Food, Wrapped Up

This week I would like to wrap up my series on food, and leave you with a little light reading and a film to watch.

Wrapped up Food

Wrapped up Food

My first post Technology in Food Production contained a general overview of how modern farming techniques are effecting our lives. Most of the comments made expressed surprise at the levels of GM organisms that are currently being farmed and the profits generated by the industry.

The following are taken from comments posted, from various different contributors:

“The statistics you cite are shocking. I had no idea GM was so widespread”.

“It is also scary to see the profits made by processed food companies matched with those made by agricultural businesses”.

“With so many farms producing GM foods and so much money behind it I really doubt anyone’s chances of keeping the products contained”.

The second post in the series was entitled What Actually is GM Food? In it I suggest that much of the population is unclear about what modification actually implies, and describe some of the most widespread techniques. Once more issues of money, safety and acceptance appeared throughout the comments.

The following is from Neil seems to sum up the debate quite beautifully:

“I can see the socio economic benefits of developing fast growing disease, herbicide and insect resistant crops. While on the other hand I worry about the potential long term effects on humans when we ingest the GM foods”.

And Christopher offered some thoughts on the pros versus cons debate that Neil touched upon above:

“I do however think that the reduction in pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide use is a good thing – as they all have proven negative externalities”.

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem was the third post, and it addresses changes in our bodies caused my the consumption of processed foods and other changes in food consumption patterns.

Comments once more raised the issue of profits from processing and improved food security and opposing sides of the same debate:

“Processing has always being a big part of the packaged food. That is why the packaging services and suppliers make such big fortunes from their services. On the other end, processing is necessary for food items as it improves security and safety. Most of the packaged food is bacteria free and safe to use”.

Experts, Regulation and Food described the close ties between regulating bodies and the industries they regulate in the USA, and also referred to similar problems that may be arising in Europe. The focus is on seed companies and the regulation of GM products, but the argument is much broader than this in reality.

The perspective is that when an industry looks for experts to form a regulating body, they inevitably look within the industries, raising the question of conflicts of interests.

Once more Neil summarizes in the comments:

“It’s a tricky one as in most industries the people who know the most about the industry will always be the experts who are working within the industry. In an area like GM foods I would guess that it would be very difficult for an outsider to have the same degree of understanding”.

I am not sure that I agree with him though that there is such a need for experts. If we take the GM issue the result of non public participation in the debate and regulation surrounding their introduction lead to physical and destructive confrontation. This is not a good result for either side in the debate, but maybe if the public had been consulted during the process (and not just the so-called experts) the result might have been less violent.

The fifth post in the series is a book review and description of Alternative Food Provisioning Networks. These networks offer an alternative to mainstream participation in the global agricultural market, favouring local organic production and co-production.

It is written from experience as I am a member of one of these groups described in the book in Italy and now a similar group in the USA. Once more Neil commented on the ammount of money these groups move into the alternative economy:

“80 million Euro’s is no small amount. I guess it is a bit like reverting back to a village type structure without the village”.

GM, Blowing in the Wind is the sixth post in the series. It addresses various legal issues that have grown out of the fact that GM organisms become airborne and blow onto other people’s land and grow there. There are two different problems addressed, farmers whose land is “contaminated” who lose money, and farmers who risk legal action for patent infringement because GM seeds are found on their land. Once again issues of regulation come to the fore as I raise the question of how they effect the development of the field.

Last week’s post was Wasted Food, and it is about the amount of food that the current system produces that is not consumed. It is a harsh analysis, but I take my data from respected sources.

The post addresses ideas such as freeganism and other ways of using waste food products, and concludes with some questions about the real reason for hunger in the world. Once more Neil offers a closing comment:

“It would be interesting to see the wastage levels before and after the introduction of use by dates. Given that the producers need to have a reasonable margin for error it must have been one of the biggest contributors to the wastage.

Also, in the US you appear to have a dining culture where it is expected that you get more food than you can finish (hence the invention of the doggy bag) and people are disappointed by smaller portions. This must create a lot of waste at the catering level as well as all of the doggy bags thrown away a week or so later.

It is a shame that there is no way of redistributing that food to poorer nations”.

As a final thought I would like to recommend a film and an article, both of which add flesh to the argument that I hope to have introduced over the last couple of months.

Food.Inc is a documentary made in 2008 about the US food industry. It is available here. It goes into further depth on many of the topics I have raised through interviews and investigation. It is a great film but I warn you, it is not a comedy!

