GMO: progress or setback?

09/03/2018 - Mario Camelo

Thousands of years ago, when the planet was still an inhospitable place and human beings were but nomadic hunters, everyone ate only with what they planted and harvested and everything was natural and organic. As time passed, we began to domesticate animals and plants. It was a path of no return. Since the beginning of agricultural production as we know it, food was “selected” by man in some way. Not because of a genetic issue, but because of production practicality. Today, basically everything we consume (even the main agricultural crops such as rice, corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton) is made with some kind of human intervention. Interventions that were adapted and modified over time to reach extremely sophisticated results, giving rise to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenic foods.

Wild wheat, for example, has seeds at the tip of the stem that are naturally spread when they fall to the ground and germinate. This is how the plant reproduces. Now imagine a genetic mutation that prevents the snapping of the stem. As much as it is not “interesting” for nature, since it prevents the reproduction of the seed, that same mutation is good for the farmer, who can harvest it more easily and choose exactly where to plant the cereal. This is just an example. There is an infinity of genetic alterations, the so-called “events” that are approved and used by the food industry and make farming more convenient to producers, such as tolerance to herbicides, resistance to insects, more stability, greater resistance to droughts, etc.

Alleging the goal is to facilitate production and feed the planet’s enormous (and brutally growing) population more “appropriately”, the production and consumption of GMOs has soared since 1996, when large-scale production started, especially in South America. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotechnical Applications (ISAAA), nowadays, there are 185.1 million hectares of GMO production areas in the world. Brazil, for instance, is the second largest producer, with about 52.6 million hectares of planted area, leaving behind only the United States, which has 72.9 million. Coming next is Argentina which is the third largest producer on the planet, with 24 million hectares of GMO crops. The country’s soy, for example, is currently 100% transgenic.

This unbridled production provided advantages and performance to farmers but has also sparked a heated debate about its consequences. One of the main alleged benefits of GMOs, for example, is the potential reduction in the use of pesticides and nutritional biofortification. Less agricultural pesticides, would also supposedly mean the reduction in the amount of fuel needed for the transport and pulverization processes, and thus the emission of pollutants. Farmers’ gains would also allow for the use of less land and water, prompting a more sustainable agriculture. However, in most cases the result was quite the opposite: more use of pesticides and spraying in plantations, due to the fact that many plants and seeds become resistant to herbicides.

“The transgenic increases the security of the harvest, the tranquility of the producer and, altogether, increases production. On the other hand, we also have a series of environmental, ecological and genetic changes that we may face in the future. Some are already happening. When there is natural drastic selection process in the form of resistance to a plague, enemies and genotypes are eliminated. At the same time, the environment is modified. While these pests disappear, others begin to take on scale, since there is no competition. Then, the danger of the other plague that was masqueraded by the dominant one comes up. In Argentina, for example, malignancies are beginning to appear that were not dominant before” says Carlos Banchero, associate professor of the Genetics Course at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and author of the book The Spread of GMO Crops in Argentina.

Because this issue has just started to come up, there are no truly concrete studies that address the consequences of GMOs and their long-term health effects. Meanwhile, the debate on the subject grows, as well as the production and also the interests of the large agricultural industry for this movement to continue. There is even evidence of pressure from industry, particularly transnational corporations, to influence and meddle in academic research.

In Uruguay, one of the first countries to approve the production of transgenics in our region, there was a great discussion last December about the approval of 14 new varieties of transgenics. There was no opposition for 10 of those intended for research and controlled studies. However, in the case of the remaining four that would be used for commercial purposes, no agreement was reached between the Risk Management Commission (CGR) – the country’s specialized regulation body – and the ministerial cabinet. The Ministry of Housing and the Environment (MVOTMA) and the Public Health Ministry challenged the approval because they understood that there are still not enough studies on the possible effects of these GMO crops and the use of associated agrochemicals.

“Both the MVOTMA and the Ministry of Public Health opposed the release of these four varieties. We are not against the GMOs themselves, as they can be very positive, but we have to see what happens when they are released into the environment. The studies we have available are not enough, and that’s how we based our claim” affirmed the Minister of Housing and the Environment, Eneida De León, in an interview to Montevideo Portal.

In an official statement in 2015, Brazil’s National Cancer Institute (INCA) slammed the increase in the consumption of pesticides in the country, which would be related to the use of herbicide-resistant GMOs. The statement also questions the long-term effects of GMOs on people’s health. On the other hand, back in 2001 the Human Development Report of the United Nations, released by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), mentioned GMOs as one of the main solutions to end hunger that currently affects more than 800 million people.

Who is right and who is wrong? Is there a danger to health and the environment? Who should regulate that? Whatever the answer, the ISAGS specialist in Social Determination of Health, Francisco Armada draws attention to a very important issue that has a direct relationship with the right to Health: the labeling of GMOs. “The right of people to be informed about the content of products distributed for human consumption includes knowing if any of their components were somehow genetically modified. Access to this information should be granted regardless of the need to continue documenting the production and/or the impact of transgenic consumption on the health of humans and other animals”, he says.

Read the other articles of Health to the South – March issue