Public’s anxieties over GM foods need to be addressed
Public concern and anxiety over genetically modified (GM) foods seem to have suddenly increased. Indeed, a number of governments, including those in the UAE, India and Brazil, have recently taken steps to either regulate the import and labeling of GM products or to accelerate research on the matter.
GM foods have triggered passionate debates and actions by various actors around the world. For example, at least 64 countries require the labeling of products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In Europe, numerous restaurants and canteens, particularly in schools, post big signs to inform their clients that their meals contain no GMOs. Canada and the US do not currently require such labeling or information but, following recent pressures, the US will do for some products by 2022.
Indeed, GM foods have become ubiquitous around the world. More than 80 percent of crops grown worldwide are genetically modified to tolerate herbicides — chemicals — that destroy parasites but leave the crops unaffected. In the US, it is estimated that 60 percent of all processed food is genetically modified one way or another, including the pizza, cookies or ice cream that people enjoy. And, while no country has permitted the commercialization of any genetically modified animals, it should be known that livestock (such as beef, lamb, chicken and turkey) are widely fed GM crops (corn, grains, etc.).
Techniques for genetic “engineering” have progressed greatly of late, particularly with the recent development of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique, which has made the task so much easier, faster and cheaper. However, genetic modification goes back to 1946 and the discovery of “gene transfer” from one organism to another, either naturally or artificially. By 1983, industrial plants were being built for the application of the technique for large-scale benefit and, by the early 1990s, China and the US were approving the commercialization of GM crops.
Is GM a technique used mainly by agri-food industrial companies for commercial benefit? Yes and no. Modifying specific genes of vegetables, fruits or grains helps improve crops by boosting their resistance to insects or viruses, increasing their ability to grow through droughts and in poor soils, and improving their durability (spoiling slower), thus increasing yields. All this benefits companies, of course. It is often claimed that this also benefits consumers, since larger crops supposedly lead to lower prices, but this has not been demonstrated in practice.
More importantly, the GM technique is supposed to improve the nutritional and health values of those agricultural products. The example that is often given is “golden rice,” which is infused with beta-carotene and thus leads to an increase in the vitamin A intake of the consumer, which helps save the eyesight of close to a million children around the world. Secondly, GM techniques allow for the removal of allergenic genes in products like peanuts, thus giving millions of people the chance to consume them without fear of dangerous allergic reactions. Thirdly, the genetic modification of some organisms leads to the production of highly desirable proteins for vaccines.
But those benefits are not always clear to consumers, who are often more sensitive to the fears that are associated with GM foods and organisms. Indeed, anti-GM organizations insist that, despite the assurances given by scientists and national food and health institutions, we are not absolutely sure that GM foods carry no long-term effects on our health, on animals, or on farms (they point to the possible transfer of genes to “normal” crops or species in the wild, and the potential emergence of “superweeds” or “superbugs”).
The benefits are not always clear to consumers, who are often more sensitive to the fears that are associated with GM foods and organisms.
But aren’t GM organisms and foods strongly regulated, nationally and internationally? Yes, they are; however, national regulations vary and, internationally, only “guidelines” (issued by the World Health Organization and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) exist about GM products crossing borders. It must be said that, as far as we know, testing for harmful genes is very strong everywhere.
So one is left looking at two possible approaches vis-a-vis GM foods, both of which seem logical: On the one hand, it makes sense to insist on the “precautionary principle” — better to be safe than sorry — until we know for sure; but on the other there is rarely any foolproof assurance in any problem we encounter in life, and one must simply exercise sound judgment by weighing up the pros and cons. We often undertake activities, including the consumption of goods, which carry some risks because we see the risks as negligible compared to the benefits that we draw. Likewise, we must trust the systems we have put in place, with strong food and health organizations, competent scientists and officials, and with regular reviewing of the regulations based on the best knowledge at each moment in time.
I think it is essential that we deal with GMOs and GM foods rationally and pragmatically. Most importantly, we must do everything to lower the public’s anxiety on this issue. Steps for that begin with sound information and knowledge presented clearly by scientists and officials and discussed with the participation of everyone — with open minds.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum