Shape magazine – just another propaganda vehicle

In the last issue of Shape magazine there is an article on GM Foods. The title is: The great GM food debate, and below that it says “Thanks to science, crops grow faster and food stays fresher longer. But will it come back to haunt us?”.

That’s a great way to start a ‘balanced’ article, with one truth and one lie. There was a GM food which was created to last longer, a tomato. It had no taste, so nobody bought it and it was removed from the market. There is no GM food that grows faster than conventional crops. Over time and with the assistance of science, hybrid crops have been developed which grow faster, but that has nothing to do with genetic modification.

I think science is great. In fact I think genetics is a field of science with a lot of promise. I’m sure that they will come up with things which will be a great help to the human race. I wholeheartedly endorse research in the field of genetic modification. I just don’t believe that it’s right to use humans as guinea pigs (unless they volunteer) and irreparably damage the environment. I don’t want to go into great detail about all the false points in this Shape article, because I have already done that in response to the article in Men’s health, which you can read here.

Let me just list the things mentioned in the article which are not true:

GM crops grow faster – not true
Farmers have been buying seeds from scientists for a long time – not true (they do buy them but they can use the seed again, instead of having to buy them every year)
GM foods are assessed by independent laboraties – not true
GM foods are more stingently tested than any other food – not true
GM foods might be some of the safest foods you can eat – not true (this is actually a ridiculous statement)
Reduced exposure to chemicals is one of the advantages of GM crops – not true
No fruit and veg we buy in supermarkets are GM – not true
SA has strict GM regulation – not true
SA cannot afford to miss out on what GM has to offer – not true (quite the opposite in fact)

I’m not going to bore you with the details of why these statements are not true, although I would really liket to. The other articles on my site about GM foods address these issues already. There are one or two new points in this Shape article which I would like to talk about.

The one issue is the way they mix the different areas of GM together and give you the impression that you have to accept all of them or lose all of them. This is not true, it’s possible to grow GM crops in contained environments for pharmaceuticals. This does not mean that we also have to grow GM crops for human consumption. We could grow GM crops for biofuels, but not for consumption (although they are of no benefit to biofuels). However, having said that, there must be policies in place to ensure that there is no contamination of normal crops.

The other issue I would like to address again is regarding the current food crisis. Biotech companies are currently touting GM foods as the solution to the worlds food problem. They are not the solution and in fact will compund the problem if they are adopted in Africa. They are designed for big commercial farms, which is not what Africa has. The seeds and accompanying ferilisers are very expensive, which our farmers cannot afford.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, I don’t have a problem with research into genetic modification. But there have been no long term studies on the effects of GM crops and I don’t believe it is right to make us eat them until those studies have been done by independent organisations.

I quite enjoyed this article which also gives both sides of the debate.

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4 Responses

  1. Candice says:

    yay Dax! you are becoming my hero… 🙂
    i wanted to write a rebuttal to this AWFUL article myself but i never got around to it.

    it was so bad. why didn’t they get someone who KNOWS something about GM to write it???

    one thing i do want to point out though is that farmers HAVE been buying seeds from scientists for ages – since the 1960’s in fact. Hybrid seeds (almost all the wheat, rice and maize grown today) lose their vigour after one or two years, meaning they lose the characteristics of their parent plants… meaning the farmer needs to re-buy the seeds every year in order to keep getting the same high yields from those seeds.
    anyway… just thought you may like to know that.

    thanks for writing this post. i usually feel Shape reports fairly responsibly but this article was a shocker. scares me to think of the damage it’s done…

  2. Dax says:

    Thanks for setting me straight, maybe you can explain what the difference will be between buying hybrid seeds and buying GM seeds (apart from the possible problems with GM seeds, just focusing on cost and sustainability, etc).

  3. JH says:

    Dax I would suggest you restrict your comments to topics you actually know something about or if you have a philosophical objection against something just say so and we’ll respect you for that. By trying to support a particular view with what are half-truths at best you’re also misleading others as is clear from Candice’s comments.

    I’m a biological scientist (and NO I’m not working for the industry), who would like to set the record straight with some well informed and honest comments. I have not read the original article, so I’ll restrict my comments to what Dax listed as “non-truths”:

    “GM crops grow faster – not true”: If they were not developed to do so they will not but it is one of the traits that have been transferred successfully in research labs. True that NO crops like that are on the market yet.

