Are GM foods the answer to world hunger or a danger to our health?

Are GM foods the answer to world hunger or a danger to our health? Rita de Brun asks the experts on both sides.

Are GM foods the answer to world hunger or a danger to our health?

LET’S face it, the idea of eating genetically modified (GM) food is wholly unappetising. It calls to mind images of white-coated scientists splicing petri dish grown cells to create crops the likes of which nature never intended.

Food ‘like Mama used to make it’ it ain’t.

Unlike the organic apple that Eve supposedly plucked in the Garden of Eden, it’s not tempting; not something with which most would choose to feed their families.

Not everyone has a choice.

Many living in countries in which rice is the main source of nourishment live in fear of their young ranking among the 500,000 children who the World Health Organisation estimates are blinded each year by Vitamin A deficiency, or the 250,000 of those who die within 12 months of that catastrophe.

Professor David McConnell of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, TCD, believes GM food could help.

“GM Golden Rice, a project managed by Cork scientist Dr Gerry Barry in the Philippines, but opposed irrationally by Greenpeace, holds great promise to relieve that deficiency,” he says.

There’s no doubt the Vitamin A heavy foodstuff could save lives.

Yet, Filipino farmers have called for a stop to its field-trials, fearing it will impact negatively on public health and play havoc with the environment and indigenous rice-genetic diversity.

A French study linking GM corn to rat tumours, the contamination of crops on organic and conventional farms by GM crops on neighbouring farms, and an Argentinian study linking the high levels of glyphosate contained in GE soy, to birth-defects and increased cancer rates in that country increased global unease.

But McConnell insists GM technology is revolutionising plant and food production worldwide and ‘silly regulations’ have made Europe the notable exception.

“GM food and plants are as safe as non-GM food and plants and do not require special regulations,” he says.

The Food Safety Authority’s Dr Pat O’Mahony puts it this way: “Europe’s proving itself to be Luddite in terms of its fear of science and GM technology.”

Meanwhile, IFA president Eddie Downey’s position is that: “Provided all regulatory requirements are met GM technology can have many positive implications for agriculture and food production as well as benefits for the environment and sustainability. “To continue to produce food of the highest standard and meet the growing output level required, Irish farmers must be able to compete on a level playing field. Our competitiveness on the world market is becoming an issue.”

Michael O’Callaghan of GMFree Ireland would not agree: “Industry claims that we need GM crops to ‘feed the world’, or ‘be competitive,’ are nothing more than propaganda designed to deceive the ignorant.”

“Most Irish families eat GM foods,” confirms Dr Pat O’Mahony of the Food Safety Authority.

“If a product lists soya or maize as an ingredient, there’s a chance it’s not GM free.

“Also, many processed cheeses contain the GM enzyme chymosin, but they’re not labelled GM as it’s listed as a processing-aid rather than an ingredient.

“As to the safety of GM food, I would say it is 100% safe.”

Ireland imports significant quantities of high-protein GM maize by-products and virtually its entire feed protein supplement requirement, from GM-producing regions outside of the EU.

“Contrary to popular opinion misinformed by Green activists, GM food and feed are now helping significantly to feed the world; Europe and the Green movement have to learn to respect science,” asserts McConnell.

Seamus Sheridan, agriculture spokesperson for the Green Party, says he’s ‘totally against’ the use of GE as a tool to fight disease and pests in agriculture.

“I’m concerned by the polarisation between the scientific community and environmentalists and I’m trying to build bridges between the two.”

Pros and cons of GM CROP disputed

Whether genetically modified (GM) crops are more of a help or a hindrance is a complex and hotly debated issue. Here are some of the arguments:

FOR

* GM food is safe according to the World Health Organisation.

* GM crops can produce higher yields which help fight world hunger.

* GM crops benefit the environment by reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides.

* GM crops containing a high content of specific nutrients can save lives and prevent vitamin deficiency ailments such as blindness.

* GM crops are more robust as they can be engineered to survive adverse climates.

* GM food can be engineered to taste better and have a longer shelf-life.

AGAINST

* Opponents maintain it’s not safe, saying that those modified with bacteria and viruses can lessen the benefits of antibiotics and cause new diseases.

* They believe that GM crops are not a solution to world hunger as they don’t produce higher yields and cause ecosystem-damaging super-weeds.

* They maintain that GM crops with built-in pesticides provoke immune responses in animals and remove specific pests from the food-chain.

* They say that GM Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton and corn cause allergies.

* GM pollen contaminates crops on neighbouring farms.

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