Lim Li Ching: GMO Free
Lim Li Ching, who is co-author of the book “GMO Free” works with the biosafety and sustainable agriculture programs at Third World Network (TWN), an international NGO based in Malaysia. TWN covers developmental issues, policy advocacy work, climate change, WTO, Biosafety issues, to advance social justice with a pro-poor agenda. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute .
The book “GMO Free”, a compilation of the studies by the Independent Science Panel comprising prominent scientists in the field, summarises a vast amount of literature and extensive scientific evidence. As the subtitle states, the book, “Exposes the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply”. Lim Li Ching spoke to us recently and shares her views on various aspects of the GM debate.
EWTT: How did you get interested in studying genetically modified foods and ecological agriculture?
LLC: While I was in school, I was inspired by a cousin who worked for Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia) and was always a ‘green’. I did my first degree in Ecology, then worked with WWF Malaysia on marine conservation issues for several years. My focus then shifted to development issues e.g., poverty alleviation. I then did my MPhil in Development Studies. After graduating I lived in the UK for several years, where I worked for both the Third World Network (TWN) with their biosafety/GM programme and the Institute of Science in Society, one of TWN’s partner organizations.
EWTT: Tell us about the Independent Science Panel whose summary of findings is in your book.
LLC: The Independent Science Panel (ISP) was set up about 8 years ago, at the height of the GM debate in the UK, and chaired by Dr Mae Wan Ho, Director of The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS). ISIS is an independent think tank with the aim of promoting science for public good, independent of commercial or other special interest.
The ISP brought together a team of scientists who had questions about GM safety, and they submitted dossiers and responses to regulators. Their study of existing literature and scientific evidence, basically confirmed concerns over the safety of GMOs, and also established the benefits of various forms of sustainable agriculture. They make a strong case for a worldwide ban on all environmental release of GM crops and to pave the way towards ecological farming methods.
EWTT: Can you elaborate on why the concept of ‘substantial equivalence’ followed by US regulatory authorities, and some other countries is flawed and not universally adopted?
LLC: The concept of susbstantial equivalence is a regulatory one, which claims that a novel food (for example, GM foods) should be considered the same as and as safe as a conventional food if it demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food. However this concept has been heavily criticized as being unscientific and not well defined.
One key issue is that US is the leading producer and developer of GM crops. They use the concept to basically take away the need for regulation of GMOs by saying that as they are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their conventional counterparts, they don’t need to come under the regulatory process. The reality however is that apart from US and a few other GM producers, many other countries think that GMOs are different and that they do carry specific risks, and because they move around due to international trade, there has to be some sort of international regulation.
EWTT: What are the international regulations concerning GMOs?
LLC: The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which is under the Convention on Biological Diversity largely regulates the export and import of GMOs between countries, but it also sets the international minimum standards on biosafety, so many countries that are parties to the Protocol like Malaysia for example, have set up their own national laws on GMOs. The basis of laws related to the development, production and research of GMOs and the environmental release of GMOs is that ‘they are different from their conventional counterparts and carry potential risks’ and ‘you can’t just release these organisms into nature without any controls in place.’ They have to undergo an approvals process, for example, if a developer or producer of GMOs wants to export a GMO into a country, it would have to get the prior permission of the country concerned, which will do a risk assessment, and make a decision on whether to accept it or not.
The key here is that if you look at some of the international standards such as the Codex Alimentarius guidelines for food safety assessments for foods containing GMOs, they look at ‘substantial equivalence’ as a starting point. Many countries who have regulations on biosafety say well, substantial equivalence is a starting point, and a comparative way of looking at things, and as we have years and years of experience with conventional foods, so we can question, ‘are there any differences and any particular differences that should be followed up?”
So while there is still a big debate on the safety of GMOs, to me it is settled as we have an international treaty that deals with it which clearly says that GMOs are different, they carry specific risks, and there is a need for regulation.
EWTT: What is the state of biosafety regulation in Asia?
LLC: Worldwide, there are currently 161 parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which came into force in 2003. Singapore is not a party to the Protocol, although it does have some guidelines on the issue. Its attitude towards GMOs are more permissive as compared to other countries in the region.
Malaysia has ratified the Cartagena Protocol and a national law was passed in 2007 on biosafety. The crux, of course, lies in the implementation and enforcement of the law.
