridp00808.pdf and also the articles on this website. http://www.indiatogether.org/agriculture/suicides.htm The second link has mostly essays on the topic (not of fair and balanced reporting), but its a good place to start for anyone interested in understanding some of the drivers of the suicides.

      Rhitu

  5. Naz Erdeniz

    Hi Lisa,

    Whenever you eat a new exotic fruit, your body gets exposed to THOUSANDs of new proteins, glycolipids and other stuff it has never seen before – not to mention microorganisms sticking to the fruit. How could a single bacterial protein be all that significant?

    Naz

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

      Hi Naz, This is an interesting perspective, it made me think. But to take the reverse point of view, other “single bacterial proteins” include diphtheria toxin, botulinum toxin, and tetanus toxin. This is not to say that Bt is anything like these other toxins, but I think one can’t just give “bacterial proteins” a blanket dismissal as common and safe. I’ll leave the real answer to Lisa, of course, but just wanted to throw that thought out there. Cheers, Elsa

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Yes, our bodies depend on proteins in our food to sustain us, and we benefit from generations of food knowledge to avoid toxins in our diets. So, we know that many ‘exotic’ fruits are likely to be safe, but we also know to avoid things like castor beans in which a single protein, ricin, can kill us.
      Elsa is correct, that there are numerous cases of single proteins from soil bacteria that are very dangerous- tetanospasmin protein from Clostridium tetani being a common example (ie, tetanus).
      Two examples of GM foods where the possiblity of allergy due to an introduced protein has been identified include Starlink Bt corn, and GM soy engineered to express the 2S albumin protein from brazil nuts. Both of these have been discontinued due to such concerns.

  6. David

    Hi Lisa,

    I guess my main worry is that the seeds GM food will be patented, and companies like ADM or Monsanto will force all who grow a given crop to pay for their seeds, whether they used them, or they blew in on the wind and just happened to end up on a tract of land where they weren’t intentionally planted. I’ve already heard of such horror stories, where ADM (I think) found that some farmer’s field had “their” genes in it, and sued for patent royalties (I hope I’m remembering this correctly, it was a while ago).

    What are your thoughts? Will we all end up enriching big multinational GM-seed “bullies”, once “their seeds” end up practically everywhere?

    I’d also like to see more long-term studies of the effects of eating each proposed GM food.

    Thanks,
    David

    • iela

      This is already a happening.

      http://www.keepmainefree.org/suesuesue.html

      http://www.percyschmeiser.com/
      Percy Schmeiser is a farmer from Bruno, Saskatchewan Canada whose Canola fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola. Monsanto’s position was that it didn’t matter whether Schmeiser knew or not that his canola field was contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene, or whether or not he took advantage of the technology (he didn’t); that he must pay Monsanto their Technology Fee of $15./acre. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with Schmeiser, ruling that he didn’t have to pay Monsanto anything.. …

  7. DJ Brasier

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for a great story. Do you know how the intellectual property rights work on genetically modified crops in the international community? Will farmers be subject to the same lawsuits abroad if their crops are accidentally contaminated with GM seeds as they are in the US?

    Thanks,
    DJ Brasier

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Your question and the one above both address a key issue relating to GM crops, intellectual property rights. In India, the relationship between patents and GMOs has been hotly debated by opponents of GMOs such as Vandana Shiva and Suman Sahai of GeneCampaign.
      Although proponents of Bt brinjal characterize its release as a “public/private” partnership, and this will be one of the first cases of a GM open pollinated variety (OPV) approval, it is unclear how those IPRs will play out in real life application of the seeds, not to mention issues relating to containment and contamination responsibility.
      For a detailed overview of these IPR issues, see today’s editorial in India’s Business Standard newspaper:
      http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/latha-jishnu-who-ownseggplant/379041/

      • We can see how easily a seasonal flu bug can travel the world, or how exotic creatures can slip thru customs (hence our http://www.nwpca.com/ExportTreatment/ProgramOverview.htm against wood borers, ect) thus, we have to follow strict cleanliness and log procedures for farm guests, etc. (Avian bird flu, our GAPS program, etc) How are farmers to protect themselves from infestation of a crop by the wind, carrying OPV pollens designed by GMO companies? These pollens can be carried by insects, birds, or clothes and shoes. If GMO continues to gain “success” in the eyes of big business, let us at least have truth in labeling and full disclosure in the mapping of locales world-wide where farmers of seed will need to have lab conditions to grow: http://www.pollen.com/allergy-weather-forecast.asp

  8. Deborah

    Hi Lisa,

    My concern with genetically modified foods is based on the lack of research with how our bodies process the modified food. Specifically, humans evolved along with their foods – how do we know the epidemic of food allergies isn’t related to our bodies inability to identify what we are eating as food?

