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0 Comments | Jul 30, 2012

An Imperative for Growth

~ Transgenic Technology and the Foods We Eat ~

sweet-cornHumans eat food to survive. Most, if they’re fortunate, do it multiple times each day. And if we go very long without doing it, our bodies have limitless creative ways of making their displeasure known. But we also eat for pleasure—pleasure derived from taste and texture, from culture and tradition, and, for some, from the very process of creating food in the first place. That creation involves three distinctly different types of individuals. Best known are those who combine raw ingredients in creative ways—sometimes exciting, sometimes banal. These are the chefs who craft memorable dishes, the artisans who bake fine bread and pastry, the vintners who magically turn the humble grape into wine, and the factories that turn out the infinitude of products that occupy our grocery store shelves. Then there are the less celebrated among us, the farmers and ranchers who grow crops and raise animals, creating the raw materials with which the chefs and artisans perform their magic, and with which corporations create products that are…well, less magical but arguably far more important to the daily lives of most ordinary people. It is their day-to-day work, and the raw materials they create, that have changed so dramatically in recent years, thanks to a host of technologies that have, until very recently, operated only at the farthest fringes of the human food chain.

Which brings us to the third group of individuals whose efforts, while essential to the everyday food we consume, go even less noticed than those of the farmers and ranchers. These are the food scientists who create—seemingly out of nothing—the flavors, smells, preservatives, texture modifiers, and nutrients that characterize nearly everything we consume. Their work is every bit as magical as that of the finest pastry chef. Without food scientists we would not enjoy everyday products such as pre-sliced bread, fat-free milk, frozen entrees, or the redoubtable Twinkie with its alleged shelf life measured in months. We may debate at length whether these innovations make us better or worse off as a species, but, for the vast majority, these products are an indispensable element of everyday life. As amazing as these technologies are and as impactful as they have been on all our culinary lives, food science has spent the past couple centuries only just warming up for the main event, that which is the principal topic of this essay, the genetic-level modification of the food we eat, the products we now routinely refer to as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.

It is not my purpose here to proselytize or otherwise wax tendentious about GMOs. There exists no shortage of extant literature both celebrating and vilifying this technology. It is also not my objective to expound upon the rudiments of the science. I do not profess to be a geneticist or a scientist of any sort. Rather, what I aim to achieve in the pages that follow is to propose a framework for thinking about the issue, one that addresses, or at least introduces, many of the elements that contribute to the GMO debate, any one of which can then be explored in whatever depth the reader feels compelled to tackle. I truly hope that you will come away sufficiently convinced of the importance of this topic in your daily life to want to know more about it, and I hope, as well, that you will enjoy a new appreciation for the role that science plays in what we put into our bodies, because, trust me, science is there in everything we eat, from the humblest leaf of organic lettuce to the most highly processed box of cookies on your grocer’s shelf.

Societal debates such as this one can be grouped into two major categories. There are issues of a highly emotional nature, which, as a consequence, usually admit little objective scientific analysis (examples would include abortion and gun control). These are issues about which almost no one ever changes their mind, regardless of the facts or analyses that may be laid before them. All data and opinion contrary to their deeply held beliefs are simply dismissed as biased and propaganda. The other major set of societal issues are those that, while important and strongly felt as well, do, in fact, lend themselves to at least a somewhat more objective assessment of fact (foreign policy, taxation, deficits). People are occasionally willing to examine all sides of such issues and formulate their opinions based on the balance of data available at the moment. Unfortunately, although there exists ample information on the subject of GM agriculture, it is rapidly becoming a societal issue of the former sort. Emotion appears to have the upper hand on objective analysis. And that is a pity, particularly since so many lives potentially hang in the balance.[1]

So where does one start in examining such a fraught subject? Best, I suppose, to start at the beginning. Since we are talking about the genetic modification of otherwise natural agricultural products,[2] it is important first to acknowledge that mankind has been performing genetic modification of crops for as long as we have been growing our food, which is to say millennia. Long before humans invented the term ‘genetics,’ or had even identified the biological building block known as the gene, farmers the world over were cross-breeding plants[3] to make more robust, faster growing, more drought-tolerant strains of every conceivable crop, whether edible or not. Over the centuries, as much effort has gone into creating better performing strains of roses and pine trees as has been the case with rice, corn, and wheat. The success with which mankind has met these challenges is profoundly demonstrated by the dramatic decrease in the percentage of our population[4] now required to grow the world’s food supply.[5] But it is only in the most recent couple of decades that it has become possible to manipulate the molecular-level make-up of crops and, in so doing, control specific attributes of the plants and animals that are the most basic elements of our food chain.