This article in New Yorker magazine tells the story of how a herbicide producer spent years trying to discredit a University of California Berkeley Professor who seemed to find side effects linked to the use of the herbicide. It is a disturbing story of how the agricultural industry (and the regulators to some degree) maintain control of information and findings published to the public. I was going to write a post about it but I wanted to finish on a more positive note.

I would like to thank everyone who read and/or commented upon the series. I hope it was informative and even maybe will go some way to doing some good in the world. A quote from the greatest of all:

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”.

Wasted Food

It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

The European Union fares little better. According to the European Commission about 90 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Europe alone, with global waste at about 1.3 billion tonnes. In developing countries, over 40% of food losses happen after harvest and during processing, while in industrialized countries, over 40% occurs at retail and consumer level. According to the US Food and Agricultural Organization food waste in Europe alone could feed 200 million people, and that if global waste could be cut down by 25% it would give enough food to feed 870 million hungry people.

Obviously the so-called developed nations are the worst offenders. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.

The main causes of waste are:

  • Lack of awareness, lack of shopping planning, confusion about “best before” and “use by” date labels, lack of knowledge on how to cook with leftovers (households).
  • Standard portion sizes, difficulty to anticipate the number of clients (catering);
  • Stock management inefficiencies, marketing strategies (2 for 1, buy 1 get 1 free), aesthetic issues (retail);
  • Overproduction, product & packaging damage (farmers and food manufacturing);
  • Inadequate storage (whole food chain);
  • Inadequate packaging.

Fortunately the EU offers a free downloadable brochure explaining how as an individual you can cut down on waste, get it here.

But most of the waste comes from industry, with millions of tonnes of food thrown into skips at the back of supermarkets every day. Systematic waste we might call it, but what can be done about it?

Plenty of bread products

Plenty of bread products

Well let me tell you a story, I have a friend who describes himself as a freegan, he only eats free food, and he eats well. He lives in a large housing cooperative in Massachusetts, and he does the shopping for the entire group. He has his rounds, every Wednesday he goes to the orange juice processing plant and gets a few gallons of discarded juice. On Thursday a supermarket, on Friday after the farmer’s market there are boxes of discarded vegetables, if he didn’t have a trailer he would need a truck!

I must warn you though that climbing into the skip outside your local supermarket might be dangerous or illegal. In Germany, England and Wales for example it is theft, although rarely prosecuted. In Italy it is legal, but in the US you may be charged with trespass.

And plenty to drink

And plenty to drink

Here is a great article about what they call in the US dumpster diving, with an interesting shopping list of what was found, and the pictures in this post are taken from the event.

And it is not just rotten old tomatoes here we are talking about. Many things that are close to their sell by date are thrown out. In Cambridge Mass where I live there is what I refer to when speaking to my kids as ‘the expensive coffee shop’. It is good coffee, and the cakes are fantastic, but it is a little on the pricey side. But if you go 10 minutes before closing and buy a coffee they offer you a free cake, and as they are pushing you through the door at closing time you are expected to take scones, cakes and left over bread home, for free. Better than throwing it out they say, and they are right. It does however pose a problem for the economy, with people like me giving their secret away and the place filling up 5 minutes before closing time, although you have to be shameless to go every day (get your friends involved).

One thing that we have lost is the skill of home preserving foods. When we have all of these extra ripe vegetables we eat what we can, but when there are just too many they end up in the bin. Well if we learned to pickle food we could preserve it and avoid all of these problems, there are plenty of pickling lessons on YouTube, you can also freeze almost anything if you know how to do it correctly.

If you are not up for climbing into a skip and you are ever in Copenhagen, why not try the restaurant that serves only waste food? See this report on the BBC, it looks good, and I am glad to see someone is doing something with all of this good valuable nutritious stuff.

And the moral of this weeks story is that people are hungry because of economics, politics and logistics, not because there isn’t enough food to go round. You might like to think about that when the industrial agricultural food companies are touting GM as the answer to global hunger.

GM, Blowing in the Wind

The Sciencemag website has an article that will lead me into today’s post, about an organic farmer in Australia who has taken his neighbour to court over GM contamination. The organic farm has traces of GM materials that have apparently blown in from the neighbouring farm, leaving authorities no choice than to take away the farm’s organic certification.

This has of course led to a loss of income, and so the owner is suing for $85,000 to recoup his losses.

Now although there are standards about leaving space between GM and non GM plantation, it has become increasingly clear that contamination is somewhat inevitable, and this is reflected in regulations.