    Being one of the millions that doesn’t have insurance, I try to be careful about what I eat since I know what I eat has a direct bearing on my health. Just look at our national state of ill being – we suffer epidemic diabetes and heart problems in this nation. Here we are trying to get better health care for everyone, and at the same time we allow corporations to further their drive for profit in direct opposition to our well-being with-out requiring them to do the research.

    Deborah

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Hi Deborah,
      Your concerns are typical of questions that consumers are asking around the world.
      One of the ways that allergenicity can be predicted is by simulating conditions in the human digestive tract, then analyzing the protein fragments that remain for particular shapes and motifs predictive of allergenicity. These tests are performed by companies marketing GM seeds, and as I mention above, in a couple of cases have led to the revocation of a GM product.
      As you imply, we are seeing an increase in childhood allergies and other chronic diseases, many of which are likely to be multifactorial. We’ve seen voiciferous debate and local regulations on food technologies such as trans fats, and in that sense, the debate over how GM food should be regulated is part of a larger food movement.

  9. natalie marks

    Lisa, Our FDA is in the pockets of the food and fertilizer companies. Their actual goal is not to enhance the good of our people but to enhance the profits of Monsanto. This had been shown time and again. Now they have convinced some $$ driven politicians to turn the alternative products market over to the FDA and have the Pharmaceutical companies manage that for us. No thanks. We are sinking slowly but surely into a government run by Industry with the only goal to maximize profits. I am sick of it all. We are no longer a country Of the people, By the people, and For the people.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Right now we are seeing a debate on what constitutes “good” and “unbiased” science in the realm of climate change.
      It’s a little shocking to see the standards that are applied to climate change science, when we allow food products to be approved based solely on research and safety testing done by the companies that stand to profit from them, and when there is what has been referred to as a “revolving door” between industry and government regulators in the realm of biotechnology and agriculture.
      Keep in mind, though, that it is the mandate of corporations to maximize profits for their shareholders, so legally and according to our definition of corporations, these companies are only doing what they are charged with. The problem arises when the line between industry and regulators gets blurry

      • Sara S

        If “We the People” want a more unbiased approval process from FDA/EPA on the approval of crops/pesticides/drug, the “we the people” need to fork over the money to adequately fund these agencies and demand from our legislators that this gets done. The reason these agencies have to rely on data from the companies is they do not have the money to do the studies themselves. But since everyone is tax adverse, we get the system we are willing to pay for.

  10. Esa Jarvi

    Food is like drugs, it gets tested quite thoroughly. If there is a proven problem, will not the producers take it off market? They do not want to be sued.

    There is no profit in marketing a product that has a bad reputation, however small the problem actually is.

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi,

    Science Magazine just published a special issue on Global Food Security. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;327/5967/797
    Some of the material is for subscribers only. But for those interested there is a lot of information on the kinds of scientific and other (socio-economic and political) innovations that can help solve this complex problem. You could also listen to Science magazine’s podcast for more info. http://podcasts.aaas.org/science_podcast/SciencePodcast_100212.mp3

  12. Filip

    Hi Lisa,

    Instead of focusing only on risks of GMOs, shouldn’t also be the possible benefits be taken into account?

    The success story with Bt cotton in India shows that leapfrogging by adopting new technologies does exist and can benefit also the poor. In 2008 more than 5 million small, resource-poor Indian farmers have grown Bt cotton, with an averge yield increase of 30% compared to conventional cotton. It caused major reductions in pesticide use, with a positive impact on farmers health and the environment: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/the_dawn_of_a_new_era/download/The-Dawn-of-a-New-Era.pdf We have all been consuming Bt proteins since 1996, in what is estimated to be a 2 trillion meals. Why do we still call it then a ‘new’ protein?

