Are Biotech crops safe to eat?

ARE biotech crops, which are spliced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), safe to eat?

Opponents, mostly composed of private individuals, non-governmental organizations and international activists, say they are not. Proponents—who are mostly scientists (including Nobel Prize winners), health officials and United Nations agencies—claim they are!

Now, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (Isaaa) just released its newest report, “Global Status of Commercialized/Biotech GM Crops: 2016”. The Isaaa brief is considered one of the most-cited references in the field of modern agri-biotechnology due to its credibility and accuracy.

“Biotech crops have now had an unblemished record of safe use and consumption for over 20 years,” the report pointed out.  “Future generations can benefit more from wide choices of biotech crops with improved traits for high yield and nutrition, as well as safe for food use and environment.”

Biotech crops are products of biotechnology, defined as “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals or to develop microorganisms for specific uses”.

The methodology seems like a work of fiction.  Listen to the words of Dr. Frank A. Shotkoski, an adjunct professor at the Cornell University in the College of Life Science Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics: “Traditional methods of crop improvement require the mixing of genes by making specific crosses, observing and selecting for specific phenotypes [traits] in the offspring.  This has been a very effective tool for crop improvement, and our ancestors have been quite successful in using these techniques to develop the productive, tasty and nutritious crops that we have today.”

But modern biotechnology completely changes that.  “Biotechnology allows us to introduce genes into crops that could never be achieved using traditional/conventional methods, because the gene tied to a specific trait (i.e., insect resistance, disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, etc.) doesn’t exist in species,” Shotkoski explained.  “Often, traits of interest can be introgressed into a crop much faster using biotechnology tools, such as marker-assisted breeding, gene transformation and/or gene editing.”

In recent years, modern biotechnology—through genetic engineering—has been used to increase plant and animal food production, to diagnose disease, improve medical treatment, produce vaccines and other useful drugs and to help dispose of industrial wastes.

Against hunger

“There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control,” American Congressman Jan Schakowsky once said. “We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

Hunger is the physical sensation of desiring food. When politicians, relief workers and social scientists talk about people suffering from hunger, they usually refer to those who are unable to eat sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs for sustained periods of time.

But with the continuous number of people added annually to the current population, it is more likely that hunger will be a rule rather an exception.  “Population growth is going crazy,” Shotkoski pointed out.  “From 2 billion in 1935, it doubled to 4 billion in 1975.  By 2000 the world was home to 6 billion.  In 2030 there will be about 8 billion people inhabiting this planet.”

In addition, there are the issues of climate change: rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.  “Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture and food security,” said Dr. Randy Hautea, Isaaa global coordinator.

Biotechnology is seen as a probable solution. “I see biotechnology as an important component of the many technologies and choices that we have available to provide food security, human nutrition and health for an ever-expanding population,” Shotkoski said.  “This is especially important for agriculture, where farmers are faced with many biotic and abiotic constraints, most of which can’t be dealt with using conventional technologies.”

In 1994 Calgene’s delayed-ripening tomato became the first GM food crop to be produced and consumed in an industrialized country.  In 1995 GM cotton and GM corn were subsequently commercialized.  Soon to be introduced in the country are the following: the GM eggplant and the vitamin A-rich golden rice.

A consumer advocacy group in UK reported that GM soya can be found in bread, biscuits, baby milk, baby foods, breakfast cereals, margarine, soups, pasta, pizza instant meals, meat products, flours, sweets, ice creams, crisps, chocolate, soy sauce, veggie-burgers, tofu, soya milk and pet foods.

In the Philippines, Filipinos may be eating GM foods, such as potato chips, corn cereals, or soya milk.  Love it or loathe it, transgenic food is set to become a bigger part of what people eat.

Health concerns

But Greenpeace, an anti-biotech organization, continues to take a preventive stance.  It cautioned that consumers can never be absolutely sure of the safety of biotech crops since this is only determined by decades of data and study.

Here are some concerns of those who opposed GM crops:

Allergies:  Dr. Romeo Quijano, of the Department of Pharmacology of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, said GM food is hazardous commodities because they carried new proteins that may cause allergy.

The National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) and its team have this answer: “Contrary to common perception, it is natural foods, not additives and artificial flavors, which account for majority of food allergies like nuts, shrimps, crabs and others.  In fact, any food that contains proteins has the potential to cause allergic reactions depending on individual susceptibility.

