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Do you fancy a cowsheep steak?

Do you fancy a cowsheep steak?

12.2.2013 9:30

“AquAdvantage" salmon is a a genetically modified Atlantic salmon whose genes have been modified by the addition of a growth gene from another fish, an ocean pout. This addition makes AquAdvantage salmon grow year-round as opposed to only in spring and summer, and thus reach its full market size in 16 months rather than 3 years. AquAdvantage salmon is the first genetically modified (GM) livestock which is likely to be approved for market. As of December 2012 it was very near to receiving the full FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval.

Genetically modified foods (GM foods) are foods derived from genetically modified crops. GM crops have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques in the laboratory. GM foods may have been engineered for faster growth, resistance to pathogens, production of extra nutrients, or any other beneficial purpose. GM livestock have also been experimentally developed, although as of now none are on the market. AquAdvantage salmon, however, is already very near to reaching the kitchen counters, and animals fed by GM animal feed are routinely sold as food in the US and Europe.

Typically, genetically modified foods are transgenic plant products. Scientists first discovered that DNA can transfer between organisms in 1946. Commercial sale of genetically modified foods began in 1994, when California company Calgene (acquired by Monsanto, the giant American multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, in 1996) first marketed its “Flavr Savr” delayed ripening tomato. Since 1995, several huge American companies, led by Monsanto, as well as a handful of European conglomerates and specialist agri and biotech companies, focused on the research and introduction of GM foods to the market. In 2000, with the creation of golden rice, scientists genetically modified food to increase its nutrient value for the first time. Since 1990’s, the use of GM crops has exploded. Led by the USA, 29 countries now permit commercial production of GM crops, while 10% of cropland around the world is planted with GM crops: three quarters of the world’s soybean crop, half the world’s cotton, and a quarter of the world’s maize, mostly in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and Canada.

The public opposition to GM crops remains high. A 2012 poll by the British Science Association found that the share of people expressing some level of concern about GM foods had fallen, but only by five point from 2003 to 2012, to 47%. This, in turn, increases the cost of securing regulatory approvals for marketing GM foods. A recent study found that the cost of securing a European and US regulatory approval for one new GM crop has gone up to approx. EUR140m, which makes GM foods increasingly the domain of giant companies like Monsanto.

Critics have been objecting to GM foods on several grounds. The key areas of controversy related to genetically modified (GM) food are: risk of harm from GM food, the role of government regulators, the effect of GM crops on the environment, the role of GM crops in feeding the growing world population, ethical grounds, the impact of GM crops for farmers, including farmers in developing countries, and GM crops as part of the industrial agriculture system. These last two are economic concerns, based on the fact that the production of GM seeds is hugely concentrated in the hands of very powerful multinationals which have amassed disproportionate bargaining power vis-a-vis farmers and the ultimate consumers. It is coupled with the fact that GM plants (and potentially animals) are food sources subject to intellectual property law, which especially the Americans take deadly seriously (remember Samsung clashing with Apple in front of a California grand jury last year?).

But despite widespread criticism, especially in Europe, GM foods seem unstoppable. The math is simple. As land to clear dwindles, and the crop yield growth falls, the world will by 2050 need to grow 70% more food than now. That’s what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization figures is necessary to feed the 9-9.5 billion humans expected by mid-century. Last century’s technology will not be enough. Remarkable gains from the Green Revolution during the 1960s--petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and improved strains--are now nearly tapped out. It will be near impossible to feed those extra mouths by digging up more land, because there isn’t much going and because land conversion is a large source of greenhouse gases. Taking more water from rivers will accelerate biodiversity loss. And we need to improve—and probably reduce—nitrogen use (i.e. in chemical fertilisers) which is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and large swaths of Asia and Africa and eutrophication in fresh water.

Food industry has one of the most powerful lobbying systems in the world and producers of GM foods are fully on board with a positive spin on every message. Have you seen the US movie “Thank you for smoking”? If not, it is a recommended viewing for everyone who wonders whether it is possible to spin a message about even a demonstrably harmful activity like smoking or drinking, and completely deflect its impact. It is. The GM food opponents, activists in Greenpeace, Soil Association, GM Freeze, World Wildlife Fund and numerous others, are far less organized, have much less deep pockets and have a much poorer access to world media than GM food proponents.

So even if you are undecided which camp you belong to, one thing is for sure: this is not an even match. The perfect example of this was the California Proposition 37, which was a California state legislative voting proposal to introduce mandatory labeling of all genetically modified foods. Introduced as an initiative in summer 2012 by environmental attorney James Wheaton, it raised nearly one million of signatures as a petition and had a 60-70% backing of general public. Its proponents raised US$5million from donors, largely local organic farmers and small organic food producers. Soon after, a special lobby group was created by Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Cargill, BASF and the Grocery Manufacturers Association which included Pepsico, General Mills, Kellogg and creme-de-la- creme of the largest American food manufacturers. The group effortlessly raised over US$45 million to battle the initiative. In November 2012, Proposition 37 was defeated by a 51.5% majority of California legislators.

So, sharpen your knives, a cowsheep is coming to the local supermarket before you know it…And you will love it!

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