Medieval Lessons on the perils of Genetic Modification

(Published in the Sunday Times, September 2015)

Dante Algheiri (d.1321) as the pilgrim in his Divine Comedy encounters a soul who warns him: “the vision granted to your world / can no more fathom Justice Everlasting / than eyes can see down to the ocean floor: / while you can see the bottom near the shore, / you cannot out at sea;” [Paradise, Canto XIX, lines 58-64 (Mark Mussa translation, 1984)]

It might seem perverse to introduce a discussion on the genetic modification of crops with a quote from a medieval poet. But Dante’s belief in the limitations of the human mind has a timeless validity. That is not to say we should invariably refrain from launching ships into deep waters, but caution is advised, especially if consequences are irreversible, and effects global.

An article in the August edition of the The Scientific American by Stefaan Blanke came with the title: Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe. He asserts that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows GMOs are safe to eat and good for the environment. He believes new methods must be found to shift the ill-informed masses from their misconceptions.

Blanke claims popular resistance to GMOs arises from flawed understanding of DNA as being unique to individual organisms. Any DNA code can have wide application. Thus the gene of an Arctic fish that is transferred to a tomato should no longer be identified with the aquatic life form, it simply generates a particular characteristic.

But perhaps what Blanke dismissively refers to as “intuition” and “emotions” is a reasonable reaction to the hidden depths that lie ahead. Just as the human mind cannot fathom “Justice Everlasting”, nor can we easily predict the long-term consequences on ecosystems of altering organisms in ways that would not be possible through conventional crop breeding.

This extent of the potential danger is a explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb the influential author of The Black Swan which examines the extreme effect of rare and unpredictable events. He and colleagues at New York University recently concluded that “Genetically modified organisms represent a public risk of global harm’’.

A change in the nature of one organism in an ecosystem can have quite unexpected repurcussions. Taleb argues that the potentially global reach of GMOs should be treated differently from repurcussions that are localised.

We cannot easily predict the long-term consequences of wholesale-adoption of genetically modified crops. Advocates of the technology, many of whom are not disinterested parties, point to the benefits of Golden Rice which has been engineered to contain Vitamin A. It is claimed that this has saved thousands in the Third World from blindness caused by malnutrition, but this assumes an absence of alternatives to alleviating nutritional impoverishment.

There is compelling evidence that genetically modified crops have indirect effects on human health which Blanke grudgingly concedes. This applies to the utilisation of herbicide-resistant (or Roundup Ready) corn, soya and other crops which have been developed by the Monsanto Corporation. The widespread application of these glyphosphates appear to harm individuals and their descendents living in parts of the world, especially Latin America, where they are grown.

The impact of glyphosphates may extend to those who consume these crops. The US Environmental Protection Agency increased the legal limit for glyphosate residues in soybeans from 0.1 milligrams/kilogram to 20 milligrams/kilogram in 1996. This subsequently became the international maximum residue level.

Evidence suggests that one percent of the glyphosate remains in the body a week after exposure. Because glyphosate is so widely used, most people are frequently exposed to it. But according to a report from the Heinrich Böll Institute the effect of: “exposure to glyphosate, meaning long-term uptake in low doses, has never been investigated.”

As things stand in the EU if the content of a product contains more than 1% GMO ingredients it must be labelled as such, but no labelling is required on the meat of animals that consume GMO feed.  There is no mandatory testing in the EU of glyphosate residues in meat.

Doubtless, a response to this argument is that the fault does not lie with the modification to the crops themselves but the prevailing economic system where a large company can hold a monopoly on the technology. But this is a feature of the ecosystem that encompasses human life too. Reducing the argument to a discussion on the proximate effect of genetic modification of crop varieties is unsatisfactory as it ignores outcomes further down the chain.

We cannot ignore the terrific demands on the world’s resources caused by the explosion of the global population from 1.5 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today which, purportedly, genetic modification can address. The reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture to feed the world cannot endure. But more than half of all crops are grown to feed domesticated animals and expensively converted to meat: a pig converts 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat; 13 percent for sheep; and 6.5 percent for cattle. Worldwide 57 percent of the output of barley, rye, millet, oats and maize are fed to animals, as well as 45% of EU wheat. Direct human constumpion of crops would be far more efficient.

Viewed in this light, genetic modification perpetuates a problematic global system of food allocation. It would make far more sense, on many levels, for human beings to be encouraged to shift towards plant-based consumption rather than risk the unexpected outcomes of genetic modification.

Recognition of the need for a worldwide shift in diets is overdue. We might learn a little more from The Divine Comedy in which Dante writes: “Blessed are those in whom / grace shines so copiously that love of food / does not arouse excessive appetite, / but lets them hunger after righteousness.” [Purgatory, Canto XIV, lines 151-154]. Having regard to the unexplored environmental consequences of GM technology and potential contamination through meat consumption, right-thinking people might favour a shift in approach.

Leave a Reply