The EU has not approved any genetically modified (GM) fruit or vegetables as safe for human consumption and in the UK they are mainly used to feed animals. In contrast, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are present in up to 70% of foods on the U.S. supermarket shelves. So is the EU being pedantic in choosing an organic approach?
GMOs are organisms that have their DNA altered to include genetic material from another organism. This is done by isolating the gene that codes for the desired protein (such as one that codes for pesticide resistance) then inserting it into the crop or livestock’s germline. New gene-editing technology such as CRISPR has the potential to make genetic alterations even easier. GMOs are not commercially grown in the UK, but imported GMOs such as corn are used in animal feed. There is no general restriction on growing GMOs in the UK, and the 1990 Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows the Secretary of State to control the release of GMOs in England. They are subject to a risk assessment and there are strict labelling rules requiring producers to disclose if GM products have been used.
The UK public have their reservations on GMOs – in 2016 a Food Standards Agency survey highlighted that 27% of the public were concerned about GM foods and in a poll in 2017, 61% of Conservative voters wanted to ban production of GM crops post-Brexit. This scepticism highlights some of the fears of the potential damaging effects that GM foods could have on our health.
A fear that resonates at a time like this is that GM foods could be facilitating the creation of superbugs. Whilst GM plants contain genes that allow for pesticide resistance, they utilise marker genes which can be resistant to antibiotics, such as the marker gene in Bt corn which is resistant to some penicillin-type antibiotics. It is therefore no surprise that in 1996 the EU banned Bt corn for this very reason. They have the potential to transfer to microbes in our gut, making some pathogens resistant. Although there has been no evidence as of yet that dietary DNA can be transferred to bacteria in the gut, this could change, with a potentially worrying consequences: we could be allowing disease-causing microbes to become resistant to antibiotics, making medical treatment less effective and fuelling the race against antibiotic resistance.
One other potential negative effect of GMOs is the creation of ‘superweeds’. Some organisms can be altered so that they are resistant to pesticides, allowing farmers to spray the whole field without the worry that the crops will be damaged, saving both time and money. However, gene transfer may allow these GMOs to cross with wild and conventional crops or other neighbouring plants, thereby spreading the genes that allow for such resistance. Gene transfer could create weeds that are resistant to herbicides, rendering the use of herbicide-resistant GMOs useless. There is also a general ethical issue of whether humans should modify and interfere with the integrity of another organism.
There are clear benefits to GMOs, as modifying crops allows them to be resistant to herbicides which allows for more effective pest control leading to higher crop yields. This can reduce the risk of famine. For example, Ugandans eat, on average, more bananas a day than any other population; they account for around 30% of an average Ugandan’s daily calorie intake. However, a bacterial wilt has decimated whole fields of the crop and it is thought that between 2001 and 2004 the infection had cut total banana yields by as much as 52%. To combat this, researchers have found that by inserting a gene from a green pepper, the modified banana is able to kill infected cells and continue growing. This is clearly a significant success of GM foods because they have the potential to solve issues of widespread hunger. Increased crop yields could also increase income as farmers simply have more produce to sell, which would be of most benefit to rural households living below the poverty line.
GMOs can also address health issues, evident in the success story of golden rice which has been claimed to provide 60% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A. This is rice that has been engineered to include β-carotene which the body can convert into vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and an impaired immune system, but golden rice has the potential to prevent this. GM foods could to treat diseases and allow for more crop yield, which could become a useful tool to fight world hunger – currently affecting nearly 1 in 8 people globally. Foods can also be modified to provide flexibility in how they can be used, and fruits such as tomatoes and apples have been altered to reduce browning and bruising. In a time like this it is clear that long-lasting fresh produce can be useful as it can reduce the need of going out for groceries. It also means we can enjoy out-of-season fruits for a longer period of time, and potentially reduce the need for importing such foods, thereby reducing food miles.
Although there are fears that GMOs may have unforeseen consequences, they have been in use in the U.S. for over 25 years. By holding GM foods to the same safety standards as organic foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has introduced GM foods into the market, successfully reassuring consumers that they are not more likely to cause allergic reactions or have long-term health effects. The U.S. have even taken the labelling approach in the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, requiring bioengineered food to be labelled so that citizens can make an informed choice and avoid GM foods if they wish. Despite strong opposition to GMOs from some green NGOs, scientific evidence does not seem to suggest there to be any substantial health risks.
However, with the withdrawal from the EU, the laws governing GMOs in the UK are retained – for now. The ongoing health crisis may exacerbate fears over GMOs and their potential resistance to drugs, and public opinion is unlikely to change any time soon.