Unresolved issues in GM debate leave potential for disaster
Barbara Sumner Burstyn:
I love a finely tuned argument, a sound justification or a well-debated issue. I've even been known to swap sides in response to new information or a reasoned defence.
So when I read about the first crops of genetically modified potatoes planned for planting after October when New Zealand's GM moratorium is lifted, I was at first dismissive. But by the end of the article, ably reported for the Herald by Simon Collins, I was almost convinced.
First, there's the pesticide argument. Genetically modified crops, in this case Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) infected potatoes will be resistant to alien invaders, allowing farmers to cut back on pesticide. In fact, biological controls will increasingly replace chemicals to control all manner of pests and diseases.
That argument worked for me. After all, with around 3300 tonnes of pesticides finding their way into our ecosystem annually, anything that reduces them has to be a plus.
Then there's the productivity angle. GM crops will produce more for less effort. Or as Lincoln University's Dr Colin Eady, from Crop and Food Research, puts it, genetic modification allows for the production of safe, sustainable and efficient food supplies.
Eady, who seems typical of New Zealand scientists, says his motivation comes from a desire to reduce the harm done to the environment.
He believes his vision is complementary with a green viewpoint and he quickly has me seeing the virtue of a world in which biotechnology, and not poisons, is used to specifically deal with pests and disease - a world that can provide plentiful nutritious and varied food with reduced impact on natural environments and free of poisons like 1080, varroa mites and painted apple moths; a world without possums; and, most especially, a world able to deal with the problems of famine.
But ask Dr Suman Sahai about resolving famine through genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and she's dismissive. Dr Sahai is part of the Gene Campaign in India, an organisation dedicated to protecting genetic resources, strengthening self-reliance in agriculture and sustainable food production.
According to Dr Sahai, the first commercial Bt cotton in India, grown under normal local conditions, either did poorly or failed altogether. Even so, a report published in the reputable journal Science hailed the crop a huge success.
Now here's the really disturbing part. The article, which is being widely quoted, is based exclusively on data supplied by the company that owns the Bt cotton, Mahyco Monsanto. To make it worse, the figures were based on a few selected trial plots belonging to the company, not farmers' fields.
But it's not only India. The antipathy to GM foods is spreading to other Third World countries.
Last year Zambia refused 63,000 tonnes of GM corn from the United States.
And across Africa there's a growing concern that the US is taking advantage of famines to dump genetically modified foods on starving populations, which, in turn, depresses prices and destroys local markets
Then there's the issue of the growing importance of organic produce. Even though our own scientists want to believe they share the green agenda, the organic brigade does not agree.
In short, with worldwide demand for organic produce rising at about 10 per cent a year, European consumers are rejecting GM food as if it were the plague.
The American response to consumer rejection of GM is to blame tightened European labelling laws for fuelling fear. In fact, Americans, just like people in Africa and Europe, want to be able to make informed choices about what they eat.
In February a collaborative study by 12 US universities found that 93 per cent of Americans wanted GM food labelling.
But under present regulations it's an offence to label food as genetically modified.
That's because US food law recognises only outcome and not process - so a tomato is a tomato no matter its composition or how it's grown.
There are many other areas of concern, from contamination of non-GM crops and lack of compensation for the contaminated - in New Zealand as in the US - to the compromising involvement of agribusiness in pushing for and controlling the development of GM products and markets, to fundamental concerns about GM safety.
For example, new research just in by scientists at Imperial College London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela, has found that Bt, the same naturally occurring poison that New Zealand scientists are preparing to insert into potatoes - seems to be acting as a "supplementary food protein", nourishing the pests they have been specially engineered to kill.
According to the research, one of the key benefits of GM - crops that come equipped with their own pesticide - is being radically undermined, striking at the heart of genetic engineering in agriculture. The report also suggests an even greater threat to organic farming than has been envisaged.
Pete Riley, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said: "If we'd come up with the suggestion that crops engineered to kill pests could make them bigger and healthier instead, we'd have been laughed out of court."
Given all the loose ends of this debate and the safety and moral implications of the development and use of GM, you have to ask why New Zealand, a small, perfectly formed country, isolated in the middle of the South Pacific, is rushing to embrace a technology that has the potential to destroy its most compelling international advantage - being GM-free.
Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering
Bugs can feed on 'pest-proof' genetic crops
Apr 13 2003
By The Sunday Sun
Green campaigners have called for trials of genetically modified crops to be halted after new research showed that they actually feed the insects they are designed to kill.