In the US a farm can have organic status even in 5% of its produce is found to be GM (presumably from air borne contamination). In the EU 0.9% is allowed, reflecting a tougher stance but demonstrating the impracticalities of a total ban.

In Australia though they do have a zero tolerance standard, so any traces of GM lead to the loss of license.

100% Organic

100% Organic

We might wonder if the organic farmer will win his court case, because how can the GM farm stop their materials blowing in the wind? Can it possibly be the GM farmer’s fault? Well precedence suggests that it might well be, because in a reverse situation contamination has been dealt with.

Just a month ago the US supreme court upheld biotech giant Monsanto’s claims on genetically-engineered seed patents and the company’s ability to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto materials.

The high court left intact Monday a federal appeals court decision that threw out a 2011 lawsuit from the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and over 80 other plaintiffs against Monsanto that sought to challenge the agrochemical company’s claims on patents of genetically-modified seeds. The suit also aimed to curb Monsanto from suing anyone whose field is contaminated by such seeds.

The case is Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al., v. Monsanto Company, et al. Supreme Court Case No. 13-303 if you would like to look it up, and as I say above one of the aims was to take away the possibility of a farmer being sued for inadvertent contamination, but this aim was not reached. Monsanto state that they have never sued anyone in this position and would not sue any farmer whose farm was found to have less than 1% contamination, and some interpretations suggest that the ruling seems to have made this binding.

It does look as though the contamination issue is causing some headaches for all parties involved.

Now I would like to think about how these rulings intact with other. Let’s take the Australian court case. If the organic farmer wins, other GM farmers will start to worry about their own liability and worry about planting their crops. This might lead to a slow down of the spread of the crops, to the cheer of the organic communities. But it will not help bring about a peaceful co-existence, which is a reality today, so might lead to regulators deciding that their zero policy approach needs a rethink. So maybe they will decide to enact a more US or European stance, and allow a percentage within organic certification, thus relieving the stress from the situation, leading to a more manageable co-existance and possibly aiding the spread of GM products, (probably not the organic farmer’s intended result).

On the other hand, the GM farmer might win, relieving the burden from other GM producers, leading to a more manageable co-existence and possibly also aiding the spread of GM foods.

Alternative Food Provisioning Networks

As a continuation of my food series, I would like to take a look at alternative food provisioning networks, via a review of Italian anthropologist Cristina Grasseni’s new book ‘Beyond Alternative Food Networks’. The book describes strategies used by groups to avoid interaction with the industrialized food mechanism, much of which I have debated in the other posts in the series.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Grasseni’s book gives an account of the inner workings of Italy’s solidarity purchase groups. These groups are informal collections of families, working together to procure food and other products from mainly local producers in order to reclaim sovereignty over their purchasing.

The model is extremely innovative, both in terms of its positive health and social benefits and financial implications. Groups make agreements with local farmers to buy their produce in return for guarantees regarding production processes (organic, tax paid, worker’s rights etc). The producer benefits because they can sell their produce directly to the consumer, and so is not held hostage by distributors and retailers. The consumer gains because they know who has produced their product, how, where and under which conditions. Group members can buy hygiene and baby products, detergents and a range of household goods through the network, offering a source of income to specialist socially and environmentally friendly producers.

Although this system might sound like a Utopian fringe, Grasseni points out that the groups spend about 80 million Euro a year in Italy alone (about $110 million), in effect moving this sum from the regular economy into this more direct exchange. The number of groups is in rapid expansion and has led to the creation of networks of groups, national conferences and organizations and even the creation of ‘districts of solidarity economies’.

The book argues that this alternative economics structure is trust based, with all parties within the transaction knowing and directly relating with the others. Several organizations work entirely within the structure providing goods only for the groups. The following examples of the dairy and the shoemaker really show the potential of the model.

In 2009 a local dairy farmer converted to organic production in order to supply these groups. This involved downsizing and specialization, but several years later the farm found itself in financial difficulty. Members of the groups ran an email campaign and in about a month raised 150 000 Euro (more than $200 000) to bail the dairy out. The money was passed on, the dairy survived and now produces milk and cheese for the very same groups that saved it. With the banks no longer involved, the farmer can sell the produce at retail prices directly to the groups and make enough money to live and repay the initial bailout loan.

The story of the shoemaker is similar. After being forced into downsizing the shoemaker was left with capability but little market. He withdrew from the mainstream economy and now provides made to measure shoes through the network. There is a traveling catalog, so once found you can choose a style and size and order your new shoes that then arrive through the post. They are also sold through a network of non profit organizations that have relationships with the groups.