Before diving into the pros and cons of GM technology, it is worth setting out a few basic facts and figures so that the reader understands the impact GMOs have had (and increasingly will have) on our lives:

- The first commercial GM product was Calgene’s (later a Monsanto subsidiary) Favr-Savr tomato, introduced in     1994 and modified so that it ripened later to reduce spoilage while being transported to market.

- More than 85% of the corn crop in the United States is GM. For soybeans and cotton, the figure is 93%.

- Nearly 17% of the entire agricultural area of the United States grows GM crops. Globally the figure is 10%.

- In 2003 70%-75% of processed food in U.S. supermarkets contained at least one GM ingredient.

So GM technology is, quite literally, everywhere. It’s in our appetizer, our entrée, our dessert, our coffee, even, quite possibly, in the roses decorating the center of the table. Oh, and it’s almost certainly in the cotton your clothes are made of. If one wanted to live a truly GM-free life, it would take some serious research and effort.

But what exactly is it that drives industry to want to genetically manipulate agricultural species in the first place? We have been reaping the benefits of cultivated crops for ages, so what exactly is it that needs improving? Well, everything really. Anything that plants do, it is believed, they can, with enough work and patience, be coaxed into doing better, faster, cheaper, more consistently. To select but a few examples of the crop characteristics GMO practitioners strive to improve:

  • Increased resistance to common agricultural pests
  • Increased resistance to herbicides
  • Improved growth in arid conditions
  • Quicker growth and more efficient photosynthesis
  • Increased control over the ripening process
  • Greater tolerance of temperature extremes
  • Ability to withstand harsh soil acidity and alkalinity
  • Greater quantities of desirable nutrients

The list of attributes being explored for improvement is literally endless,[6] but the approach is, at the most macroscopic level, simplicity itself. You locate a species that demonstrates naturally one or more of these performance-improving characteristics, identify the specific gene or genes that enable that capability, and then transfer the gene(s) from the original into the target species. To put it in somewhat more concrete terms, if your goal is, for example, to create a strain of rice that can grow in a very dry climate, find yourself an organism that has demonstrated a penchant for flourishing in arid conditions, identify the gene that enables this capability, and transfer that gene into your rice strain.[7] It goes without saying that this approach, while simple in principal, is fiendishly difficult to perform in practice and it is only in recent years that genetic understanding and technology have been sufficient to the task.

Developing such GM—or transgenic—species is a difficult, time-consuming, and extraordinarily expensive undertaking. The companies that participate in this market,[8] thus, are understandably keen to get them into the agricultural market as quickly as possible in order to recoup their research and development costs and begin realizing profits from the investment. Because these corporations are, at their most fundamental, tasked with maximizing earnings for the benefit of shareholders, it is here, at the juncture where profitability meets public policy, that most of the friction arises. Marketing and sales are all about speed and aggressiveness, whereas testing and safety assurance are characterized by caution and conservativeness. Which brings us directly to the first of the many complex issues attending the GMO debate—safety.

Ask any anti-GM activist what their primary concern is with transgenic technology and they will tell you that the products have not been demonstrated to be safe for human consumption. Ask an industry professional the same question and they will respond that no studies have ever systematically linked GMOs to safety or health concerns, either for humans or other species.[9] Enter the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), World Health Organization (WHO), and various and sundry other governmental and quasi-governmental organizations, each of which has (or believes it should have) a voice in determining the safety of agricultural products, both natural and GM.

Except that there’s a fundamental conundrum associated with this aspect of GM. As anyone who’s studied logic can tell you, it is impossible to prove a negative assertion conclusively. (In this case, the proposition “GM crops do not cause harm.”). Corporations and universities can perform safety testing from now until the last funding dollar is exhausted with absolutely no adverse outcomes and the anti-GM zealot will continue to insist that they haven’t tested enough. They haven’t definitively proven that the technology is safe. A single unfavorable test result, conversely, can immediately torpedo an entire multi-billion-dollar development effort, as has happened on more than one occasion in the pharmaceutical industry. Sometimes these adverse test results are identified in pre-release testing, in which case the product never sees the light of day. In other situations, as with Merck and their extremely profitable Vioxx product, it is only after many years of use that adverse effects become known and fully understood. And it is the potential long-term health effects of GMOs that most concern the anti-GM crowd.

