GM Salmon

salmon

Food Revolution?

The news is out, the revolution has begun. The US Food and drug Administration has passed the first ever GM animal for food consumption, and it is a fish.

This week a company gained a license to sell their new breed of GM salmon. It is modified, although it has genes from a different type of salmon, so not as Frankenstein as some other combinations, but that of course does not mean that this will always be the case. But I don’t want to be a scaremonger, they say it is safe (although that is of course based upon the company’s evidence), and so the choice is yours.

The new food is merely a type of Atlantic salmon injected with a gene from Pacific Chinook salmon to make it grow faster, but critics raise questions about safety, possible cross breeding and whether the general public even wants to eat GM fish. Without being too corny though it does raise questions of floodgates. First a cross salmon, then what comes next?

Oh but we can choose of course whether we want to eat it or not. But that requires information. Will it be labelled as a GM food? Well it won’t in the USA. That is because GM produce is viewed by the administration as being nutritionally equal to non GM, and so does not require labelling. Well to be exact it is voluntary. So if you want to sell it as science, advancement in nutrition, the way forward and futurism, you can label it, but if you want to slide it in unnoticed, then Bob’s the word.

Growth

It is about making it quicker and cheaper. A fish that will grow all year round gets bigger in half the time, so you can eat it earlier. You can farm it in tanks near the city, so it cuts down on various environmental pollutants and practices, but of course creates others.

And where to next? Surely in a few years there will be giant cows that grow to adulthood at twice the speed, and maybe sheep with dreadlocks?

Animal farming for foodstuffs is grizzly enough at is is (was), but now maybe we open another chapter.

I don’t want to put any links in this post, a quick search will find what you need. This is merely a personal opinion post, and I would like to hear others. The photo above is quite telling though, they are supposedly salmon of the same age, but one has been modified. Can you guess which one?

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.

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.