  13. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

    Public acceptance of new technologies is an interesting phenomenon. Bt brinjal would be the first GM food crop authorized in India, and the experience with Bt cotton has been controversial there, as much as it has been taken up widely by some farmers. So in that sense, it would be a ‘new’ technology as applied to food. (The Bt crops grown thus far globally have largely been used as animal feed.)
    In addition to risks and benefits, issues of trust and power also need to be taken into account when seeking to understand the question of public acceptance. The outcry in India over Bt brinjal seems to stem largely from mistrust in assurances of its safety. This is not uncommon in public reaction to introductions of other new technologies, for example nuclear power, stem cells, and nanotechnology

  14. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi again Lisa,

    I’d like to go beyond the question of GM crops and big corporations. What about GM technology in the public sector? Many scientists believe that this technology will be crucial especially in the face of climate change. For example, I know that scientists at the International Rice Research Institute have developed at least one waterproof rice variety using a submergence-resistant gene that can help farmers in countries like Bangladesh, which experiences floods ever year. (See this story from NPR http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15032263) Scientists think that similar drought resistant varieties will need to be developed for many countries that are likely to experience more heat waves.

    Surely this technology has a vital role to play outside of the private sector?

    Thanks, Rhitu

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      Yes, as I say at the end of my book Food Fray, “Real progress towards shifting the balance of food insecurity in poor nations will not be made until the techniques of agricultural biotechnology are given their just public due…”
      Were this the case, I think that there would be greater public acceptance, because 1)the outcomes would have greater public benefits and 2)there would be less focus on single-gene transgenics, and more on using a spectrum of molecular tools to expand conventional breeding.
      Sub-1 rice is a great example; using marker assisted breeding, an endogenous (ie, naturally occurring) rice gene allele was introgressed (ie, bred) into local rice strains, enabling them to overcome flooding. The Sub1-A1 tolerant allele differs from intolerant alleles by just one amino acid!

  15. Hi,

    I’ve read that genetically engineered corn was recently allowed to be grown in Mexico. But for many activist and the such this is of great concern. Many varieties of corn come from Mexico and they are worried that the genetically engineered corn will contaminate these varieties. Do you know much on that debate and what is your opinion on it? Thanks, Duncan

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

      The argument against planting GM varieties in centers of origin (CO)/centers of diversity (CD)is to prevent spread of transgenes into wild and native species, potentially compromising biodiversity.
      It has recently been confirmed that even with a moratorium on GM corn in place in Mexico, 5% of corn seed stocks there were contaminated with GM proteins by 2002, and that a number of different routes, including possible spread from the US and/or farmer seed saving practices, played a role.
      As argued in the post above (and in my book Food Fray), more public research is needed to take big-picture and long-term ecological impacts into account, before forging forward in these areas. It is possible that there may be ‘middle ground’ approaches that both increase yield and protect biodiversity.

  16. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Lisa Weasel

    Our discussion is coming to an end, and some obvious themes have emerged. To expand on the call for public domain genetic research in agriculture, I’ll end with a few lessons from the Green Revolution of the 1970s.
    1. Genetics is powerful. Whether via conventional or molecular breeding, genetics makes a huge contribution to traits and productivity.
    2. Without infrastructure, genes are nothing. Yield increases in the GR occurred only where inputs like water and fertilizer were available.
    3. Soil fertility is a huge issue, and needs more research. The harm of the GR in terms of sustainable soil fertility is now emerging, and we need new solutions.
    4. Participatory research approaches are key. There is too much emphasis on convincing farmers to use GMOs, and too little on farmers’ own needs.

  17. “How are farmers to protect themselves from infestation of a crop by the wind, carrying OPV pollens designed by GMO companies? These pollens can be carried by insects, birds, or clothes and shoes. If GMO continues to gain “success” in the eyes of big business, let us at least have truth in labeling and full disclosure in the mapping of locales world-wide where farmers of seed will need to have lab conditions to grow: http://www.pollen.com/allergy-weather-forecast.asp…

    the closest thing i could find to answer this quesiton for ourselves and our customers was this: http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org/

    our customers are demanding how they know available foods are not tainted with GMO. We have no good answer for them. Our market is already crushed. GMO does not help.

  18. Mohammed Shomam

    I guess my main worry is that the seeds GM food will be patented, and companies like ADM or Monsanto will force all who grow a given crop to pay for their seeds, whether they used them, or they blew in on the wind and just happened to end up on a tract of land where they weren’t intentionally planted. I’ve already heard of such horror stories, where ADM (I think) found that some farmer’s field had “their” genes in it, and sued for patent royalties (I hope I’m remembering this correctly, it was a while ago). http://methoo.com

Add your comments

 characters available