Pests have become immune to specially engineered toxins on the "Frankenstein" plants, according to a startling study.
The new evidence undermines one of the key claims of the biotechnology industry . . . that insects cannot live on GM crops.
Pete Riley, the North spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said: "This research shows we don't understand the full impact that this technology will have on the environment.
"The Government and biotech companies are potentially taking a massive risk with people's lives by allowing these crops to be planted in open fields.
"We are calling for a full cessation of ongoing and future GM trials."
Companies have added genes from the poisonous bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to a number of GM crops in an effort to kill insects.
The natural toxin is widely used by organic farmers to spray pest-infested crops once or twice a year.
This short blitz reduces the risk of the insects becoming immune.
But when the poison is built into GM crops, insects are continually exposed to the toxin over several generations and can become resistant.
The new research by scientists at Imperial College London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Venezuela found that, once the insects become resistant, the poison acts as a food supplement that helps them thrive.
Researchers found that larvae of the diamondback moth - a major pest in the US - grew twice as fast after eating GM cabbage leaves.
Mr Riley said: "The GM companies have continually got things wrong.
"They said genes could not be cross-transmitted between species but Newcastle University research found bacteria in human guts were picking up DNA from GM food.
"This could be a disaster for humanity because many of these GM crops contain antibiotics that bacteria could become immune to."
Biotech companies are conducting small field trials of genetically modified crops in the North and across the rest of the UK.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "We cannot comment at this stage.
"We've drawn attention to the Advisory Committee on Releases in the Environment on this research and have asked for their advice.
"It has no immediate implications for the UK as Bt crops are not currently grown here."
Insects thrive on GM `pest-killing' crops
Source: The Independent on Sunday
Publication date: 2003-03-30
Genetically modified crops specially engineered to kill pests in fact nourish them, startling new research has revealed.
The research - which has taken even the most ardent opponents of GM crops by surprise - radically undermines one of the key benefits claimed for them. And it suggests that they may be an even greater threat to organic farming than has been envisaged.
It strikes at the heart of one of the main lines of current genetic engineering in agriculture: breeding crops that come equipped with their own pesticide.
Biotech companies have added genes from a naturally occurring poison, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is widely used as a pesticide by organic farmers. The engineered crops have spread fast. The amount of land planted with them worldwide grew more than 25- fold - from four million acres in 1996 to well over 100 million acres (44.2m hectares) in 2000 - and the global market is expected to be worth $25bn (pounds 16bn) by 2010.
Drawbacks have already emerged, with pests becoming resistant to the toxin. Environmentalists say that resistance develops all the faster because the insects are constantly exposed to it in the plants, rather than being subject to occasional spraying.
But the new research - by scientists at Imperial College London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela - adds an alarming new twist, suggesting that pests can actually use the poison as a food and that the crops, rather than automatically controlling them, can actually help them to thrive.
They fed resistant larvae of the diamondback moth - an increasingly troublesome pest in the southern US and in the tropics - on normal cabbage leaves and ones that had been treated with a Bt toxin. The larvae eating the treated leaves grew much faster and bigger - with a 56 per cent higher growth rate.
They found that the larvae "are able to digest and utilise" the toxin and may be using it as a "supplementary food", adding that the presence of the poison "could have modified the nutritional balance in plants" for them.
And they conclude: "Bt transgenic crops could therefore have unanticipated nutritionally favourable effects, increasing the fitness of resistant populations."
Pete Riley, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said last night: "This is just another example of the unexpected harmful effects of GM crops.
"If Friends of the Earth had come up with the suggestion that crops engineered to kill pests could make them bigger and healthier instead, we would have been laughed out of court.
"It destroys the industry's entire case that insect-resistant GM crops can have anything to do with sustainable farming."
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said it showed that GM crops posed an even "worse threat to organic farming than had previously been imagined". Breed- ing resistance to the Bt insecticide sometimes used by organic farmers was bad enough, but problems would become even greater if pests treated it as "a high- protein diet".
Publication date: 2003-03-30
The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin
By Ellen Ruppel Shell
Reviewed by Teresa G. Gionis
January 10, 2003
Though they may be familiar, the statistics on obesity are nonetheless shocking. One in three Americans is obese and 60 percent are overweight. Despite some $33 billion spent on diets and exercise programs each year, Americans are fatter than ever and more at risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension.
