Do YOU eat genetically modified foods?

Arpad Pusztai

Arpad Pusztai

In August 1998 the popular science programme World in Action featured a scientist who had been feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats. A researcher at the prestigious Rowett InstituteArpad Pusztai , a world expert on plant lectins, said that as a result of his research he wouldn’t eat genetically modified potatoes. His words released a storm of angst that is reverberating today.

Within months the Blair government, which had previously taken a laissez faire attitude to genetic modification, found themselves having to pass legislation demanding that food with GM ingredients had to be labeled as such. Then they had to ban them from their outlets (meals on wheel, school meals…). Supermarkets started to ban food with GM ingredients as shoppers started to vote with their feet.

The media had a field day especially when activists, dressed in decontamination suits, started to rip up GM crops.

Activists against GM crops

Activists against GM crops

The panic soon spread to Europe, and to other parts of the world. In 2002 Zambia rejected a shipment of 27,000 tons of GM food donated by the US. Yet 2.5 million Zambians were starving. President Mwanawasa said

“Simply because my people are hungry that is no reason to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health.”

But more recently Europe has been reconsidering. In January 2015 MEPs voted to allow member states to choose whether or not to grow GM crops approved by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).  But not all member states are keen: in August 2015 the Scottish government opted out of growing any GM crops.

Feeding the 8 billion (http://www.cargill.com)

Feeding the 8 billion (http://www.cargill.com)

But does the world need genetically modified crops? By 2024 the global population is expected to be 8 billion. How are we going to feed all these people if we don’t increase yields by genetically modifying crops to be weed, pest, drought and disease-resistant?

There are other benefits too. By means of GM we can pharmaceutically enhance crops. Vitamin A deficiency, for example, is responsible for 500,000 cases of blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year. But ‘Golden Rice’ is enhanced with vitamin A and promises to reduce these frightening numbers drastically.

If GM crops are poisonous, or if they are dangerous to the environment, then we should certainly resist them. But for the last 20 years Americans have eaten food made from genetically modified ingredients, and grown GM crops. For such a litigious country, it is striking that there have been no successful lawsuits on the grounds of either health or environmental issues.

Others argue that we can feed the world with existing yields. The problem is politics and distribution, not lack of food.

Yet others point to the monopoly that various ‘Big Pharma’ companies have over GM seeds, many of which are bred to contain a ‘kill gene’ . It is reported that poor farmers in India have committed suicide when the GM seeds they have bought failed to increase yields as promised.

But what do YOU think? Do you think GM foods are dangerous? On what grounds? Do you think that the dangers are overblown? Do you think we need GM crops to feed the world? Or do you think global politics should get a grip on the food problem? Do you eat foods with GM ingredients?

Leave your comments below.

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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4 Responses to Do YOU eat genetically modified foods?

  1. Scarlatti says:

    I hope we may learn why this question is philosophical? It seems like a pollster’s inquiry.

    I think it is terribly sad that it was considered poison, if that meant the starving continued to starve. Likely, at worst, the things have a bit less nutritional value. Maybe Pusztai just prefers ordinary produce by a small margin, and won’t eat them because he has got the better stuff, we aren’t told his reasons.

    What may be of philosophic interest is the deep distrust some people have throughout their lives. Mwanawasa is one thing, and cases involving those that have been historical misused in outrageous ways. But there is a large group of others who are simply into conspiracy theories, presumably not only for amusement, but for the reason that they have an unusually strong distrust of all power. And consider almost all ills to be caused by the extreme viciousness of a few people who are always out to ruin life for the rest of us. Such types can perhaps be explained in evolutionary terms, but I fear that kind of explanation is unsatisfactory and unphilisophic.

    As for myself, since I am ill-informed on the matter, and don’t properly know what GM means, what whoever it is is really doing, or why it is different from making orange carrots rather than red or some such thing, I would likely wait to see if others dropped dead from the stuff if consiously faced with the choice. But, in truth, the golden rice sounds a quite appetizing change of flavour.

    • Marianne says:

      The question is philosophical because it involves a ‘should’ (at least implicitly). I am trying to examine the arguments against GM ingredients. I tend to agree with you – there is nothing wrong with them. We WERE told Puztai’s reasons for not eating GM potatoes. He does;’t eat them because he believes they have caused giantism and organ failure in rats. His research was later undermined by a panel of other experts. But it was clear why he wasn’t eating them.