As a party to the Protocol, it sets up the process envisaged, so if for example, Monsanto wants to market its products, it has to go through an approvals process, and get the approval of the government. There is basically a risk assessment done through a committee which evaluates the dossiers. As an NGO, we used to sit on the GM advisory committee in Malaysia and we were able to access the technical dossiers and give our comments. The process could be improved and of course there are gaps, but in general at least we have a law that regulates GMOs.
Of course, we can always question whether this committee has the capacity, and have they given due consideration to other impartial opinions? But this is an issue that a lot of countries have had to grapple with, and it is not unique to Malaysia. The fact is that there is at least a law, and you can’t just send GM products to our country. There is some kind of regulatory process, and we have to assess them, and then take a decision of whether to import them.
Asia-Pacific countries which are a party to the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety
Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
NOT a Party: Singapore, Australia, US (though Australia has mandatory labelling of GM food)
Full list of nations which are parties to the protocol can be found here
“India is a party to the Protocol and has its own laws governing GMOs. It went through this regulatory process where it put on hold the introduction of Bt Brinjal. Philippines is another party to the Protocol, however it is one country that is actively planting GM crops despite various NGO objections. In China, they actually have public funds allocated for biosafety research, which many countries don’t have. They have commercialised GM cotton and GM trees, but there is a big debate in China about GM rice. There is concern, and this has taken a lot of time to go through the system as it is a staple food crop and they don’t want to get it wrong. So China has a slightly different situation, as there is public research and not just industry research, so even there is a lot of biotechnology development, there is a bit of a countervailing force.” (Lim Li Ching)
EWTT: What do the various studies on safety of GMOs for human consumption say?
LLC: When we look at the health studies on GMOs, the recent papers by Domingo and Bordonaba (2011), and Seralini et al. (2011) show that the database on which to make a judgement on safety has been very small. At the same time, there has been a big push for these products leaving us with a situation where regulation is trying to play ‘catch up’, because GMOs are already out there in the environment and food supply chain of many countries whereas the safeguards are not yet in place.
One of the biggest lessons we can learn is that the changes or effects of GMOs we are talking about are likely to take a long time before they manifest. There have been a few studies that point to what we can call ‘early warnings’, that provide some results that need to be looked at in more detail, but you can see the trend that in most studies funded by the GM industry, scientists say, ‘no problem.’ On the other hand, most studies done by truly independent groups are saying, ‘there’s something we need to look at here’.
The problem is that every time a study like this raising doubts on GMOs is published, there’s a lot of backlash, and vilification of the scientists. There’s a lot of criticism and unwillingness to have an honest engagement to really look at the issue and say, ‘this is a problem.’ As scientists, we need to do more research and try and answer these questions, to look at all the things that are being raised now.
This is one issue that very much characterises the GM debate. Though there is still a big scientific debate going on about the concerns regarding GMOs, there is a big push by the industry to release them into the environment.
A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants
Jose L. Domingo, Jordi Gine Bordonaba
Environment International 37 (2011) 734–742
In recent years, there has been a notable concern on the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods/plants, an important and complex area of research, which demands rigorous standards. Diverse groups including consumers and environmental Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) have suggested that all GM foods/plants should be subjected to long-term animal feeding studies before approval for human consumption. In 2000 and 2006, we reviewed the information published in international scientific journals, noting that the number of references concerning human and animal toxicological/health risks studies on GM foods/plants was very limited. The main goal of the present review was to assess the current state-of-the-art regarding the potential adverse effects/safety assessment of GM plants for human consumption.
The number of citations found in databases (PubMed and Scopus) has dramatically increased since 2006. However, new information on products such as potatoes, cucumber, peas or tomatoes, among others was not available. Corn/maize, rice, and soybeans were included in the present review. An equilibrium in the number research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns, was currently observed. Nevertheless, it should be noted that most of these studies have been conducted by biotechnology companies responsible of commercializing these GM plants. These findings suggest a notable advance in comparison with the lack of studies published in recent years in scientific journals by those companies. All this recent information is herein critically reviewed.
In the same line of our previous papers (Domingo, 2000, 2007; Domingo-Roig and Gómez-Arnáiz, 2000), the main purpose of this review-article was to critically revise the published scientific literature on potential toxic effects/health risks of GM plants. It was noticed that the total number of general references on GMOs in general, and GM foods/plants in particular, found in the databases PubMed and Scopus has considerably increased between our 2006 search (Domingo, 2007) and the current one. In spite of this, the number of studies specifically focused on safety assessment of GM plants is still limited. However, it is important to remark that for the first time, a certain equilibrium in the number of research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns, was observed.