The health crisis, at epidemic proportions in the U.S., has spread around the globe. Obesity in China became six times more common during the nineties. Half the adults in Brazil, Chile, England, Finland, and Russia are overweight or obese, and children in many of these countries have weight problems of their own.
How did the world get fat, and what can we do about it? These questions are at the heart of The Hungry Gene, a fascinating and often disturbing new book by science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell. She takes us into the cutthroat world of obesity research and exposes the machinations of the powerful diet and food industries. She explores the damaging influence of consumer culture on our philosophies about eating and exercise, and offers a glimpse of the tragic and isolated lives of the very obese.
Shell came upon her topic unexpectedly during an interview with a biotechnology executive a few years ago, on Christmas Eve. The topic was genomics, and as the executive rambled on about how genomics would transform biomedical research, she asked which disease he might hope to cure. His answer was not heart disease or cancer, as Shell had expected. It was obesity.
To illustrate just how desperate the health crisis has become, the author opens the book with a rather gruesome play-by-play account of gastric bypass surgery. In the procedure, a tiny part of the stomach is cordoned off, stapled and re-attached to the intestines. The procedure is performed only on the morbidly obese, and it has mixed long-term results. It is also in high-demand: medical centers have waiting lists of persons wanting the procedure.
The account of the surgery is illuminated by some of the author's irreverent yet effective metaphors, such as her description of a surgery patient's exposed flesh, "rippling thickly, like a crème brulee."
About half of the book tells the history of obesity research and the mad race to be the first to discover the elusive "fat gene," which drug companies had hoped would be the silver bullet solution to our weight problems—and their bottom line.
Shell begins the narrative thirty years ago, at a research institute called the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. There, scientists developed the first super-obese mice that would be used to discover genes involved in appetite and hunger.
In lively and understandable language, Shell reports on major advances in the highly competitive world of obesity research. She gives the reader a solid understanding of the physiology of fat, and the potential role of genetic science in contributing to solutions.
The story is driven by Shell's compelling profiles of pioneers in the field, including Douglas Coleman of the Jackson Laboratory, and Rudy Liebel and Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University in New York. Like characters in a novel, the scientists appear on the pages as complicated and flawed human beings, who at times are greedy and willing to stab competitors in the back.
Shell nonetheless conveys a deep respect for the challenges they face in trying to discover obesity genes. She notes that locating a gene in mice without knowing which protein it produces is "like finding the home of a reclusive uncle who lists his address as 'Someplace, USA.'"
‘Every major drug company is heavily invested in obesity research.’
Ultimately, their research leads to the isolation of an obesity gene, which is christened "leptin." The gene in mice is critical in regulating appetite, and its discovery demonstrates that the drive to overeat does indeed have deep genetic roots. The role of leptin in humans is unclear, however, and its value in fighting obesity is unproven.
"Although leptin is not a cure for obesity, it is critically important," Shell writes. "It is so promising that every major drug company in the world is now heavily invested in obesity research."
The second half of the book includes a scathing portrait of the diet industry; an eye-opening examination of the social conditioning that has led to our current state; and steps we must take as a society to turn back the tide.
Shell's descriptions of the pharmaceutical and diet industries placing profit above safety concerns are vexing. But her argument begins to feel heavy-handed and muddled as she presents a few too many case studies suggesting how drug companies profiteer.
One example is the debacle of the fen-phen diet pill combination. The combination was wildly successful in 1996, when eighteen million prescriptions for the two drugs were filled. Within a year, however, studies proved that fen-phen was causing serious heart valve damage and other injuries. It was taken off the market. Evidence was presented that the manufacturer knew of these dangerous side effects long before the product was recalled.
The author's exploration of what has led us down this path to obesity takes her to Kosrae, Micronesia, and the story of that island's residents. Due to the recent mass importation of high-fat Western food, and subsequent rise in diabetes and heart disease, the life span in Kosrae has decreased dramatically. These and other telling examples offer evidence of the power of environmental forces in shaping our eating habits.
Toward the end of the book, the author includes an attack on the "unfettered consumerism that drives the obesity pandemic of the 21st century." She assails the American car culture, and TV culture, and the "obstacles to human exertion" that exist in most of our cities. She asserts that "free market capitalism is wonderful for some things, but public health is not among them," and supports the kind of public awareness campaigns and regulations that have been so effective against the tobacco industry.
In the end, the author's conclusions about the origins of the crisis are not exactly surprising. The real culprits in obesity are eating too much and exercising too little.
Teresa Gionis is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.