    “Farmers have been buying seeds from scientists for a long time – not true (they do buy them but they can use the seed again, instead of having to buy them every year)”: Candice already pointed out that the original statement is indeed true but I would like to point out that they don’t buy it from “scientists” but from seed companies (a small but significant difference). Scientists develop technology and if there’s a potential market for it a business opportunity will develop from it – just like in IT or building bridges. The point is that scientists have started to unlocked the genetic potential of crops many decades ago and modern agriculture is based on that, which in this case means if you’re a farmer you go and buy seeds every season and not because someone is holding a gun to your head but because you get better yields. (Subsistence farming and the greedy multinationals are topics for another day…)

    “GM foods are assessed by independent laborat[or]ies – not true”: This one is tricky… although independently generated data is not strictly required when a GM crop is being evaluated for general release the evaluation of the submission is an independent process in the SA system (even the general public gets an opportunity to do so, personally or by mouth of lobby groups). Practically though this data is often generated by independent institutions (universities and national research institutions for example) because they have the expertise and infrustructure to do so and are contracted in by the developers of technology. Of course whenever money exchanges hands some people will always be sceptical…
    Maybe more satisfying, although after the fact, thousands of labs across the world are working on all the potential risk aspects of GM crops because it is such a hot topic. Unfortunately the “boring science” is never publicised like the juicy “franken food” and doom projections, but the fact is that there are literally hundreds of scientific papers that dispel potential risks. NOTE – I DON’T claim that ALL GM products will ALWAYS be safe (because each is unique), but so far no negative safety or environmental impacts have been shown for the GM crops that have now been produced commercially for more that 10 years.

    “GM foods are more st[r]ingently tested than any other food – not true”: The original comment is 100% true! The regulatory framework for GM products requires a full risk assessment in terms of potential food & feed safety, environmental and socio-economic impacts. I can get access to these documents for each and every GM crop that’s been released in SA – can you produce something similar for, say for example, persimmons (a relative new fruit on our shelves)…?

    “GM foods might be some of the safest foods you can eat – not true (this is actually a ridiculous statement)”: In some aspects I actually agree that this is not a very sustainable statement but the fact remains that we know more about a GM product currently that the comparable “ordinary” product. But the fact that approved GM products are safe to the best of our knowledge (intense scientific scrutiny and history of use) you can’t dispute (and again on what would you base a similar evaluation for non-GM products?).

    “Reduced exposure to chemicals is one of the advantages of GM crops – not true”: In some of the current approved GM crops this is 100% true, but you can’t generalise the statement – it depends on what the crop was designed to do. In insect resistant GM crops you would for example not need to spray insecticides but if one day you have a drought tolerant GM crop it will still have to be sprayed (again this argument can be drawn out, but I’ll spare you).

    “No fruit and veg we buy in supermarkets are GM – not true”: The statement is TRUE!!! The only commercially released GM crops in SA are maize, soybean and cotton. And if you want to argue some conspiracy theory, present the data for us to evaluate.

    “SA has strict GM regulation – not true”: Of course everyone’s interpretation of “strict” is different and if you don’t want the technology in the first place only complete banning will be strict enough. In my opinion we have a great act in terms of the protection it affords. My “support” for this is the fact that 6 (soon to be 8 ) different governmental departments decide on these matters and they all have their own mandates, in other words not all of them focus on “pushing” biotechnology. So the departments of Health, Agriculture, Trade & Industry, Labour, Science and Environmental Affairs & Tourism are looking out for you – and again before crying foul or conspiracy… do you really think you can fool ALL the people ALL the time?

    “SA cannot afford to miss out on what GM has to offer – not true (quite the opposite in fact)”: Again this is subjective and each one should decide for him/her self. Of course, like ANY other technology it has some risks associated with it and we’ll have to tread carefully (like we do), but you do not walk to work everyday just because you might be in a traffic accident. No, you learn how to drive, you go for a licence to show the rest of us that we can trust you behind the wheel, someone designs a car with obvious safety features (brakes) for you, you drive according to the rules of the road and woala you have a huge benefit for which you managed the potential risks well. As a biologist I’d just like to leave you with this thought… You started out as a SINGLE cell with only the two bits of genetic material you got from your parents – do you start to appreciate the immense potential that is embedded in those molecules…?