One of the most challenging aspects of any corporate product development program—whether it’s a new drug, airplane, automobile, or food product—is determining how much testing is enough. Statisticians can opine as to a degree of confidence that can be gleaned from a particular testing regimen, but at the end of the day, someone (or some group) has to decide how much is enough. How many test flights are sufficient before allowing passengers onto the new airliner? How many test miles before the new model car can be released to dealerships? How many studies must be performed before that new food or drug product can be declared safe? And over how long a time period must such testing be conducted in order to adequately understand potential long-term effects? Inevitably the developer who has put money on the table, and whose only means of recouping that money is through sales, will push for faster testing and quicker approval. The anti-GM advocate, with no financial stake in the outcome, will invariably conclude that whatever has been done is insufficient.

All of which leads in a more or less linear fashion to the broader issue of corporate ethics. The life sciences industry has done itself no favors over the past couple of decades by adopting some of the business practices that it has. Given that the anti-GM crowd tends, by its nature, to be anti-business as well, companies that adopt the view that activists are obstacles to be circumvented or defeated rather than fellow stakeholders in a complex societal situation should be little surprised by the reaction they receive to announcements of new GM products. To the extent that corporate motivation is largely profit driven, altruistic statements about feeding the world’s hungry and helping the small local farmer ring hollow to many ears. Compounding such seeming disingenuousness with onerous business requirements attending the use of transgenic seeds, implementation of terminator genes, and the patenting of long-held local products only exacerbates the image of an industry desperately in need of a public relations makeover.

Indeed, it is the corporate aspect of the GM debate that puts off many who might otherwise be positively disposed to the technology itself. In particular, there arises the notion of increasing corporate control over the world’s food supply. For decades most Third World farmers have employed methods of farming similar to those used by generations of predecessors, methods which are, in many cases, freely used and widely shared. Such methods include not only reserving a portion of a crop for seeds in the coming year, but also the flexibility to rotate crops as needed to ensure continuing fecundity of the land. There exists a strong impression—frequently warranted—that GM companies entering a new market arrive with the goal of transitioning an entire regional or even national crop to their new line of seed. Farmers who choose not to purchase and plant GM seeds can find themselves swimming against a very powerful corporate stream, surrounded by neighboring farmers who have purchased and planted the new GM seeds, leaving non-participants with GM-tainted crops when they wanted only to continue in the way they always had.

Other practices routinely employed by GM companies in developing nations have contributed as well to the generally poor reputation of these organizations. The enforcement of mandatory annual seed purchases, for example, is a practice whereby farmers, once under contract to use a new GM seed, are obliged to buy new seeds from the company with each planting season and are prohibited from saving any seeds from a preceding crop for use in replanting. Failure to make contractually-agreed seed purchases each season can easily land a farmer in court. In the event that a farmer attempts to reserve a portion of seeds for future use anyway, some GM seeds are engineered so as to be fertile only in their original generation and sterile thereafter, thus forcing the new purchases. It has also become common practice, and the source of much bad publicity, for corporations to take out patents on agricultural species that have either existed in nature for millennia or been created by local farmers through traditional cross-breeding practices that have taken place for generations. Such legal machinations can put local farmers in the position of suddenly being obliged to pay significant amounts of money for seeds they have historically had access to for nothing or very little.

The rapidly increasing spread of GM crops also raises the so-called superweed debate. When GM crops are engineered to be impervious to herbicides,[10] a side effect can be weeds that inherit, by wind-borne pollen and other methods, the same capability and thus become difficult or impossible to eliminate in traditional ways. In addition, to the extent that some farmers have chosen to grow exclusively organic and/or pesticide-free crops, utilizing fields that are located near GM crops can render their products unmarketable, particularly in places like Europe which have extremely stringent non-GM policies, as they can no longer guarantee that their crops have not been affected by the nearby transgenic varieties.

Anti-GM activists worry as well about diversity of the broader ecosystem, the fear being that the more corporations market similar GM species from one country to another, gradually phasing out the planting of traditional local varieties, the more at risk is the overall agricultural system, particularly in its potential susceptibility to one or more diseases or pests that could affect a wide swath of GM species worldwide.

