Lack of vitamin A causes the death of about 6,000 children a day, worldwide, from infectious disease. This is a tangible health hazard of vast scope that dwarfs any hypothetical hazard attributed to genetically modified (GM) foods.
Recently, an affluent Australian lawyer living in London told me his social set deliberately avoided buying GM food products because, as they are produced to meet the needs of developing countries, they are too “downmarket” for discerning people.
This incident neatly encapsulates the vastly different context of food safety and choices available in the developed world compared with the developing world. In the developed world consumers have the luxury of worrying about hypothetical fears, while in the developing world people suffer and die from very real, preventable food hazards. Satisfying the concerns of wealthy Western Europeans can interfere with the provision of better nutrition for the rural poor in countries like India, Brazil and Bangladesh.
Decisions about GM food need to be based on a comprehensive assessment of safety, actual hazards and a balance of the possible harm of using such food against the harm that can come from interfering with its availability. It becomes easier to demonstrate and communicate improved safety in spite of the possibility of some hypothetical harm when the novel food provides tangible health benefits.
Plants are not intrinsically safe to eat. They are selected by evolution not to provide perfectly nutritious and safe food for humans, but to successfully produce seeds for succeeding generations. Because of this, plants possess many specialised toxins that protect them from being eaten. Rapeseed, for instance, contains toxic erucic acid, while the castor oil plant produces ricin, one of the most deadly poisons known.
Potentially hazardous foods can be eaten because humans have discovered ways of cooking and processing the food so that the poisons are destroyed, and because the human liver produces special enzymes that neutralise many of the plant’s chemical defences.
Production of such toxins is not limited to the plants themselves. Fungi that live on plants, for example, often produce compounds that are potent poisons. In 2003 several “organic” cornmeal products had to be withdrawn from supermarket shelves in the UK because the Food Standards Agency detected fungal toxins, presumably from the use of mouldy grain. Such problems are not often found in food produced in developed countries because modern methods of insect control (including GM methods) minimise insect damage that accentuates the problem.
Traditional crop breeding methods can, and sometimes do, increase human harm from natural plant chemicals. For instance, when naturally insect-resistant strains of food crops have been selected by breeders using traditional techniques, they sometimes contain elevated amounts of dangerous natural pesticides.
Natural poisons are therefore a tangible manageable risk presented by our current food crops, and there is no reason to believe they are preferentially accentuated by modern genetic techniques. It is arguable that modern, highly regulated GM approaches allow better management of these natural food hazards than the traditional, largely unregulated, crop breeding.
Micronutrients, including iodine, iron and zinc, and the nutrients in many plants that provide vitamin A, are components of food that are essential in human nutrition. In the past, solutions to problems caused by dietary micronutrient deficiencies have been sought by supplementing the diet with external sources of the micronutrient after crops have been harvested, such as adding iodide to salt. A new strategy called biofortification aims to remedy micronutrient deficiencies in food by breeding crops that accumulate high levels of micronutrients during growth.
Biofortification methods have a great practical advantage over supplementing harvested food. The solution to a health issue is packaged genetically within the crop’s seed, distributed with the seed and then multiplies with the seed. This approach is suitable for achieving major improvements in human welfare because the efforts of plant breeders are targeted at natural nutrients that have major consequences for human health out of all proportion to their minute quantities in the food.
Biofortification strategies are being strongly supported by several humanitarian agencies promoting economic growth and welfare in developing countries. One of these agencies, Harvest Plus, is actively funding the breeding of a wide variety of new biofortified crop varieties for developing countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also donated $US57 million towards the creation of micronutrient-rich staple food plants.
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