Animal or Vegetable

April 5, 2016 Debbie Bowman

This fact may surprise you, and it may worry you.  It worries some.  In fact, there are many people who have devoted their lives to spreading the word about what they believe to be the dangers of genetically modified foods.  On the other hand, there are also many people who feel that the widespread use of genetically modified foods (GMOs or GE foods) is good news for our society, that GMOs are completely safe, and we should be working to expand the number crops we grow with genetic modifications.    Who should you believe?   


The issues surrounding GMOs are extremely varied and complex. Stacks of books have been written on the topic and the internet is rife with rhetoric concerning GMOs.  However, the larger conversation can be condensed into three main topics: questions concerning public health, farming, and food security.  I was able to interview two local professionals to ask their opinion on these issues -  Dr. Thierry Vrain and Mr. Robert Wager.  On the side of those who vehemently oppose GE foods is Dr. Vrain,  a retired soil biologist and genetic engineer, who after thirty years with Agriculture Canada changed his stance on genetically engineered technology.  On the side of those who enthusiastically favour GE foods is Mr. Wager, a member of the faculty in the Biology department at Vancouver Island University for nineteen years, and actively involved in genetically engineered crops and food research for fourteen years. 


Firstly, what are GE foods and where are they found?  At this point there are six major crops that are genetically modified - soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa.  Most of the crops are used for animal feed, so unless organic, most animal products would be considered genetically modified.  Besides animal feed GMOs are largely found in common processed foods such as cookies, crackers, cereal, and potato chips.  Any foods containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) will contain GMOs as HFCS is made from GMO corn, and any food containing soy will be genetically engineered - unless labeled organic.  Strictly speaking, GMOs have been a mainstay in the diets of North Americans for more than a decade.  


What is genetic engineering?  Plants and animals are made up of millions of cells, and every cell contains a nucleus that contains strands of DNA.  Called the building block of all organisms, the DNA is comprised of distinct protein sequences, genes, that work as a code or a blueprint.  Each and every characteristic of each and every organism is determined by the information stored in its genes.  When a plant is genetically engineered the blueprint contained in its DNA is altered.  Scientists impart desired genetic characteristics by splicing genetic segments from one species into the genes of another.  


It's important to point out that hybridization is not the same as genetic modification, though it's true that hybridized plants are changed at a genetic level.  Hybridization is the cross breeding of similarly related species where farmers breed two parent plants through cross-pollination to create a hybrid plant that demonstrates desired characteristics.  For example, the grapefruit is a hybridized fruit that comes from the pairing of a pomelo and an orange.   GMOs are different from hybridization in that the desired characteristics - herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, viral resistance, drought and frost tolerance, and fungal resistance - are derived from organisms of a different species, such as a fish or an insect. 


But how are these genetic changes brought about?  Lab workers use a technique called biolistics or particle bombardment to affect genetic changes in a plant's DNA.  To do this they use what is called a biolistic particle delivery system, a.k.a. a gene gun, which literally shoots gold or tungsten particles carrying DNA on their surface into living plant cells.  Most of the cells are destroyed using this process, but some cells survive with the new DNA inserted.   According to Wager, "GE crop breeding is by far the most precise method humans have ever used to generate new crop varieties.  The first step in generating a new crop is to find a gene in nature that conveys the trait desired in a crop.  Next the gene is inserted, (at present this is random, but new technologies will soon make it a precise insertion event).  With all GE crops the exact location of engineered DNA is known, and the expression patterns are known.  After the genes are inserted into the genome of the plant, years of extensive testing is carried out." 


Dr. Vrain, however, believes that one of the major problems with genetic engineering lies in the random insertion of new DNA into the receiving plants.  "Pro-GMO individuals like to speak of the new technology that has been invented to inject genes in a foreign genome with a good degree of precision.  However, none of the engineered crops we live with today have been engineered this way.  All the transgenic crops released today contain DNA constructs that have been inserted at random, using outdated technology - and that makes them potentially dangerous."


Okay, but the million dollar question to many is does this genetic engineering pose a health threat? Those against GMOs say yes.  They argue that there is collateral damage to surrounding DNA when these desired traits are inserted, and this damage changes the plant on a molecular level that affects us when we consume the plant.  Dr. Vrain states, "Inserting a gene in a genome using the current technology can and does result in damaged proteins. There is a growing body of scientific research - done mostly in Europe, Russia, and other countries - showing that diets containing engineered corn or soya cause serious health problems in laboratory mice and rats.  These studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be.   The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.  You don't have to dig very far to find the many scientific studies showing organ damage in lab animals and statistics from the USDA and the climbing numbers of hospitalizations for kidney damage, celiac, and all sorts of other illnesses in humans.  The whole paradigm of genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding -  the one gene - one protein hypothesis of seventy years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein. The Human Genome Project of 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong. Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins."


