Debate rages over merits of GM food

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Proponents say it's the only way to feed the world, but opponents claim genetically modified crops make people ill. Sarah Wild reports.

One side of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) debate says that eating genetically modified (GM) foods is making you sick, that it is killing livestock, not living up to its promises of increased yields, driving people to suicide and giving children autism.

The other side calls naysayers "idiots" who are ignoring the science and the fact that the world needs GMOs to feed its burgeoning population. The middle ground comprises the public who are deafened by the noise from both sides, and unsure who to believe.

The majority of soy and maize grown in South Africa is genetically modified, making it the only country in the world where the national staple is a GMO. The pap on your plate is probably made from genetically modified maize, but the important question – is that bread going to make you sick and damage the environment while it kills you – is very difficult to answer.

According to Biosafety South Africa, the GM crops grown in South Africa – maize, soybeans and cotton – "either have resistance to insect pests or tolerance to broad range chemical herbicides, or both". Legislation requires that food stuffs containing GM products are labelled.

Last weekend, hundreds of people marched to multinational seed giant Monsanto's offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg, protesting the use of GM seeds in South Africa. Similar protests occurred around the world. The organisation coordinating the protest in South Africa, March Against Monsanto, says on its website that it is marching because "research studies have shown that Monsanto's genetically modified foods can lead to serious health conditions such as the development of cancer tumours, infertility and birth defects", the seeds are bad for the environment, and Monsanto's "monopoly over the world's food supply", among other issues.

'Unsubstantiated scaremongering'

?Activist group No GMO South Africa claimed to have organised the march, but refused to answer questions from the Mail & Guardian, because the newspaper had ignored its press release. Monsanto South Africa spokesperson Magda du Toit said that march-organisers had not engaged with the management, or sent them a letter of grievance with their concerns.

South African plant scientists and geneticists say that the evidence used by GM critics is unsubstantiated scaremongering, with one scientist going further – "They [anti-GMO lobbyists] are a bunch of complete and utter loonies" – and GMO critics say that proponents, scientists and governments are in the pockets of big industry players, such as Monsanto and Du Pont.

Both sides use science in their arguments, making research one of the big question marks in the GM debate.

Here are some of the issues:

Will eating GMOs make you sick?

University of Cape Town microbiology professor Ed Rybicki says, "There is no documented harm to any animal or human, only the target organisms." Rybicki genetically modifies plants to make pharmaceuticals out of them, and emphasises that he has never done research for, been funded by or been involved with Monsanto. 

Maryke Labuschagne, a professor of plant sciences at the University of the Free State, who sits on the advisory sub-committee for approving GMO permits in South Africa, says: "There is nothing mystical about it. It's a scientific process."

African Centre for Biosafety's Haidee Swanby says that GM technology is very problematic, and points to the infamous study that has now become known as the "Seralini study", which has been widely criticised by scientists. Conducted by Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen in France, it found that rats that were fed Monsanto's GM maize for two years developed huge tumours and that the product was unsafe for humans. The researchers refused to allow journalists to show the findings to other scientists before publication. It featured numerous pictures of grotesquely deformed rats, and led to Russia temporarily banning GM maize and France threating to follow suit. This study has subsequently been discredited and many believe it has damaged the reputation of anti-GMO campaigners.

But Swanby says the Seralini study shows that evidence is needed on the long-term effects of GMO consumption, as at the moment the trials are limited to 90 days.

There is also the issue of pesticides. Genetically altered maize, called Bt maize, contains the pathogen Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a pesticide. Critics say that this is harmful to humans, as it is now ingested. But Rybicki says: "It focuses on a narrowly targeted bunch [of pests]. They were targeted before GM with the less scientific technique of spraying everything." So, according to him, the choice is then: "A small amount of protein made in the plant, or [the pathogen] sprayed as crystals all over the environment, including the water, soil and surrounding houses."

Does South Africa need GMOs for food security?

GMO critics say GM crops do not improve yields, but some farmers disagree. AgriBusiness Chamber chief executive John Purchase says: "From our perspective, GM food is very good because your productivity increases considerably. While paying more for GM seeds, the benefits through reduced [herbicide and pesticide] spraying, higher yield and the grade of the product is better."

However, Swanby notes that herbicide resistant crops are giving rise to "weed resistance". "Now in the US, weeds are tolerant to the herbicides and weeds are choking their fields," she says. Scientific journal Nature in May published an article on the rise of "superweeds" as a result of GM crop production.

But Purchase is rather fatalistic about herbicide and pest resistance. "It's a law of nature that bugs will try and find a mechanism of resisting herbicides and pesticides and pharmaceutical products [referring to antibiotics and superbugs]. The trick in technology products is to stay ahead."

He also notes that herbicide resistant weeds cannot be blamed solely on genetic modification. "We have herbicide resistant weeds in South Africa. They started in the Western Cape where we don't have GM products because of overuse of pesticides in general."

But Swanby maintains that South Africa does not need GM technology, because the country's problem is not food production, but food access. "It's a very apolitical solution to food security … Yield is not the problem – it's how people access food." She cites the example of the millions of tons of maize surplus in 2011 that "haven't gone to people who are hungry".

Will GMOs "save" small-scale farmers?
Both proponents and opponents of GM crops cite small farmers as either the major winners or the major losers of the whole affair. Labuschagne says: "In Africa, small-scale farmers don't have access to pesticides, GMOs with resistance to insects can make a huge difference."

On the other hand, Swansby says that if you are a small-scale farmer with a hectare of land, it does not make financial sense to plant GM: "With a hectare, you will do a lot better planting a diverse crop and minimising your risk." Also, she points to the difficulty in managing GM crops because farmers have to plant a percentage of non-GM crops because otherwise the crop becomes resistant to pesticides.

Do big corporates own the world's agriculture?

Monsanto seems to be the main target of anti-GMO lobbyists, but it is not the only producer, although it was one of the first and is one of the largest. The African Centre for Biosafety's Swanby says: "GMOs for agriculture in their current form are not useful ... It goes back to the patenting issue because it is stifling research into agriculture. It is limiting access to seeds, taking the control of the food system away from the farmer." South Africa buys most of its GM seeds from multinationals, Labuschagne says.

However, South African farmers are not being forced to buy GM seeds. Purchase says that the adoption of GM technology by South African farmers is "very high". "They wouldn't make that investment, and take the concomitant risk, if it was not worth it for them."

Who should we trust?

Both sides use science as part of their rationale, and question the independence or veracity of the other side's research. Rybicki says GMOs have been subjected to more stringent testing than conventional breeding programmes. But opponents question the independence of this testing, citing the presence of Monsanto employees in high-level positions with the US Food and Drug Administration.

Labuschagne says that if large companies import their GM products to South Africa and "they have been thoroughly tested, I don't see why they have to be re-tested here [South Africa]". While the public should be concerned about what they are eating, the noise and the polemic around GMOs drown out the important questions, such as who is conducting the research, is it peer-reviewed and who is paying for it.

Sarah Wild is an award-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about participle physics, cosmology and everything in between.

Written by: Sarah Wild

Picture credit: Mail & Guardian

  • This article was published on Mail & Guardian.