Moreover, it is worth mentioning that most of the studies demonstrating that GM foods are as nutritional and safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible of commercializing these GM plants. Anyhow, this represents a notable advance in comparison with the lack of studies published in recent years in scientific journals by those companies (Domingo, 2007). The scientific community may finally be able to critically evaluate and discuss all that information, which was not possible until now. Scientists know quite well how different may be the information published in reputed international journals, which has been submitted to peer-review processes, from those general comments/reports not submitted to this selective procedure.
A relatively remarkable finding of the present review is that the published scientific literature between October 2006 (Domingo, 2007) and August 2010 (current review) on edible GM plants, concerns only to three products: corn/maize, soybeans, and rice, rice being comparatively the less abundant. We have not been able to find citations involving investigations on GM potatoes (except a review by Arvanitoyannis et al., 2008), peas, tomatoes, pepper, etc., after October 2006. A summary of experimental studies (October 2006–August 2010) concerning dietary administration of those products to various animal species is shown in Table 1. With respect to corn/maize, various studies have concluded that the transgenic varieties 1507 (MacKenzie et al., 2007), 59122 (Malley et al., 2007; Juberg et al., 2009; He et al., 2008),1507×59122 (Appenzeller et al., 2009a), 98140 (Appenzeller et al., 2009b; McNaughton et al., 2007), Y642 (He et al., 2009), and MON 88017 (Healy et al., 2008) were as safe as conventional quality protein maize. In contrast, Séralini’s group raised concern regarding some commercialized GM maize (NK 603, MON 810 and MON 863) (Séralini et al., 2007, 2009; de Vendômois et al., 2009).
Similarly, scientific controversy is also present in relation to the safety of GM soybeans. While it has been reported that 356043 (Sakamoto et al., 2007) and 305423 (Delaney et al., 2008) soybeans were as safe as conventional non-GM soybeans, some authors are still concerned by the safety of GM soybeans and recommend to investigate the long-term consequences of GM diets and the potential synergistic effects with other products and/or conditions (Malatesta et al., 2008a,b; Cisterna et al., 2008; Magaña-Gómez et al., 2008).
In the period here revised, October 2006–August 2010, a few reviews on health risks of GMfoods/plants have been also published (Dona and Arvanitoyannis, 2009; Magana-Gomez and de la Barca, 2009; Key et al., 2008). In general terms, all these authors agree in remarking that more scientific efforts are clearly necessary in order to build confidence in the evaluation and acceptance of GM foods/plant by both the scientific community and the general public. Especially critical is the recent review by Dona and Arvanitoyannis (2009), who remarked that results of most studies with GM foods would indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects, and might alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters. These authors also concluded that the use of recombinant GH or its expression in animals should be re-examined since it has been shown that it increases IGF-1 which, in turn, may promote cancer. A harsh response to that review was recently published in the same journal (Rickard, 2010). This is indeed only an example on the controversial debate on GMOs, which remains completely open at all levels.
Finally, we would like to indicate that the review on allergenicity of GM plants has not been included herein. European legislation stipulates that GMOs have to be monitored to identify potential adverse environmental effects (Reuter et al., 2010). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recently published a Scientific Opinion regarding assessment of allergenicity of GM plants and microorganisms and derived food and feed (EFSA, 2010). Detailed information on this important issue is available here.
EWTT: One of the studies that pointed to a fundamental flaw in the GM technology itself was Arpad Putzai’s study that raised a lot of debate in the UK in the late 1990s? Do you think the GM technology is based on a flawed theory?
LLC: Though I’m not a geneticist, I can refer you to the work of my co-author Dr Mae Wan Ho who is one. Her book, “Living with the Fluid Genome” really looks at this in detail, and what we are discovering about gene expression. You are correct in saying, that the foundations of genetic engineering is based on One Gene = One Protein = One Trait, a central dogma which has actually been shown not to be true, because we know that one gene can produce many different proteins and many different traits. When scientists sequenced the human genome, they expected to find a lot more genes than they did, and then they realised through processes like alternative gene splicing, that scientists are getting more and more information that shows that this kind of linear thinking doesn’t hold true anymore.
The human body has about 100,000 proteins. It was expected before that each protein would have a corresponding gene. However a report by the Human Genome Project
in 2000 only found about 30,000 genes in the human body – which is roughly the same as mice and not much more than a weed with 26,000 genes.
