In response to the question “are GM(O) foods safe?”, the World Health Organization (WHO) responds “Different GM(O) organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM(O) foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods. GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved…”. Given WHO ,arguably the global authority on health issues, has declared that no safety concerns have been noted in GMO products in the market, it is not surprising that many farmers have rushed to adopt GMO’s and their many productive benefits.
Genetically modified crops have the potential to greatly reduce costs both to the farmer, and to the environment surrounding farm land. This in large part due to reduced use of herbicides and pesticides associated with GM crops. Depending on the crop, and the specific modification made, GM crops have been shown to reduce herbicide use by as much as 30%, and reduce pesticide use by as much as 70%. This could have radical implications for the environment surrounding the farm land, and for the health of those involved in farming. A survey of Chinese cotton farmers found that nearly 5% of farmers who grew only genetically modified cotton (specifically Bt Cotton, modified to be pest resistant) reported pesticide related poisonings. Contrast this with the farmers who did not grow only GM cotton, 13% of whom reported pesticide related poisonings (it’s worth noting that this study had a very small sample, which was highly skewed towards farmers who used GM crops).
More obvious to farmers than the health effects of spraying less pesticides and herbicides are the cost savings. Not only do the farmers save money by buying less pesticides and herbicides, but they save on labor and fuel costs as they may drive through their fields less often. The switch to GM herbicide tolerant rapeseed (from which canola oil is made) made by Canadian farmers is estimated to have reduced diesel fuel consumption by roughly $27 million dollars (accounting for inflation and exchange rates) from 1997 to 2000, and thus reduced green house gas emissions by approximately 110,000 t.
Beyond impacts on pesticide and herbicide use, pesticide related poison rates, and diesel consumption, GMO’s have the potential to increase nutrient availability to the worlds poorest. One such example is Golden Rice, rice modified with genes from corn and a bacterium to provide a greater vitamin A content. For those who subsist almost entirely on rice, this could be a great stride towards meeting ideal nutritional requirements.
Despite the identification of major benefits associated with GM crops, it is challenging to find studies assessing any risks of GMO’s. As pointed out by Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz “In the absence of safety studies, the lack of evidence that GM food is unsafe cannot be interpreted as proof that it is safe”. This begs the question, what are the hypothesized risks of GMO’s? I’ll be examining this question in next week’s newsletter.
World Health Organization. Food Safety: 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods. May 2014. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
Phipps, R.H., Park, J.R. Environmental Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Global and European Perspectives on Their Ability to Reduce Pesticide Use. 2002. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, 11, 1-18
Huang, J., et al. Biotechnology as an Alternative to Chemical Pesticides: A Case Study of Bt Cotton in China. 2003. Agricultural Economics, 29, 55-67
Harmon, Amy. Golden Rice: Lifesaver?. August 2013. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/sunday-review/golden-rice-lifesaver.html
Pusztai, A., Bardocz, S. Potential Health Effects of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified (GM) plants – What are the Issues?. 2007. Biosafety First: Holistic Approaches to Risk and Uncertainty in Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms. Chapter 14.