This book certainly leads the reader into a new way of thinking about food production. The cover contains a quote from Peter Utting, Deputy Director of the united Nations Research Institute for Social Development. He states that “Grasseni provides fascinating insights into how alternative approaches to food provisioning can transform social and economic relationships in ways that bode well for contemporary global challenges of sustainability, social justice and rebuilding human relations built on trust”.

If you would like to learn more about these alternative approaches, take a look at the following links:

Rete Gas is the Italian national GAS network.

The Food Alergy and Anaphylaxis Network has a dedicated page.

The Grassroots Innovation website also has plenty of information.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks by Cristina Grasseni is published by Bloomsbury and available through Amazon via the link above.

I would like to add that although this review is not paid, I do know the author very well. I am also a GAS member.

Experts, Regulation, and Food

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the Bassetti Foundation website called The Innovation Principle.

The post was a review of a letter sent by some of Europe’s largest corporations to the European Commission. The letter claims that regulation in the EU risks damaging development and the economy, they want a series of things to be taken into account within the regulation process.

It is easy to read and short and I recommend a look, it is free to download through the link above, but I would like to take one of their suggestions and apply it to food regulation, as part of my food series.

The letter calls for the “Full inclusion of relevant expertise”, and this sounds perfectly reasonable. But what does it actually mean in practical terms?

If we take the example of GM food development that I raised last week, it means finding experts in the field and putting them on committees to determine if proposals are safe. Now this means that you have to look to industry, because most of the experts work within the industry.

Now I believe that in all likelihood an expert working for a nuclear energy company will tell you that nuclear energy production is 100% safe, a nanotechnology researcher will paint a glowing picture of how the future is bright thanks to nano developments, and a GM food expert will do the same.

In the USA, the Federal Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. According to a policy established in 1992, FDA considers most GM crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops. In such cases, GM crops are designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and do not require pre-market approval.

But here the waters start to murk and merge. As I said, experts in the field working or having worked for industries working with technology are likely to be positive about their products. And the FDA seems to contain several of these experts, and some of them may have helped to make the distinction above.

According to this IVN article, over the last decade at least 7 high ranking FDA officials have also held high positions in Monsanto, the largest producer of GM seeds in the world. This is generally accepted as true, and in fact Monsanto have several employees present or past that have held high ranking positions in other capacities in the US Government. This is known as the revolving door in the USA, and it is worthy of exploration.

Monsanto and US Government Employees

Monsanto and US Government Employees (click to enlarge)

The website states that “At the forefront of this controversy is Michael R. Taylor, currently the deputy commissioner of the Office of Foods. He was also the deputy commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid ’90s. However, between that position and his current FDA position, Mr. Taylor was employed by Monsanto as Vice President of Public Policy.

Other Monsanto alumni include Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the FDA from 1981 to 1983, and consultant to Searle’s public relations firm, which later merged with Monsanto. Michael A. Friedman, former acting commissioner of the FDA, later went on to become senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs at Searle, which is now a pharmaceutical division of Monsanto (Oh Donald Rumsfeld ex Secretary of Defense was also on the Board of Directors).  Virginia Weldon became a member of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, after retiring as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto”.

Another controversy surrounded the appointment of Margaret Miller. The following is taken from Red Ice Creations website:

“In order for the FDA to determine if Monsanto’s rBGH growth hormones were safe or not, Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto’s researchers put the report together. Shortly before the report submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. Assisting Miller was another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen”.

Obviously I am not in a position to determine whether these allegations are true, but a look at this article that appeared originally in the Observer newspaper might lead one to believe that there is a fine line being walked here.

The article states that “Monsanto received copies of the position papers of the EC Director General for Agriculture and Fisheries prior to a February 1998 meeting that approved milk from cows treated with BST.

Notes jotted down by a Canadian government researcher during a November 1997 phone call from Monsanto’s regulatory chief indicate that the company ‘received the [documents] package from Dr Nick Weber’, a researcher with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Sources noted that Weber’s supervisor at the US FDA is Dr Margaret Mitchell who, before joining the agency, directed a Monsanto laboratory working on the hormone.”

Oh and the hormone treatment made the cows sick, but you can read Robert Cohen’s reported testimony before the FDA on the subject of rBGH including the disclosure that, while at the FDA and in response to increasing sickness in cows treated with the hormones, Margaret Miller increased the amount of antibiotics that farmers can legally give cows by 100 times. Once again I cannot verify the transcription but it is widely reported on the web and was apparently shown on C-Span Congress TV live.

