GM Crops: ban them, but only if you also want to ban peanuts…

…and milk and eggs and seeds and soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables.

Actually, ban any food with any non-human protein in. It all has the potential to cause a serious allergy. Whether it is genetically modified or not.

The ‘health risks’ argument that is used to oppose each and every GM crop is, for the most part, absurd. Yes, there is a small possibility of them causing health problems. I would be surprised if no one ever develops a health problem in response to consuming a GM food. But the point is that we must see this in the context of the health problems and risks of non-GM foods that we already widely consume on a daily basis and that already cause problems to a small number of people

Now, this is not to say that other factors associated with certain GM technologies can’t contribute to health problems. A commonly suspected factor is the use of pesticides and herbicides. The most famous example is Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ weedkiller. By modifying crops to be resistant to Roundup, farmers can apply it in greater doses, knowing that it won’t harm the crop. There are debates over whether this has actually increased or decreased overall herbicide use (use of more ecologically harmful herbicides than Roundup may have actually fallen as a consequence) and whether Roundup can have detrimental health effects.

There is also a genuine issue about consumers being able to avoid GM products for known allergies. Say, for example, a gene for a peanut protein that causes allergic reactions in some people could be inserted into wheat. If products were adequately labelled, one would think that consumers could easily avoid wheat products that contained such a protein. The concern is that crops would cross-pollinate, meaning that even the wheat that was not modified with the hypothetical peanut protein could acquire it.

But all too often anti-GM protestors take concern about one particular crop, such as Monsanto’s GM soy, and use it to accuse all GM products of having similar issues. Creating a herbicide/pesticide resistant crop is only one type of genetic modification. And risks of cross-pollination are dependent on the species involved and its method of dispersing pollen, so should be considered on a case-by-case basis rather than supporting a blanket ban on GM. This is particularly true given some of the potential benefits of GM crops. Here are a few upcoming GM products that involve traits other than increased herbicide and pesticide resistance:

1. Golden Rice.

~200 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency around the world, and each year hundreds of thousands of children are estimated to die or become blind because of it.  This rice is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. The rice can provide a significant proportion of the recommended daily intake, possibly 100%. The genes that have been introduced come from a soil bacteria and from maize/corn.

Interestingly, the intellectual property rights involved in creating Golden Rice have been waived for subsistence farmers, meaning they can earn up to $10,000 without paying royalties for growing the rice.

2. Wheat with a peppermint gene.

Globally, pests cause huge damage to crops; with estimates of 25-40% loss for many common crops. In the UK, aphids would cause a loss of ~£100m without the use of pesticides. Recent trials are looking at whether GM wheat, with a gene from the peppermint plant inserted, could deter aphids, possibly resulting in reduced pesticide use. The gene leads to production of a pheromone that plants already use in the wild to deter aphids. It also attracts a natural predator of aphids to further reduce their impact. It won’t, however, result in mint-flavoured bread.

3. Drought-tolerant corn.

This year’s droughts across America led to the loss of huge amounts of corn. This GM drought-tolerant corn could help reduce future impact of droughts; though probably not when they are as severe as this year’s. Future versions may have improved tolerance.

On a similar theme, a flood-resistant form of rice has been developed using non-GM methods by hybridisation of different strains of rice.  Although not GM per se, it did use some clever genetic technology in order to cross the strains. And one of the developers of this rice hybrid believes that GM technology will “give us a lot of tools for further improving rice, that we do not have now….[it]will give us a way to do that much quicker and much easier”.

What about corporate control of food?

Finally, many anti-GM protestors are concerned about the monopoly/private control of biotechnology and IP patents. There are some genuine issues about this, but what I say to them is this: support state-funded research.

This ensures relevant information remains in the public domain and is available for any entrepreneur to use. More research being publicly funded means less likelihood of a particular discovery or technology being patented. And the more biotechnology companies there are, the less likely anyone of them will have a monopoly on the market and be able to dictate the terms of use. Just don’t oppose the technology as a whole, and remember to consider the likely costs of not using it.