Genetically modified (GM) foods have copped a lot of heat in recent years, particularly as the ‘indie’ organic cult began to regain momentum in our increasingly food-conscious communities. The debate over GM foods as supplements or replacements in our daily diets (especially in light of increasing global food security woes) has been passionately argued from both sides of the table. The ‘pro-GM’ party believes that production and cultivation of GM foods could provide a possible answer to food shortages worldwide and ease farmer concerns about reduced crop and livestock productivity resulting from a changing climate. The ‘anti-GM’ group argues that GM foods are too much of an unknown and could therefore pose health risks to consumers or prove environmentally hazardous for our delicate ecosystems. Below is a brief outline of the arguments for and against GM food, compiled from academic opinion and research.
- Foods could be genetically modified to produce more, tolerate pests, tolerate climatic conditions (drought, salt, etc.), produce greater amounts of nutrients, flower at different times of the year, etc. These changes could be capitalized to provide for people in all parts of the world, in all types of agricultural environments.
- GM foods could rule out traditional farming methods (e.g. tilling soil) that currently have negative impacts on the environment. With herbicide resistant plants, tilling would become less important and more topsoil would remain stabilized by crop stubble in the pastures rather than becoming runoff into the oceans.
- There is no evidence, despite individual product testing for allergens, toxins and chemical composition, that GM foods are dangerous to consumer health. GM foods undergo more rigorous pre-market testing than any other food sold in Australia (see The Conversation, 2014). Genetic engineering of food is replicating mutations and changes in the DNA of organisms that already occur naturally. It is a process of mimicry supported by advancements in technology.
- Genetically modifying the DNA of plants so that they are herbicide tolerant means that herbicides can be used more liberally and with less concern to their effect on crop health. Such freedoms could mean the use of greater amounts of herbicides on produce, and subsequently greater amounts of herbicide consumed by people. Herbicides are carcinogenic, and whilst GM foods as a product have not been proven to have long-term health risks to people, herbicides have.
- Increased uses of herbicides or pesticides means insects or weeds residing in GM crops have greater capacity to become tolerant or resistant to herbicide and pesticide treatments. Resultant ‘superbugs’ resistant to herbicides could influence the functioning of ecosystems and compete with our native species for integral resources.
- Cross contamination of neighbouring GM and non-GM pastures can have huge economic and legal consequences for originally organically certified (non-GM) farmers.
- Consider potential economic and political effects of implementing widespread GM production – GM seeds are more expensive than non-GM, but the people who need them most (those in food crisis areas, e.g. salty areas of Saudi Arabia) cannot afford them. Additionally, countries that are able to produce more of a product at a cheaper, quicker rate (as per genetic modifications to increase yield, etc.) will have monopoly over others.
- Genetic modification is an ethical/moral dilemma – just because we can scientifically/technologically produce GM foods, should we? Is the environment this way for a reason? Do we have the right to make the decision to ‘mess’ with nature?
I am yet to make up my mind about which side to back – both parties have arguments of merit. Ultimately, I don’t think the solution is as simple as picking a side; rather, an integration of opinions from both ‘for’ and ‘against’ parties are required. To allow the production of GM foods in Australia would call for a great deal of regulation at both producer and consumer levels. Additionally, agricultural scientists and geneticists would be under pressure to ensure that damaging side effects of genetically altered organisms do not arise; superbugs resistant to high levels of herbicide would be detrimental to our agricultural industry, and would cause economic and environmental havoc. The ideal scenario would be to adopt a humanitarian approach to the application of GM foods and use it to feed all people equally, rather than attempting to profit from the technology. We should capitalise on the scientific genius that allowed for genetic modification by appreciating the natural order of our environment and working with Mother Nature, as opposed to attempting to control and monopolize her.
Words by Maddi Howard, art by Danyon Burge
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 6 BLUE