I am not suggesting that there is any collusion here, and as Monsanto argue people move jobs, taking jobs that suit their qualifications. A look at these people’s profiles show that they have many different positions, many of which we would say were undoubtedly working for public good. But some suggest that some of their positions might lead to conflicts of interests. But if you need experts where are you going to get them from? Here though I might simply suggest that you don’t need so many experts.

Within my life’s work of trying to promote responsible innovation I have come to the conclusion that a broader public involvement within decision-making process must be a good for society. Closed sessions full of experts deciding what is or is not safe for us may be efficient in terms of getting things done, but the public’s voice is not heard, and maybe that voice could lead to more responsible choices, or at very least some reflexivity in the decision-making process.

On a closing note, arguments are currently raging in the US about the labelling of GM foods, as currently there is no need to label it, something pushed for by many organizations. There is a counter movement that is arguing that as the FDA state that there is no fundamental difference, GM products that do not contain additives should be allowed to be labelled as “natural”, in the way organic vegetables are. This Common Dreams article presents a critical view of current practices that although strongly worded offers an insight into how a section of US society thinks about the issue.

The question remains however, who do we want to regulate our food and the technology used in its production?

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem

This week as part of the food series I would like to discuss an interview with Michael Pollan, food journalist and author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Moises Velasquez-Manoff, author of An Epidemic of Absence that I heard on the radio. The podcast is available here so after I have wet your proverbial appetites you can go and listen to it.

The interviewees discuss how processed food is effecting our health, and why. As I noted in a previous post in this series, the money is in the processing, not the actual foodstuffs themselves. According to the price of a bushel of corn ($6) a large box of corn flakes holds about 7c (US) of corn, the rest is processing, packaging and transport.

This unfortunately means that the more processing involved, the more profit can be made. Today I bought a loaf of bread, and on the wrapper is written “No high fructose corn syrup”. Now if you look through the ingredients in your kitchen you will find this product in almost everything, but why? Bread is a simple thing to make, flour, water, yeast and salt. But my bread has 25 ingredient on the label, including a few that are difficult to define (dough conditioner for example) although not the dreaded high fructose corn stuff.

It is made with enriched flour, and enriched flour is exemplary of the food industry’s approach. White flour is so highly refined that it has lost much of its nutritional value, but instead of refining it less and eating it brown, we choose to add (in this case) 6 different substances to give it back some of the nutrition that has been removed during the refining process.

It’s great bread too, if you leave it in the original bag it will last for weeks, I only bought it yesterday although it was baked on 17th December but is still remarkably fresh. And this is the processing problem, it has to last, be easily stored, and not taste like it was cooked a month ago, so all of this stuff is added and others taken away.

Processed Food

Processed Food

One of the things that producers aim for is to get rid of all bacteria, as bacteria leads to age, so industrial products are sanitized as much as possible. They contain very little fiber because fiber is difficult to store and freeze, and they are made in layers of sugar and fat so that they leave a craving, so you eat more processed bread that home made bread because you continue to crave it (it’s a chemical thing, not greed).

Now the food industry produces all of this fine ready to eat fodder so that we don’t have to slave over a hot oven all day. In the US, food preparation time is down by 40% since the late 60’s so we have had more time to go to work, drive home, play space invaders and Tetris and watch our VHS tapes turn into DVD, and streaming.

This has also led to changes in how we eat. Today we have TV dinners, ready served in a heat proof disposable tray, and here in the USA 20% of all food is consumed in the car.

All of this has had an effect upon the human body in terms of bacteria. Humans have lots of bacteria living inside them (more bacteria than human cells), but these processed foods are killing of this good bacteria. The foods have very little fiber, and this is bacteria’s favourite feast. Even eating just one fast food meal has an immediate effect upon the bacteria in the stomach and intestines, they get inflamed and stop working properly. Studies have found that overweight people have inflamed bacteria, although it is unproven if this is as a result of being overweight or has worked towards making them overweight, but there seems to be a link.

It could be that this is more of a problem that sugar and fat content. Incredibly enough though these problems can be overcome quite easily, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with each meal dramatically improves the situation and helps the bacteria fight the onslaught.

Some think that endlessly feeding antibiotics to animals that go into the food chain for consumption may also have an effect as residue can also kill the bacteria, but that is another story.

