Cheerio GM Cheerios!

February 2014
Close up image of cheerios breakfast cereal
CC photo of Cheerios breakfast cereal by Live4Soccer (L4S) on Flickr
Top cereal makers, Generals Mills, has announced that its 73-year-old, high-profile brand, 'Original Cheerios', will soon be on sale in America bearing the label “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients”. 

For a company which has spent almost $2 million to keep GMO labels off its products, the initiative seems contradictory.  By its own admission, it took a year and “required significant (but unspecified) investment”, and was only possible because Original Cheerios contain very small proportions of sugar and corn-starch (both derived largely from GMOs in America).  The other eleven varieties of Cheerios would be “difficult if not impossible” to produce without GM ingredients (General Mills spokesman). 

The underlying motive or motives for the move aren't straightforward, and a stream of theories has emerged. 

Silencing genes is all the rage

February 2014
image of a field of corn
Field of corn. By Hugho226 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Monsanto's latest venture into the brave now world of GM should give you pause for thought.  Or, several pauses. 

Having finally admitted that its 'Bt' insecticidal crops, designed to kill 'western corn rootworm' have reached the end of their shelf-life due to evolving resistance, Monsanto has found another GM way to kill this major pest. 

The Company has applied for regulatory approval for a new GM corn which produces a gene-altering agent, referred to generically as 'iRNA'.  Insecticidal iRNA is designed to kill insects by shutting down one of their vital genes. 

Scientists have already voiced concerns about this technology because it is based on the assumption that the target genetic sequence to be silenced is unique to the pest , and that reactions to iRNA in food aren't possible.  Neither of these assumptions is scientifically valid [1,2].  This makes putting copious artificial iRNA into the field and food chain the most health-threatening GM adventure yet. 

Argentina's Modelo Sojero

February 2014
close up of ripe soya beans with field in background
CC photo of ripe soya beans by amicor on Flickr
In Argentina, soya has been a goose that lays golden eggs. 

Soya was introduced into Argentinean agriculture in the early 1970s.  It has been expanding steadily ever since, with a boost in the late 1970s due to the green revolution, and another one after 1996 due to the advent of Roundup Ready GM soya. 

By 2001, after an institutional, political and economic crisis in the country, half of Argentineans were living in poverty.  The government turned to GM soya as a basis for economic growth in the belief that it would create social well-being. 

The New Year GM pep talk

February 2014

No New Year would be complete without a GM pep-talk from our Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, at the influential annual Oxford Farming Conference [1].  

As before, Paterson's seven paragraphs on GM buried in a sixty-paragraph speech became a major headline in a major national newspaper.  This seems to have been assisted by a particularly histrionic sound-byte suggesting that “Europe  risks becoming the Museum of World Farming as innovative companies make decisions to invest and develop new technologies in other markets”.  

GM maize is substantially different

February 2014

picture of a ripe corn cob
Corn. CC photo by UD Carvel REC on Flickr
Scientists in Egypt have published three studies on the safety of a GM version of their traditional GM corn. 

The novel corn they examined was Monsanto's MON 810 which generates an insecticidal 'Bt' protein.  It had been back-crossed into 'Ajeeb' Egyptian corn, ostensibly to produce a 'traditional' variety producing its own GM insecticide.  Safety studies on an analogue of the Bt protein have indicated that, in isolation, it's safe for mammalian consumption.  Since the MON 810 Ajeeb corn is  assumed to have an identical genetic background to Ajeeb,  can easily pass as 'substantially equivalent' to its traditional counterpart. 

Substantial equivalence unraveling

February 2014

picture of green soybean pods
Green soybeans. CC photo by UD Carvel REC on Flickr
The basis for safety assessment of GM foods has always been 'substantial equivalence'. 

The phrase has no scientific basis, but seems to mean “close nutritional and elemental similarity between a genetically modified (GM) crops and a non-GM traditional counterpart” (Bohn).
Without any definition of 'close', 'similarity', 'nutritional', 'elemental', 'traditional', or 'counterpart', the concept can be applied to achieve just about any outcome regulators or the biotech industry choose to concoct.

Back in the 1990s, the most-planted GM crop so far commercialised, Roundup Ready soya, was pronounced 'substantially equivalent' whether it had been sprayed with Roundup herbicide (the form always on the market) or grown unsprayed (a form only ever found in laboratories).