A final issue that has made news in recent months is that of food labeling. To the extent that it is now almost impossible to find a processed food at your grocer that does not contain one or more GM ingredients, there have been numerous attempts in recent years to force food processors to label any products that contain GM ingredients.[11] Predictably, the giant food corporations fight vigorously against such measures, feeling, probably correctly, that many consumers will opt to purchase those products that are GM-free while foregoing those that are not. Food producers argue that such labeling will only serve to confuse consumers and they point consistently to USDA regulations that mandate labeling only in instances where the product has been definitively proven to be materially different, either in health or nutritional content, from non-GM varieties. Perhaps the most troubling argument put forth by processed food companies is that labeling is impossible or prohibitively costly because they do not, in fact, actually know whether the ingredients in their products are GM or not. Companies fear that the added burden of keeping careful track of ingredients so as to enable accurate labeling would be onerous to them and an added expense that they would, naturally, pass on to consumers. Add to this debate the generally high level of confusion and ambiguity over existing food labels[12] and it’s at least understandable why corporations would resist any regulation that threatens to complicate things even further.

GM technology and all the many associated issues are far too rich and nuanced a topic to make much more than a dent in this short essay. The best I can hope for is to have introduced several of the important sub-topics that comprise the core of the debate. As the Prop 37 labeling campaign heats up in California, we can be sure this will be at the forefront of the news again, particularly if the measure succeeds in the fall. And if the measure should pass, rest assured the food companies will push back with every resource at their disposal. California has a well-established history of being on the leading edge of legislation that eventually ends up affecting the entire nation, a fact not lost on food manufacturers. There’s a great deal at stake, no matter where you live and no matter which side of the issue you happen to come down on. But whether you eat to live or live to eat, there’s a lot to be said for knowing what’s in your food.

[1] The preceding paragraph is a slightly modified excerpt from the Introduction to my novel World Hunger, in which I created a fictional scenario around some unfortunate events attending the field testing of GMO crops, not, mind you, to try to paint GMO technology as an inherently bad thing, but, rather, to try to get a certain subset of people thinking about the subject, i.e., those who rarely if ever read nonfiction but who will occasionally pick up a novel.

[2] GMO technology can be (and has been) applied to both plant and animal agricultural products, but the science is vastly more advanced on the crop side of things thus far, and it is in this domain that I will focus most of the examples in the forthcoming discussion.

[3] Sometimes in well-structured scientific ways. Sometimes completely by accident.

[4] In 1870 something like 75% of the American population was involved in some facet of agriculture, whereas today that percentage is 2%–3%, with a significant portion of what we grow either exported or, in many cases, wasted.

[5] It’s important to acknowledge, as well, the role of improved efficiency in farming techniques, equipment, etc. These innovations include everything from GPS and satellite surveillance to automated planting, watering, and harvesting.

[6] There are some pretty bizarre examples being worked on as well, including pigs and fish that glow in the dark, goats modified to produce spider silk in their milk (for use in making bullet-proof vests, etc.), and cows engineered with human genes so that they produce human breast milk (seriously).

[7] It is worth noting here, though I will not expound on it at length, that there is no fundamental reason why the desired trait needs to come from the same kingdom (plant, animal, bacteria, etc.) as the species whose performance you are endeavoring to improve. For example, there has, for many years, been active research into certain species of fish that thrive in frigid water, the goal being to identify the gene that enables this capability and transfer it into plants so that they might perform better in very cold climates. Similarly, the gene that got the whole GM movement off and running in the early nineties was one that allowed Bt corn to generate its own internal pesticide, thus significantly reducing the need for externally applied pesticides. The gene that made this possible came from a bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis.

[8] Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, to name a few of the largest

[9] In 1999 a study released by Cornell University suggested a link between Bt corn pollen and monarch butterfly deaths. The report caused outrage in the activist community and was only later refuted by additional studies (2001: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) indicating that the conditions created during the original testing bore no resemblance to those encountered by monarchs in the wild.

[10] For instance, Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready crops, first introduced in 1995 for soybeans, specifically designed to allow farmers to widely spray herbicides that kill weeds while leaving crops unaffected.

[11] This issue will rear its head again this November when Californians vote on mandatory GM labeling for all products sold in the state. Proposition 37, The California Right to Know Genetically Modified Food Act, will appear as a ballot item and, if passed, would make the state the first to enforce such measures on the broader food industry. The only U.S. state with any GM labeling requirement at all is Alaska, which mandates GM labeling on all fish and shellfish.

[12] There currently exist either no standards or very unclear ones governing when labels such as “natural,” “organic,” and “pesticide-free” can be placed on food products. Does the “organic” label mean no pesticides were used? Or that the product is GM-free? Not necessarily. Consumers, nonetheless, routinely pay a hefty premium for “organic” vegetables. During one recent supermarket trip, I was struck by the difference between cosmetically identical cucumbers, the regular one at 68 cents each versus the organic one for $3.25.

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