One very interesting find is reported in the interview. People living in industrial sanitized countries are suffering ever more frequently with immune deficiency problems, and one reason might be this lack of bacteria. In a study that took place between Finland and Russia, ethnically similar peoples suffer different rates of immune deficiency depending on their upbringing. Those living in poorer conditions suffer less from these problems, as do people living on farms in less hygienic conditions in industrialized countries, and children who go to day care fare better in the long run too.

It also turns out that human breast milk contains a lot of this bacteria, and this is the major contributor to building up immunity that is missing in formula milk.

On a personal note as father of 2 small boys I would like to add that last year several articles appeared about a doctor who claims that easting nose mucus (snot, boogers) may actually help introduce pathogens into the child’s immune system that will strengthen their body’s natural germ defense, although this has not been proven.

Have a listen to the podcast and check out the books on Amazon. Oh and eat some yoghurt and pickles.

What actually is GM Food?

Last week I gave some statistics about GM food production both in the USA and worldwide, and this week I wanted to consider what genetic modification actually is. It appears to me that confusion reigns when addressing issues surrounding GM, so I would like to try and clarify a few issues.

GM exists in plants but also in animals as the salmon link showed last week (not currently approved for consumption), but we tend to associate it mainly with crops, so what does it entail?

In relation to the biggest crops that I mentioned last week, soybean, cotton and corn, there are 2 distinctly different approaches. The first is herbicide tolerance (HT) and the second insect resistance (Bt). In other cases nutritional changes have been made, but the major cash crops are based around the following approaches.

Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops are developed to survive application of specific herbicides that previously would have destroyed the crop along with the targeted weeds. So you can plant your seeds and spray a herbicide that kills everything apart from your desired crop.

Herbicides target key enzymes in the plant metabolic pathway, which disrupt plant food production and eventually kill it. Genetic modification creates a degree of tolerance to the broad-spectrum herbicides – in particular glyphosate and glufosinate – which will control most other green plants.

Industrial Herbicide Techniques

Industrial Herbicide spreading Techniques

1. Glyphosate-tolerant crops
Glyphosate herbicide kills plants by blocking the EPSPS enzyme, an enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids, vitamins and many secondary plant metabolites.  There are several ways by which crops can be modified to be glyphosate-tolerant. One strategy is to incorporate a soil bacterium gene that produces a glyphosate-tolerant form of EPSPS. Another way is to incorporate a different soil bacterium gene that produces a glyphosate degrading enzyme.

2. Glufosinate-tolerant crops
Glufosinate herbicides contain the active ingredient phosphinothricin, which kills plants by blocking the enzyme responsible for nitrogen metabolism and for detoxifying ammonia, a by-product of plant metabolism. Crops modified to tolerate glufosinate contain a bacterial gene that produces an enzyme that detoxifies phosphonothricin and prevents it from doing damage.

The developers argue that use of this type of seeds cuts fuel usage and tilling as there are fewer weeds, (tilling leads to top soil loss as it is blown in the wind). They also argue that GM production has led to less herbicide use, and this seems to currently be the case.

Unfortunately one effect of this mass usage seems to be the development of ‘superweeds’, that are becoming resistant to theses herbicides. Farmers have had to address this problem by using more and different types of herbicide, with the journal Nature recently reporting a Pennsylvania State University research article that claims that pesticide use will increase dramatically in the very near future as a result, questioning the sustainability of the process. Something similar to the present antibiotics resistance problem that we are seeing in the human population. It should also be noted that the use of broad spectrum herbicides has grown as GM usage has grown, as its ease of application using the new seeds has made it more widespread, even though it only needs to be applied once.

Insect-resistant crops containing the gene from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) have been available for corn and cotton since 1996. These bacteria produce a protein that is toxic to specific insects. Instead of the insecticide being sprayed, the plants produce the bacteria so the insects eat the plant and die.

There are risks associated with this approach as well as the advantage that farm workers are not exposed to spraying insecticides.

Invasiveness – Genetic modifications, through traditional breeding or by genetic engineering can potentially change the organism to become invasive. Few introduced organisms become invasive, yet it’s a concern for the users.

Resistance to Bt – The biggest potential risk to using Bt-crops is resistance. Farmers have taken many steps to help prevent resistance but as in the previous case it is a potentially serious problem.

Cross-contamination of genes, genes from GM crops can potentially introduce the new genes to native species.

Now I am no scientist as we all know but I presume that the human must consume the bacteria too, although scientists assure me that the bacteria is not harmful to humans or other mammals.

Much of the recent dramatic growth in GM usage can be attributed to the development of plants that offer both of these systems.

Next week I will take a look at the regulation of GM foods.