Spilling the beans on GM

Most of us are aware of the simmering row around genetically modified (GM) food and crops. But the arguments are leaving general confusion in their wake because of the deeply polarised views put forth by those who promote, and those who are cautious about, these products.

Historically, humans have bred food crops and animals to improve the yield, taste, health and hardiness of our food sources.
This traditional breeding can only take place between closely related species.

GM is just one particular specialisation within the scientific discipline of biotechnology. Biotechnology, or biotech for short, has traditionally been used to provide us with yoghurt, beer and bread, in that we use bacteria or micro-organisms to create these products.

The difference is that modern practices of genetic engineering—which is the process through which GM takes place—now enables us to shatter the species boundaries. For example, we can insert genetic information from whales into birds, or we can put bacterial and viral genes into plants, as is done with most genetically engineered foods. Genetic engineering, therefore, allows us to move DNA between unrelated organisms.

The products of genetic engineering are patented; this enables private entities such as companies or individuals to own living organisms, such as crops, for the first time.

Most GM crops contain bacterial, viral, artificial or other plant genes. ‘Pharmed” crops, grown to produce pharmaceuticals, can contain vaccines, medicines and insect, animal or other genes. There are few limits to what we can do; the question is: What should we be doing, or not doing, with this technology?

Present GM crops exhibit two primary characteristics. Most GM crops (more than 60%) are engineered to resist weed-killing (herbicide) chemicals. The rest are engineered to resist pests such as larvae. The idea behind both of these is that, by boosting the crop’s ability to defend itself against two natural foes, more food can ultimately be harvested.

But the process is not without potential problems. Those against GM food warn that the practice may have unforeseen consequences on our natural environment.

Recent studies have also suggested that there may be negative nutritional consequences. Several independent researchers believe the young and infirm are most at risk from the consumption of GM products. The risks of introducing novel genetic structures into the diet of growing children, or those infected with HIV or living with Aids, are not properly researched and a precautionary approach is supported.

Another area of concern is that of labelling. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, food producers are obliged to indicate whether the food contains GM ingredients. This, however, is not the case in South Africa. How many of you knew that the widely popular white maize—consumed as stamp mielies and mielie meal—is a GM product?

Multinational corporations, such as Monsanto in the US, have been criticised for failing to address legitimate concerns about bioengineered food. There are some glaring contradictions in how GM crops are marketed. For example, while GM corporations claim that these foods are perfectly safe, both they and other industries (such as insurance companies) refuse to take responsibility for any ill effects. These products remain unlabelled as they are claimed to be identical to natural crops—yet they are different enough to be patented. It’s all enough to make your head spin.

The GM debate will undoubtedly be unfolding for many years to come. It is worth keeping up with the issues as they unfold because ultimately it affects every one of us: not only the natural environment we live in, but also the food that we eat every day.

Foods that may contain GM products

Vegetable oils: Canola, cotton, soy, corn oil or oil labelled as vegetable.

Soy: Processed foods, hydrolysed vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein, vegetable protein extract, soy protein, lecithin emulsifier, lecithin, emulsifier, tofu, tamari, shoyu, tempeh, soya sauce, soy fibre.

Maize: Corn or maize starch, glucose syrup, starch, modified starch, thickener, corn/maize flour, corn flakes, cereals, snack foods.

Canola: Oilseed (rape/rapeseed), canola, canola oil, margarine, butter/oil spreads.

Potatoes: Starch, potato starch, potato flour.

Cotton derivatives: Cottonseed oil (widely used to fry fast /convenience foods), cotton linters (often used to make sausage casings).

Locally produced dairy products: The use of the genetically engineered hormone rBGH to boost milk production, banned in many nations, is permitted. It is linked to negative health effects in humans and cattle.Spilling the beans on GM

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