GM Food A Dangerous Food for Thought
We call it `GM food’ that stands for Genetically Modified foods. In industries, where troops of scientists show excellence in the use of living parts in order to gain maximum benefits from the unbounded nature, to identify their new products, they call it `biotech food’.
In the chills of laboratory rooms, they apply genetic engineering techniques in the process of modifying organisms with specific changes in their DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). The DNA, we all know, determines the particular structure and functions of every cell and responsible for characteristics being passed on from parents to their children. If there is a change, even if minor, in the DNA, the modified product exhibits a new character. Scientists use this simple method to discover alternative foods, multiplying the stock, for the vast majority people in extreme poverty, in the struggle against hunger.
The beginning of genetically modified foods can be traced back to the 1980s when scientists discovered that pieces of DNA can transfer between organisms. The first genetically modified plant was produced a short time later, in 1983 using an antibiotic resistant tobacco plant. In 1994, the tomato was genetically modified for human consumption. This genetic modification allowed the tomato to delay ripening after picking. Afterwards, in 1995, a biotech company `Monsanto’ introduced herbicide immune soybean also known as the Roundup ready. Also in 1995, the Bt Potato was approved safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, making it the first pesticide producing crop to be approved in the USA. In 1996, the first genetically modified `Canola’ was available on the market. In the year 2000, scientists discovered that they were able to genetically modify foods to increase their nutrient value. As of 2011, the US leads a list of multiple countries in the production of GM crops. Currently, there is a number of food species in which a genetically modified version exists.
There is, however, a dispute over the relative advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified food crops and other uses of genetically modified organisms in food production.
The dispute involves biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations and scientists. Controversy also draws the attention of religious leaders and clerics, who seem either to be confused or to continue to stick to their guns.
The dispute is most intense in Japan and Europe, where public concern about GM food is higher than in other parts of the world. In the United States, GM crops are more widely grown and the introduction of these products has been less controversial.
The key areas of controversy are food safety, the effect on natural ecosystems, gene flow into non-genetically engineered crops and corporate control of the food supply. Religious leaders scratch about their heads over setting the limit for the use of GM foods as per divine laws.
However, GM corporations repeatedly said that no adverse health effects caused by products approved for sale had been documented to date. To be fair, they also cited two of the products, which failed initial safety testing. They said those two products were discontinued due to allergic reactions. A number of internationally reputed research institutions such as European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Royal Society of Medicine, US National Academies of Sciences and Italian Journal of Animal Science raised similar voice. But Consumers Union of Japan, opposing to GM food, claim that truly independent research in the areas is systematically blocked by GM corporations which own the GM seeds and reference materials.
Several other studies, however, stress the need for more scientific efforts and investigations to ensure that GM foods do not provoke any form of health problem. A 2005 review, for instance, in Archives of Animal Nutrition approved the first generation GM foods but warned that the second generation GM foods with `significant changes in constituents’ would be more difficult to test, and would require further animal studies.
Another review published in 2009 by Dona and Arvanitoyannis expressed grave concern. It said, `Results of most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical and immunologic parameters.’
Because of limited scopes for elaborate discussions on effects on the natural ecosystem, the current article would now deal with the issue of corporate control of the food supply and religious views on the topic.
Only a handful of companies dominate the seed industry. Reports have it that, in 2011, 73 per cent of the global market is controlled by 10 companies. Keith Mudd from the Organization for Competitive Markets said, `The lack of competition and innovation in the marketplace has reduced farmer’s choices and enabled “Monsanto” (an American company) to raise prices unencumbered.’
Greenpeace said that patent rights gave corporations a dangerous amount of control over their product.
Others said. ‘Parenting seeds gives companies excessive power over something that is vital for everyone.’
Below are two of several other insightful quotes from people without a tight connection with the GMO industry:
Hans Herren, Director General, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya , winner of the World Food Prize 1995, said, ‘History has many records of crimes against humanity, which were also justified by dominant commercial interests and governments of the day… Today, patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering which it stimulates, is being justified on the grounds that it will benefit society… But in fact, by monopolising the ‘raw’ biological materials, the development of other options is deliberately blocked. Farmers therefore, become totally dependent on the corporations for seeds.’
Farida Akhtar, UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), Bangladesh, said, ‘Bangladeshi people do not need GM food. GM food means the destruction of farmers and letting the companies take over. We need to preserve a biodiversity-based food production without the application of poisonous chemicals. Bangladeshi farmers are rejecting the idea that GM food can meet the needs of hungry people. This is nonsense. GM can feed the greed of the companies, not the need of the hungry people. People are hungry not because we are not able to produce, but because the food production base is being systematically destroyed by the interventions of the profit-seeking companies. They want to make business out of our hunger!’
Now the depth of farmer’s anger throughout the world is imaginable, millions of them continue to rally together in countries, from poorest to richest, against the business of the GM products.
Public acceptance of genetically modified crops is partly rooted in religious views. We review the positions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism – the three major monotheistic religions to which more than 55% of humanity adheres to – on the controversies aroused by GM technology.
The Islamic perspective on genetically modified foods is complex and goes deeper than simply a determination of whether a certain food is halal or not .
Whether Islam approves or disapproves of genetically modified foods does not have a straightforward answer and many theologians and scholars continue debating this issue. For example, it appears that the holy Quran provides that any attempts to modify living things would be a sin. However, if the purpose behind the modification is essential or done to prevent harm and promote the welfare of all, then such a modification is permissible. As such, if one were to take the position that genetic modification is conducted to reduce reliance on pesticides and herbicides, which pollute the environment, or feed the hungry, which is an action benefiting the welfare of the public, then genetic modification is arguably justifiable under Islamic law.
Some Muslim theologians and scholars, however, debate whether genetically modified foods are, in fact, benefiting the public.
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church has not specifically opposed any types of GM foods. But Pope John Paul II has harbored critical views on GM foods, although he has given his approval to the subsequent scientific research carried out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The Catholic Church has taken a critical stance against the genetic engineering of embryos in the document ‘Dignitas Personae,’ but hasn’t made any broad declaration against genetically modified food products.
Strong anti-GMO sentiments have been reported from Episcopal conferences across Asia, Africa and some European countries as well.
The Church Environmental Network, representing members of the Anglican church, has spoken out against the government’s backing of genetically modified organisms.
Christian Aid, a British ecumenical group, has been sharply critical of genetic engineering.
One concern raised by the transfer of genes between species is that the foods produced might contravene religious dietary laws. Like Islam, Judaism prohibits the consumption of pork, and therefore, it has expressed concern about the production of foods with genes from pig.
On other aspects, Jewish scholars and Rabbis still appear to be undecided. What they often say is Jewish religious laws and traditions permit the development of transgenic plants by researchers if they are not directly prohibited by God and if the research benefits mankind.
The news shocks Bangladeshis:
Despite opposition from civil society members and local farmers, the present government made legal arrangements to approve genetically modified crops in Bangladesh. Agriculture Minister Motia Chowdhury, at a press conference on April 6, 2011, told reporters that the government would carry out a study and then, approve a wide variety of GM crops before the end of its tenure.
To strengthen his argument in favour of the import of GM foods, the ministry spokesman said that Bangladesh had imported for years the bulk of the soybean and canola oil, produced from GM crops, and people had consumed them for long with no reports of ill effects.
Now the million dollar question is whether we, Bangladeshis, should stay unruffled and rejoice over what a blissful life we are leading here or prepare ourselves for struggle to spike government’s gun forever?