So when you have so many more proteins per gene, a gene can be found to express itself in many different ways, which is not a deterministic process as was once thought. Dr Mae Wan Ho also explains in her book how environmental factors affect gene expression, so when you slice a gene and insert it into another species, you cannot predetermine with full certainty how it is going to behave.”
EWTT: What are the concerns about horizontal and vertical gene transfer?
LLC: Horizontal gene transfer is gene trasfer between unrelated species and is more common among single-celled organisms such as bacteria. Unintended horizontal gene transfer of GM genes to bacteria is a potential biosafety concern. Some of these concerns are outlined in this publication, ‘Unintended Horizontal Transfer of Recombinant DNA’ by Kaare M. Nielsen and Daniele Daffonchio.
In addition, genetic engineering is forcing different species to share genes that they won’t normally share in nature, for example a moth gene in an apple or a fish gene in strawberries. As we have discussed before, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of such gene transfer, there is still a scientific debate going on, and there are papers which show there are concerns about the health impacts. The question is, whether regulation is sufficient, and that it actually calls for the application of the precautionary principle that we don’t release something into nature, unless we fully understand its implications.
Vertical gene transfer is gene transfer to progeny by sexual reproduction, e.g., pollen flow between the same or related plant species. In the case of GMOs, this could lead to ‘contamination’, whereby genes from GM crops are found in wild relatives, native species, or conventional crops. You may recall the story of Ignacio Capela, a scientist from the University of Berkley who came under very heavy attack by the biotech industry when he found that native species of corn in Mexico had got contaminated by GM corn.
Scientists are concerned about the impact on biodiversity. I can refer you to a paper entitled, ‘Vertical (Trans)gene Flow: Impliations for Crop Diversity and Wild Relatives’ by David Quist which talks about vertical gene flow and why it’s an issue.
On the commercial side, there’s an issue because if GM genes contaminate non-GM crops, there will be a market rejection, particularly of organically grown crops, where organic standards exclude genetic engineering.
EWTT: How can the public engage in the GM debate?
LLC: Consumer awareness is very important for this whole issue. In Europe for example, the awareness about food safety is quite high – they’ve had the history of the BSE debate (mad cow disease).
Perhaps in Asia the awareness is not that high, though people are becoming increasingly conscious of where their food is coming from, and how it is produced. In the absence of GM labelling, buying organic with 3rd party certification which excludes GMOs, is one way of making the choice.
To learn more about organic labelling, look at the Certified Organic Labelling Guide by Organic.org, and GMO Free Guides that apply to certain countries. Some of the countries with mandatory labelling of GMOs are EU, Australia, Japan and China. Voluntary labelling is followed by Canada and Hong Kong among others.
The public should be encouraged to find out more about the food they eat, because it affects us fundamentally, and the GM debate is situated within a bigger debate of how our food is produced globally, and how it impacts biodiversity and food security.
There’s a lot of attention these days on agriculture because of high food prices. People in international institutions and development circles are saying we need to invest in agriculture, given the history of not investing in agriculture, despite it being very important for developing countries where it affects a larger proportion of the population. The question is, can we change the way we produce food under the broad umbrella of industrial agriculture of which GM is a part? This has proven to be too resource and energy intensive in terms of chemicals and other inputs. There is also a concern about climate change because of the greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture.
Yes we have produced enough food to feed the poor so far, and of course, people are still hungry which is largely a political, distribution issue. In terms of quantity of food there is enough, but then it has come at a huge cost to the environment and also at a cost to the farmers.
So when people start thinking about where our food comes from, they should not take it for granted, and query the type of production system the world has, and the ones that are dominant of which GM is a subset.
Raising awareness is definitely important, and people are getting to know there are a lot of issues intertwined with this, such as animal welfare, consuming less meat due to climate change and biodiversity and so on. When you look at developing countries where agriculture is so important, so many things come into play such as trade rules, subsidies for agriculture, Official Development Assistance – these are big issues, and integral issues.
So yes, public awareness is critical for the future of the planet.
About the interviewer:
Further Links you may be interested in:
1. Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change through Ecological Agriculture by Lim Li Ching
2. Overhaul of Agricultural Systems Needed by Lim Li Ching
3. Co-Editor of Book “Biosafety First” Lim Li Ching
4. TWN’s Biosafety website
6. Video: the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
8. EWTT: Safe Food Guide: GMO Free Food
Photo Courtesy: Corn – EJFoodBlogspot.com
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