AS we are bombarded by scare tactics against plants with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn and Bt eggplant, we do not realize that almost everything we eat, many of the medicines we take, the cotton-based apparel we wear, the detergents we use in washing clothes and many of the beverages and processed canned goods we take are already genetically modified (GM).
Professor Saturnina C. Halos revealed this in a news conference at Ka Tunying’s Café in celebration of the 13th National Bio-Technology Week from November 20 to 24 with the theme “Safety Food Products Derived from Modern Biotechnology,” and organized by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines.
GMOs are all over? “Starting at breakfast—the cheese, corned beef, cheese, canola oil, eggs, sausages and coffee mate we blend with our coffee are all processed using genetically modified enzymes,” said Halos of the Biotech Coalition of the Philippines, who has a PhD in genetics from University of Berkley and 40 years of biotech research and teaching work to her name.
“Clothing apparel from dresses to pants made out of cotton cannot escape GMOs. When you wash the same clothes, probably all the detergents contain some enzymes made out of GMOs.
The same goes for medicines from vaccines, antibiotics, growth hormones and vitamins,” she added.
Almost all imported crops and fruits from soy, corn, papaya, eggplants, potatoes, apples, etc., were developed because of GMOs.
Halos said “all the brands we commonly see and purchase in all groceries are made of GMOs. In fact, there are over 2,000 types of food preparations, including junk foods and canned foods, that have long been established to be containing GMOs. So why fear GMOs, if we have long been taking them anyway?” she added.
From almost negligible levels in 1996, acreage planted to biotech crops in developing countries shot up to 99.6 million acres in 2016 and in industrial countries to 85.5
More gains realized from GMOs. Multiple gains from GMOs vary depending on the specific crop, fruit or product modified. Apples, for instance, which turn brownish immediately as they oxidize once exposed to air, have now been modified genetically to prevent this from happening.
“Studies we made in 2014 show that 83.4 percent of farmers exposed to genetically modified corn declared that it resulted in higher yields and income,” Halos said.
About 78.7 percent of them also said Bt corn reduced their daily costs or expenses, particularly on pesticide use as most GM crops have been inserted with genes resistant to pests. From 1996 to 2016, when GM crops grew tremendously, it is estimated globally reduced pesticide usage hit 620 million kilos, and in 2015 alone, 37.4 million kilos.
She estimated that benefits from GM corn alone has meant additional income for local corn farmers of over P10 billion, which translates to bigger budgets for children’s education, home improvements, additional farm capital or surplus funds for a vehicle and other needs or wants.
Research rigors make GMOs safe. Professor Nina G. Gloriani, professor of UP College of Public Health and president of the Biotech Coalition, explained the process and rigors of research on GMOs, which take 10 to 14 years from laboratory, greenhouse evaluation, contained field trials, precommercial testing with actual feed use, before they are released commercially.
GMO products also follow the rigid “Codex Alimentarious Commission Standard,” or the international food standards involving the Organization for Economic Cooperation, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, International Food Biotechnology Council and the International Life Sciences Institute and the Allergy and Immunology Institute.
Many of the uneducated would tend to shirk in fear if told to take GMOs, without knowing that foods considered “traditionally safe” may be worse, for some people, as “they contain so much toxins and anti-nutritional substances.”
Gloriani explained that “many traditional foods often contain allergens like nuts, seafood, chicken, wheat, rice and milk. Cassava contains cyanogenic glycosides that can be toxic to some. Legumes like beans have inhibitors. Chili, squash flower, pepper have toxins that can kill insects, while the popular coffee contains over 300 toxins.” However, we continue to consume them as the risks taking their toxins and other substances are manageable, she stressed.
Non-GM corn, for instance, looks dirty being infested with corn borers and contaminated with bacteria and fungi, which produce aflatoxins that cause liver cancer. Worse, the corn may be treated with chemical pesticides, but farmers don’t know they are still not protected by corn borers. In contrast, GM corn looks clean as it is resistant to corn borers, aflatoxin and fungi, and does not need chemical pesticides. Moreover, GM corn produces higher yields.
Enriching rice through GMOs. Russel Reinke, PhD in plant science and a rice breeder from IRRI, cited IRRI’s successful Golden Rice program, which aims to fortify rice with proteins and vitamins through genetic modification, which perfectly adapts and is carried over in succeeding generations in compliance with Mendel’s law on genetic trait transfer and selection that makes it easier for propagation.
Vitamin A deficiency, which is high in many children of the poor, can be corrected with the insertion of the Beta-carotene gene into what is called “Golden Rice,” because of the goldish color from Beta-carotene, which is nontoxic and converts to vitamin A in the body.
She added that the cotton-based clothes we wear are made of GMO cotton, or the medicines we take and rising obesity among Asians that is traced to excessive intake of bad carbohydrates like rice, white bread, sugary drinks and sweets, can be checked with simple changes in diet behavior, a shift to brown rice and the recent launching of the IRRI’s new thrust towards bio-fortification of rice.
A study by Professor Jeyakumar Henry of the University of Singapore noted that because diets of Asians are 67 percent rice on the average, and much higher among the poor, it is a welcome move to fortify rice itself with protein genes and vitamins, only made possible because of GMO research.
The high percentage of rice consumption and, subsequently, the high gIycemic index, which measures bad carbohydrates, have been confirmed scientifically to be the reason behind the rise in obesity among Asians. This means glucose released from excessive carbs can trigger spikes in insulin from the pancreas that could develop into diabetes, which worsens further with sedentary lifestyles of sitting idly most of the time, and lack of exercise. Henry noted that about 1.4 billion people are now struggling with obesity.