Genetically modified meals from hot air

June 2013

The oft-cited political (but, certainly not scientific) 'proof' of GM food safety is the huge numbers of people eating it over many years without any directly attributable health effect.

Let's see.

One recent use was in self-styled GM 'expert' Mark Lynas' speech at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference (see WHEN NON-NEWS IS BAD NEWS - April 2013). Where he announced:
“... my conclusion here today: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe - over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than get hurt by GM food”.
Investigations by GM Watch trace the origins of this sound-byte back to 2003 when a pro-GM scientist told the Australian press he had “calculated that at least 30 billion meals involving these (GM) crops have been eaten in the last 6 years ... and there is not a single report of adverse health effects.”

Putting this '30 billion meals involving GM crops' into perspective is enlightening.

There doesn't seem to be any definition of what's covered by a 'meal involving GM crops'. The amount of GM eaten directly by humans i.e. without being denatured and processed beyond recognition is minuscule. Assuming a worst-case scenario in which, during the first few years, two-thirds of all GM was being grown and mostly used in America, gives an average exposure of about ten or eleven meals per person per year, or about one a month*.

*This ballpark figure comes from:
2/3 x 30 billion meals ÷ 0.31 billion Americans ÷ 6 years

The 'GM meals eaten' by us seem to have risen very steeply since 2003:
  • In 2006, Monsanto promotional material claimed 'experts' who seemed to know that a trillion GM meals had been eaten.
  • In 2008, a more subdued guestimate from EuropaBio suggested 200 billion GM meals had wended their way down human gullets
  • By 2010, the GM meals eaten figure had edged up to 300 billion
  • In July 2011, our GM eating habits became schizophrenic. While biotech lobby group CropLife Australia was quoting over a trillion on one side of the world, a vociferous Bayer's lobbyist was informing a UK farming paper that the total GM meals eaten had now hit 2 trillion.
  • Less than a year later, the Bayer spokesperson upped our GM meal consumption to over 3 trillion
  • Perhaps our runaway GM addiction has now stalled, because Mark Lynas was still quoting this figure in 2013.
The ballpark depiction of the situation in 2003 given above can't be repeated for later years because the 'GM meals' spread themselves haphazardly all over the globe. However, GM crop acreage, as reported by the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) has increased linearly since 2003, at a rate of about 11 million hectares per annum, i.e. a 23-fold increase. How this could miraculously provide a 100-fold increase in GM meals isn't explained. Add to this miracle is that the ISAAA figures for GM crops reportedly include non-food crops such as trees and biofuels.


Another interesting question, mentioned before by GM-free Scotland, is how much GM food is actually being consumed, even 16 years on? Leaving out the highly-processed food-like substances which aren't wholesome even if they're not GM (e.g. high-fructose syrup, soya protein and chemical derivatives used as additives) and leaving aside the livestock fed GM which are turned into our food before they've lived long enough to get sick, many people may be eating meals which involve GM in some way but few of us are actually eating GM 'food'.

There may well be subsections of the population who are eating staple quantities of less ferociously processed forms of soya like tofu, or non-food grade maize products, but no one's monitoring their health. Any problems will be diluted out of recognition by the mythical 3 trillion 'GM meals' of food-like substances being eaten all around them.

Perhaps the chances of being hit by an asteroid aren't as remote as Lynas would have us believe. But it's high time to demand targeted monitoring of the at-risk populations actually eating GM food.

  • Jonathan Matthews, The Repentant Environmentalist: Part 2,, 26.02.13
  • Clive James, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011, ISAAA Brief 43
  • Theirry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist Speaks Out On The Real Dangers of Genetically Engineered Food,
  • Michael Pollan, In defence of Food, 2008, ISBN 978-1-846-14096-9

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