Corn pollen had a high mortality rate (44% in 4 days) compared to those fed on and regular corn pollen showing no mortality. [Frontline/Nova]
The allergenic potential of the transgenes that are used in GM products is a frightening problem. A noticeable case is that of Pioneer Hi-Bred INC, the international seed company that produced a genetically modified and enriched Soybean using the Brazilian nut gene. Fortunately, before the product entered the market the allergenic potential of the nut gene was identified and the product stopped from production. However, the process may not be so simple with other transgenes used in other GM products as their allergic potential are yet unknown. [Lucy Sharratt]
Antibiotic Marker Genes (Danger for Children)
Another problem of concern is the use of antibiotic marker genes to trace the transfer of traits in the GM plants. With the known possibility that bacteria in human gut are capable of ingesting DNA material and the chances of soil bacteria picking up the genes we are faced with a new problem, that of risking our response to antibiotics such as streptomycin, gentamycin B, ss-lactam antibiotics (including amoxycilin, ampicilin, penicillin etc.,). The problem becomes aggravated when the gene from the GM crops gets mixed up in the conventional crops. The Novartis' maize is one example of a product that creates resistance to ss-lactam antibiotics. Considering the high incidence of TB and pneumonia in African countries it would not be a wise decision to allow GM maize that carries the gene that creates antibiotic resistance. While technology allows for the removal of the marker gene once its purpose is done it is seldom followed up. [Friends of the Earth] There are also environmental issues pertaining to use of GM crops that merit our serious attention.
The environmental Factor
Now that we are almost a decade into GM farming, the environmental impacts are being studied carefully and already some results have indicated possible dangers. The United States and the Argentina took to extensive GM farming in the later half of the 20th century. Argentina was a nation facing a huge economic crisis and GM crops offered new hope to the farmers. In what can be perceived as a drastic measure almost 11.6 million hectares, which is roughly half of the nations arable land was devoted for the cultivation of GM Soya, familiarly known as Roundup Ready Soya from Montana. This variety of GM Soya was designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which was encouraging news for the Argentinean farmers, as they did not require the use of other herbicides. Thus a sharp decline in the use of pesticides and herbicides reduced costs and soon productivity reached an astounding 173%[Branford, Sue]. However, these initial gains did not withstand and glyphosate use shot up from a mere 13.9 million liters in 1997 to over 150 million liters in 2003. Even more problematic was the fact that herbicide resistant GM Soya swapped genes with weeds making them super weeds. (resistant to herbicide). To control the new glyphosate resistant weeds, the farmers had to recourse to other pesticides and herbicides increasing the cost of production significantly. Furthermore, the lands that were devoted for GM Soya cultivation lost their fertility because the excessive use of gylphosate slowly destroyed the soil bacteria that are essential for natural decomposition.
The horizontal transfer of transgenic gene and the possibility of gene contamination by GM food on other non-GM crops is a serious issue. In a study conducted by the Union of concerned scientists it was found that almost half of the seed samples of conventionally grown soybeans, maize and canola were contaminated to some level. The report stated that conventional crops samples were, "pervasively contaminated with low levels of DNA sequences from GM varieties." [Pearce, Fred] a more recent example was the contamination of Mexican maize with GM genes. The spread of pollens is difficult or even impractical to control and hence the possibility of transgenic pollution is an ever-present danger. As Microbiologist Margaret Mellon, a member of the study says, "If genes find their way from pharm crops to ordinary corn, they or their products could wind up in drug-laced cornflakes," [Pearce Fred]. The possibility of gene flow and gene pollution with other closely related crops is a real and ominous one. As Andrew Kimberll, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington puts it, "Biological pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century. 'This is not like chemical pollution -- an oil spill -- that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed or resistant insect?" [Michael Pollan]
While there is no shortage of food production in the world there is a marked disparity in distribution and the efficient way to handle food crisis would be to mobilize resources effectively. The long-term prospects of GM crops are yet to be ascertained and hence a cautious approach is warranted. It would be more promising to promote rotational and subsistence farming and improve the yields of conventional crops. With mounting scientific controversies, it is not yet clear if the biotechnological revolution is destined to be the magical cure for the famine torn third world nations or just a temporary solution that may be ridden with unwanted health and economic consequences. Given the prevailing divided opinion among the scientific community as to the safety of GM crops, embracing the 'biotechnology way' as an answer to the food requirements of the world, presents a difficult choice. But then, when the shrill whispers from hungry lips say "we are dying, let us eat first' all our debates and discussions seem to recede into the background.
Linda Bren, 'Genetic Engineering: The Future of Foods?' Accessed May 7th 2008, available at http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2003/603_food.html
Dave Toke, ' the Politics of Gm food: A study of USA, UK' Published by Routledge, 2004,
Charles Choi, 'Monsanto Wheat Patent Disputed', Feb 5, 2004, the Scientist.
James Sturcke, "EU Commission Admitted GM Food Uncertainty," Accessed May 7th 2008, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/apr/18/food.gm
Greenpeace, 'Monsanto Pays Up', Accessed May 7th 2008, available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/monsanto-pays-fine-for-bribery
BIO, 'Summary of 'Government regulation', Accessed May 7th 2008, available at http://www.bio.org/foodag/action/reg.asp
Michael Pollan, 'Playing God in the Garden', the New York Times, Oct 25, 1998