Wager disagrees.  "Many people bring forward non-credible science to allege harm from GE crops and derived food.  All of these documents have been examined and dismissed by world experts.  Unfortunately,  this non-credible science has convinced many in the public that there are health issues with GE crop derived food.  That is simply not true.  GE crops are the only crops that are extensively tested before they are commercialized. Furthermore, GE crops are tested ten to fifty times the level of all other breeding methods, even though the DNA disruptions of GE crops are far lower than all other types of breeding.  It takes eight to ten years of testing and many millions of dollars to gain commercial access for every GE crop.  Every food safety authority in the world that has looked at the safety of food derived from GE crops has agreed on their safety.  After three trillion meals containing ingredients from GE crops, there is not a single documented case of harm.  That has to be the definition of safe food."


Those who promote GMOs state that farmers choose genetically engineered crops because they demand less chemical pesticide and herbicides, and that they produce higher yields.  Wager states, "The first large scale GE crops were commercialized in 1996.  Since then farmers around the world have adopted these crops at a rate unprecedented in the history of agriculture.  Today over 400 million acres of GE crops (about 15% of all crops) are grown in 29 countries by more than seventeen million farmers.  The developing world farmers are adopting these crops faster than the developed world and now plant 52% of all GE crops globally.  In North America, more than ninety percent of all soy, seventy-five percent of all corn, ninety percent of all canola, and ninety-five percent of all sugar beet are GE varieties.  The trick in all agriculture is to get the maximum yield with the minimum impact on the environment.  in this regard, the history of GE crops show this technology can help produce more food with less impact.  Farmers are smart and would not continue to choose to grow GE crops if the products did not deliver the advertised benefits."


Dr. Vrain disagrees.  "I refute the claims of biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more and that they require less pesticide applications.  Charles Benbrook, head of the Union of Concerned Scientists from California, has reported that there is no increase in yield when GE crops are grown, and, in fact, there is a slight decrease - that some of the engineered crops are not as good as the conventional ones.  In addition, herbicide use is actually increasing.  I think it is essential to realize that the enterprise is about the convenience factor of easy weed management for the farmers.  This commercial strategy has been so successful that the herbicide that comes with the technology (the crops must be sprayed with RoundUp) is now found in the air and water in large areas in America and in all the food made from engineered crops.  There is also the problem of herbicide resistant weeds.  It's what happens when RoundUp crops pass their genes on to weeds to become RoundUp resistant weeds, or super-weeds. Apparently, over fifty percent of fields in the USA are now infested with super-weeds and the growers are having to go back to using even more toxic herbicides to fight the super-weeds, such as 2-4-D."


Be that as it may, there are many people on our planet who don't concern themselves with crop yields, pesticide use, or even toxins or allergens - they only concern themselves with the question of where their next meal will come from.  Many pro-GMO activists and scientists believe that genetic engineering is a large part of the solution to global food shortages.  So we must ask ourselves, can GE foods be the answer to our food security issues?  Not according to Dr. Vrain:  "The food security argument has no legs to stand on, especially since we now know that GE crops don't increase yields.  However, there is an even greater food security concern in North America now that ninety percent of corn, soy, sugar beet, and canola are engineered, which has caused a sharp decline in genetic diversity in those crops - i.e. much fewer varieties are planted so we have increased vulnerability to epidemics of pests and pathogens."


Wager doesn't believe GE crops are the only answer, but he does believe that they are part of the solution:  "There are many reasons to encourage the growth of GE crops and derived food.  The global population will reach nine billion by 2050 and GE crops will help produce more food and fibre more sustainably.  We ail need every agricultural technology that exists, from organic farming to agroforestry, to integrated pest management to conventional and GE - the world no longer has the luxury of rejecting any technology for ideological reasons. GE crops are not a panacea nor are they the evil some would have us believe. They are only part of the answer as we move forward."


And move forward we must, though there is no indication that the chasm that separates the two sides of the GMO debate will be closing anytime soon.  Nevertheless, because of what's at stake, it's important to discuss the issues and decide whether or not we should continue to grow and consume GE foods.  Many of us have already made up our minds and we live our lives accordingly, but for many more, the jury is still out.



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