“Furthermore, extensive food safety evaluation has been implemented to minimize the possibility that allergenic proteins are introduced into commercialized genetically modified crops.  There is no single commercialized genetically modified plant that is known to cause any significant risks of allergenicity.”

Cancer: People eating GM food are likely to be susceptible to cancer.  This was discovered in a study conducted by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute on genetically engineered potatoes on rats.  In his research, he fed rats on two strains of potatoes: one with genetically engineered with lectin from snowdrop bulbs and another with ordinary potatoes.

The result of his study: immune systems and brains, livers, kidneys and other vital organs of the rats fed with lectin-spiked potatoes were damaged while those fed with ordinary potatoes showed no damage at all.

“There is no evidence that the technologies used to produced-genetically modified foods are inherently harmful,” BIOTECH and other institutions concluded.  Referring on the study done by Dr. Pusztai, they said it was debunked by the Royal Society of London.  They found the Pusztai study as “flawed in experimental design, execution and analysis.”

Antibiotic resistance:   Quijano said a scientific data indicate that “the emergence of new diseases, the rapid evolution of virulence and the widespread occurrence of drug and antibiotic resistance are associated with the rise of genetic engineering.”

The BIOTECH team claims otherwise: “The possibility that antibiotic resistance genes built into genetically modified plants could be transferred to bacteria harmful to humans has been thoroughly studied.  To date, no reliable and stable transfer has been reported.  In fact, there are no known mechanisms for effective transfer of genes from plant to bacteria under natural conditions.

Besides, antibiotics are used only in the laboratory during development process of the biotech crops.  These, they claimed, do not produce antibiotics nor do they require application of antibiotics in the field.


Now, let’s take a closer look at those organizations which fully support the transgenic crops for human consumption.

“Foods produced using genetic modification is as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques,” assures the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Genetically modified foods are as safe as other foods available on the market.”

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) declared that different GM foods go through the global food safety process called Codex Alimentarius Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology under which these foods are not found to be risky to human health.

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” said the UN health agency.  “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.”

Last year, the premier American Medical Association issued this statement: “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years and during that time; no overt consequences to human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

The Royal Society of Medicine, an independent educational organization for doctors, dentists, scientists and others involved in medicine and health care in England, said: “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world with no ill effects (or legal cases related to human health) despite many of the consumers coming from the most litigious of countries, the United States.”

Here’s the findings of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology and in particular GMOs are no more risky than conventional plant-breeding technologies.”

Safer than street foods

Meanwhile, Officer-in-charge Vivencio R. Mamaril of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) claims those foods that contain GMOs are safer to eat than those being sold in the streets.

The reason: transgenic crops undergo stricter tests and environmental assessments and could be much safer and more nutritious than street food consumed daily everywhere.  Unlike street food items that are not regulated, GM crops have been subjected to extensive testing under a bio safety framework regarded as one of the strictest in the world.

This made him wonder why those anti-GM campaigners have been blasting away at GM crops but keeping silent on the safety concerns for street food.  It may be because, he surmised, street food items are so common that no one bothers to ask if they are safe and nutritious for hundreds of thousands of pupils and students who consume them daily in spite of threats of microbial contamination.

“We may not all be so assiduous in guarding our rights in this situation, but what about on the food we eat? Are we always concerned with the safety of the food we consume? Is food quality in terms of safety our parameter in choosing what we eat? Do we read labels or are we more concerned with the price of the product we buy?  These are the many questions that most consumer behavior researchers undertake,” asked Dr. Mamaril, who is also the director of the Philippine Agriculture and Fisheries Biotechnology Program.

“Take for example, why are there so many street foods being sold in front of schools and many other busy places? Is the selling of street foods regulated to guard the safety of consumers? The answer maybe is no. And why is this so? It could be because the types of food sold are those known to be commonly consumed. Examples are animals’ innards that are processed as fried, smoked or are skewered, eggs wrapped in flour, fish balls, chicken balls, squid balls, taho, and many others.  The food quality concern in these kinds of foods could be microbial,” he said.

Now on the other side of the coin.  As for GM products, food safety is a real concern.  “Under our existing rules and regulations on GM crops, food safety is one the major concerns before such crops are given a biosafety permit. Other biosafety concerns are animal feeds and environmental safety,” Mamaril pointed out.

If you are given a choice, will you eat GM food or not?  One sage puts his answer this way: “A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem.” Or as Horace puts it: “Only a stomach that rarely feels hungry scorns common things.”

-Written by Henrylito D. Tacio in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

Image Credits: Henrylito D. Tacio

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