      I agree that distrust is a philosophical issue. Not least because we cannot live without trust. Imagine what would happen if we couldn’t trust most people, most of the time, to tell the truth?

      They have been eating foods made with GM ingredients in the States for 20 years. No-one has dropped dead (I thought I made that clear in the article).

      Thanks for your reply.

      Marianne

  2. Nathan Carey says:

    Thank-your for this space! I am currently listening to your series on Logic so I will do my best to employ what I have learned!

    I am an ecological farmer in Ontario Canada. I have been farming this way for 8 years on my own farm and for several years previous to that for other similar farmers. I have advocated quite strongly against GM crops in my own country. I take the stance that while the technology may have benefit and we should continue it investigate it we do not have enough knowledge to allow experimentation beyond the confines of a laboratory. I would also add that the investigation into GM foods should not only be the purview of Corporations but of public research because of the different motives involved in each.

    A former Canadian scientist of 30 years, Dr. Thierry Vrain, who worked with GM material has, since his retirement, spoken out publicly and forcefully of the subject. He raises an important point that almost all GM crops available on the market have two traits: herbicide tolerance or pesticide production. Most other traits such as increased vitamins or drought tolerance are mostly PR. The herbicide tolerance is to glyphosate, trade name Round-Up. So in analyzing GM Crops one must also analyze and come to a position on glyphosate as the two go hand-in-hand. The mode of action of glyphosate is that of a binding agent, it binds up minerals in the plant which shuts off aspects of cell function inside the plant, starving it of necessary nutrients. It is effective at killing plants but its very effectiveness may be causing losses of minerals and nutrients in the food it is sprayed onto. Glyphosate was recently (2012) patented by Monsanto as an anti-biotic. Meaning glyphosate kills living organisms. Glyphosate is also used as a dessicant, meaning it is sprayed on cereal grains just before harvest to kill them so they dry down evenly and create uniformity for mechanical harvesting. These grains are processed and enter into the food supply where residue remains. So glyphosate, an anti-biotic, is entering our food supply through some of our staple grains. The expanding knowledge of importance of gut bacteria and healthy human immune functioning should raise serious red flags about glyphosate and by extention GM crops.

    It should also be stated that there is a weak scientific consensus on GM crops, not a strong one as if often reported or put forward by media.

    It is my understanding that the ‘Golden Rice’ does not work. Someone would have to eat a very large volume of the rice to get the needed vitamin A. The non-browning apple was recently given approval for sale in Canada. This trait bears all the risks of any GM trait but is essentially trivial in nature.

    With every GM trait there comes anti-biotic resistant marker genes as part of the process. This means that all GM material contains anti-biotic resistant materials. I don not know the implications of this but it does raise red flags for me. The creation of GM trait is not as specific or controlled as we have been led to believe by industry. As traits are turned off and on other traits once silenced may turn on as well without us knowing. Working at the level of changing DNA is a huge realm of knowledge that we barely understand and our understanding, while growing, is changing all the time. We are still in the experimental phase of this technology and it is amoral to subject the population as a whole to the experiment without proper consent.

    GM food is corporate controlled. Food is a fundamental necessity of human function. The motives and conditions for the health of a corporation are incompatible from that of a human being therefore food should not be controlled by corporations. The structure of corporations are such that whatever the means (GM Food for instance) their goals are always the same: increasing profitability. While GM crops have revolutionized commodity grain production and made a lot of money for the patent holders they have done little in the way of increasing the quality of life for the majority of earth’s citizens.

    The problems that GM foods are proportioning to solve: world hunger, malnutrition are better solved through agro-ecological means which have their own raft of evidence both historical and scientific to prove their efficacy. Agro-ecology as a system of food production enhances and reinforces values that support the function of a human body. It should be noted that GM crops as they exist today live inside of an industrial scale food system. You cannot meaningfully talk about GM crops without also talking about the methods and efficacy of the industrial food system.

    My interest in the discussion around GM crops is not GM itself but how we will feed ourselves. The systems on the table are corporate industrial or peasant agro-ecological. The argument I think shrinks down to: Does your method of food production enhance or destroy the conditions which create it (ie. soil)? This question is deep and touches on all aspects of our culture.

    I myself do not eat GM foods, with the odd bag of chips or sweets slipping by!

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Nathan,

      I am sorry this post is too long for me to answer (I have a full time job!). I have had a quick skim though and it looks very interesting, I shall certainly come back to it, if I get more time. Hope you are enjoying the Critical Reasoning Series….

      Marianne

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