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Meet the GM

When it comes to genetically modified foods, is it helpful or harmful?


6Genetically modified foods have come to prominence over the last 15 years or so. And there’re two very vocal camps on the subject. Those that see them as mankind’s saviour, and the people who believe that messing with the DNA of plants and animals will ultimately be our downfall. That said, the vast majority of us are in the middle somewhere. And that’s probably because we either don’t know enough about the matter or are confused by the conflicting arguments.

I don’t intend to come down firmly on one side or the other here. Mainly because I don’t know enough and I’m confused – but that’s true for just about every aspect of my life. So let’s have a little look at both sides of the coin. And try and get a handle on the current situation in Thailand.

Genetically modified (GM) foods are made from crops that have been given specific traits through genetic engineering, unlike crops developed through conventional plant breeding that have been accepted and consumed by the public for many years. GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s. Typically, they’re plant products like soybean, corn, canola (rapeseed) and cotton seed oil.

The methodology behind the genetic modification of food is complex. A gene that governs a desirable trait is identified and isolated from another organism. Then a recipient plant or animal is selected, and the gene is inserted and incorporated into its genome. Once part of the recipient, the newly inserted gene is indistinguishable from its native genes and will be used by the recipient like any other gene. If a strawberry plant is given a gene from an alpine plant that is highly tolerant of cold, it may improve the strawberry's resistance to frost, or if a pig receives a genome from a spinach genome which barely has any fat, it will most likely reduce the fat content. To the lay-person that may seem like a reasonable proposition.

In 2003, countries that grew 99% of the global transgenic crops were the United States (63%), Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), China (4%), and South Africa (1%). The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 75% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain a GM ingredient. And that has raised concerns for the multitude of countries that import US products. Not to mention any country that receives aid from the US in the form of food.

Although most GM crops are grown in North America, in recent years there has been rapid growth in the area sown in developing countries. For instance, in 2005 the largest increase in crop area planted to GM crops (soybeans) was in Brazil (94,000 km2 in 2005, versus 50,000 km2 in 2004). There has also been rapid and continuing expansion of GM cotton varieties in India since 2002 (cotton is a major source of vegetable cooking oil and animal feed). It’s predicted that in 2008/9, 32,000 km2 of GM cotton will be harvested in India (up more than 100 percent from the previous season).

Unsurprisingly, since 2004, cotton workers in India have experienced increased allergic reactions to GM cotton, and not to other conventional varieties. And the longer the workers were exposed to the GM cotton, the more severe their symptoms were. In 1999, soy allergies in the United Kingdom increased from 10%-15% in a single year. Coincidentally, GM soy entered the UK shortly before 1999.

So what are some of the advantages of GM foods, according to those that support the concept? Disease could be prevented by detecting people/plants/animals that are genetically prone to certain hereditary diseases and eliminating the threat. Also, infectious diseases can be treated by implanting genes that code for antiviral proteins specific to each antigen. Animals and plants can be ‘tailor-made’ to show desirable characteristics. Genes could also be manipulated in trees, for example, to absorb more CO2 and reduce the threat of global warming. Genetic engineering could increase genetic diversity, and produce more variants which could also be crossed over and implanted into other species. For example, it’s possible to alter the genetics of wheat plants to grow insulin. Farmers also report a huge decrease in the use of chemicals and that GM plants are resistant to common weed-killers.

As with most things, there’s also a down-side. Anti-GM activists suggest that the long-term effects on humans and the environment is simply not known and certainly not scientifically proven. Genetic engineering also borderlines on many moral issues, particularly involving religion, which questions whether man has the right to manipulate the laws and course of nature. Some scientists argue that there is more than enough food in the world and that the hunger crisis is caused by problems in food distribution and politics, not production, so people should not be offered food that may carry some degree of risk.

And a media firestorm erupted in 1999, when scientist Árpád Pusztai found that consumption of potatoes genetically modified to contain lectin had negative intestinal effects on rats. As a consequence, he became the victim of a smear campaign but was eventually vindicated. He appeared on television where he said that the government and companies were using the population as guinea pigs. Europeans were outraged, and within a week every major food company on the continent, including McDonald’s, Nestlé and Burger King, all committed to not purchasing GM foods. Later, the Royal Society released a review which concluded that the work was flawed and that no conclusions should be drawn from it. Confused? So am I!

Over the last ten years or so, Thailand has had a number of different governments and prime ministers. And they’ve all had different views on the matter. But the bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that currently there are no GM crops grown commercially in Thailand. Greenpeace (Southeast Asia) has a website that lists manufacturers and retailers in Thailand that have proven non-GM products policies and those that don’t. This relates to imported produce.

One thing is for sure, and that’s that this is a matter that’ll continue to make the headlines for many years to come. And it’s something you have to decide for yourself. Most of the world’s governments are certainly wary with the evidence available, except perhaps the US. Sticking to locally grown produce is an easy answer for the moment. And on Samui that’s exactly what you get.


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