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Facts and the danger from GM food

Evidence of harm from genetically modified (GM) food is one of the under-reported issues [1] discussed by the generally excellent Project Censored [2] for 2006. Specifically, they report on studies of rats and mice fed “GM soy” and that the rats died young, were underweight, and/or had other anomalies. There are several things that are missing in almost all the non-technical reporting on GM food (and plenty of things missing from the scientific reports, too).

First, they don’t specify what kind of genetic modification took place. (PC at least does say “Mon863,” but that doesn’t tell us much.) The beans could have been modified with jellyfish genes to make them glow green in the dark. They could have been modified with a vitamin A-producing gene (as some rice actually is). However, they probably weren’t. The majority of GM-ing (about 75%, if I remember right) is done by Monsanto to introduce RoundUp weedkiller resistance into crop plants. Given the “Mon” prefix, that’s probably what these studies were about.

A bit of background is needed here. RoundUp (which, interestingly enough, is made by Monsanto) kills weeds by interfering with their growth hormones. Plants have very different hormones from animals, including humans, and so destroying those hormones shouldn’t have any effect on animals. The problem is that life is infinitely complex, there are vast amounts we don’t know about biomolecular interactions, and chance matches that cause curious downstream consequences are not unheard of. Cannabis, for instance, has an effect on the human brain because a plant molecule (whose probable function is repelling insects) can interact with nerve receptors whose normal target is very different molecules produced by humans.

So, did the rats do poorly because the GM soy had weird stuff in it that was harming them? Or did they do poorly because it just wasn’t very good soy?

Assuming the GM-ing did involve RoundUp resistance, that last question is not rhetorical. The point to the resistance is to allow frequent spraying with the weedkiller without killing the crop itself. (Yes, Monsanto has farmers paying for patented seeds so that they can pay for more Monsanto weedkiller to pour on them.) RoundUp resistant crops are generally also grown with plenty of insecticide spraying and chemical fertilizer, and that kind of produce has fewer vitamins and minerals. That’s a matter of observable fact, but it’s not necessarily anything directly to do with the genetic modification itself. The GM-ing just allows the crop to be produced under even more hostile conditions than ordinary chemical farming.

If the GM soy killed the rats by being the equivalent of a lifetime of soda pop and french fries, then that’s very interesting, but not actually panic-inducing. If it killed them as a direct consequence of the molecules produced by RoundUp resistance, then there really needs to be a red alert. An Australian CSIRO study found an immune response to GM peas (gene unspecified), and that suggests a possible direct molecular interaction. It really, really, really needs follow-up studies immediately. (PC cites this as a “private research institute,” but CSIRO is “the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, … Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.” (From their website.))

The question of why the rats did poorly is absolutely critical, but the point is hardly ever raised in non-technical articles.

Another question I don’t see addressed is not technical in itself, but does require awareness that there are different genetic modifications. Critics of GM food would like to see it banned. Proponents say we have to move with the times or people will starve. Both are being silly. Vitamin A-enriched rice is a Good Thing. Disease resistant crops that require less herbicide or pesticide are also (usually) good. (But consider the impact on Monarch butterflies due to the deaths of caterpillars caused by caterpillar-killing genes added to corn in the US Midwest.) And as for people starving, they aren’t doing it due to a lack of food, even without GM-induced abundance. People are starving because of wars or because staple foods are too expensive. Genetic modification (unless it prevents human greed and stupidity) will do nothing about that.

On the other hand, banning GM food that has no socially redeeming features seems like a good idea. Pouring out more RoundUp is good only for Monsanto. It’s terrible for everyone else. Let us, by all means, ban that.

The point I’m trying to make is that the opposition to GM food needs to be done intelligently. It needs to be based on fact. And a first step in that direction would be for non-technical talk on the subject to tell us what those facts actually are.

Technorati tags: GM food, photovoltaics, frankenfood, genetically modified food, genetic engineering, RoundUp, Monsanto