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.

Technology in Food Production

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts about technology and food production. Food is a topic that I have been interested in from a sociological perspective for several years, and I have a few topics that I would like to address, from GM, to regulation, sustainability and organic alternatives.

Technology plays a huge part in food production. If we just think about GM products, transport issues, industrial farming techniques and globalization in generic terms, it becomes immediately apparent that this sector is the largest in the world. According to these statistics agriculture accounts for between 14 and 24% of all global emissions of CO2, and 19 to 29% of total greenhouse pollutant emissions. An interesting point here is that in the so-called developed countries post-farm emissions are very high, so in the UK for example 50% of these emissions are produced after the food has left the farm, presumably through processing and transport techniques.

But it seems to me that processing is where the money is. According to Forbes, Pepsi for example made almost $45 billion in 2009 and Nestle’ made $110 billion, and these profits only refer to US sales. This year the sector is one of the very few that is still growing.

If you look at vegetables though they make less money. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but in the same year made only $6.8 billion, leading me to conclude that the profit is in the processing and not in the actual foodstuffs themselves.

And this leads on to the question of what goes into these products. The answer is, largely, genetically modified (GM) organisms.

Genetic Modification

Genetic Modification

Yes if we look at the statistics that the US Department of Agriculture publish, we find the following:

93% of soybeans grown in the USA are GM

90% of all corn produced in the US is GM

95% of US sugar beat is GM

40% of all cropland in the US is used for Monsanto (the largest GM seed producer) production

40% of all global GM crops are produced in the US

35% of all the corn grown in the world is GM

81% of all the soybeans grown in the world are GM

I take some of my information from here, the Organic Consumers Association website and the rest from US government sources.

So as you can see it is big business. It is estimated that 70% of all the foods in our supermarkets contains GM organisms. 16.5 million people work in the industry in the US and it accounts for more than 10% of GDP.

And it is not just plants, there is a request for FDA approval for GM salmon. It grows at twice the speed of regular salmon.

The GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies contains a gene from a Chinook salmon that produces a growth hormone, and a genetic “on-switch” from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish) that keeps the growth hormone pumping out year round. The company state that GM salmon will consume 25 percent less feed, half of which can be plant protein.

Oh and in the US none of this is labeled, although currently 64 other countries do require labeling.

GM organisms have been found in many countries that do not allow their production however, Mexico comes to mind as the closest example to the USA. Seeds have blown across the borders from the US, over the mountains, across the seas, possibly even from Brazil and Argentina and landed and grown. Not to mention imports of contaminated produce. Read the scientific report here.

Corn is socially extremely important in Mexico, its cultivation all started there, and this contamination has caused some serious soul searching. In a related issue GM companies are currently trying to get permission for huge plantations in Mexico, as this Reuters article explains. We await the court’s decision.

For now I stop here, I think that is enough food for thought for this week (groan). Next week I shall delve once more into the murky waters of the global food industry however, and who knows what we might find. Comments please below.

The FDA Shuts Down Home Genetic Testing Company 23andMe

On Monday the US Government FDA forced the main home testing company 23andMe to stop selling its saliva genetics home testing kit. As this is their only product this means that they effectively shut down their operation.

Looking at Genes

Looking at Genes

The problem seems to be that the company is offering testing for gene mutations that may lead to rises in probability of contracting diseases. This is considered a medical test by the FDA, and so they require trials and results in order to see how well the tests work before they license them. 23AndMe have been unable or unwilling to provide such results, so cannot market their device unless they take away all of the medical arguments.

This is the technical reason, but there are serious ethical issues surrounding home genetic testing. The following are just a few of my own ideas:

Without serious research doubt must remain about the quality of the results. The samples are not second tested, and the quality of testing cannot be of the same level as other medical hight cost exams. There have been problems reported due to the small number of people involved in the test groups, as statistics require masses of data that are not yet available.

Are customers qualified to interpret the results? What does a statistical rise in probability actually mean to a person that has never studied statistics or probability? And the results are delivered without any counseling, so if there is bad news the customer is left to process the information alone.

Here just a few examples might demonstrate the difficulty. If I have a 1% chance of contracting problem A, but I have a gene variant that means that I am 70% more likely to contract it, I might be distraught. The reality is that I now have a 1.7% chance, very little difference, but I might try to change my lifestyle, treat my kids differently, get paranoid, have preemptive surgery, who knows how an individual will react without medical advice?

If on the other hand I am negative for a mutation for something I might adopt an equally problematic stance. I don’t have the gene mutation that leads to skin cancer so I can stop worrying and have another hour on the sun bed. Social factors are really the big ones in many cases.

And what about testing your children? How will parents react knowing that their child might be susceptible to certain problems later in life?

Oh and if I discover that I have something hideous, should I tell my brothers? They might carry it and pass it on to their children. How personal is this type of medicine? It is familial, not individual.

The 23andMe problem is a prime example of money ruling. They have operated for 6 years, without regulation and blatantly challenging the FDA and medical profession that they see as holding up progress. As far as I can see this is about as far away from the responsible innovation that I have spent my recent life trying to promote as I would like to see anyone go. I would add though that it is a systemic problem here in the USA, not a personal divisive choice, and it is very different to the European approach underscored by the precautionary principal (with all its critics).

For further reading you will find several of my articles linked through this post on the same subject from last year.

The National Post has a good article too that includes both sides of the argument.

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.