    There are many other issues to cover but there will be other opportunities, I’m sure… To conclude, unfortunately this is a technical field with huge potential which leaves it open to the exploitation of half-truths and plain disingenuous self service. My recommendation to everyone is: Always get both sides of a story, try to distinguish between the rhetoric and extreme extrapolations (from all sides) and the actual truth, listen to the moderates and only then make up your mind. And please, the website references Dax gave in his Men’s Health rebuttal do not represent the moderates (remember professional activists have as much to lose as commercial companies…). Rather look at a site like that of the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (www.pub.ac.za) who at least tries to be fact-based and independent.

    And if this all is too overwhelming for you, just remember that there are many activities, systems and people in place around the world to help guard against all the potential risks of GM technology and there’s no way that they all are supporting a technology that’s more trouble that what it’s worth!

  4. Dax says:

    Hi JH

    Firstly let me say thank you for taking the time to post your comment, it obviously took time and thought. I always appreciate comments from people who have some knowledge on the topic, especially when the comments are relatively balanced. Below you will find my response.

    GM crops grow faster: That trait may well have been transferred successfully (my version of successful and your version are going to differ) in the lab, as have many other traits, but as you say, they are not on the market yet. In fact, all of these wonderful GM crops which are supposed to save the world because they are drought resistant or grow faster or contain substantially increased levels of nutrients are still, after 20 YEARS of promises, in the lab. The only GM crops available are those which allow farmers to spray pesticide (made by the same company) on the crops without killing them.I don’t want to hear anymore about what GM crops are going to do, let’s see them do something then I’ll let you plant them.

    I’m going to refrain from responding to the question of farmers having to buy seed. As is evident from the previous comments, I have more to learn. Perhaps Candice will weigh in on this. I do agree that hybrids have shown increased yield, something which GM has not managed. So I might suggest we invest more in hybrids than in GM.

    Regarding assessment of GM foods and the claim that GM foods are tested more than any other food… The problem is that the testing of GM foods is done under the principle of substantial equivalence. In other words, they assume a GM food is basically the same as a non GM food so they only have to test that it has similar levels of nutrients and does not cause allergic reactions. What is lacking is studies of the long term effects on humans of eating GM foods as well as studies of the unique potential dangers of genetic modification. You will know what they are, I’m not going to go into detail here.

    Following on from that, I’d like to respond to your comment regarding the number of government departments involved in GMO regulation and their mandates. These departments all operate within the guidlines of the GMO ACT of 1997, which despite the amendments introduced in 2006, is a permissory framework rather than a precautionary one. Once GMOs have been released into the environment, they cannot be recalled. This in itself should call for a precautionary framework. Although the amendments make it clear that a scientifically based risk assessment is a prerequisite for decision making, these have failed to provide any details about the content, mechanisms and procedures for the risk assessment. In fact, neither the GMO Act of 1997, nor the recent ammendments place a clear duty in the state to monitor the impacts of GMOs on the environment or human health. Admittedly, the Biodiversity Act creates a mandatory duty on the SA National Biodiversity Institute to monitor the impacts of GMOs on the environment, but SANBI’s work in this regard is still in its infancy. So, no matter how many government departments ‘decide on these matters’, it will not help me sleep at night.

    I agree fully with your recommendation, I also urge people to get both sides of the story, as I myself try to do. Which is why I am always pleased to see comments such as yours. I would like to state that the website for Public Understanding of Biotech (which I have previously browsed) is not impartial at all. You view its attempt to appear ‘fact based’ as a positive but I see it as sneaky. PUB is sponsored by the SA Agency for Science and Technology Advancement which has a stated aim of advancing public awareness, appreciation and engagement of science, engineering and technology in SA. If you know what the issues are in the GM debate you will see that behind PUBs facade of fact, they are punting GM big time.

    As for my faith that activities, systems and people would not support a technology that’s more trouble than it’s worth… Have a look at Monsanto’s earnings so far this year, that will pay for a whole lot of trouble.